When I was arrested I did not hear most of the words of the police caution. I was being led from the front wheel of a deportation charter flight that I’d helped blockade at Stansted airport in March 2017. There were 15 of us in total, four around the wheel and 10 around a tripod behind the left wing. One of our number had been arrested before locking on.
As an officer put handcuffs on me and walked me to the waiting bus, he started to arrest me. “I am arresting you on suspicion of aggravated trespass. You do not have to say anything – ”. When I rounded the corner, glimpsing the collection of my fellow activists, who I’d not seen since we’d cut through the fence many hours before, we all cheered, obscuring the words. Once I was arrested though, and sat alone in a police cell for hours on end, those cheers rang hollow. When we were released, and eventually charged with a terrorism-related offence – one carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment – that jubilance was replaced by endless worry, stress and pain.
Today, and in the coming days, weeks and months, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of activists hope to be arrested. Some hope to go to prison. They are part of Extinction Rebellion, a group seeking urgent action on climate change in the 12 years we have left to avert cataclysmic ecological breakdown. As part of their International Rebellion, they are seeking to “shut down” areas of central London today for as long as possible to “disrupt the ‘business as usual’ which is sending our species on a one way track to extinction”.
These are laudable and righteous aims, ones that I agree with. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to move faster on climate change. Nor is there any doubt that most people would quite like to avoid a mass extinction event. Underneath it all, though, I can’t help but feel deeply concerned.
In a recent video for the Guardian, the founder of the group, Roger Hallam, tells a police officer that “arrests aren’t happening quickly enough”. Later, he’s seen telling a town hall meeting that “letters, emailing, marches don’t work. You need about 400 people to go to prison. About two to three thousand people to be arrested.” After a blood-pouring action outside Downing Street, protesters bemoaned the lack of arrests. In a recent article, one protester talks about giving up their training as a dancer to devote their full time to activism.
There’s undoubtedly something sexy about direct action. As activists we spend our life trying to agitate for change in a system built to resist it. Wins are rare, and the day-to-day grind of trying to transform the world into a better place – one that works for everyone – bears down on all of us. To take part in something material, that feels real, as if you’re actually doing something, is overwhelmingly attractive. But the reality is, direct action and becoming entombed in the endless bureaucracy of our glacial criminal justice system because of it, should make up only a tiny portion of our work as activists.
There is an inherent privilege in being able to be arrested for protesting. The hugely disproportionate number of BAME people in prisons for relatively minor offences shouldn’t be underestimated here. To have people like Roger Hallam speaking of prison so casually undermines those who are the poorest or most oppressed in our society whose lives are ripped apart by it.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel guilty about our trial and subsequent conviction (no pun intended). Not because what we did was wrong – far from it. But because even though 11 people remain in Britain because of our action, the two years that followed the action saw an unfathomable amount of resources, time, money and energy from across the movement poured into helping us fight our case, to helping us stay afloat, and avoid a life incarcerated. It took valuable resources away from those at the sharp edges of the hostile environment that we were protesting about.
This is the issue with Extinction Rebellion’s ethos. The notion that 2,000 arrests will evoke the kind of systemic change needed to fight climate change is naive at best. At a time when the government has cracked down on protest, to not see that this could go the other way, and be used simply as a way of increasing already draconian anti-protest legislation and prosecutions, is shortsighted and irresponsible. But beyond that, the cost to individual activists, and the movement as a whole, would be huge.
That so many people are involved and excited about activism is great – but we must be wary of glorifying arrests and incarceration as the only valid way of engaging with a movement. A movement, particularly one seeking to change society as we know it, should not be a coterie of privileged activists who can afford the expense and time getting arrested.
It should be about as many people as possible being brought on board. About making noise from all parts of society that’s so deafening, there is no option for those in power but to listen to our demands. It remains a mystery how wrapping up a whole new generation of activists in lengthy and costly court battles will achieve the changes we so urgently need.
• Ben Smoke is a freelance journalist and activist