The relationship between Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the police has always been contentious.
From its inception, XR has been the target of criticisms due to what Dr Nafeez Ahmed, in an infamous Medium article, calls their ‘fetishising’ of the police whereby police are treated as an source of opposition and simultaneously as a potential ally to bring about governmental change.
The group, which encourages mass arrests and civil disobedience, has similarly come under fire for its blindness to the racialised nature of UK policing, which puts Black people at far greater risk of harm and even death in the hands of the police.
For its part, XR sees working with the police as a pragmatic way of achieving its vision of mass civil disobedience. XR co-founder Roger Hallam has written of how working with police ahead of an action – sometimes called pre-liaising – benefits activists by reducing the risk of a heavy police response to the action, which in turn encourages others to take action themselves in the future.
Pros and Cons
You actually persuade [the police] that they agree with you.
Jon, who lives in Eastville, has volunteered as a police liaison for XR Bristol since 2019, during which time he has worked on a number of high profile events, including the blocking of Bristol Bridge in July 2019 and the protests in London in October 2019.
A subscriber to Hallam’s strategic view of police co-operation, Jon sees his role as establishing a ‘genuine relationship’ with the police, ‘to the point where you actually persuade them that they agree with you.’
This last part speaks to XR’s Theory of Change, its masterplan for mobilizing a large-scale social movement. Motivated by Gene Sharp, XR’s plan is to work with the police so that they not only cease to stop protests but actually join them, at which point the people and systems that they previously protected will come crashing down.
Jon cites the example of the July Uprising in 2019, where XR Bristol blocked Bristol Bridge with a pink boat for five days. Avon & Somerset Police intervened to delay a council-contracted worker in laying concrete bollards across the road onto the bridge, allowing XR to move their boat on first.
On another bridge just over a year later, a different story played out. XR Youth (XRY) Bristol had intended to block Clifton Suspension Bridge in August 2020, ahead of wider protests in Bristol, Cardiff and London. Having pre-liaised with the police, they arrived at the bridge to find police waiting for them, and this time it wasn’t to help.
Two young activists were arrested and the entire action was cancelled as police closed the bridge for four days. Barnaby, a member of XRY, was on the Suspension Bridge that night. In Barnaby’s view, ‘there didn’t need to be any arrests on that action, but there were because we pre-liaised with the police.’
Barnaby also points out that whilst XR’s original strategy of mass arrest may lend itself to liaising with police, the recent turn within XR towards more targeted actions, such as the Suspension Bridge blockade, or the Broxbourne printworks blockade, requires a rethink of that strategy.
Age and Experience
Jon has a long history with the police, stretching back to his days selling (legal) psychotropic drugs. Naturally, this drew plenty of unwanted attention from police, but Jon tells of how he found that he could defuse situations by communicating with officers.
Over the years, Jon has come to appreciate that police hold what he calls a ‘dual role’ inasmuch as they are a ‘body that oppresses people, but they also have the role of caring for people and most of them have that side to them as well.’
Jon accepts that this has changed in recent years, with the influence of Priti Patel’s Home Office on policing creating a marked difference in protester-police interaction.
This is the stage onto which younger activists like Barnaby have stepped. For such activists, attitudes towards the police are shaped by such experiences as Kill The Bill or Black Lives Matter protests, and the recent Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham.
For this reason, says Barnaby, some people in XRY find that ‘the relationship with the police that XR Bristol have can be quite scary.’
With XRY being more diverse than XR as a whole, with more representation of races, ethnicities and identities from beyond the white, middle-class stereotype of the typical XR member, the overriding belief is that: ‘“The police are not friendly. The police are not helping. And I don’t feel safe at actions with the police around.”’
In May this year, XR Youth took the decision at a national level, following a people’s assembly – a facilitated discussion to make collective decisions – to stop liaising with police before actions.
A Way Forwards?
a lot of protest groups won’t touch XR with a yardstick.
On Monday (August 9) XR Bristol will hold a facilitated discussion on the organisation’s relationship with the police.
Although this discussion will not make any immediate decisions, organizers hope that it will open up a conversation between different viewpoints through the group.
Both Barnaby and Jon support this move from XR Bristol, and are keen to hear diverse views on the topic in the hope of advancing the conversation.
Doing so opens the possibility that XR Bristol might follow in the footsteps of XR Youth and stop pre-liaising with the police altogether.
Both Barnaby and Jon predict that ending liaising with the police would likely lead to a more fractious relationship, and an ‘escalation of disrespect and harsher behaviour from both sides,’ as Jon puts it.
But these consequences are outweighed by the potential benefits, believes Barnaby, including a more inclusive strategy that creates space for collaboration with a wider range of other groups and movements.
‘Speaking from experience, a lot of protest groups won’t touch XR with a yardstick explicitly because of XR’s relationship with the police.’
This appeal to other activist groups needs to be weighed against the appeal XR has within the wider public, argues Jon. Cutting ties with the police and risking a more antagonistic relationship plays into the hands of the media who would portray XR in a bad light. Ultimately, such a move could be used to ‘demonise the movement’ in the eyes of the public.
With COP26 on the horizon, the need for a mass appeal climate justice movement like XR has never been greater. Yet with people turning away from the group in droves, and the Police Bill casting its shadow over protest more generally, the time in which XR can continue to avoid the question of its relationship with the police is rapidly diminishing. The movement that marches under the slogan “act now” may soon find that the decision has been made for them.
Feature image: Extinction Rebellion UK and Lola Perrin.