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This is the price of peaceful climate protest in the UK

November 18, 2023
topic:Political violence
tags:#United Kingdom, #right to protest, #Just Stop Oil, #climate action
located:United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands
by:Aidan Frere-Smith
A chilling precedent in the UK courts casts a shadow on the future of climate activism in the country.

In the early hours of the morning of 17 October, 2022, Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker scaled 200 feet up the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in Dartford, UK. They unleashed a banner reading ‘Just Stop Oil’ and remained suspended for nearly 40 hours before being arrested.

The action was carried out as part of an environmental activist group under the same title, which demands the UK government cease new oil, gas and coal projects.

Later, Trowland and Decker received three years and two years and seven months in prison, respectively - the longest sentences given in UK history for peaceful protest.

Trowland is eligible to be released from prison and serve the remaining sentence on an electronic tag. Though this would come with conditions that limit his activity, he would obtain some degree of freedom.

Decker, however, has been denied the opportunity. In fact, his situation is significantly worse. Being a  a German citizen, he has also been served a deportation order despite having pre-settled status in the UK through the EU Settlement Scheme.

In July 2023, both activists lost their legal battle to appeal their sentences, though Decker will return once again to appeal his deportation. Not only is the situation life-changing for him and his partner, Holly (who chose to be identified by her first name only), but is likely to act as a dangerous precedent against other peaceful, non-violent protesters.

"I had a sense something big was coming up," Holly told FairPlanet. Though unaware of what was planned, she knew he was practising climbing but was not worried as she had confidence in his skills. Decker had previously occupied a tree for multiple days in protest to felling in Crouch End, London.

Concerns, however, lay with the prospect of prison time. Together, they discussed the implications of this, but concluded it was necessary for the cause. "I have always supported him," she said.

Holly was not new to Just Stop Oil (JSO). She was already a supporter of the campaign, and in 2022 took part in an action alongside Extinction Rebellion, where operations at oil terminals were forced to a halt. She was later found guilty of 'tampering with a vehicle,' under the Road Traffic Act 1998.

She recalls the experience positively: "I felt that it was a very targeted action [and] gave a very clear message."

Corresponding from inside prison, Decker reaffirmed the significance of his action to FairPlanet, arguing that "warning signs save lives."

Disruptive history 

Formed in February 2022, JSO calls on the UK government not only to halt new oil, gas and coal projects, but also to facilitate a societal shift towards reduced energy consumption and significantly lower carbon emissions.

It has since staged a myriad of protests and other forms of activism, causing controversy in the media and among the general public. Its most publicised events include protesters throwing soup over a Van Gogh painting, breaking onto the race track of the Grand Prix and disrupting major sporting events including football, rugby, tennis, golf and snooker.

Other activity has involved throwing orange paint over buildings, including at multiple universities, the headquarters of TotalEnergies and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

The attention given to them, however, is mainly through their disruption of traffic. In their largest coordinated action in 2022, JSO activists blocked multiple roads and bridges for 32 consecutive days, including 'the UK’s busiest motorway,' which resulted in 677 arrests, according to one report.

Traffic disruption currently persists in the form of slow marches, with tensions escalating among the public - a situation that some argue has been exacerbated by provocative government rhetoric.

Holly understands the difficulty in justifying disruption to the general public, but asserts that "time and time again, that’s what gets [the cause] into the media. They are not reporting on it otherwise."

It is for this reason that Trowland and Decker committed to taking their action. The severity of their sentencing, however, was not to be expected. 

An unexpected sentence

"[The trial] was very painful," shared Holly. She and Decker waited for half-a-year for the seven day trial to begin, which caused enormous stress and anxiety. Both individuals felt that, despite the widespread coverage their action received, the media missed an opportunity to emphasise the legitimate concerns of the climate crisis, choosing instead to focus on the disruption caused by the action.

For instance, one emotive narrative focused on how activists had caused delays for an ambulance attending the scene of a fatal car crash. However, the ambulance service confirmed that the claim of the delay being a result of the action was false. Inaccurate reporting such as this was detrimental to the activists' character in the run up to the trial, according to Holly.

Decker expressed his surprise that the police never asked him to climb down while they were still within hearing distance. In hindsight, Holly believes this lack of intervention was permitted to prolong the disruption, ultimately "making an enormous difference to their prison sentence."

Decker shared that the trial was a mixture of experiences. Initially, the judge was seemingly kind and fair, but "ruled out all legal defences for us from the start, which led very easily for the jury to the conviction," he said. He proceeded optimistically, however, explaining that it "felt so powerful to finally be telling the truth" about the climate and ecological emergency to the jury.

Despite this, both Decker and Holly believe the jury members were not fully engaging with the arguments that were being put forward, and that the judge had failed to remind them that they should base their decision on their moral conscience. A guilty outcome was therefore expected.

"I had a feeling [the judge] was going to go hard out," clarified Decker. And that he did.

While the possibility of a prison sentence had been discussed by the couple before the action, the reassurance from the defendants' barristers suggested that any potential sentence was likely to be less than six months and, even if imposed, would be promptly appealed. Decker had already spent that amount of time on remand in prison since his arrest when he returned to court a month after the seven day trial.

Alas, the worst-case scenario had become a reality: he was given a prison sentence of two years and seven months, and will be deported on completion.

"And so it was," Decker recollected, "the judge was able to send a loud signal of deterrence" to those who want to participate in peaceful environmental protest.

Their lives, he said, had changed forever.

'Chilling effect'

But the couple held onto a glimmer of optimism for an appeal, buoyed by the confidence of their legal representation.

"They were convinced we would get some reductions [in our sentencing]," Decker recalled. Hope for the defendants’ plea rested on the potential for a fresh and sympathetic perspective held by the new judges. It later transpired, however, that they had reached the same conclusion: they defendants were to serve their original sentences as intended.

Looking back, Holly believes that this ruling is not only detrimental to freedom of speech, but also to the fight against the climate crisis. She said that many rely on judges "to do the right thing when the government is not," but argued that "they’re totally failing us."

One lawyer even "registered [this] as a significant shift in what they thought was possible in our legal system," Decker said, adding that it is "extreme" and sets a dangerous precedent against peaceful protest. 

Documents published from the initial trial appear to confirm this reasoning, with the judges stating that this objective constituted "an important aspect of this sentence." This was later challenged as part of the appeal, but, as documents confirm, the legitimate concerns of how this sentencing may have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression were dismissed and undermined on the account that "deterrence and 'chilling effect' are not the same."

Regardless, the commitment to this sentencing is significant, being the longest sentences in UK history given for peaceful protest, and has rightfully caused anxiety among those who intend to do the same - particularly those who may face deportation as a result.

Lou, a French-Canadian citizen living in the UK with settled status who did not wish to reveal her last name, is a seasoned JSO participant and reveals she has previously been arrested numerous times. "When the 40 degrees temperatures set London on fire, it became evident that I needed to get involved," she told FairPlanet.

But while she is determined to keep taking action, Lou understands the risks involved. "[Decker's sentencing] has made me very aware of what could be on the cards for me too," Lou admitted.

Chiara, a JSO activist who moved to the UK from Italy to study at university five years ago, believes that her right to protest in the country has eroded as a result of Brexit and successive governmental policies. She describes herself as a proud supporter of JSO, and fully stands by its demand for no new oil, gas and coal investment.

Speaking to FairPlanet, she said she views Decker's sentencing as a massive injustice that reaffirms her belief that "migrants are often some of the most unfortunate people in our society." She is confident that if Marcus’s deportation appeal were to fail, many non-UK nationals would reconsider taking action. 

David, who has lived in the UK for four years since the age of 18 and is Russian-born, told FairPlanet that he has "made the decision to put my direct action ambitions on hold while my personal geopolitical security is in the hands of the Home Office."

Prior to Vlademir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he had participated in multiple JSO actions. But after the war began he made the decision to apply for asylum in the UK with the intention of getting refugee status.

This choice was made before Trowland and Decker's protest, but the result of their trial so far has solidified his decision to take a hiatus from direct action. "Getting deported back to Russia would not be ideal," David modestly admitted. 

A call for support

Trowland and Decker were charged for 'causing a public nuisance' under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. This interpretation of the bill was perceived by many to be a breach of human rights, and subsequently led to the creation of a resistance movement dubbed #killthebill.

Although the law's most controversial measures were blocked through amendments by the House of Lords, these were later reintroduced through the passage of the Public Order Act of 2022. Together, they paint a bleak picture for the future of peaceful protest in the UK, and many rights advocates view Decker and Trowland's sentences as testament to that. 

However, the activities of JSO and other environmental protest groups have since continued. And with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s commitment to drilling every drop of oil in the North Sea and the government's U-turn on climate commitments, it appears inevitable that they will persist. 

Extinction Rebellion in the Netherlands, for example, caused significant disruption in September and, following 3,000 arrests, resulted in Dutch police unions mounting pressure on the government to avert further protests by responding politically to the organisations' demands. This seemingly had an impact on a political phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. JSO has since encouraged police unions to do the same in the UK.

Holly and Decker, however, remain focused on channeling their energy toward preparing for the deportation appeal. They have organised various events to raise awareness and funds for legal fees, complemented by an online petition and fundraiser. The cause has also garnered attention in a documentary by wildlife TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham.

And while there is evident support for him, Decker understands that the appeal is likely to be a lengthy and challenging process, as EU legislation will need to be taken into account. No date has yet been given for the deportation trial, but they anticipate that it will begin in early 2024. 

Decker recognises that Holly’s life is grounded in the UK, especially since her children see their father regularly and are committed to their school life. For her, moving abroad is out of the question.

They both see the prospect of deportation as a terrible blow to their relationship, which Decker concludes as something "I don’t really allow myself to imagine."

But it could be viewed differently. "Ultimately," Holly shared, "two men did a successful banner-drop action to raise awareness in this country about what we are doing to other parts of the world with our climate policies, and it was totally selfless."

"There’s clearly a public interest in addressing the climate and ecological emergency," Marcus concluded.

Indeed, this affects us all.

Image by Charlie Dale.

Article written by:
Aidan Frere-Smith
United Kingdom Germany Netherlands
Embed from Getty Images
Trowland and Decker received three years and two years and seven months in prison for unleashing a banner reading ‘Just Stop Oil’, respectively - the longest sentences given in UK history for peaceful protest.
Embed from Getty Images
"Two men did a successful banner-drop action to raise awareness in this country about what we are doing to other parts of the world with our climate policies, and it was totally selfless."
Embed from Getty Images
Trowland is eligible to be released from prison and serve the remaining sentence on an electronic tag. Though this would come with conditions that limit his activity, he would obtain some degree of freedom.