Last Saturday, I was arrested at a climate sit-in on Lambeth bridge. I wanted to write down what happened, and what I learned.
The climate sit-in was part of Extinction Rebellion (or XR). The rebellion is for the people who watch climate breakdown happening now and feel powerless to stop it getting worse.
Whether we feel a connection to the environment or not, this is about saving lives. The threat we all face is catastrophic and imminent.
That’s unless we can force change. Those serious about it have to face up to the obstacles and boldly innovate a successful movement.
I started organising with XR in the Summer because some of their strategy fits that description.
Using non-violent civil disobedience, they plan to force the government to adopt a radical plan. XR is demanding a transition from all activities contributing to the climate crisis within a decade. This seems almost impossible, but their sense of urgency is building mass support. Perhaps soon it can shift the public debate.
Their form of civil disobedience is streets choked with sit-ins, government departments daubed with chalk spray, police cells filled to the brim with climate activists and regular assemblies right outside parliament.
The serious and escalating action reflects the serious and escalating crisis. And since the police don’t have enough cell space to arrest us all, XR believes the message would have to be heard.
Rebellion Day on Saturday 17th November was the start of rolling mass actions. Thousands of people were going to blockade five bridges in London from morning to evening.
I arrived at Lambeth Bridge around 1pm to meet up with three friends. The sit-ins had been going on for several hours.
The first thing you could see coming up to the blockade was a wall of police vehicles at either end. I saw rows of police officers walking down to the people sat at the centre of the bridge.
I followed on the pavement and bumped into my friends. The police had made it clear that if you stood around and moved out the way they would leave you alone, but if you were sitting down and ignored their warnings you risked arrest. Two of the people I knew stood, and one sat down.
I was tired so I eventually sat down with the friend who was ready to be arrested, and took in the crowd.
Bright homemade banners and prominent symbols haphazardly decorated the two to three hundred people. There was a mix of old and young, and families too. Speakers talked and we cheered. You felt united, and strong.
The crowd was typical of British environmentalist causes, white, middle class, with a big rural constituency.
Speakers made it clear this was inclusive, and that people from the global south are most at risk from climate collapse. But it was noticeable that no active effort had been made to reach out to the most prominent BME, LGBT, or working class activist groups. As a result the crowd was nowhere near as big as it could have been.
(In fact there was a huge antifascist march taking place in central London at the same time. It’s an absolute shame the two didn’t link up)
So the atmosphere was kind of like what I imagine 60’s counterculture to have been like. There were some drum circles, some strangely dressed people, and some awkward singing.
The crowd was also as a result filled with people for whom being taken into police custody was unlikely to affect badly. Pensioners who didn’t have careers to worry about dominated the arrestees.
There was a jovial atmosphere. The intention was to encourage the arrestees, and be family inclusive. But it was also symptomatic of the crowd’s constituency.
Perhaps the lack of working class, or ethnic and gender minorities contributed to the atmosphere which welcomed arrest. Those with mental health issues or disabilities, and working class and Black people might have a different approach to police custody, since for them police incarceration is potentially dangerous.
The first XR event two weeks previous managed two to three hundred attendees. This one had several thousand. Split between five bridges, it was clear the police weren’t going to clear them all.
This kind of mass civil disobedience hasn’t happened for decades. This wasn’t just a success, it was historic.
I was worried about a chronic condition of mine that I knew might get worse in custody – it’s why I didn’t want to get arrested. But I also didn’t want to sit on the sidelines while some with more to lose, and some much more frail than I am, made sacrifices for the change we all needed.
I wanted my friend to know why I didn’t want to risk arrest, so that he understood I had a better reason than just fear. But just saying it out loud made me realise I was talking myself out of what I really believed in.
Fuck it. I thought. If I can help, I should.
Only a few minutes after I had made the decision to risk detention a line of police marched forward to arrest us one by one. By complete chance, the first person they picked was me.
Two officers crouched next to me. For something like this the police give you every chance to avoid arrest.
One of the officers let me know I was breaking the law, I said I knew. He then asked that I move, I said I wouldn’t. He warned me that he would arrest me, I said it wasn’t personal but nothing he said or did would make me get out the road.
The officer tried to argue with me, saying we were blocking ambulances. But I told him that in the past we had no problem letting them through. Instead it was the wall of police vehicles at each end that was stopping them getting over Lambeth Bridge. He didn’t expect this reply but it didn’t matter because he arrested me anyway.
The officer, Vince, told me I was under arrest. With the help of another they lifted me up onto my feet, grabbed my arms and marched me down to the end of the bridge.
When someone got arrested the rest of the crowd cheered. The sacrifice was appreciated, and you didn’t feel alone. People patted my shoulders as the police led me away, and people said ‘well done’.
For many of us it was our first time being arrested. So it was still initially scary.
A friend of mine, who hadn’t realised I’d changed my mind about being arrested, ran alongside the police repeatedly asking them where they were taking me. Legal Observers (volunteer activists) rushed down to take my name and the badge numbers of the officers. They thrust a “bust card” into one of my hands as I was led away. Adrenaline was pumping for everyone.
I should say that although every arrest I saw was calm, there’s video online of a young man being violently arrested on Blackfriars bridge. The way the police tried to intimidate him beforehand with very firm warnings was also a strategy I saw used on my bridge. The police had a clear aim in mind – to end the sit-ins. Encounters with them aren’t always risk-free.
I was told what I was arrested for, and put into a van. My friend was picked up and carried all the way to the same van. Then three others were put in with us, and after a twenty minute wait we were driven to Brixton Police Station.
I could hear on the police radio that so many of us had been arrested that we’d packed out every police station in north London. The van after us had to take its detainees to a station near Heathrow because it was the nearest with any space.
The journey was actually fun. One woman chatted and joked with the officers, and that’s what we ended up doing the whole journey. An officer called Luke admitted it was one of the most pleasant arrestee transport journeys he’d ever had.
But I think it’s important to make the distinction here that the police were pleasant but they were not sympathetic. It wasn’t clear they were aware of what we were protesting, and despite us telling them it was clear that to them we were still just law-breakers.
When you get arrested they take down your details and confiscate anything in your pockets and any bags you’re carrying. A designated arresting officer has to escort you all the way to the station and to the sign in.
They tell you that without any charges they can only hold you for 24 hours. You answer a load of questions and choose a lawyer to call. The “bust card” had a list of numbers because duty solicitors, it said, gave bad advice to protestors. You get patted down before eventually being led to a cell.
From 2:30 to 8:30 I was in a police cell. There’s no clocks, watches or phones. Nothing to entertain you except a book or a newspaper. There’s a stainless steel toilet with no seat, a basin, and a raised platform with a gym mat to sleep on. The room is completely sterile and there’s no windows and no natural light.
There’s a call button which you use to ask for certain things like food, water, or a blanket, and to call anybody whose number you know by heart for five minutes at a time. But if you made noise or banged your door, you were so far away from where the officers sat that nobody would be able to hear you.
It’s obviously built so you don’t suffer badly. But one of the first impressions you get from your police cell is that you are under the complete control of the officers.
The day shift knew why we were there and knew we weren’t a threat. The night shift’s attitude was more impatient. Half the time you buzzed you got no answer. The officer who offered food chose my dinner for me and left without allowing me to say anything. You become aware that if something simple happened like an officer disliking you, your time would be hell.
I was worried about a chronic condition of mine, and I was right to be. The food made it much worse, I was badly ill. I ended up losing 4 kilos that evening alone. It’s one of the most difficult things in my life to make friends and family understand as it is. So I knew there was no hope of getting an ambivalent, or even slightly hostile, police officer to make the effort.
I wasn’t in custody for long, but without any sense of time or anything to do it can feel like forever. The mat was too hard and the room too cold to sleep. In the moment, every minute felt like an hour, but because there was nothing to do you felt like the last hour went by quickly since you don’t remember much happening.
In the cell opposite, I overheard, was someone arrested for a gun crime. In a cell further down the block was a man who wouldn’t stop banging on his door and shouting as loud as he could. The police ignored his buzzer calls almost the whole time I was in there. I wondered how I was going to sleep at all. Any longer than an afternoon spent in there would be really horrific.
So what do you actually do? You think about the days events, and you hope someone you know is waiting for you when you get out.
I was lucky because I was confident I wouldn’t be charged with anything. I knew all of XR’s previous arrestees hadn’t been. If I had a potential charge to worry about it would have been far worse. I would have had all the time and all the empty space to think about it over and over again.
Out of nowhere an officer opens the door six hours later and tells me to go with him (just like in the films they don’t tell you what’s going on). I’m dazed and fatigued from being ill, but it turns out the lawyer from the bust card had arrived.
The lawyer explains that he took so long because the police had been obstructing him. The police had refused to tell him where we were, and then refused to let him in for an hour once he’d worked it out. The lawyer explained that the police had committed some extremely serious breaches in doing this, and that he had to “go nuclear” to get let in.
Eventually his pressure made them decide on our charges sooner, and they released us with no further action.
As the police explained, no further action is like saying we were never there. It doesn’t come up on criminal record checks and there is no way anyone can see you were arrested. This was how police released all XR detainees so far.
But I do wonder how long we would have been in there if we’d relied on a duty solicitor instead.
Outside the station XR had organised arrestee support. A group of activists gave us soup and beer, and thanked us for what we did. It was genuinely the best part of the whole day, but the first thing you want to do is go home and have a shower.
What did I learn?
I learnt a few things from the experience. Firstly, there’s only a few police cells and they fill up fast. XR’s strategy is a good one to remember for organisers. Secondly, the police are people. So they can be confused, intimidated and made to back off like anyone else. Their reaction to a large crowd is very different to their reaction to one person. Their confidence comes from belief in what they’re doing and it can be shaken. Equally, they can be sympathetic or interested in what you’re doing, but I highly doubt that would be enough to stop them arresting you.
Thirdly, spontaneity seems to work out. I felt like trusting my instincts and beliefs over my worries has gone well. I originally got involved in activism by choosing at the last minute to attend an event I wouldn’t normally go to. This Saturday I decided right in the moment to get arrested at this historic sit-in. Both decisions were spontaneous, both I am very glad I chose to do.
Fourth, knowing how to take risks seems to be essential to organising and practice is the only way to learn it. The future we want can only be achieved, like any ambitious target, by rolling dice.
If we don’t take risks, nothing will change, and if we can’t take managed risks with our own lives then we won’t be able to do it for movements either.
Having said that, I also learned this is not for everybody. I have a chronic condition and spent years of my life disabled. Being remanded just for six hours was enough that I haven’t felt well since. I had to take the next Tuesday off to rest and recover.
I realised that since the police have almost total control over you when you’re in a cell, it’s not safe. All it takes is a macho or racist officer and your time can be very dangerous. I’m thinking of the man in the cell down the block whose calls the police ignored the whole time I was there, and I’m thinking of the fact the police – although friendly to us – illegally obstructed our lawyer.
The justice system itself is to some extent unpredictable. Three fracking activists were sentenced to over a year in prison a few months ago for stopping lorries entering a fracking site for three days. A while before, 15 activists who prevented a charter deportation flight from taking off were charged with terrorism offences. There’s a possibility they could end up with life sentences, even though their action actively saved several from being deported before their appeals were heard. This is a risk, but it’s not for everybody.
But the most important thing I learned? If you plan to get arrested take a book with you, for god’s sake.
by Cameron Joshi