New and expanded powers for British police came into force on Sunday, aiming to address the disruptions caused by activist groups participating in protests that obstruct traffic and major building works.
Environmental protest groups, such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, have drawn authorities’ attention with their high-profile demonstrations aimed at raising awareness about the urgency of climate change. These protests often caused significant disruptions on busy highways and roads, prompting repeated condemnation from authorities.
Under the new measures, police now possess the authority to move static protests. While critics argue that the strengthened laws threaten the right to protest, UK officials maintain that they are necessary to prevent “disruption from a selfish minority.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman stated, “The public have had enough of their lives being disrupted by selfish protesters. The mayhem we’ve seen on our streets has been a scandal.”
The newly implemented Public Order Act also introduces severe penalties for specific protest tactics. Protesters found guilty of “tunneling—obstructing the construction of infrastructure by digging underground tunnels—could face up to three years in prison. Additionally, individuals found guilty of obstructing major transportation projects may be imprisoned for up to six months. The act also criminalizes the act of “locking on,” whereby protesters attach themselves to people, objects, or buildings.
In recent years, hundreds of climate change activists in the UK have been arrested for blocking major roads and bridges through acts of civil disobedience. Protesters resorted to sitting in the middle of roads or using adhesive to attach themselves to the pavement, making removal more challenging.
These disruptive protests have extended beyond roadways, with activists resorting to attention-grabbing tactics like gluing themselves to famous museum paintings or throwing soup at artworks. However, the police argue that dealing with these protests has incurred significant costs and diverted thousands of officers from other essential duties, including crime prevention and response.
The implementation of these new police powers aims to strike a balance between the right to protest and the need to maintain public order and safety. As they alter the landscape of protest rights in the UK, activists, civil liberties organizations, and the general public will closely monitor the effectiveness and implications of these measures.