Environmental movements are increasingly finding it hard to exercise their right to protest. This is partly due to the pandemic, though not always. The UK government, for instance, has proposed a bill which would give the police extra powers to use against protests, based on a government report which focused on disruption caused by Extinction Rebellion and protests against fracking, a badger cull, and the construction of the high-speed rail line HS2.
My home country of Italy has also strengthened its ability to police and ultimately criminalise public protest, and was doing so even before the pandemic. In particular, a 2019 security decree called “Salvini bis” after its proponent, the then minister of the interior Matteo Salvini, has aggravated penalties for many actions during public protests.
For example damaging property during a public protest is now punishable with up to five years imprisonment, while threatening and resisting the police gets at least five years. The decree also penalised the wearing of helmets or garments by protesters in a way that impairs police identification, and increased sentences for using fireworks, systems that neutralise tear gas, and other “potentially harming” weapons and tools during protests.
The NoTAP protest
These powers are now routinely used by Italian law enforcers to deal with environmental protesters. One example I have looked at in my research is the policing and criminalisation of the NoTAP environmental movement in Puglia, the south-eastern region of Italy. Protesters there are opposing the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, commonly known as TAP. Partly funded by the EU, TAP aims to bring natural gas from Azerbaijan to Italy, via Turkey, Greece and Albania.
Activists in Puglia oppose the pipeline for different reasons, including its climate impact, and local environmental issues. In that part of Italy, olive trees have been a big issue, as thousands have been removed along the route.
Though NoTAP protests in the region were always peaceful, law enforcers responded with violence especially to protests in 2017 and 2018. Repressive measures since then have included expulsion orders and place bans, fines of up to €4,000 mostly to punish blocking traffic or violations of those expulsion orders, and charges for possessing dangerous weapons, criminal damage, threatening and resisting the police, and trespass. These charges have recently been pressed in a trial involving almost 100 NoTAP activists.
Harsh sentences for activists
But my recent fieldwork and interviews I conducted with NoTAP activists and their lawyers told a different story. Many people I spoke to claimed that charges were ill-substantiated or unnecessarily exaggerated: for example, many activists who threw flowers and paint-filled eggs in the direction of the police, or showed the sign of the horns (usually signifying cuckoldry) at one of their helicopters, have been charged with insulting and resisting the police. This is a charge that – due to the 2019 security decree mentioned above – can carry a sentence of more than five years. Others claim they were charged with trespass for having crossed land despite the land not being marked as private by signs or fences.
This notwithstanding, a judge recently confirmed most charges against activists and, in some instances, even increased sentences from six months to more than three years. As activists and their lawyers pointed out in their press statements, this trial – which took place in a high security criminal court and mostly relied on the testimonies of police officers – was unusually short, reaching its conclusion in only seven months. By contrast, numerous reports of police abuse and violence against activists continue to remain under-investigated.
At the same time, the TAP company is itself awaiting trial for “environmental disaster”. It is accused of polluting groundwater and doing preparatory works – also involving the removal of olive trees – without the required permits. The company is also accused of having presented an incomplete assessment of the project’s impact on natural habitats, which are protected by EU law. If confirmed, this charge would invalidate the environmental authorisation TAP received back in 2014, which allowed it to start work in southern Italy.
The activists’ work has not been pointless, since their efforts to monitor and report violations by the TAP company helped prosecutors build their case. The activists haven’t been discouraged either, as one representative told me recently, “if anything, criminalisation managed to unite us even more”. This shows that such crackdowns may not lead to the desired outcome.
Developments in Italy and the UK both point at the creeping and dangerous ways in which some governments are clamping down on the right to protest. That these regulations are mostly targeting environmental protesters is no surprise: public awareness has substantially grown over the past years and more and more people are being mobilised. Attempts to constrain such mobilisation should be resisted as they are unnecessary, disproportionate and ultimately inconsistent with efforts to tackle global climate change.