Mike Makin-Waite reflects on how civic mediation practices may help to de-escalate protest scenarios.
Just Stop Oil activists have glued themselves to roads, climbed atop oil tankers and attached themselves to the goalposts of a Premier League football match. They demand that the government halt all new licences for fossil fuel projects, seeing this as a part of what’s needed to tackle the climate emergency.
At the same time, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has announced a new wave of protests beginning on April 9 2022. XR’s previous “rebellions” and separate efforts by Insulate Britain saw determined campaigners block motorway traffic and interrupt city life.
These are the kind of actions which the UK government aims to restrict and counter with its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will redefine what counts as legitimate protest. In response, the Kill the Bill campaign has drawn thousands of people to demonstrate against what they see as a major threat to civil liberties and rights to assemble.
The police and local councils are tasked with facilitating peaceful protest at the same time as activists see the scope for it being closed down. The urgency of the climate crisis and these new limits on protest will probably raise conflict between state authorities and environmentalists in the years to come.
How mediation can help
At COP 26 – the most recent UN climate change summit, hosted by the UK in November 2021 – I was among 50 people who volunteered to attend protests in Glasgow and help defuse disagreements and tension between protesters, the police and others through dialogue.
The Keeping Our Cool initiative assumed that contention can be handled well, and that mediation might sometimes feel useful to everybody involved in a protest. Mediation between different parties can help people on all sides reach an outcome they’re relatively happy with.
In our branded uniforms, we were a visible point of contact for hundreds of people attending protests in the city’s streets and squares. Our team members were involved in situations which could have deteriorated without mediation.
In one instance, we relayed messages between XR activists and police officers which helped to de-escalate an unexpected stand-off near a motorway junction. We listened to the frustrations some people had about who was being heard (and who was not) at the climate talks. We helped campaigners who had walked all the way from Germany proceed with their protest even though they had not given prior notice to the council and the police. Deeply frustrated with the initial bureaucratic response, they left COP26 feeling that they had been able to represent children and families back home. We also found ourselves in some of the sharper incidents across COP26, like when the police decided to contain or “kettle” some activists.
Mediation is not always appropriate for handling these situations. Some activists, clear-eyed about the possible consequences, including arrest, will decide to escalate the situation anyway. There are signs that increasing numbers of people are ready to escalate matters, by doing things like temporarily disabling SUVs or blocking fuel depots. Political theorist Andreas Malm has advocated destroying the machinery involved in extracting, processing, distributing and consuming fossil fuels, like oil pipelines.
Other campaigners believe disruptive action and property destruction could prevent an effective movement for change emerging by alienating potential supporters. They will be among those trying to avoid breaking the law or provoking a police reaction, but could still find themselves subject to heavy policing. Altercations and arrests could result from misunderstandings and misjudgements between the parties. This is exactly the kind of problem mediators can help with.
Conflict between protesters and the police can occur when no one expects or wants it, and in ways which activists – and the police – see as a distraction from the course which they wanted to pursue. By offering protesters and police officers a space to consider other options, volunteer mediators can be helpful to everybody.
My own experience of and research into civic mediation began with work on racialised social divisions in north-west England, written up in my book On Burnley Road. My academic collaborators in Keeping Our Cool had traced the origins of civil mediation from the Northern Ireland peace process through their research. As a result, Keeping Our Cool was not based on a naive view that there can be easy consensus or deep agreement between the people we talked to. Instead the experiment helped us to develop our understanding of how mediation can be applied.
We found that clarity about our role was key. We needed to explain our impartial character to the police, so that they would not be tempted to treat us as quasi-colleagues who could help influence protesters. We also talked about our intentions and approach to XR protesters and others committed to direct action.
Some immediately saw the value of independent mediation, while others suspected that we were essentially “soft cops” who might share the information we gleaned from demonstrators with the authorities, inadvertently or not.
It was relatively easy to address these issues. Some campaigners who saw us respecting confidential information were, after a couple of days, happy to give their approval to us relaying some of their questions and concerns to the police or to staff in the offices they were protesting outside.
Other activists challenged us on what they saw as the essentially liberal character of our initiative. They accepted that mediators would not seek to obstruct or influence protest tactics, or tell protesters what they could and couldn’t do. Nevertheless, they argued that – in spite of our good intentions – our logic would tend to demobilise and defang their efforts, blunting their campaigns on issues which in fact call for sharp and decisive action.
Some pointed out that, although there are times when de-escalation and a degree of cooperation between protesters and the authorities is appropriate, there are other times when a degree of tension helps to achieve the protestors’ aims, including the relatively modest goals of publicising their cause and recruiting new supporters. They worried mediators would get in the way of this.
Mediators at climate protests should not obstruct anyone who has decided to act in a particular way. But they should offer space for people to consider and try out alternative ways of meeting their goals in a process open to and shaped by all others who have a stake.
Our conversations with demonstrators at COP26 showed how people could take time to reflect and make useful connections. Such support might be useful to them – and to councils and the police – as the coming months bring further protests by Just Stop Oil and other campaigners.
Mike Makin-Waite has worked as a youth and community worker in Blackburn, Lancashire; on the Wirral, Merseyside; and as a local government officer in Burnley (all these municipalities are in North West England). He has also worked as a mediator, and as a facilitator and trainer in the field of conflict resolution. His recent book is On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town.