Ahead of XR protests, campaign groups call on the Met to prevent harassment of disabled protesters

XR wheelchair arrest by the Met Police
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Extinction Rebellion (XR) is gearing up for its Big One, an action against climate disaster. For four days, from 21-24 April, the activists are calling for 100,000 people, from all groups and movements, to gather throughout Westminster and at the Houses of Parliament. So, the Met Police presence is likely to be large.

Meanwhile, XR emphasises that the protests will be “inclusive and accessible”. It says:

We’re working to create a welcoming space for all, including marginalised communities and those with disabilities, neurodivergent or mental health needs, who are often disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.

Assaulting disabled protesters

But while XR promises inclusivity, it can’t guarantee that the Met Police won’t discriminate against disabled people. The force has a shameful record on this.

The Network For Police Monitoring (Netpol) outlined some shocking instances of abuse by police officers towards disabled protesters. The incidents, carried out by both the Met Police and other forces across the country, include:

the physical assault of wheelchair users in 2012 and in 2017, the targeting of a deaf campaigner opposing a fracking site and the police sharing information about disabled protesters with the Department for Work and Pensions, to trigger investigations for alleged benefit fraud.

Netpol continued:

Read on...

When climate campaigners Extinction Rebellion held 12 days of protests in London in October 2019, the mistreatment of disabled protesters was so shocking that even the Metropolitan Police’s Disability Independent Advisory Group accused it of humiliating behaviour and considered resigning.

Indeed, the Met Police made it as difficult as possible for disabled people to join in the 2019 protests. A Netpol report, criticising the Met’s actions, showed that the police “systematically discriminated against disabled protesters”. There were at least 58 instances of the “targeting of disabled people and discrimination”.

Netpol also documented that the Met Police arrested drivers who were delivering accessible toilets. They also confiscated essential access equipment.

A demand to the Met Police

Because of this, a number of prominent campaign groups have signed a public statement to Met Police Commissioner Mark Rowley, demanding that “the rights of disabled people to freedom of assembly will be respected and protected” at the upcoming protests.

The signatories of the statement include Netpol, Liberty, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), and many more.

They say:

We cannot see a repeat of the shameful police conduct we witnessed and experienced in 2019.

We demand that Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley acknowledges that by failing to meet the needs of disabled protesters at forthcoming protests, the force will once again have systematically discriminated against them. We demand public reassurance from him that his officers will respect the rights of disabled people to protest outside Parliament between 21-24 April 2023″.

The upcoming protests will be the largest in the UK since the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC Act). The Act sparked mass resistance across the UK in 2021, with thousands taking to the streets to protest unprecedented new police powers.

The signatories of the statement said:

A growing intolerance towards environmental protesters from government ministers and the police has resulted in more new laws and more police powers, but the Met still has a legal duty to protect the right to protest.

Cause for concern

The Canary’s Tom Anderson previously summarised the changes to law since the PCSC Act came into force. There are a number which the Met Police could use to directly affect XR protesters in Parliament Square. These include:

  • Increasing police powers to stop/control demonstrations: The penalties for breaching the parts of the Public Order Act which govern marches and processions have been increased.
  • Restricting noisy protests: Senior police officers now have increased powers to impose conditions on protests if they are ‘noisy’.
  • Allowing the police to place restrictions on protests of just one person: Previously, there had to be two people present for restrictions to be made.
  • Making the obstruction of vehicle access to parliament an offence: This will affect protests around Westminster.
  • Creating an offence of statutory public nuisance: Public nuisance previously only existed as a common law offence (i.e. an offence that has been developed through case law, rather than a statute agreed by parliament).
  • Obstructing the highway: The maximum sentence has increased from a fine of £1000 to 6 months imprisonment. Those arrested for blocking roads can now be asked to give their fingerprints and biometric data. Its no longer a defence to say that the road you’re accused of blocking is already blocked, even if its blocked by police. 
  • Damaging monuments: In cases in which a public monument has been damaged – such as the toppling of the slave-trader Edward Colston in 2020 – defendants can be tried at the Crown Court, even when the damage done was minimal. This means people could, in theory, be given sentences of up to 10 years.

It remains to be seen whether the police will use these new powers to curtail the demonstrations. But all eyes will be on the Met Police. We will be scrutinising how its officers act, and, in particular, how they treat disabled people.

The Met Police had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. 

Featured image via Netpol

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