The Metropolitan Police have been accused of using "disproportionate and excessive" force against Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters in London last month, while also "systematically" discriminating against disabled people, abusing stop-and-search powers and acting in a way that had a "chilling effect on rights to freedom of expression and assembly".
The damning report, published today by NetPol – the network for police monitoring – comes just weeks after two High Court judges found the Met had used their powers illegally to ban climate campaigners from protesting in the capital, raising further questions about the hardline approach taken by officers on climate change campaigners.
Focusing on the International Rebellion protests, which took place in London between the 7th and 19th of October, 2019, NetPol assessed statements from protesters themselves and logs from XR's legal support team, as well as documents from independent legal observers.
In total, Netpol came across 521 reported incidents concerning potential abuses of police power. These included 99 incidents of intimidation or inappropriate behaviour, 70 inappropriate arrests and ten internationals being held in custody for longer than 24 hours.
Some of the testimonies collected from XR protesters have been published anonymously, and make for uncomfortable reading. People report having their pressure points targeted by the police, as well as officers ignoring screams of pain, dragging protesters along the ground and attempts to deprive activists of sleep. It's worth remembering that XR has a very public commitment to peacefully complying with arrests – an approach that has seen them face criticism from other protest groups – which raises further questions about why such forceful police tactics were deemed necessary.
Another key area of concern in the report is the treatment of disabled people who engaged in peaceful protest activity, an issue already raised by the Met's own disability advisors. In the days following the protests, the Disability Independent Advisory Group (DIAG) lodged a formal complaint with the force, citing the "degrading and humiliating" treatment of people with disabilities. The NetPol report describes various individual experiences in more detail.
According to the research, one disabled campaigner who was sitting in a chair because he was unable to sit on the floor was arrested, handcuffed and left lying on the ground at Whitehall for around half an hour. His walking stick was taken from him after being deemed a "potential weapon". When officers moved him, his trousers came down and he could not sit up. "They left me there, in my underpants, in the street," he explained.
Another protester, who is blind, speaks of being held for a total of 27 hours before receiving access to an appropriate adult to support them. During detention, the protester had repeatedly requested a copy of the PACE Code of Practice in either braille or audio format, but this was not available. A police officer was eventually delegated to read the 200 page Codes of Practice document to the detainee, but was given only ten minutes to do so.
"The Extinction Rebellion protests in October, 2019 were undoubtedly disruptive, but they were also a non-violent attempt to encourage the public to recognise the scale of the climate emergency and force the government to act," NetPol's Sam Walton told VICE. "However, the police's zero-tolerance approach escalated into unnecessarily aggressive arrests, a disregard for protesters' welfare and eventually to the unlawful use of police powers."
Allegations of harassment and intimidation of protesters by officers are also presented, including one XR protester who says she was groped by an officer when she was arrested, and alleges that another officer "started playing with [her] hair" when they were talking.
NetPol's report identifies 56 statements from protesters who report police confiscating – and in some cases destroying – personal property. According to the organisation, the barrage of negative commentary from the most senior levels of the Metropolitan Police is "likely to have influenced the alleged misconduct that has been documented".
"Over the last ten years, Netpol has seen the police targeting environmental protests with deliberately disruptive tactics," Sam Walton added. "We've seen this everywhere from the climate camps to anti-fracking protests at Balcombe, Barton Moss, Preston New Road and more. Over the duration of these protests we see a willingness to use unjustifiable force on protesters and the apparent abandonment of any sense of facilitating protest."
NetPol say they hope increased public scrutiny results in greater accountability and a major rethink of how the Metropolitan Police plans its approach to future demonstrations and assemblies.
UPDATE 20/11/19: The Met Police's response has been added below.