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Climate activists: How states are cracking down on protests

Ruairi Casey
December 10, 2022

Blocking roads and runways has been divisive, and some countries are taking a hard line against further disruptions.

A protest in Munich
Climate protestors have inreasingly taken to blocking transport and fossil fuel infrastructureImage: Matthias Balk/dpa/picture alliance

"You've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels," US student activist Mario Savio said in an iconic 1960s speech that defined that decade's radical protest movement. "Upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

More than half a century later climate activists are increasingly turning to direct action to physically obstruct transport and fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly across Europe in recent months. Roads have been blocked, airport runways occupied, and the operations of oil refineries disrupted. Even famous artworks have also been attacked to draw more public attention to the climate crisis.

Protesters argue that time is running out to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and that if political leaders refuse to make the drastic changes scientists say are needed, then they have no choice but to act themselves.

Protest with paint on theatre in Milan
Italian Last Generation protesters smear Milan's La Scala theatre with paintImage: Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images

Tough prison sentences

Their actions have drawn sharp criticism from governments, media outlets, and sometimes even fellow climate activists, who find them counterproductive. As most of the protests are considered illegal, many have also faced arrest and imprisonment on charges of vandalism, trespassing, or public disorder.

Last week Australian protester Violet Coco was sentenced to up to 15 months in prison for blocking a lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes in April. Coco, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced under new laws rushed in by the state of New South Wales specifically to prevent obstructive climate protests.

Rights groups have blasted the sentence and the new laws as draconian. Clement Voule, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly, said she was alarmed by the judgment. "Peaceful protesters should never be criminalized or imprisoned," she tweeted.

Coco's sentence might be particularly long for a nonviolent protest, but prison sentences for disruptive climate actions are becoming more common in some countries.

The UK clamps down

The legal response has been sharpest in the UK, where hundreds of protesters have been arrested in recent months, as campaign groups like Just Stop Oil ramped up their actions during the COP27 summit in Egypt in November. In London alone, at least 182 people have been charged with various offenses since the beginning of October, according to police.

This week two Just Stop Oil protesters were sentenced to 21 and 28 days in prison for trespassing at an oil depot in April. The organization, which demands an immediate stop to all new oil and gas licenses in the UK, says that 24 of its supporters are currently in prison.

While many protesters are released on bail after a short period, others face lengthy pretrial detention because the court system is backlogged with cases. One, a 29-year-old stonemason from Manchester, has been incarcerated since July, awaiting a hearing scheduled for February.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to support the police and grant them new powers to crack down on climate protests. "My view is that those who break the law should feel the full force of it," he said last week. The new Public Order Bill would punish the act of gluing oneself to objects or buildings, or blocking transport by six months in prison. Rights groups and critics have called it authoritarian.

ust Stop Oil-Protest in Birmingham
A Just Stop Oil activist is taken away by British police after blockading a fuel terminalImage: Joe Giddens/empics/picture alliance

German and French leaders condemn protest tactics

In Germany, the group Last Generation has staged a number of actions across the country, including members gluing themselves to runways in Berlin and Munich to highlight the environmental cost of air travel.

A road-block protest in Berlin caused controversy in November when it was reported to have delayed the rescue of a woman from a car accident, who later died. Although it was not found to have affected the woman's chances for survival, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser condemned the action, and conservative press outlets dubbed the group the "Green RAF," a reference to the left-wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction.

"None of this has anything to do with a democratic debate," Faeser told news agency dpa last month. "The criminals must be prosecuted quickly and consistently." She has urged greater coordination between German states to counter the protests.

In Bavaria, where laws allow for longer pretrial detention than other states, at least two activists from the group called "Letzte Generation," or Last Generation, will spend Christmas behind bars, having been placed in custody since July, when they blocked a motorway in Munich. The state's interior minister justified the lengthy judgement on the grounds that they were "unteachable repeat offenders."

The French government has also firmly opposed disruptive environmental protests. In October, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin accused 4,000 protesters who obstructed the construction of a new reservoir in Deux-Sevres of being "eco-terrorists."

Members of "Derniere Renovation," or Final Renovation, which calls for improved building insulation, blocked the Champs Elysees in Paris and highways around the capital. The first Derniere Renovation trial of six of its members who caused a stoppage during the Tour de France by setting off smoke bombs and sitting on the road, began in November. Instead of the maximum of two years in prison, the state prosecutor requested a €500 ($528) fine be shared by the accused.

"It's just heartbreaking that we have to do crazy actions and annoy people, because all we have left is to try and disturb the economy to put pressure on the government," one activist told Radio France International.

London National Gallery protest
Activists glue themselves to an artwork by John Constable in London's National GalleryImage: CARLOS JASSO/AFP

Artwork now targeted

Actions targeting paintings in several major European art galleries have also drawn a sharp response from authorities.

A Dutch court handed down two two-month sentences to climate activists who daubed Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" with tomato soup in a museum in The Hague. It followed similar actions targeting van Gogh's "Sunflowers" in London and a Claude Monet painting in Potsdam.

Although the 17th century masterpiece was behind glass and not damaged, the judge ruled they had committed "open violence" against the oil painting.

German climate protesters spark anger

In Spain, two activists from Vegetable Future, a group that demands an end to government livestock subsidies, face up to three years in prison for sticking themselves to paintings of Francisco de Goya in Madrid's Prado museum. A pea soup attack on a van Gogh in Rome by Last Generation activists last month risks hefty fines and a potential prison sentence for the four involved. New Italian far-right Prime Minister Georgia Meloni called the action "pure vandalism."

With the cases of many climate protests still making their way through the courts, many more are likely to face fines or jail time. Although polls in several countries, including the UK and Germany, show that the public thinks the protests have gone too far, groups like Last Generation and Just Stop Oil say they have to alternative but to continue their campaigns.

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