The Metropolitan Police have been criticised for raiding a London art gallery that they believed was linked to Extinction Rebellion.
On Friday the 25th of June, the Met’s Territorial Support Group (TSG) raided the gallery and studios of Antepavilion, an arts and architecture charity based at Hoxton Docks. Every person found at the site was handcuffed and three were arrested, including the owner, Russell Gray.
Simultaneously, in north London, Extinction Rebellion activist Morgan Trowland’s vehicle was surrounded by police. After being held in his car for two hours, Trowland and his travel companion were arrested and taken to Leyton Police Station.
TSG were targeting an exhibit on display at Antepavilion, called Watchtower. Watchtower is a tensegrity structure designed and constructed by Trowland and his colleagues at Project Bunny Rabbit. Extinction Rebellion have previously used similar structures to block access routes as part of their protests against climate breakdown.
Watchtower was chosen as the winner of Antepavilion’s annual architectural competition for experimental structures. Antepavilion’s owner, Russell Gray, maintains that this decision was based purely on architectural principles. Watchtower’s transportability and ease of assembly and disassembly were deciding factors, while politics were not a consideration.
Russell said: “It was always made crystal clear that we were not prepared to have the Extinction Rebellion identity or brand associated with what was going on; less still any specific protest because we were not prepared to have Antepavilion in any way hijacked by the Extinction Rebellion aspect, we are an arts and architecture organisation.”
We may or may not have any sympathy with Extinction Rebellion but the whole basis on which Project Bunny Rabbit became invited was that it had nothing whatsoever to do with Extinction Rebellion. It was rammed down their throat that we are not having this linked, other than coincidentally, with XR.”
The Guardian reported that following the raid, Chief Inspector Joe Stoke from the Met’s Public Order Command had said: “We believe certain protest groups are specifically intending to disrupt some business locations or potentially cause criminal damage to property. Today, we took proactive action to prevent and reduce the likelihood of criminal activity during the course of the weekend. This action should further demonstrate our commitment and proactivity to preventing criminality.”
Like Gray, Project Bunny Rabbit’s Trowland states that there is no criminal conspiracy between Antepavilion and Extinction Rebellion. Trowland said: “There’s no connection just that people like me and some of my friends who have also done XR actions were building this art installation here. The police were just unable to conceive a separation of activities. They really erroneously raided this place because, you know, it’s just an art installation.”
The manner of the police raid on Antepavilion angered Gray, who arrived at Antepavilion by motorbike as the raid was ongoing. “They [the police] jumped on me and pulled me off my motorbike and arrested me for dangerous driving, even though I was stationary. They handcuffed me as aggressively and violently as they could and put me in the back of a police van and took me down to Kentish Town police station, for about an hour I remained handcuffed. They injured my wrist and refused to loosen the handcuffs.”
Two of Gray’s employees were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance. Trowland was arrested for the same. He says that police officers “made a show of grabbing us and cuffing us a bit roughly.” In his view, the raid and arrests were “definitely an intimidation act.”
None of those arrested have been formally charged with a crime. Gray says that “there will be civil action against the police. I’ll be proceeding against them for wrongful arrest, unlawful detention, and damage to the property. If they make any attempt to prosecute, also malicious prosecution.”
A police raid on an art gallery raises questions about freedom of expression. Since the raid, the controversial police, crime, sentencing, and courts bill has been passed in Parliament with zero amendments by MPs. If passed by the Lords, the Bill would allow police to impose start and finish times on protests, set noise limits, and apply these rules to protests even if there is only one person taking part.
Asked about the Bill, Trowland said: “It as the embodiment of fascism in the UK, turning it into an authoritarian state where people live in fear of unaccountable authorities. We need to defy this in mass or we’ll end up in a really dark and fearful divided country where we’re in fear of the authorities and where we’re in thrall to corrupt and awful leaders. It’s quite simple, that’s happening right now. It remains to be seen whether people will stop that.”
Reporters Without Borders currently ranks the United Kingdom 33rd in the world for press freedoms. Gray is also worried by the political implications of the raid and the Bill itself, he said: “It’s always a problem when you have a government with such an overwhelming majority that there’s no meaningful opposition at all, they can waltz through with this oppressive behaviour. Basically, the right to protest is going to be confined, unrecognisable. It will be in silence, off the streets, in the privacy of your own home, it’s pretty alarming.”
Trowland remains defiant in his position, he said: “I think it’s a fantastic time to make provocative art because it’s a fantastic way to get support from people who may otherwise be on the fence. You do something beautiful and then the bully tries to smash or hide beautiful things that you’re doing and people side with the party that’s making the beautiful fascinating thing. It really lays bare who are the bullies who are trying to divide people and it throws a lot of publicity on to people who are making things that are beautiful and provoke contemplation.”
Antepavilion will reopen Watchtower to visitors on the 23rd of July 2021. The future of the rights of protesters in the United Kingdom remains in doubt.
Both the Police and Extinction Rebellion were contacted for further comments, at the time of publication neither had agreed to contribute or offer any alternative perspective.