A message to young Extinction Rebels - think twice before you get arrested

Let older people take the hit

You can have no idea how shit it is to be arrested until it happens to you. It is stressful, time consuming, energy draining and can change your life for the worse. Of course, direct action and civil disobedience are essential right now as we battle for the future of life on our home planet. We all need to work bolder and smarter for the world we want. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should aim to be arrested and, the younger you are, the more this is true.

Activists block a drone factory, Shenstone, UK, 2015

In 2015 I joined friends on a direct action to blockade an Isreali arms factory that builds drones in the UK. The vibe of the protest was positive, friendly and totally non-violent. We blocked the road outside the factory and listened to talks. The police were fine in the morning and then they turned nasty. They formed a line and started aggressively shoving people to reopen the road. A group of us formed a chain to try and hold them back so that people sitting would not be trampled on. In the mele, I lost my cool. I was shouting “resistance is fertile” and pushing back when several police hoisted me out of the line and chucked me in the back of a police van.

Police start pushing people out of the way to reopen the factory

The 24 hours I was held in a cell were miserable. After a few hours of sleep I paced back and forth and tried not to get too frantic. I attempted an impression of Nelson Mandela but failed. Just a short taste of losing my freedom was horrendous. What I didn’t realize then was that this was actually just the beginning of a long, drawn out punishment for protesting that the state standardly administers to arrested activists like me.

Matt gets knicked

For half a year the saga dragged on. I would be summoned to court (which was 4 hours from where I lived). I would book the time off work and anxiously prepare. Three days before I was due to travel - the date would be changed. This happened every time there was a court appearance - a tactic widely used in this country to put citizens off protesting. If you miss an appearance, you are in contempt of court and can be jailed. This meant that for the year I couldn’t plan trips and my work and personal life suffered. I was drawn into the place I least wanted to be - a powerless pawn in a kafka-esque legal system determined to dial down descent. My options were minimized and more and more of my time was spent emailing lawyers and filling in dismal forms. I had been trapped by the system I was opposed to and I was more on their radar then ever - literally - they took a DNA swab.

The arrest was just the start of a long painful process

Eventually, the charges against us were dropped. In theory, I could have sued the police for wrongful arrest but I didn’t have the means to do so. Obviously, if they hadn’t dropped the charges the punishment would have continued, possibly with time in custody. Given my experiences, I have struggled to understand why Extinction Rebellion (a movement I massively admire and participate in) urges its supporters to get arrested. This strikes me as a massive failure of imagination. I see many more useful things activists can do beyond being banged up. If we do get arrested - doing what we believe in - so be it - but why make it an aim in-and-of itself?

Extinction Rebellion protests - London - April 2019

April’s Extinction Rebellion protest in London was phenomenal. I was inspired to be a part of something so bold and ground-breaking. Holding the center of London captured the world’s attention and boosted ecological concerns up everyone’s agenda. At the same time, my heart goes out to the 1130 people arrested who will now be being chewed up in the courts like I was. My question is this - did that many people have to get arrested for that incredible and historical moment to have happened? Can we not protest, blockade the big polluters and hold streets without voluntarily offering up our bodies for confinement?

Roger Hallam, a founding organizer of Extinction Rebellion is actively recruiting people to be arrested. He says -

“Emergency means prison… I have been spending the summer doing talks to recruit people who are willing to go to prison through closing down Heathrow”

Hallam and others claim that arrests are required to escalate protests to make them media worthy but this is questionable. In Hong Kong, where the repercussions of arrest may be much worse, democracy activists have the exact opposite approach whilst still capturing the attention of the world’s media. “Be Water!” tactics aim to avoid arrest using a range of tactics to stay out of the grip of the law - occupy, disrupt, disperse, repeat - described as offering a masterclass to activists worldwide.

Clearly, young people have the most to lose being arrested. Young people are also the least to blame for the harm already done to the planet. I find it very uncomfortable to hear of older activists - like Hallam - rounding up younger people to fill jails. Inspirational older people like Phil Kingston clearly articulate why they should be holding positions on actions to get arrested rather then young activists. They have less to lose and will probably be treated more leniently by the courts.

My message to young people who want to hit the streets in the Autumn Rebellion is get totally involved but plan not to get arrested. You can do this by staying with your friends and helping each other. When the police start arresting people do a reality check - can you personally afford the severe ramifications of arrest? If you are not fully aware what these are - walk away. Some of the people willingly getting put in chains may have financial resources and a social safety net you do not. Maybe you can better serve the cause ducking under the arms of arresting officers and staying free to fight another day? Let the white, wealthy and retired rebels go through the penal grinder. Who knows, after a lifetime of profligate over consumption they might enjoy it.

Environmentalism isn’t just about saying “no” and blocking roads it is also about shifting to new ways of living and being which restore ecosystems, communities and our own belief systems. Our protests should be as much about celebrating and embodying our hope for the future, and urging people to join us, as about interrupting old polluting ways. Over-emphasizing arrest is alienating and off-putting.

Assuming you have to be arrested for a direct action to be successful is like assuming you have to explode yourself on the battlefield to be a good soldier. Is being arrested the greatest gift you have to give the world? If you are young and have energy and ideas, can’t you come up with more positive ways to co-create a new ecological and restorative society? Hopefully you have more to give than languishing in a cell with all your potential to create further change frustrated by the failed system we need to reinvent.