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 If you’re taking to the streets to campaign for climate justice, make sure you know your rights.

The beginning of COP26 has incited a wave of environmental protests in Glasgow, with people of all ages and backgrounds taking to the streets to campaign for climate justice, legal change and government intervention. The issue of protest safety has become more important than ever.

Police response to the recent Insulate Britain protests and the arrests of XR demonstrators here in Glasgow have raised questions around protest safety and the legal boundaries of civil resistance. Questions surrounding our right to protest have to come to the forefront of the minds of people heading out to engage in their daily dose of direct action. What can and can’t I do? What kind of resistance can I expect? Is it safe? And, most crucially, is it worth the risk? 

With Glasgow police on standby and ready to arrest the overzealous, the least you could do is learn your rights in protest and read this gentle summary of the Scottish Community and Activist Legal Project’s (SCALP) guide to activism, Scottish law, and the police. While safety is, and should always be, our number one priority, we should do what we can and show up, because trust me, it matters. You just have to be smart about it.

The SCALP document is a handy 40-page outline of the Scottish law for civil disobedience, summarizing protesters’ rights and how the law and the police can affect protests, such as rallies and marches, civil disobedience and direct action. Here, I aim to give you some pointers on what to do when engaging with law enforcement at protests. The police have wide-ranging powers to disrupt protests, and you can guarantee that they'll be at the scene, trying to police. 

Let's take the example of being stopped and searched. It's the most likely interaction you'll have with police, aside from making awkward eye contact while you wait for them to let you cross the street. To start you off, being stopped and searched does not equal arrest. Don't freak out.

Secondly, you must be told the reason why you're being searched. Ask them under what power they're patting you down. Are you legally required to comply? Members of the Scottish Police have no general right to search you, but that doesn't mean they won't try. Before searching you, a police officer should always tell you their name and police number. After the search, they should give you a receipt. If they don't, ask for it. And, to justify their search, officers must provide reasonable grounds of suspicion to do so - they have to tell you the specific law which gives them the power to search you and what they expect to find. You have a right to this information. Ask for it.

If you find yourself having to put up with a search (which you very well may, considering the suspicion with which law enforcement tends to treat protesters), know that you can request to be searched by an officer of the same gender. 

Police are also only allowed to search your possessions, including outer clothing in a pat-down. They may ask you to remove your coat, shoes, and face covering (Covid-19 be damned), but nothing more than that, provided they don't find any grounds to search you further, such as drugs, blades and other things you shouldn't bring to a demonstration anyway.

Finally, “no comment” is your best friend. You only have to give your information to police if you're suspected of having committed or witnessed a crime, or if you're driving a car. You have the right to withhold personal details, even if you're under arrest or being searched - just say "no comment". 

If things escalate and you do get arrested, know that you have a right to free legal advice at the police station, as well as the right to have someone informed of your arrest and your place of detention. You should only be held in custody on reasonable grounds and should be released after 24 hours unless you're being charged or set to appear in court.

Be smart when protesting. Heed police warnings. Don't break stuff. Be prepared for anything, including worst case scenarios. And don't do anything stupid without knowing the consequences. 

In the words of one Greta Thunberg: “as long as no-one gets hurt, then I think sometimes you need to anger some people. The [...] movement would never have become so big if there wasn’t friction, if some people didn’t get pissed off (sic)”. 

Be safe. 

Some resources:

Clare Ryan - 07977 000 312 - legal advice 

SCALP Legal Back Office - 0131 322 5322 - to inform someone of your arrest

Upon release, fill out arrestwatch.scot/pss 

If you witness an arrest, report it to the SCALP Legal Back Office at arrestwatch.scot


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