‘They’ve taken away my freedom’: the truth about the UK state’s crackdown on ​protesters Favorite 



Feb 5 2023



Melissa is a down-to-earth, friendly woman in her 50s, and it seems that she has always met life with a certain amount of courage. She grew up on another continent, and after early motherhood, then divorce and a first career in business, she moved to the UK with her second husband. She then built another career working with survivors of domestic violence, before setting up a climate emergency centre in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

The 100 days that she spent in prison last year do not seem to have been as shocking an interruption to her life as one might have expected. “You have to remember that I chose to do the actions that led to prison. Most women in prison are not in that situation at all.” Melissa was imprisoned after being arrested more than a dozen times on climate protests. Her first time behind bars occurred after she sat down in front of an oil terminal, in breach of an injunction banning protest in the area.

Yet even going to prison did not dampen her energy. “We continued the campaign in prison,” she tells me. “One day after exercise time we refused to go back into our cells. Instead we asked to see the governor and demanded education in the prison on the climate emergency.” The response, she says, was “cruel, it was painful”. She says she was restrained in a way that hurt so much that it made her want to vomit, then handcuffed, and placed in segregation. “‘Welcome to prison,’ the officer said.”

Police try to unglue a protester from the surface of the road in South Mimms
She found that many women in the prison were sympathetic. Other inmates beat on their cell walls in anger as they saw her being restrained. On her release, a band from the Just Stop Oil network came to play at the prison. “We stayed there for three hours, singing to the women still inside.” When she went to prison the second time, some inmates remembered her. “They said: ‘Oh, you are the one who brought that music.’ They were curious about what motivated me. We had a lot of productive conversations.”

I talked to Melissa because I want to understand why it is that more and more environmental protesters are ending up in prison in this country, and what this means for them – and for all of us. Last year, more than 100 protesters were imprisoned. This represents a massive change in the relationship between state and protesters. Raj Chada, a leading criminal lawyer at Hodge Jones & Allen (who has also given me legal advice), tells me: “I’ve been representing protesters for 15 years. I never had a client in prison before 2021. Now I have dozens. It is a completely new experience. It’s a completely new scenario that we are in.”

When I discuss this movement, I am not doing so as an outsider. I found the emergence of Extinction Rebellion in 2018 both intriguing and inspiring, and in 2019 I was arrested while blocking a road with others in order to enable demonstrations to take place in Trafalgar Square. I was arrested again last year during a protest outside a free market thinktank.

I was first drawn to support these protests because they presented such a visible opportunity to raise awareness and put pressure on government to deal with the climate emergency. And the energy on the streets was exhilarating. People were blocking roads and getting arrested in 2019, but what I will always remember is the music. A young woman singing lyrical protest songs through a loudhailer at rows of police in Trafalgar Square; the drums that always seemed to turn up when people were getting tired; a huge seated crowd singing in harmony outside the Treasury. Music flowed through the streets with the marchers, and under all the melodies something shifted for me, and not only for me.

Ricky, a carer from west London, had been involved in the environmental movement for some time when Extinction Rebellion came along. “It felt fresh and new and creative,” he says. “So many people picked up on the urgency that we’d been talking about.” At first, the police seemed taken by surprise by the confidence of the protesters, which helped the movement to take up space in London and get off the ground. As Ricky says: “The dial moved.”

From 2016 to the end of 2019, polls show that climate change jumped from being seen as the 13th to the second most important issue facing the country. Those who were very worried about climate change doubled. Ricky also points to changes in rhetoric in the corridors of power. “You felt the shift everywhere. You saw local councils and parliament declaring a climate emergency.”

This shift wasn’t just down to Extinction Rebellion, which has always been part of a wider movement, and was never a perfect organisation. XR could be problematic in all sorts of ways, particularly in its startling inability to diversify its leadership or membership. But it bubbled with undeniable energy alongside other international groups including Fridays for Future, and other local protests, including against HS2. As more scientific evidence came in, more unprecedented weather events were experienced, and more broadcasters and writers explained what we were facing, more and more people were joining together to demand change. It felt like an unstoppable wave. And then what happened?

“It stopped,” Ricky says. “The pandemic hit. We went home. What we thought we’d achieved turned out to be greenwashing. Yes, parliament declared a climate emergency. But it took no action.”
More aggressive policing had already been seen as the protests really got under way, including an attempt on a blanket ban on demonstrations in London through a section 14 order in October 2019. Then, during the pandemic, police were given new powers to stop public gatherings. Those climate protests that did take place during 2020 and 2021 were more muted and tentative. The energy on the streets shifted to more diverse protests around racial justice and violence against women, which were often severely restricted by police. As Britain opened up again, environmental protesters found themselves in a much more confrontational situation with the police, the courts and the government.

Chada dates the beginning of a more punitive response to 2021, when he was representing James Brown, a Paralympian who had climbed on an aeroplane to protest the role of aviation in the climate emergency. Chada was shocked when Brown was not only found guilty of causing public nuisance, but also given a 12-month prison sentence. “That was a watershed moment,” he tells me. “Up until then there was very much a convention that peaceful protesters were not sent to prison. Even before new legislation was passed in 2022, that decision gave the green light that prison sentences were acceptable. We are seeing a new climate now in the courts.”

The move into greater confrontation between protesters and the state has also been driven by activists. “I love Extinction Rebellion,” says Ricky, “but sometimes, going through London banging the drums, you start to feel like a tourist attraction rather than a political movement.” It seemed incomprehensible to protesters eager for change that the government would not even take first steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, such as investment in home insulation or ending new oil and gas licences.

When Insulate Britain – formed in 2021 by six XR activists – first started to sit down in main roads and block traffic, they shone a light on this inaction. “At first I thought Insulate Britain was a bit crazy,” Ricky admits. “But then I saw how by being so disruptive they were moving debate on again, getting people talking. And then when I saw that Just Stop Oil were getting ready to block oil terminals, I decided to join them.”

Just Stop Oil has been protesting at oil terminals since April 2022: climbing on tankers, blocking gates, and even tunnelling under entrances. These are direct action protests, with the straightforward aim of stopping the use of fossil fuels. But those are not the protests that generate the greatest publicity. Our society is more likely to react to stunts with unexpected visual impact – soup splashing on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; a young man locked by his neck on to a football goalpost; two men in hammocks suspended over a bridge.

I’ve heard a lot of discussion recently about what impact such tactics will have. History tells us that civil disobedience has played a vital role in one political movement after another. Workers’ rights, universal suffrage, race equality, anti-colonialism – all these causes have been taken forward by people seen as criminals by one generation and as heroes by the next. While current protests may be disruptive, they can also seem tame compared with methods embraced by other, now lauded, movements. Compare soup running off a glass screen with the suffragette who slashed a Velázquez painting with a knife; compare a few people sitting in the road with the suffragettes’ arson and bombing campaigns.

But we cannot look to history for any exact parallels with the current moment, or for any certainty about the future. So it’s unsurprising that the movement is split – not only between those embracing disruptive action and those who want to build a moderate flank, but also among many other positions. Yet, oddly, these splits do not usually seem to me to be bitter. There appears to be a growing understanding that different tactics need not be a zero sum game. Actions that disrupt everyday life can create jolts of energy, but even those who take part in them know they are not going to be enough on their own. Recent research has shown that disruptive action can increase support for organisations working for change using more conventional methods.

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Timeframe For change

These are the main topics discussed in the article, and it provides a detailed look at the current state of protest laws and the rights of citizens to express their opinions in the United Kingdom.


In the case of the protests mentioned in the article, it is difficult to determine their overall effectiveness at this time as the situation is ongoing and the full impact of the protests is not yet clear. However, protests can still have an impact, even if they do not immediately achieve all of their goals. Protests can raise awareness about important issues, galvanize public opinion, and put pressure on decision-makers to take action. Protests can also inspire others to get involved and mobilize around a cause, creating a sense of community and solidarity among participants. Additionally, the fact that the new protest laws and police crackdown in the UK have drawn international condemnation and raised concerns about human rights and civil liberties, suggests that the protests have had some impact and are attracting attention to the issue. In conclusion, the effectiveness of protests is complex and multifaceted, and it is difficult to make a comprehensive assessment of their impact. However, protests can still play a role in shaping public discourse and advancing social and political change.