We should be outraged that the police listed Extinction Rebellion as extremists. But we shouldn’t be surprised.

Extinction Rebellion protest sign and a police officer with camera
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Environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) hit the headlines on 10 January after the police included it as an extremist ideology in its guide to “Safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism”.

But while it’s outrageous that a nonviolent group focussed on saving the planet from the climate crisis is listed as an extremist threat, we shouldn’t be surprised. Because this is exactly how the police treat protest groups. And any opposition to XR’s inclusion in this guide has to come from a place of solidarity with every other protest group listed as domestic extremists.

The guide

Revealed in the Guardian, the document is for people in “regular, direct contact with young people or members of the public”. And it is “designed to help you recognise when young people or adults may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies”.

Alongside XR, the guide lists the proscribed groups National Action and Al Muhajiroun alongside “extreme satanism” and neo-Nazi groups. It also lists “animal rights extremism” as a threat – something which doesn’t generate the outrage groups like XR do. But it should.

Following the guide’s publication, it has been withdrawn. But as the Network for Police Monitoring pointed out:

Beware the Child Catcher

But what’s also important is the tone used in these sorts of documents. Because it makes it sounds like the Child Catcher is coming. Lock up your kids, folks. Those nasty people who want to save the planet are coming with big nets to take your children away.

In the section on XR, the guide states:

activists may encourage vulnerable people to perform acts of violence, or commit such acts themselves.

Meanwhile, in the animal rights section, it asserts:

Animal rights activists are increasingly targeting a younger, more health-conscious audience for recruitment.

This, quite frankly, is utter nonsense. I’ve been involved in protests since I was 14. No-one recruited me. No-one encouraged me to take action I didn’t want to. And in the 30 years since, I’ve never seen young or vulnerable people deliberately targeted or used to commit offences.

This is nothing new

But let’s not pretend this is shocking or anything new. In an article I wrote in 2018 about XR’s attitude to the police, I warned:

we’re living at a time when authorities view any disruptive protest as domestic extremism and police it with counter-terrorism strategy.

Those protesting fracking have regularly been presented as extremists in Prevent counter-terrorism training. Others have been referred to the Prevent programme because of their involvement with fracking protests. And in September 2019, the Guardian reported that a retired doctor was reported to Prevent over his involvement in XR.

Stop calling protesters extremists

This issue is much wider than XR. And anyone outraged at XR’s inclusion in this document also needs to be outraged at every single one of us who’s labelled a domestic extremist. I’m one of these people. According to my police files, my first entry on the domestic extremist database was in 1999 when I was arrested for trying to stop arms dealers travelling to a weapons fair. I know first hand the damage this label does and exactly why it should be abolished.

In June 2019, I was one of 152 politicians, lawyers, academics, journalists, and campaigners calling on the police to stop labelling protesters as domestic extremists.

The letter, organised by the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), stated that:

Categorising legitimate free speech and dissent as “domestic extremism” intimidates and alienates people from taking part in protest activities, restricting their ability to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and association. This cannot continue.

And it called for:

a clear separation of protest policing from counter-terrorism and better protection for campaigners against surveillance, including independent oversight of how police use it in relation to political protest.


So let’s make sure that our outrage at XR’s inclusion in this document isn’t limited to one group. Netpol is running a campaign with three clear demands:

The police must stop categorising campaigning and protest activities as ‘extremism’.
Protesters and campaigners must have better protection against routine surveillance.
The policing of protest should be clearly separated from the policing of terrorism and extremism.

Get behind this campaign. And let’s make sure we act in solidarity with each other. Those involved in XR are not domestic extremists. But neither are those of us who campaign against animal testing, fracking, or the arms trade. And standing in solidarity with each other is the best way we have of showing the police that we will not tolerate any of us being smeared as extremists.

Featured image via Wikimedia/David Holt and Emily Apple

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  • Show Comments
    1. This seems to be a recurring theme. Occupy were also added (then withdrawn) to a domestic extremism list next to Al Quada. I’d suggest that this is used to dissuade the middle and professional classes from adding to the expansion of a growing grassroots movement. This is magnified with multiple negative articles in the Guardian.

      What I find more concerning, is that no media outlet has pointed out the ratio of violent right wing/nationalist groups. 5 Right, 1 Muslim, 2 Eco (1 “mistakenly”). The left is frequently maligned in the media and associated with “militant” tendencies and “extreme” unions. The right is NEVER associated with the groups based on valid threats of violence and white supremacy. There are NO left wing groups mentioned in the leaflet.

      I’d expect this from the Mail, Express, Times and Murdoch press. I am no longer surprised that the Guardian makes no effort to highlight this. So much for the “paper of the left”.

    2. Its extreme to have a different opinion, and to be fearful of it?
      How crazy.
      We’re surrounded by different opinions every day. What is this, the 12th century they wish to return to?
      The people who come up with this must be schooled of the world can be found in a broom closet. Nothing outside of a broom closet appears. Vision? What the hell is that anyway, just trouble??
      The unknown awaits us with climate change, and how we have altered the world around us.
      Persuaded to be fearful is a serious mistake to allow oneself to agree to, especially when proposed by a Government who doesn’t know you from Adam.
      As Nietzsche says “the secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of life is to live dangerously”.
      I chose to keep my eyes open for fun.

    3. The police force in any society exists to uphold the structures of power. Consequently, it will persecute and seek to destroy people and groups who are different in any way. This includes political activists, non-white people, the poor, those who dress unconventionally such as 1970s punks or transvestites, campaigners (apart from the right-wing who are seen, correctly, by the police as friendly to power) and anyone who is sexually different than their heterosexual ideal. Until we reduce the police to the barest minimum and take away their power, we will always have this problem.

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