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OP-ED: The freedom of protest vs the freedom of movement

  • Published at 06:40 pm September 21st, 2021
Protests UK
Police stand guard during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London BIGSTOCK

When protesting, it is important to make sure the public is not inconvenienced

As the summer draws to a close here in the UK, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the protest season is nearing its end. Three weeks ago, the UK had the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) bringing the centre of London to a standstill with their demonstrations.  

Last week, a splinter group demanding better home insulation for the country, Insulate Britain (IB), caused further disruption, this time to the capital’s main orbital motorway, the M25, by protestors sitting on the slip roads that join it and blocking traffic.

Both XR and IB’s aims are highly laudable, namely to draw attention to the climate crisis. Their methods, however, are not. In recent years, all of us in Britain have become much more aware of the need to protect the environment and to urgently halt and reverse climate change. No one these days can be in any doubt of how serious the problems are that our planet faces and most people, in their own small way are trying to do what they can to help.  

But protesters stopping traffic and gluing themselves to one another or to street lamps and pavements (a popular tactic of XR supporters) completely undermines the message.  

Years ago, before environmental concerns became a mainstream issue, most people dismissed them as an issue that only those with a left-leaning, “alternative” lifestyle cared about. Looking at some of those taking part in these demonstrations, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that that was still the case.  

I have seen, first-hand, some of these protests in central London. They reminded me of that grainy footage of Woodstock in the 60s. Long-haired, obviously well-educated, young women and men with tie-dyed jeans and bandanas sat cross-legged in the middle of Oxford Circus beating out a rhythm on a set of bongo drums.  

Admittedly, there were some elderly middle-class matrons and ageing white beards among them. But most looked like relics from a Ban the Bomb march of the 1950s.

The aim of any successful protest movement surely should be to garner mass support for its cause. As I say, we all share the same concerns about the environment as XR and IB, but both groups’ silly tactics risk alienating the very people they should be reaching out to. The resentment and anger of those inconvenienced by the groups’ actions was clear to see on the television coverage.  

And I witnessed it first-hand myself during the height of XR’s protests two weeks ago. I was travelling by bus along Oxford Street, Europe’s busiest thoroughfare, when we were suddenly forced to stop. As we got off, we saw a young man squatting on our side of the road holding up a placard -- and the traffic. On the other side of the street was sat a young woman stopping cars and buses in that direction.   

What struck me first was the irony of the whole situation. Transport for London’s electric buses are probably the most environmentally efficient form of transport anywhere in the world. And yet here we were being stopped on our lawful way by someone protesting about pollution. 

A small group of onlookers and disgruntled motorists had gathered round the man. A few tried to reason with him and politely asked him to move on. He ignored their pleas and stared silently straight ahead. This, unsurprisingly, began to annoy the crowd. Four police officers then approached and one knelt down and spoke very quietly to the man.  

By now, the crowd was getting larger and more agitated. There were shouts of “arrest him,” “get them off road, I need to get home” and from a taxi driver, “and I have a living to make.”

But the police officers seemed reluctant to take any action. I felt an initial surge of pride; most other country’s police forces would not have been so patient and would most likely have laid about the protestors with batons before forcibly dragging them off to the cells. I wondered how a similar scenario would have played out on the streets of Beijing.  

And let’s be honest, there is a whole lot more to protest about there, given that China is responsible for over 40% of the world’s greenhouse gases.

But that feeling of warmth towards our policemen and women lasted only a few days.  That was when I watched them on TV actually stopping the cars on the M25 slip roads themselves to allow the IB demonstrators to sit in the road and stop the traffic.  Behind them stood a very angry group of motorists shouting not just at the demonstrators now, but at the police. 

We rightly cherish our right to peaceful protest in this country. But when it interferes with and impinges upon other people’s freedoms, then it really is the duty of the police to step in and protect the rights of those being inconvenienced. It most certainly is not their job to help the protestors. 

We all want to see an end to climate change. But ridiculous stunts by the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, aided and abetted by our police, are just going to alienate the vast majority. 

If we lose respect for the messengers, then we may just lose interest in their message as well.           

Kit Fenwick is a historian and freelance writer.

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