UK climate activists have vowed to continue their disruptive protests until the government imposes the death penalty for their actions, as they signalled their contempt for a new bill aimed at curtailing their civil disobedience tactics.
The public order bill, which passed through the Commons this week and is now before the House of Lords, takes aim at “criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics” used by groups such as Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain.
It would introduce stiff penalties for “lock-on” protests, used regularly by groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Just Stop Oil, as well as new offences of interfering with key national infrastructure, obstructing major transport works and causing serious disruption by tunnelling.
It has met with significant opposition, not only from climate activist groups and civil rights organisations but also from sections of the Conservative party. The Tory MP Sir Charles Walker said he would be voting against the bill, and that its proposals for serious disruption prevention orders were “not the answer”.
The bill reintroduces a number of measures that were knocked out of the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill when it was examined by the Lords in December. That law, which was explicitly targeted at XR and Black Lives Matter protests, gave police a range of new powers to control public assemblies.
In a briefing this week, the civil rights organisation Liberty described the public order bill as “a staggering attack on our right to protest”.
Its director, Martha Spurrier, said: “Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the state. But our right to protest continues to be attacked by a government intent on making it harder for people to stand up for the causes they believe in.”
She said the bill was part of a range of new measures, including restrictions to judicial review and the introduction of voter ID that were “limiting people’s ability to make their voices heard”.
“The threat of the public order bill must not be underestimated,” Spurrier said. “From protests taking place in opposition to the government’s Rwanda plan, to gatherings in Parliament Square raising the alarm about the cost of living crisis, to people protesting for racial justice and striking for climate justice, it is clear that protest remains at the heart of how we stand up to power and we must fight to defend it.”
Cameron Ford, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil who has been arrested many times, said the measures would not stop activists continuing their disruptive protest campaign. Supporters of the group have blocked roads in central London every day so far this month.
“Until they put the death sentence as the repercussions for what we’re doing, it won’t deter us,” Ford said. “Because the alternative to us not getting the change that we’re demanding is death.”
Using glue or other equipment to attach themselves to roads and street furniture has been a key tactic of Just Stop Oil and its antecedent Insulate Britain, for which Ford was also a spokesperson.
Addressing the 51-week sentences proposed for those taking similar action, he said: “The UK has a history of really fierce grassroots civil resistance. We’re used to that, we know how to stand up against these sorts of things, and we will continue no matter what the law is.”
Just Stop Oil’s protests have infuriated ministers, the rightwing press and many members of the public. On Tuesday, as two activists climbed the Queen Elizabeth Bridge where the M25 crosses the Thames, stopping motor traffic, Suella Braverman, the then home secretary, accused “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” of being behind the protests.
Extinction Rebellion, the climate protest group that three years ago pioneered many of the tactics currently in use, said the government was playing “a losing game” by trying to suppress the voices of the “scientists and everyday people that make up the climate movement”.
Nuala Lam, a spokesperson for XR, said: “Everyday people are way ahead of politicians and they’re prepared to face the challenges the climate crisis presents. People continue to step up and take civil disobedience despite attempts to criminalise their right to protest.”
Some activists have warned that increasing criminalisation of accountable non-violent direct action would lead to more people acting clandestinely. Marion Walker, a spokesperson for the Tyre Extinguishers, said: “In the face of increasing global repression of climate activists, we’ve only seen direct action soar.
“Ultimately, no law is going to stop us doing what’s needed. We want to see a global movement of climate saboteurs take on polluting infrastructure everywhere, whether that’s SUVs, pipelines, coal plants. We see ourselves as part of that, as offering an introduction into that world. No law will deter people from taking this action, because it’s increasingly clear it’s necessary.”