Extinction Rebellion has launched a 100-day countdown to a large protest in a switch in tactics triggered by tougher enforcement, amid calls for a crackdown on emerging dangers of similar movements.
Prof Ian Acheson of the Counter Extremism Project has called on the UK to use existing laws and set up special courts to expedite the arrest, prosecution and punishment of people whose actions have a disproportionate effect on the public.
A January 1 announcement by Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, to end acts of public disruption came as seven members of the group face possible prison sentences for criminal damage. It unveiled a banner on Westminster Bridge on Wednesday as it aims to stage a protest of 100,000 people outside the Houses of Parliament on April 21.
It comes as Just Stop Oil has called an online meeting of its supporters to discuss ramping up their activity after the Extinction Rebellion decision.
“XR might have quit but for us this isn’t an option,” the notice said ahead of the meeting on Thursday. “Our country is becoming unrecognisable, we are barrelling towards the loss of ordered civil society.
“We have already seen the impact extreme weather are having on tens of millions. We must move from disobedience into civil resistance.”
With senior members of the movement and offshoots such as Just Stop Oil highly committed to the cause, the likelihood of an attack remains high, Prof Acheson told The National.
The group came to prominence in 2019 after a series of protests, including one by two-time Paralympic gold medallist James Brown, who was jailed for a year after he superglued his hand to an aircraft.
Now it has pledged to end such tactics, saying it will “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”.
“Our #NewYearsResolution is to halt our tactics of public disruption,” the group tweeted.
Instead the group called on everyone to disrupt the government.
“I think this is a tactical response as opposed to a change of heart,” Prof Acheson, a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project, told The National.
“Many of the key people in XR still believe in the goal of overwhelming the criminal justice system by disruptive mass protests where the end justifies any means. That projected them to national prominence in 2019.”
He said there were “obvious weaknesses” in the ability of the “decimated and confused police service to protect infrastructure from the disproportionate impact of a few people who can cause enormous disruption”.
“So I’d say the tactics are on ice for now,” he said.
Extinction Rebellion protest at Barclays Bank - in pictures
Prof Acheson said the case may have had a short-term deterrent effect on the middle-class progressives that make up the foot soldiers of climate change mass movements.
The group was told to expect sentences ranging from community orders to 18 months in prison.
Their sentences could cause a loss of nerve, Prof Acheson said.
“Our prison system is horrible and particularly so for those with no experience of it,” he said.
He said other groups, such as Just Stop Oil, which recently staged a wave of disruption that included gluing themselves to art masterpieces and spray painting buildings, were “certainly a nuisance”.
The group’s “distributed leadership” struggles to mobilise national action, he said. And there is equal difficulty in policing it, he added.
“But perhaps there’s a dawning realisation that defacing memorials and art or sitting in front of ambulances simply alienates people and makes it harder to project a core message of environmental responsibility,” he said.
Prof Acheson said he worries that radicalised individuals may feel the only way to keep their case alive “is through a high profile act of violence”.
Extinction Rebellion protest at Tower Bridge – in pictures
But he also said dissent and protest is important in a democratic society.
He said the government should consider “the broader demands of such groups and make progress on rational environmental concerns without literally conceding ground to extremists”.
“It will be very interesting to watch the conduct and size of the Extinction Rebellion march that has been called for in central London in April,” he added.
“That will show whether the organisation has truly evolved.”