Over the past week, more than 1,400 Extinction Rebellion (XR) members in the UK have been arrested in the group’s second wave of international protests. Activists being willing to risk arrest is a key part of XR’s strategy of public disruption in the fight to prevent climate catastrophe, enabling the group to block roads and hold onto sites for longer while they ignore police orders to leave.
On Monday night, Met Police banned any assembly linked to XR with a revised Section 14 order, meaning that anybody who refuses to move will be liable for arrest and prosecution. The headlines have focused on the arrests of older activists, including a 77-year-old rabbi and a 91-year-old man.
But young people have also been arrested by the dozen, and they arguably stand to lose more than their parents or grandparents from a potential criminal conviction. We spoke to four young arrestees about why they’ve put themselves on the line.
CONOR NEWSON, 24, GOLDSMITHS MA STUDENT
I’ve been concerned about the environment for a long time, but before joining Extinction Rebellion, I never felt like I could really do anything to help.
On one day in the April Rebellion, the theme was love and compassion, and in Oxford Circus, school kids and their teachers were reading out a poem about the climate crisis around the pink boat. It was really emotional.
Suddenly, 200 police officers came to clear the crowd in an intimidating formation, and surrounded everyone around the boat, and then made another loop around the inner circle. It was very confrontational, especially when the theme that day was love. I felt there was a big injustice happening with these young people expressing their fears about their future at a peaceful protest while police were trying to silence their voices. So I felt I couldn’t leave, even after police read out section 14 [of the public order act] which made it an offence for me to remain there.
Someone in the crowd started passing round glue for anyone who wanted to use it, and two guys and I agreed that we’d glue our hands together. When the police used a solvent to unglue us about three hours later, it just felt like water running through our hands and we came unstuck. Four police officers carried me off, and I was released around 11PM, after about nine hours in a cell.
A month ago, I pleaded guilty in court to breaching section 14 charges, because I don’t have the money, time or energy to go through the court system. But I feel I did the right thing. I’m also aware of how privileged I am – as a white male in the UK, I can safely make the decision to be arrested to fight for the climate without the fear of being met with physical state violence. Many people don’t have that privilege.
Some employers might have a problem with me having a criminal conviction, but I wouldn’t want to work for an organisation that has a negative view of what I’ve done.
Last October I went to one of Extinction Rebellion’s “Heading for extinction and what to do about it” talks after seeing the event posted on Facebook. I’d been worrying about the climate crisis for a while and what a dire situation we’re in, but the talk really inspired me, and I set up a local group with friends.
I was arrested on Waterloo Bridge during the first International Rebellion for allegedly breaching Section 14 of the Public Order Act. Four police officers carried me to a van, one holding each limb. It definitely wasn’t pleasant and my back got scratched by the ground as they lifted me up but that wasn’t anyone’s fault. In the van I was with two lovely women in their 60s who’d also been arrested; we chatted about environmental poetry. The officers were pretty nice to me – the guy who took my DNA said: “I think what you’re doing is fantastic – keep it up. When I was your age, all I cared about was cars.”
I was held in a cell for around 10 hours and I was impressed with the vegan food. I chose the chilli for lunch, which friends who’d already been arrested had recommended, and it was amazing. I was released around 10 or 11PM that evening, after around ten hours in a cell.
Everyone I know supports my activism. My parents are proud of me – they’ve printed off the picture of me getting arrested, put it on the wall with all the family photos and sent it to my grandparents.
CECILY BEDNER, 20, FARNHAM UNIVERSITY STUDENT
Back in January, I started attending XR events as a filmmaker, and it really woke me up to scale of the climate crisis. I decided to make a short documentary film about XR, and then I started helping them with bits of filming, and gradually became an activist myself. By the April rebellion, I was part of an affinity group with my friends from Cornwall, and when I saw all these people that I've grown up with willing to risk arrest and sacrificing their freedom for the cause, I wanted to protect and support them. I thought: if they can do it, so can I. So I took the decision to be arrestable, and I sat down around four or five times when police had made a Section 14 order, but they just didn’t pick me to be arrested. I even slept one night in Oxford Circus with tubes on my wrists locked to other activists.
I was finally arrested in Parliament Square while double locked on to two friends, and the police warned us several times we’d be arrested if we stayed there. We kept singing. Everyone was singing the same line over and over: “This land is all that we have for sure.” The police had to get an angle grinder to cut us loose from one another and that was one of the scariest experiences of my life – sparks were flying off it, they have to give you goggles to wear while they do it. That took around 45 minutes, then I was carried to a police van, and then held in a police cell for 19 hours.
I chose to plead guilty of breaching a Section 14 order at City of London magistrates court in because I don’t have the finances to go to trial and I just want to focus on my degree now. In my mitigation statement I said my actions were taken in self-defence, as a call to our country’s leaders to protect us, and I said how scared I am for my four-year-old sister’s future.
My dad took me to a Rising Up protest last year and I joined when the group became Extinction Rebellion. Over time, I started thinking about whether I’d be willing to risk arrest. I went to a talk about indigenous people being murdered as they were trying to defend their environment: it really hit me that people are being assassinated for their activism, and in my country all that happens is you get sent to jail. I was at a protest at the Brazilian embassy [against fires destroying the Amazon rainforest]. Rebels sprayed red paint onto the embassy to symbolise the deaths of indigenous people. I was arrested and charged with alleged involvement in criminal damage of the embassy. I was held in a cell overnight – they kept the lights on bright until around 4.30AM, so I couldn’t sleep, and a guy in the next cell to me was banging and shouting.
In the April rebellion, 1,200 protesters were arrested. After spending time in a jail cell, that’s more than just a statistic for me – I find it moving that each one of those people was prepared to give up their liberty. I don’t know what I’m going to do in future – I’ve deferred starting my degree to dedicate myself to activism full-time. What I do know is I want to have a future and being involved in XR seems like the best way to achieve that.
* Name has been changed for legal reasons