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Lawyer Explains How Lord Walney’s ‘Extreme Protest’ Groups Report Makes ‘Criminal Law Redundant and is Draconian and Dangerous’

The report is expected to proscribe Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action as ‘extreme protest groups’ and restrict their ability to fundraise and assemble

1000s gathered for the 7th National march for Palestine, part of a global action for a full ceasefire in Gaza in January 2024. Photo: Monica Wells / Alamy
Palestine Action is one of two groups supposedly being targeted by new legislation. Thousands of pro-Palestine protestors are pictured above calling for an end to the war in Gaza. Photo: Monica Wells/Alamy

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A report expected to recommend a new category proscribing Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action as extreme protest groups is an attempt to silence voices the Government doesn’t like and will lead to a further escalation of violence against demonstrators, a leading protestor has suggested, while a lawyer has argued it will make criminal law redundant.

The report by crossbench peer Lord John Walney, the Government’s Independent Advisor on Political Violence and Disruption, will sanction certain protest groups in similar ways to terrorist organisations, and will reportedly target those who routinely use criminal tactics to try and achieve their aims. The move could restrict a group’s ability to fundraise and assemble.

Last June, the Metropolitan Police said that policing the actions of the Just Stop Oil group had cost more than £4.5 million – and the equivalent of almost 13,770 officer shifts the Guardian reported – with the environmental group causing regular traffic chaos through marches and roadblocks, as well as disrupting major culture and sporting events.

Palestine Action has sprayed red paint on the walls of several buildings across the UK in recent months, including the Ministry of Defence in central London, among other actions.

Palestine Action sprayed Britain’s Foreign Office with blood-red paint, “to commemorate 75 years since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began”. Photo: Alamy

The BBC, according to a report on 12 May, has seen extracts of Lord Walney’s recommendations and quotes him as saying: “Militant groups like Palestine Action and Just Stop Oil are using criminal tactics to create mayhem and hold the public and workers to ransom without fear of consequence.

“Banning terror groups has made it harder for their activists to plan crimes – that approach should be extended to extreme protest groups too.”

Ahead of the report being published, the Byline Times Podcast spoke with Gail Bradbrook, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, who has been found guilty of criminal damage for protesting; and Francesca Katyayani, a senior associate at Hodge, Jones and Allen, which regularly represents protestors in court.

Lord Walney encounters a protest by campaigners against the arms trade as he arrives at the ADS Annual Dinner in January 2024. Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy

“When you conflate us with terrorists who threaten life, when we’re here to protect life, and you use words like ‘extremists’… one of the dangers is that one of us is going to get killed one day off the back of that,” Bradbrook told the podcast.

She added that the move was also a “march further into authoritarianism, to the Government deciding whether protesting suits them or not”, and was something people should be “extremely worried about”.

“It does smack of 1930s Germany, some of the enabling powers that have been given to the Home Secretary,” Bradbrook said.

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She further argued that applying the word ‘extreme’ to protest groups was as inaccurate as it is dangerous. Extreme, Bradbrook said, is when something “threatens a life. It either intends to harm life or it is going to harm life. That’s what we mean when we think about terrorism. And we’re the opposite of extreme. Non-violent, peaceful protestors”.

The term, she suggested, would be more suitably applied to ministers and business leaders, who through climate-damaging policies and decisions are harming lives.

Podcast host, Adrian Goldberg, spoke to Bradbrook about the already significant impact protesting has on the individuals involved, including prison time and career advancement, remarking: “It’s not as though it is cost-free to you to take part in the kind of disruptions that you’ve been involved with.”

Bradbrook said: “I was in the dock last year, three different times I had a prison bag with me because I’ve been threatened. We’ve been sent to jail for simply mentioning climate change in front of the jury.”

But she said that the climate emergency “agenda is too big” to cower to the threat of punishment.

Just Stop Oil protestors during a slow walk in Westminster last May. Photo: Denise Laura Baker/Alamy

“We know from our history books, and from social science research into civil disobedience, that these methods are more likely to work than ordinary protest,” she added.

The Government was “conflating” disruption with violence when the two are “very, very different”, Bradbrook told the podcast. Marathons, and other sporting events, she noted, also cause disruption to the public.

Goldberg quizzed Katyayani about how protestors were being silenced in court with the accused being told “what they can’t say” – preventing them from providing context and establishing a defence.

He cited the case of three Insulate Britain activists who were jailed for contempt of court because they were told not to mention the climate crisis, fuel poverty, and the history of peaceful civil rights movements.

Katyayani: “I think it’s hard to imagine how you would be tried, justly and properly, in a court of law, if you are completely prevented from explaining where you’re coming from and what motivated you to commit the acts they are alleged to have committed.”

Goldberg asked Katyayani if she had recognised any “extreme protest groups” during her time defending protestors.

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She said it was a “difficult definition” which was “quite dangerous” and, given that some protestors may be cleared of charges but still punished under the proposed legislation for belonging to a proscribed group, “it’s a way of overstepping the judiciary and saying ‘well, I don’t care’”.

“It sort of makes the purpose of criminal law redundant,” she argued. “Where you’re trying to punish people and limit their freedoms, before they’ve even done anything, simply by virtue of belonging to a certain protest group, just in terms of the groups that they’d mentioned.”

Katyayani added that “anything difficult to implement leaves open a lot of space for it to be used in the wrong way or abused in the wrong way”.

The lawyer suggested that the Government is “losing sight of”, or just ignoring, “the fact that the right to protest is the right to cause disruption”, which is covered under the Human Rights Act. “To suggest that to cause disruption is inherently unlawful,” she told the podcast. “That’s legally simply incorrect.”

Bradbrook added that the focus of the legislation was politically motivated, with the Conservatives happy to back protest groups if it suited them, as demonstrated by this Led by Donkeys YouTube video.

To start criminalising people because they “care about the fact that there’s a genocide in Palestine and care about the fact that the climate systems and life support systems the Earth had are been destroyed by policies of our Government and others… it’s just highly political,” she added.

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“Democracy is always been fairly fake in the last few years. But this is really ending the democracy in the UK, for me.”

Katyayani noted that the Government’s approach to protests is similar to its approach to crime – rather than deal with the root cause, it seeks to increase the punishment, and just like the ‘War on Drugs’, it will fail.

Bradbrook: “You read these rulings, and they all have a line that says, ‘well, we’ve got a functional democracy’. So if you’ve got an issue you just say, ‘take it to Parliament’… like you’ve got the same amount of lobbying money as Big Oil has. It’s a very circular argument of power that’s trying to keep itself in place. It’s damaging the world. And we’re all going to pay the price of this.”

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Goldberg asked Bradbrook if she sympathised with Brits disrupted by protests and she argued that public sentiment was being fuelled by the right-wing press, which was making readers angry about delays, rather than telling them that “the health service is falling to pieces”.

“If the Government would actually get on with doing [the UK’s] duty as so-called climate leaders – which is frankly a joke – if the UK would speak up about a genocide and stop providing Israel with arms etc. then people wouldn’t be protesting and protesting for reasons that are proportionate and incredibly serious.”

Goldberg concluded the podcast by asking Bradbrook if being put into the same “category as people might see a terrorist” might stop her from taking action. She said she was already subjected to considerable abuse.

“I had somebody saying that I should be shot in the face in front of my kids,” she told the podcast. “[The public] have been told that we are terrorist threats and extremists and a threat to the country… I mean, what could possibly go wrong?”

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