Why our usually illiberal establishment has been so chilled out about XR’s week of vandalism.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters in Cambridge have launched a week-long campaign of obstruction and petty vandalism.
It began with the protesters issuing demands to Cambridge City Council to hold a citizens’ assembly on climate change, to Cambridgeshire County Council to organise a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels, and to Cambridge University to cut its ties with the fossil-fuel industry. When the demands were not met, XR set about occupying the council chamber, blocking roads in the city centre, and digging trenches into the neatly manicured and near-ancient lawn outside Trinity College.
‘This is what democracy looks like’, chanted the protesters as they marched with spades and wheelbarrows to Trinity College lawn. Then they tore up the turf while chanting ‘digging for oil’. It was supposed to symbolise the environmental destruction caused by the oil industry, as well as highlight a more local concern: Trinity College’s plans to sell some of the land it owns in nearby Ipswich to property developers.
By any measure, the Trinity College stunt was a pathetic, infantile performance. Rather than speaking to the world, the feeble, moronic chanting made it sound like the protesters were trying to convince themselves that there was some justification for their actions. ‘We’ve come here today, because Trinity [College] does not value the land that is for our common good’, explained one protester. ‘So we’re going to show them that we don’t value their precious grass outside their college. It seems a fair comparison’, he added. Is it really?
Most people watching the protests, in person or on the news, could only see petty vandalism. For most people, the stunt did not raise burning questions about land use or the wrongs of colleges owning investments in energy companies. In fact, the question that most people wanted answered was, ‘Why have these people not been arrested?’. PODCASTWhy we must embrace the wonders of nuclear powerSPIKED
It is an important question. You do not have to look hard to find cases in which the police and local authorities have demonstrated near-zero tolerance of things that barely meet the category of ‘public disorder’. In recent years, the ever-expanding regulation of public space has led to buskers, beggars and pamphleteers finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Highly subjective interpretations of what may constitute ‘offensive’ behaviour have been used by police and local authorities to crack down on all sorts of innocent activity and speech. That is not to argue for the increased regulation of protests. But if blocking roads, criminal damage and the blocking of local democracy are not public-order offences, then what are?
Criticism has quickly turned to the authorities. Rather than using their powers to clear the Extinction Rebellion protesters from their roadblock in the town centre, the police shut the roads and diverted traffic. In effect, this gave official sanction to the roadblock. According to a police spokesman, the police had to balance the right to protest against the offence of obstructing highways. Similarly, Trinity College was initially reluctant to make a complaint of criminal damage against the protesters. When officers first turned up, no complaint was made. The college later changed its mind and arrests were made on Tuesday afternoon.