Extinction Rebellion protest: Look at new deterrents, says top cop
After disruption brought West End to a standstill, Cressida Dick faces questions over police response to climate-change activists
17 May, 2019 — By Richard Osley
The Extinction Rebellion pink boat protest at Oxford Circus
LONDON’S police commissioner this week suggested greater deterrents were needed to halt large-scale civil disobedience and disruptive protests in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protest.
Cressida Dick was facing questions at City Hall over how effectively – and quickly – the Metropolitan Police Service was able to deal with 11 days of demonstrations across the West End, which included the blockading of Oxford Circus with a pink boat.
Campaigners said they were taking direct action in a bid to get politicians to prioritise a response to climate change.
Ms Dick said the force spent £7.5million on extra resources and officers had been left exhausted after worked 16 hour days trying to free demonstrators who had glued body parts to the ground or chained themselves to obstacles.
She said: “Serious disruption is serious disruption. In the case of Extinction Rebellion, certainly the vast majority were not violent. They were unlawful, but the offences that they may be charged with are not serious and, therefore, the deterrent is not strong. I think that needs to be looked at, as to whether there should be a stronger deterrent. I’m just a police officer but we’ve – the city – has just gone through this for two weeks… and I think it raises a number of issues.”
The demonstrations drew high-profile media attention, aided by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson who climbed aboard the boat. Elsewhere bridges were blocked off and there were attempts to disrupt daily commutes.
More than 1,200 people were arrested, around 70 of whom have been charged.
Ms Dick said: “I hope this doesn’t come across as a politicised point but I think a number of the people who were sitting there thinking ‘well this was ok’ would absolutely not think it was ok if it was a protest of a different political persuasion doing the same thing.
“We have to be completely impartial and we are. Whatever we think about any cause, odious, or privately they may support it, we have to police it impartially; but I don’t think this sort of disruption should not be taken seriously.”
Conservative Assembly Member Andrew Boff asked whether Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s apparent sympathy for the message about climate change had influenced the response.
“I’ve worked with politicians for a very, very long time and I can assure you that if a politician of any sort was to indicate that, they would get short shrift and I don’t think the mayor would dream of it,” the police chief said.
Ms Dick, however, suggested the Met had been caught by surprise.
“I think it would be fair to say Extinction Rebellion both came in larger numbers than we expected, used different tactics than what we had been led to believe and expected, and certainly new tactics well beyond anything we had seen before. I do want to stress this – this is very new to the way people went about their protest.”
She said that police could not, by law, have been more forceful due to the nature of the protest, which mainly fell under highway obstruction.
“We’ve learned that we do need more specialist skills in terms of debonding and delocking,” she said.
“We called on colleagues from around the country to do that. We have to be lawful and proportionate.”
Ms Dick told London Assembly members on the cross-party committee: “We had to arrest, arrest and arrest and then we had to unlock, unlock and unlock very carefully.
“Some of those operations took many hours just to get one person unlocked.”
Conservative Assembly Member Susan Hall said: “The concern must be that other people are watching and are thinking ‘right we’ll do the same thing’. I think this will happen again.
“I went up there, I saw what was going on and it was more like a carnival going on, quite frankly.
“I was appalled by it given so many people were suffering – businesses etc – and people were just milling around, dancing.”