You probably haven’t heard of Rob Higgs, but you might have seen one of the attention grabbing protests he has been involved in.
A prolific protest artist, in 2019 he floated a semi-submerged house down London’s River Thames in order to draw attention to rising sea levels because of climate change, gaining headlines internationally.
Higgs co-founded Ocean Rebellion, sister organisation to Extinction Rebellion, aiming to build awareness of the environmental threats to the seas. Its activities include projecting slogans such as “One ship equals one million car exhausts” onto polluting cruise ships.
Thanks to his campaigning, Higgs is firmly on the police’s radar.
In May, both uniformed and plain-clothed officers paid him a visit at his home and workshop in Cornwall, south west England, searching 22 acres of private land without a warrant. At the same time, officers turned up looking for him at a boatyard where he used to work. The visit took place under the auspices of Project Servator – “a policing tactic that aims to disrupt a range of criminal activity, including terrorism, while providing a reassuring presence for the public” – in order to inform him that they could arrest him at any time if they suspected he might be intending to interrupt the G7 summit held in Carbis Bay in the same county this month.
Higgs wasn’t in, but they found his partner and delivered their message. “‘We’re watching you at all times’ was overtly the message,” says Higgs, “and that ‘we can arrest you even if you haven’t committed a crime. If you think you’ve done nothing wrong but we think that you might be intending to, then we’ve got the power to arrest you, just because we think you might.’”
From the 11th to the 13th of June, the G7 summit – a meeting of the seven richest countries in the world – will be held at the Carbis Bay Hotel, one of the most luxurious and exclusive hotels in Cornwall, a beautiful part of England that is also one of the poorest regions in northern Europe.
It is the first in-person meeting in two years after the 2020 meeting was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the first since Joe Biden became US President.
The G7 leaders will come together to discuss the global response to Covid-19, the economy, climate change and human rights. The costs of policing the event are estimated at £70 million and campaigners say the leaders’ claim to stand for human rights has been undermined before the main event has even begun, by what campaigners say is authoritarian policing.
“It’s kind of the definition of dodgy policing,” says Higgs of the threats made against him. “A plainclothes officer was talking to my partner, and he explains to her, ‘We might not look that intimidating now, but I've got a much bigger jacket in the back [of the car]’. It was very strange, but a very clear indication of muscle flexing by the service.”
Resist G7 – a coalition of grassroots protest groups – is planning three days of protest, saying, “The G7 is a meeting of the world’s most powerful political leaders. These leaders govern the richest countries in the world and the G7 exists to keep it that way.” Environmental group Extinction Rebellion Cornwall is also planning a “G7 Rebellion” and expects 1,000 protesters to head to Cornwall.
Higgs plans to stage a protest against the 60,000 ton cruise ship that has sailed from Tallinn, Estonia in order to accommodate some of the 5,500 police officers from around the country who will make their way to Cornwall for the event.
G7 meetings usually deal with public dissent by being inaccessible to protest. The most recent UK-held summit was in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, in a resort surrounded by water, and every road within 30 miles a single-carriageway.
The conference in Cornwall will be no different, taking place on a private beach resort, with the entire town of Carbis Bay effectively out of bounds to the public.
The police have designated four official protest zones. One of them is at a park in Truro, another is half a car park in Falmouth, on the other side of the peninsula. Both of these are around 25 miles away and would be over 40 minutes drive from the conference, were the road to the conference not shut. The third and fourth zones are a park in Plymouth, in the neighbouring county of Devon, and a park in Exeter, over 100 miles away. None of the Resist G7 protests will take place there, as the coalition – which has a policy of non-engagement with the police – is boycotting the sites.
“I can’t think of why anyone would want to go to Exeter – it’s just, like, bizarre,” says Sam Parsons from Resist G7. “We've got no intention of going to Truro, we've got stuff happening, that we want it to be relevant to the world leaders who are coming to Cornwall.”
In their public communications, the police talk of balancing the right to protest against the rights of non-protesters to go about their business, although the police operation has caused significant inconvenience for the residents of Carbis Bay. Some residents’ homes have been included in a ring of steel around the conference, meaning they are surrounded by metal security fencing. They will have to produce ID to be able to leave the secure zone, and residents have said they feel “caged”.
Meanwhile, Parsons points to the police’s duty to uphold the right to protest, and in particular to a recent communique from the UN Human Rights Committee which states that “Peaceful assemblies should not be relegated to remote areas where they cannot effectively capture the attention of those who are being addressed, or the general public.”
Parsons says the police are doing “a bit of a PR exercise where they're trying to say, ‘Look, we want you to come and protest, we want to facilitate your protests. But we're giving you these out-of-the-way sites,’ and then they'll be able to then turn that around and say to everyone, ‘Oh, but you can go and protest. We're just not allowing protests anywhere else.’”
The G7 comes as the UK government tries to expand police powers against protesters with its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, which makes it a criminal offence to cause “annoyance” on a protest, punishable with a potential ten year jail sentence. Higgs fears that the kind of “light hearted, theatrical protest” that he engages in could be deemed “an annoyance” and effectively banned. Human rights groups have called the bill “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens”.
The new laws have seen widespread opposition, and one of the protest days organised by Resist G7 is titled “Kill the Bill, G7 Special”. Recent Kill the Bill protests in nearby Bristol turned violent, and Avon and Somerset Police were criticised for assaulting a journalist.
The new legislation was lobbied for by London’s Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick, who wanted powers “specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly”, but who were nevertheless disruptive, following the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in 2019.
This follows decades of heavy-handed policing of environmental activism in the UK. Most controversially, the Met is currently the subject of an ongoing inquiry about the deployment of undercover police officers to infiltrate left-wing and environmental protest groups. From 1968 to 2008, two police units infiltrated more than 1,000 left-wing and environmental protest groups. “Spycops,” as they have become known, assumed the names of dead children to construct their fake identities, and had relationships with activists – even having children – in order to spy on activists.
Devon and Cornwall Police held a Facebook Live event to discuss concerns about the summit with members of the public. One questioner noted that, in 2005, 18 undercover police officers were present at the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in Scotland, and asked the police for assurance that this would not be the case this time. The meeting ended without the question being answered.
A police spokesperson said: “Devon & Cornwall Police are working closely with Government to ensure people can exercise their right to protest legally and safely without impacting upon residents and businesses. Whilst we support the right to peaceful protests, we cannot facilitate activity that places protesters, the public, officers or the event at physical risk.
“The law states that protest organisers must inform the police in writing six days before a public march or procession and we continue to encourage those who wish to protest to contact the police, or utilise the protest sites in Truro, Falmouth, Plymouth and Exeter.”
When asked why police had not answered questions about undercover officers on Facebook live, a Devon and Cornwall Police spokesperson for G7 planning said: “This is a global security event and our priority is to ensure world leaders and our local communities are kept safe. Whilst we are keen to engage with the public it is not appropriate to discuss policing tactics.”
For Higgs, his visit from the police has galvanised him to protest more. “It's a bit of like a seal of approval, isn't it?... I've never been good at blackmail. It has had the effect to do quite the opposite. Now we're working on planning on quite a few more created actions around the G7, which we otherwise possibly wouldn't have had the enthusiasm to do.”