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A demonstrator being arrested by police during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, Britain, 16 October 2019. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Austerity has boosted the British state’s ability to counter Extinction Rebellion’s disruption tactics – here’s how

After two weeks and more than 1,800 arrests in London alone, Extinction Rebellion’s latest display of disruption has drawn to a close. The full impact of its “Autumn Uprising” is still to be determined, but one thing is already clear: this time, police in Britain were prepared.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, changes to the justice system in the wake of austerity measures have actually boosted the state’s ability to counter Extinction Rebellion’s innovative protest tactics. Now, the road to systemic change appears much longer than the historical successes they take inspiration from.

The movement’s main strategy holds that systemic political change can be achieved when a sufficient proportion of the population is willing to risk arrest to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. As outlined in co-founder Roger Hallam’s Common Sense for the 21st Century, the application of enough pressure “to a single point in time and space” – in this case London – should overwhelm the justice system and force governments to listen.

Hallam developed his ideas after studying successful nonviolent mobilisations in Alabama in 1963, Leipzig in 1989, and Nepal in 2006. In all those instances, protesters achieved their goals after reaching a seemingly impossible “tipping point” in the balance of power between the state and its citizens.

On October 9 1989, the 70,000 that took to Leipzig’s streets far outnumbered German Democratic Republic security forces for the first time, signalling a shift in power that was largely peaceful. Das Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Growing social movements were met with extremely violent reactions by the police, which backfired. Masses of people joined the protests, filled jail cells and even risked getting shot. Overwhelmed by the scale of mobilisation, authorities implemented many of the changes demanded by protesters.

But this time round there’s no guarantee that the story will be the same. Following the 2008 global financial crash, a series of austerity measures in the UK left public services downsized, on stretched budgets, and perpetually reorganising themselves. From health and education to transport and policing, public servants were told to “do more with less”, leaving workforces understaffed, demoralised, and unable to plan for the long term.

An agile justice system

On the back of these difficulties – and with no political will to increase funding – public service managers resorted to restructuring public services to be “agile”. That is, fast and flexible in the face of limited resources and changing political and public priorities.

They began to favour quick experimentation in place of careful deliberation, and empowered workers to collaborate and innovate new responses to problems as they arise. They also embedded a strong culture of performance measurement, so that the value of new ways of working could be quickly and easily assessed.

While an agile public service is not equipped to meet all its responsibilities well, it is precisely adapted to meet transient pressing demands. Because of this, it is now much more difficult than it once was for social movements to overwhelm the police service and justice system through a numbers game.

For one, the system is already structured to navigate disruption from its own budget holders. Second, it is accustomed to withdrawing services in one place to cover another. Finally, its focus on measurement outcomes means that the burden of taking large numbers of people to court actually presents an opportunity for managers to show that their service is performing well.

Moving goalposts

In April, Extinction Rebellion’s tactics – including the use of glue and locks to more effectively block routes, and swarming tactics to overload sites at risk of being lost – were highly successful. Unused to these strategies, police were unable to unblock some locations in central London for more than a week.

In the run-up to October’s rebellion, London’s Metropolitan police (Met) declared its intention “to be agile … and be prepared to change and shift” – and showcased its ability to do so over the following fortnight.

Forces came armed with specially trained “protest removal teams” and used Section 14 powers – under which officers can arrest individuals remaining in a specified area – more aggressively. As a result, police made more than twice as many arrests in the first four days of October’s rebellion than in the same period six months earlier.

Officers also exercised much more discretion when handling protesters, for example using “pain and compliance” techniques, asking protesters to raise their hands, using plain clothes officers to stir up crowds, and cyber attacks against social media assets. These legally questionable actions have the hallmarks of trial and error experimentation in an attempt to find effective methods of controlling protesters.

The biggest experiment of all came when the Met used its Section 14 powers to ban all Extinction Rebellion protests throughout the city. This unprecedented move was widely criticised and is facing a court challenge – but its very introduction is evidence of agile and innovative policing.

Even if the blanket ban is ruled unlawful, there’s no guarantee that laws won’t change in the near future. For example, the Met is asking for the legal definition of “disruption” to change because it doesn’t deem current arrangements flexible enough.

Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience certainly places a burden on the justice system. But to date, that burden is one the Met feels it is “able to cope with”. If the fast-growing movement continues its trajectory, it may yet replicate past successful nonviolent mobilisations. But facing a newly flexible police force with far more options than brutal violence, the goalposts are that little bit further away.

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