Climate Activists Arrested for Planning Protest: The Right to Demonstrate Under Attack?

By Lenka Simsic

Collage by Sara Serrano

On the bike ride home from dropping his son off at school on 19 January in his hometown Castricum, Lucas Winnips, an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist, was cornered and handcuffed by undercover police in front of his son’s classmate and other children. His wife, Rosanne Rootert, called it an “intentional and intimidating way of infiltrating the safety of our family” in her public plea to the mayor of the Hague to honour the right to demonstrate more thoroughly. 

Winnips was arrested after sharing a post on Twitter calling people up to join a blockade of the A12 highway in the Hague. A week later on 26 January, the Dutch police arrested six more XR activists suspected of similar sedition. All of the activists were released the same day but forbidden from being on the A12 for 90 days. Two days later, more than a thousand people blocked the A12 anyways, leading to 768 arrests. These, in the Netherlands, rather uncommon arrests sparked a debate about the right to demonstrate. Is the Dutch government limiting this constitutional right by arresting peaceful activists?

Amnesty International, which has shown support for the XR activists after the arrests, has published a report on its concern for limits on the right to demonstrate in the Netherlands. When it comes to prohibiting demonstrations, Amnesty claims that “mayors often call on their responsibility for maintaining public order as reason to interfere. That threshold should be much higher”. The report further firmly criticises the law on demonstrations (WOM: Wet Openbare Manifestaties), calling it “unaligned with human rights”. The WOM, for example, lists traffic concerns as a reason to end or prohibit demonstrations even though this is legal in European law.

On their website, the Dutch public prosecution services defended their arrests saying that “specifically blocking a road with the intention of forcing others to do something does not fall under the right to demonstrate”. Instead of civil disobedience, they see this as “simply a criminal act” and state that “when safety comes into question, the government must act”.

XR activist Robin Ramael has organised action training for the A12 blockades and thinks that these arrests do not only show how the government is trying to limit demonstrations but also exposes where its priorities lie. “They’re thinking about these demonstrations as a traffic problem to be solved and not a climate crisis problem to be solved.” Pan (action name), active within XR since 2019 and part of the A12 blockade on 28 January, also stated that “we’re fighting to protect ourselves and our futures in our world and the police who are allegedly there to protect us are not protecting anybody, apart from the state and businesses.” The Dutch public prosecution service on the other hand claims that past blockades of the A12 caused dangerous traffic situations and that they were thus protecting public order. 

Activists also point out an increase in state surveillance. Amnesty has noted that police monitor activists outside of protests through social media or by unannounced visits. Pan is one of the people affected. After making a request to the municipality he found out that his personal information, such as his address, has been accessed more than 50 times. In periods of intense XR actions, they accessed his information daily. They even have notes on who his family and partner are. While, officially, the police state that they only look up information when necessary, De Groene Amsterdammer discovered in an investigation that activists’ family information is widely searched for even in cases where activists have never been arrested. Due to his awareness of the state’s behaviour towards climate activists this did not surprise Pan, but it did bring the reality of police surveillance home.

Ramael has also noticed an increase in police violence during XR’s climate actions rather than “just one police officer losing their temper”. Jonathan Leggett, a student climate activist, has experienced this directly. At a legal climate demonstration last year, he was chanting and holding up a banner when a police officer suddenly grabbed him by the throat. He threw Leggett to the ground and pressed him down with two other police officers. Even though he did not resist arrest, they still handcuffed him. While the police admitted that the violence was disproportionate after he complained, there were no consequences for the officers. According to De Groene Amsterdammer, while the police have gained more freedom in the use of force over the last ten years, this has not led to more internal disciplinary action, despite more complaints coming in. When arrested, Jonny was reminded of the “disproportionate power police hold over nonviolent movements”. 

The increased use of violence against activists can have a deterrent effect to continue protests in the future. Still, Leggett remains motivated to keep going. This effect also seems to be present among students that witnessed police violence at the AAC occupation against UvA’s cooperation with Shell last January. Max (action name), a member of Anarchist Feminist Group Amsterdam who attended the occupation, states, “I’m more likely to be involved with illegal actions now than before this happened.” While witnessing this violence was disturbing, they felt that the students around them became united in anger rather than in fear when faced with police intervention.

After hearing of the arrests, Max realised the importance of always being as safe as possible in planning actions since “no one really knows how the state surveils us”. They therefore use an action name now, a trend among XR activists as well, according to Ramael. While for Max, who is from the EU, the heightened risks simply means there is a need for better planning from the activist side, they realise their privilege in not having to consider the impact arrests can have on their residency status or future citizenship. 

While the arrests for planning the A12 blockade were not surprising to XR activists, to Pan “it still felt like a punch in the gut”. He sees it as an outrageous attack on freedom of speech and the right to protest. Unfortunately, he does not think this is unique to the Netherlands, “In the US we’re seeing environmental activists being charged with terror charges. So, this is part of a much bigger pattern of an attack on the right to protest.”

Despite the outrage, the climate movement admits that it has also benefited from the media attention the arrests have caused. According to Ramael, the space XR takes up in the Dutch political landscape has grown. At the subsequent blockade of the A12 on 11 March, double as many people attended compared to January. Pan thus claims, “the more they try to stop us, the more people will come”. Whether the same effect will apply to the next UvA student civil disobedient action is to be seen.

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