As environmentalists and climate change activists ratchet up their protests in Britain, employing tactics that disrupt everyday life, authorities are responding in kind with robust actions that have raised concerns that long-enshrined freedoms are being eroded.
Determined to crack down on demonstrators, the government is giving police new powers to tackle groups that have brought busy highways to a standstill, delayed infrastructure projects by tunneling beneath them, thrown soup at artwork and deflated the tires of SUVs.
“What I’m seeing now is, I think, a sort of spiral, I’d almost say a radicalization,” said Adam Wagner, a civil liberties lawyer and author.
“I think there’s a hardening on both sides, the police and the protesters, both of the actions and the reactions. I can see that dynamic, and I’m pretty worried about it.”
Wagner fears that, in this increasingly confrontational context, basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are coming under ever greater pressure.
Legislation passed this year in Britain allowed police to impose start and finish times on some protests and to set noise limits on them.
The maximum penalties for obstruction of a highway were also increased to an unlimited fine, six months’ imprisonment or both.
The government wants to go even further, citing the financial effect of the demonstrations.
Protests against Britain’s HS2 high-speed railway line, for example, have cost it an added 122 million pounds, a figure that is expected to rise to 200 million pounds, according to the project’s management.
Legislation making its way through Parliament would set jail sentences of up to six months or unlimited fines for protesters accused of “locking on” to people, objects or buildings.
Tunneling under infrastructure, another favored tactic of demonstrators, would carry a maximum penalty of up to three years in prison under the bill. And police would gain new powers to stop and search people for materials that could be used for a “protest-related” offense.
One person surprised to be caught up in Britain’s charged debate is John Cridland, a former director-general of Britain’s business federation, the Confederation of British Industry.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Cridland felt strongly enough to stand outside the Russian Consulate General in Edinburgh to express his opposition with a handmade sign.
This lone, silent protest seemed to have crossed a line for police, and within minutes, he was warned against what he was doing by a uniformed officer.
Having checked the law in advance, Cridland stood his ground, but the confrontation was disconcerting.
Police, he said, “seemed more concerned about whether Russian diplomats might get upset than whether Russia had invaded Ukraine.”
“Freedom of speech is something you tamper with very, very reluctantly,” Cridland said.
Some police officers say privately that they resent being caught in the middle of a polarizing debate about freedom of expression, though the formal position is more diplomatic.
“Police officers involved in policing protest consistently place themselves in harm’s way to keep these events safe and lawful,” said a statement from the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
Samantha Smithson, a climate activist who has been prosecuted for several protest actions, said that the legal risks for demonstrating had increased recently but that it would not stop protests, given the growing dangers of a warming climate.
“The more that we witness this oppressive behavior from the state, the only thing it is going to do is galvanize civil society,” she said, placing climate action in a long British tradition of protesting, including the suffrage movement.