The heavy handed policing exercised during the coronation showed a sobering vision of the future under the government’s new anti-protest legislation.
The Met police’s display of authoritarian policing under the newly passed Public Order Act, (POA) has left many lamenting the death of the right to protest. However, as terrifying as the new legislation is, it is defeatist to say the right to protest is gone completely.
What it does prompt is a rethink of our prevailing assumptions about what protest looks like and what it could look like.
After all, the POA is a direct response to specific tactics of specific protest groups, notably Extinction Rebellion (XR), Insulate Britain (IB) and Just Stop Oil (JSO). All three groups rely extensively on tactics like roadblocks, blockading key infrastructure and locking-on – exactly those tactics most heavily criminalised in the POA.
How did we get here?
However, as always, the question is not only how we got here but where we go next.
One thing that connects XR, IB and JSO is that they all come from the school of protest developed and popularised by Roger Hallam.
Underlying the “Hallamite” model of protest we can identify three organising principles which shed light on why the POA cracks down so hard on it, and how we can move forwards.
Firstly, they are not just disruptive but provocatively so. The repetition of tactics like blocking motorways is done deliberately to catalyse “dilemma moments”, essentially a game of chicken in which the police and the government are forced to choose between acceding to the protesters demands, or damaging their image in the eyes of the public by arresting masses of peaceful protesters.
Needless to say, all Hallamite groups have misjudged how low Tory governments since 2019 are prepared to sink in their quest to preserve the continued accumulation of fossil capital. The POA has been criticised by the UN’s human rights chief as ‘neither necessary nor proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose as defined under international law,’ and called on the UK government to reverse the legislation as soon as possible.
Secondly, disruption is used primarily to gain media attention. Other than one-off blockades of printing presses and oil refineries, Hallam’s groups have always preferred the spectacle of a blocked motorway to the more tangible effect of shutting down the infrastructure of fossil capital.
The problem with that is it gives the (billionaire owned) press a lot of control over how the protests are represented with the consequence that they are often misrepresented. A recent editorial in the Times on Just Stop Oil incorrectly stated JSO’s goal – saying the group demanded an end to oil and gas, rather than an end to new oil and gas licences – and failed to mention the climate crisis.
Continuous demonisation like this in much of the mainstream press has only emboldened the government in passing the POA, and earlier Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, by manipulating public opinion against protesters generally.
Thirdly, arrest is part of, if not the main part of, the plan. In the Hallamite model of protest, arrest is considered a show of sacrifice, which is in turn believed to win sympathy for the cause.
This has always been problematic in a number of ways, not least because by centering arrest in its strategic thinking, Hallamism sidelines all those for whom arrest is simply not a viable or safe option.
From a movement perspective, pushing members towards arrest has led to XR and its spin-off groups burning through supporters faster than they can recruit new ones.
Now that the POA has made arrest even more likely and the potential punishment more stringent for even simple, non-disruptive acts like holding a placard, carrying a bike lock, or simply standing in the vicinity of other protesters, recruitment to the front lines will undoubtedly be even harder.
Hallamist protest has dominated headlines and social media since 2019. Many people in protest movements today first became activists through mass participation groups like XR. It is understandable, therefore, that the POA’s repression of Hallam’s particular form of protest would seem like the end of protest per se.
But this is a narrow view of what protest can be. What might an alternative model look like?
There are lots of ways forwards, but the three I will mention are creative protest, clandestine protest and what we might call “cultural” protest.
Protest movements of the past have had to operate in contexts far more authoritarian than ours today. They have worked around the restraints imposed on them by getting creative.
Groups like Otpor – who protested against the Milosevic regime in Serbia – used creative protest to both outmanoeuvre the police and win public support in the face of repression. A chief tactic was making the police look foolish.
In one famous example, Otpor activists painted Milosevic’s face on an oil barrel and encouraged members of the public to hit it with bats. By the time the police arrived all they found was a beaten up barrel, which they arrested much to the crowd’s amusement.
Just Stop Oil lost their game of chicken with the police and the government not because they were afraid but because they forgot to stay creative. Their dilemma actions failed to anticipate the extent to which much of the press would back the government in their increasingly efforts to stop the protesters.
On the clandestine front, the Tyre Extinguishers (who deflate the tyres of SUVs and 4x4s) offer a good example of a movement that performs a highly divisive action involving property damage and yet enjoys a high degree of support for having tapped into a very potent societal dislike of SUVs.
Finally, by “cultural” protest I mean actions that encourage a culture of resistance as opposed to single acts of protest. For instance, Iranians refusing the wear headscarves during recent #MahsaAmini protests, or the colour yellow during the Hong Kong uprisings of 2019/20.
Early efforts by XR to build community and culture around their actions were largely abandoned, partly due to the pandemic, and its successors IB and JSO have put little effort into image or brand, implicitly erecting a barrier to those who wish to support their cause without going so far as to take action.
None of this is to say that Hallamite protest hasn’t achieved a lot because of course it has. Extinction Rebellion changed the conversation about climate change, popularising terms like “climate crisis” and prompting local councils across the country to pass climate emergency declarations.
However, in the face of the Public Order Act this model of protest will have many asking whether it isn’t too costly for those taking part to be worth the benefits.
The POA is a repressive and authoritarian piece of legislation and must be resisted. How we do this is up to us and demands a recognition that there is more to protest than endlessly blocking roads.
2 thoughts on “The Public Order Act pushes us to rethink what protest can be”
Thank you for the article, brought up things I haven’t even thought of before. I think a follow up of more alternative methods and examples of them happening in the past would be very useful.
Hi Maya. Thanks for this, glad you enjoyed the article. I’ll hopefully do more on this topic soon so stay tuned…