‘I was called a national security threat because I organised a protest’
Police banned Sam Knights from the Labour Party conference because of his climate campaign work. He argues we must protect the right to protest
I recently discovered that the police consider me a threat to national security.
It seems that it reached this ridiculous conclusion – sadly, but not surprisingly – due to my involvement in the British climate movement.
Perhaps this requires some further explanation. Three years ago, I was unlawfully banned from the Labour Party conference, despite being an elected delegate to the conference. I appealed the judgment in the High Court and Sussex Police backed down. In fact, the claim was dropped minutes before the hearing, refusing to justify their ludicrous decision in public.
To me, the intervention seemed politically motivated. I am a political campaigner who helped to establish climate group Extinction Rebellion. A few months before I was banned from the Labour Party conference, we had organised one of the largest civil disobedience events in history. The Metropolitan Police arrested more than 1,000 protesters, wasting £7.5m of public money. But, in the end, the protesters won. The UK Parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, and the police were left humiliated.
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After the conference, I submitted various Freedom of Information requests. Eventually, I received a heavily redacted document from ‘Operation Otter’, the policing operation surrounding the Labour conference. This document claimed I had taken part in an “obvious act of direct action protest”; it suggested I would be “willing to take similar action” again. As a result, the police had concluded that I presented a risk to the “security of the Labour Party conference”, considering the threat I posed to “national security”.
I reject this entirely. I am not a threat to national security, although I cannot say I particularly respect the idea of a nation state nor the racist border policies of the United Kingdom. I am a political campaigner, who has met with numerous politicians, ministers and party leaders. It is true that my politics are rooted in protest and not Parliament, but surely everyone is entitled to their different views – there is nothing ‘extreme’ about organising a climate protest.
I should also point out – in case any future employers are reading this – that I do not have a criminal record. I was once arrested for organising a protest outside a fossil fuel conference, but was later found not guilty of all charges. I do not say this as a moral claim, but rather to emphasise that, in my particular case, there were no legal grounds for their decision. Nevertheless, the police implied my guilt was ‘obvious’; for them, my involvement in climate politics was enough to designate me a national security threat.
To be completely honest, I resent having to even defend myself. Why is the burden on me to continually prove my innocence? And even if I had been found guilty of some minor protest offence, should the police really have the power to ban people from participating in the democratic process? If this policy had been applied across the board, the former leader of the Labour Party would not have been able to attend his own party conference. Is this how we want to be governed?
Protest is not yet illegal in the United Kingdom – and neither is direct action. The freedom to protest is a basic human right, still enshrined in UK law, but it is currently under attack. In recent years, the police unlawfully banned all Extinction Rebellion protests in London. It was also forced to apologise after placing Extinction Rebellion on a list of extremist ideologies. It has spent at least £18m on informants over the past six years, and refused to deny that its officers have infiltrated Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter.
A recent inquiry described the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally corrupt”, whilst numerous reports have labelled the force “institutionally racist”. Working class communities, women, and people of colour are disproportionately the victims of state repression. In the years to come, this worrying trend is set to intensify.
Ask yourself who, in this situation, is truly extreme: young people organising climate protests or politicians?
After persistent lobbying from police chiefs, the government is now pushing a Policing Bill through Parliament that seeks to curtail the right to protest. This bill came after right-wing think tank Policy Exchange published a report called 'Extremism Rebellion', written by a disgraced former police officer; the report attacked many of us personally and recommended a suite of authoritarian measures. Policy Exchange refused to deny that it had been paid for by a fossil fuel company.
The right to protest is currently under attack, and the campaign is funded by some pretty powerful people. We cannot allow the creeping authoritarianism of the British state to dissuade us from taking action. Instead, let it animate us. The power of protest is going to have to defend the right to protest. Organise, mobilise, resist. Now is the time for all of us to act.
As for the continued attempts to categorise peaceful protesters as dangerous extremists – ask yourself who, in this situation, is truly extreme: is it young people organising climate protests, or is it politicians? Our ruling class is committed to a failed economic model that values the endless accumulation of private capital over the continued existence of all life on earth. This is extremism. It presides over rising poverty, widening inequality and a cost of living crisis. It strengthens racist immigration policies, criminalises minorities, and allows the police to run riot on our streets. This is extremism.
To be called a national security threat by such dangerous people? Honestly, I’m flattered.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
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