I’ve been involved in campaigning for our Government to take more action on the climate crisis for over 10 years. In that time I’ve been on marches, written to my MP on numerous occasions, signed lots of petitions, and donated money to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF, and other smaller environmental charities. I set up an Environment Group at the school where I was a teacher and then left full-time teaching to set up Green Schools Project.
In 2018, with the publication of the IPCC report and many others on the state of the climate, the natural world and our current trajectory with carbon emissions still rising, it became clear that traditional campaigning and individual efforts were failing. Extinction Rebellion, by using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience took things to the next level. It called for the Government to tell the truth about the climate crisis, rapidly reduce carbon emissions and set up a citizens assembly to oversee the process, taking it away from the vested interests and corporate lobbying of politicians in our broken democratic system.
I got involved early on (read more here in a blog I wrote about why I support XR and the school climate strikes). I helped to set up the Hackney XR group, delivered a couple of talks encouraging people to join, and attended the April rebellion last year that was so successful in raising awareness of the climate crisis and led to parliament and many local authorities declaring a climate emergency. I also attended the October rebellion which was less successful, in large part due to being overshadowed by a small group of protestors short-sightedly targeting the tube at Canning Town.
The one step I hadn’t yet taken as part of the protests, was to get arrested. It was made clear though from my first involvement with Extinction Rebellion that everyone was welcome whether they were prepared to get arrested or not. There are lots of non-arrestable roles that are just as important, and avoiding arrest at a protest is easy if you comply with police instructions.
At previous rebellions, I had wrestled with the idea. In April, there were a few times when I thought I might, but was nervous and didn’t quite have the courage to go through with it. In October, I decided that I definitely would if the opportunity arose, but my group was assigned to Trafalgar Square where police didn’t arrest people until late in the week and I had to prepare a workshop for an educators’ climate conference the following day, so I missed the opportunity.
I had deliberated for a long time about it and had spoken to other teachers. Some said that they had been arrested and their Headteachers were fine about it, others had faced difficulties afterwards. Most teachers that I knew involved with XR didn’t want to get arrested as it would show up on a DBS certificate and they were justifiably worried that it might affect their future job prospects.
My view was that while working for Green Schools Project if it was raised as a problem, it would be an opportunity to discuss the reasons why I support XR, and that any school that we worked with would likely be supportive. If I ever go back into teaching and the issue arose, then again, I would explain clearly and if the Headteacher saw this as a reason not to give me a job, it wouldn’t be the right school for me.
This week, with Extinction Rebellion taking to the streets again to tell the Government that it is falling far short of what is required to reduce carbon emissions given the historic opportunity presented due to coronavirus, I decided to follow through.
My partner and six month old baby came with me for the day and we listened to some of the speeches in Parliament Square, but then I thought I could make a bigger contribution by trying to hold the streets and to get arrested if necessary. I’d spoken to others that had done it, so I knew more or less what to expect, but having never gone through with it before, it was still a bit scary and nerve-wracking.
In the end, while it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience, it really wasn’t all that bad. A policewoman, with others, explained to me that I could either go home, continue to protest in the designated area on Parliament Square or she would arrest me. I chose to ignore them, and so they put handcuffs on me and carried me away. After that I was taken to a police van and driven to Sutton police station. I was hoping for one a bit nearer to my home in Walthamstow, but apparently you don’t get to choose.
At the station I had to wait an hour or two outside as others were processed. In that time, I chatted to my arresting officer. She was probably in her late twenties and originally from Romania. She was nice all the way through, checking that I was OK and taking my handcuffs off when I had gained her trust. She said that she was sympathetic to our cause, but didn’t agree with people breaking the law. We spoke about family and a bit about her work. I explained that I really didn’t want to be doing this kind of thing, but that given the government’s inaction on tackling the climate crisis and having tried everything else, I thought it was necessary.
After taking my details I was taken to the police cell and given some food and a cup of tea. The cell couldn’t be described as comfortable, but I was tired and at 10.30 it was about 2 hours after my usual bedtime dictated by our 6 month old, so I slept after reading the book that I was allowed to take with me.
Around 12.30 I was woken up to have my photo and fingerprints taken. Then, I went back to the cell, read for a while and tried to get some more sleep, not knowing when I’d be released. In the end it was around 3am that someone said that I was free to go. I was released pending further investigation with no bail conditions.
On leaving, I was greeted by someone from XR arrestee support with an orange juice and some snacks and chatted to a few others who had been released at the same time. Sutton was a long way from home, so I made my way back via a night bus and the first tube back and was at home just in time to do my usual slot around 6am when our 6-month-old wakes up to give him his breakfast.
Throughout much of the experience, I was thinking to myself, what was the point of doing this? It is very easy to be defeatist when insufficient action is continually taken on the issue that you have been campaigning about for a long time. My arrest really achieves nothing on a global scale.
But one of the features of tackling the climate and ecological crisis is that all it needs to continue to get worse is for us to do nothing and carry on as usual. And this is a crisis that is not binary. Every action has an impact, from an individual conversation, to a personal habit changed, to a school reducing its carbon emissions to a local authority and a government changing policy. One act can inspire another and this ripple effect will eventually lead us to a world of zero emissions – what we are left with depends on how quickly this change takes place.
Having gone through it, I realise that getting arrested, while a trivial act in itself, was more about what it meant to me on a personal level. I truly believe that the action that I took was justified, I wasn’t endangering or harming anyone in any way, and the fact that I stood by my principles and took it a step further than I had previously gave me a sense of relief. I’m glad that I did it, and would happily justify it to anyone.
So all I ask is that you consider what your next step is to speed up the transition to a zero carbon world. Is it simply to have a conversation with someone in your family or at work? Is it to read more about it and inform yourself of what’s happening and what action is required? Is it to make a commitment to reducing your personal emissions through changing the food you eat, driving or flying less? Or will you contact your MP or local council to encourage them to take more action? Everyone will have their own next step, mine was getting arrested. What’s yours?
Henry Greenwood – Founder and Managing Director, Green Schools Project