Thursday 17 October 2019 4:30 am

However worthy their cause may be, eco-rebels are not above the law

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

Imagine a city in the grip of a crime wave, where the hard-pressed police have to draft in officers from other parts of the country to maintain order in an increasingly fractious situation, where ordinary citizens find their daily journeys to work and school disrupted, and where local businesses suffer the effects of day after day of unlawful activity.

Now imagine that in that same city, the local mayor has shown more sympathy with the forces the criminals are affiliated to than those of law and order trying to keep his city’s streets open. And that politicians from the rest of the country have chimed in with pious talk about how, while the ends may not justify the means, there is an important message about the crime spree that needs to be heard.

You might well be forgiven for thinking that this is some Latin American fable, with an ageing caudillo facing his just deserts from a restive population struggling for freedom. 

But it turns out that the city in question is London, in 2019, in the grip of Extinction Rebellion bedlam for the second time in a matter of months that had seen 1,642 arrests as of yesterday morning.

The first time around, some of London’s main arteries were paralysed for weeks by a series of organised sit-ins that caught the authorities completely unaware. In some particularly shameful scenes, police officers were seen bantering with protestors rather than removing them, while ordinary Londoners filed past the protest camps making their lives a misery. 

In their inaction, the police were further hindered by the attitude of some politicians, who were strangely reluctant to criticise disruption that affected hundreds of thousands of people and caused millions of pounds of economic damage in terms of transport chaos and lost business. 

The Holy Grail of climate change was above questioning when it came to the awkward behaviour of those protesting it, or so it seemed.

This time, what initially seemed a carbon copy of the first incidence has panned out rather differently. 

Having initially established command and control centres across Westminster – blocking key roads and bridges – the Extinction Rebellion street disruptors found themselves swiftly closed down by a diligent police force determined to use their powers to combat illegality and control public order offences.  

Having agreed with the authorities to confine their protests to Trafalgar Square, the protestors broke their word – and the law – on several further occasions. 

By Monday night, having had to enlist the support of police officers from Scotland to replenish their ranks, the Metropolitan Police judged the situation of continued disorder serious enough to justify an invocation of Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, banning all Extinction Rebellion gatherings.

And that ought to have been that. Except that in an astonishing turn of events, some of Britain’s politicians appear not to have read the script of mass illegality and seem intent on repeating their mistakes from the first bout of Extinction Rebellion madness.

London mayor Sadiq Khan announced that he was “seeking further information” about why the ban was necessary, saying he believed that “the right to peaceful and lawful protest must always be upheld”. 

In Khan’s world, the 1,642 arrests to date clearly count for nothing in terms of lawfulness. Judging by the soaring crime rate in London under his watch, he perhaps ought to be grateful that the police are successfully arresting anyone.

Meanwhile, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and Baroness Jenny Jones, along with Labour’s Clive Lewis and David Drew, have affixed their names to a legal challenge to the police decision. 

Londoners will no doubt be overjoyed that MPs representing Brighton, Norwich and Stroud are taking such a keen interest in a matter affecting so few of their constituents, and that the human rights of protesters matter more to them than the human rights of those facing the effects of their protests. 

There is of course a need for environmental activism in society. Climate change is one of the great issues of our time, and pivotal for the planet’s future.

But as those who have actually studied Extinction Rebellion in depth know, it is a group at odds with the good intentions of those who see it simply as a vehicle for action on climate change. 

A recent Policy Exchange report showed that those at the heart of the movement have beliefs “rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism”, which helps explain why chaos and disorder accompany its every move. 

Extinction Rebellion is neither the first nor the last movement that will claim special dispensation for breaking the law because its message is just too important to abide by the rules. But regardless of the justness of the cause, we live in a democracy where the ballot box is the path to change, not unlawful direct action. 

Until Extinction Rebellion protesters learn to abide by the same laws as the rest of us, they will not be the Messiah, but just some very naughty boys and girls.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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