Extinction Rebellion take advantage of court ruling to bring central London streets to standstill

Extinction Rebellion protesters brought roads in central London to a halt on Monday, emboldened by a recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of demonstrators.  Hundreds of activists from the climate change group gathered in the capital at the start of two weeks of action aimed at persuading the Government to stop new investment in fossil fuels. Roads around Trafalgar Square were blocked by protesters, including one group who used a truck to position a 10ft tall pink table at a busy interchange.

The huge object, fitted with sleeping quarters and a sound system, bore the slogan Come to the Table – Change Is Now. Elsewhere, activists glued or chained themselves to vehicles in the road, bringing large areas of central London to a halt. Fifty people were arrested but despite a huge police presence throughout the day, officers did little to address the disruption, with XR insisting a recent legal ruling enshrined its legal right to block roads.

The Supreme Court ruling, known as the Ziegler Judgment, said the right to protest could under certain circumstances be a lawful excuse for obstructing highways. It followed the blockade of roads around an arms fair in east London.

One group of protesters used a truck to position a 10ft tall pink table at a busy interchangeCredit: David Cliff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Extinction Rebellion protesters occupied a major junction in London’s West End on MondayCredit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images Europe Demonstrators face a police line during Monday’s London protestCredit: Alberto Pezzali/AP

Zoe Blackler, from Extinction Rebellion, said: “The landmark Ziegler ruling confirms our legal right to peaceful protest, and we expect the police to respect those rights. But XR protesters take the actions they do fully aware that they risk criminal conviction, as the 3,700 arrests since April 2019 have shown.”

Scotland Yard conceded that police were having to navigate their way through the law, but insisted they still had the power to arrest people who blocked roads. Speaking ahead of the protest, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist said: “Like everyone, Extinction Rebellion have the right to assemble and the right to protest. However, these rights are qualified and are to be balanced against the rights of others.

“They do not have the right to cause serious disruption to London’s communities and prevent them from going about their lawful business. This action is unacceptable, and we will not allow them to hold the streets to ransom and cause misery to so many Londoners.” He said the Met’s response would be “firm and proportionate” to the disruption caused and would take into account the recent legal rulings, adding: “The consequences of these cases have been comprehensively considered by the teams in the Met. 

“It is really important to emphasise that they do not preclude officers in the Met from taking action to prevent disruption on London’s road network where that obstruction is wilful and unreasonable. “The important point with the Zeigler Judgment is that it does not substantially change the law on obstruction. Officers are still able to take action if they see wilful obstruction which is also unreasonable in its extent and impact.”

Ms Blackler said: “What has truly emboldened people is the desperate situation we’re in. Climate change is happening, and it’s happening now. Rather than criminalising peaceful protesters, the Government should be taking the radical action necessary to protect us all, in the first instance calling an immediate halt to all new investment in fossil fuels. “We invite anyone feeling frightened and disempowered, and wondering what effective action is open to them, to join us in peaceful, mass civil disobedience.”

But businesses in the area affected by Monday’s protests complained that they were being unfairly impacted by XR’s actions.

Mustafa Ahmadi, who runs Star Gifts, near the area, said he feared he could lose GBP10,000 by the end of the week if the demonstrations continued, calling it “another kick in the teeth” for local businesses and adding: “It’s like another lockdown because the shop is so quiet.”