For two weeks in April, Extinction Rebellion grabbed the attention of the nation. Protestors blockaded large parts of central London, turned Waterloo Bridge into a community garden and camped out on Parliament Square where, watched over by Mahatma Gandi’s statue, some were arrested.
Getting arrested is one of the key tactics of the movement, which aims to use non-violent civil disobedience to draw political and public attention to climate change. But is it a good idea?
There is a long history of arrest being used to amplify protestors’ messages. But experts say arrests must be part of a wider and more inclusive strategy to be truly effective.
Speaking at the Declaration of Rebellion in London in October 2018, environmentalist and writer George Monbiot said: “The only time that people know it is serious is when people are prepared to sacrifice their liberty in defence of their beliefs.”According to the Metropolitan Police, 1,130 people were arrested during the April protests, of which around 70 have since been charged with an offence - mostly for breaching section 14 of the Public Order Act by ignoring conditions imposed by the police.
Their cases are now creeping through the judicial system. One 51-year-old woman, who climbed on top of a DLR train, went to jail for a week but has since been released pending a full trial. A few protestors have pleaded guilty and received conditional discharges.
Most cases will be considered by a magistrate although some may make their way to a crown court. It will take many months to process everyone.
It could even take years now that the police authority’s stance has hardened. The Met set up a specialist team in May to refer as many cases as possible to the CPS to be charged and said it would be “more assertive” towards protestors in future.
Extinction Rebellion (which likes to abbreviate as XR) expressed disappointment at the move, stressing that those who had been arrested came from all walks of life. There were teenagers, students and pensioners, academics, nurses and doctors, both women and men, and most had never been arrested before.
“They knew the risks involved in voluntary arrest and they were prepared to take them,” it said in a statement. “For many, it’s a necessary price to pay to protect our children from what’s coming.”
Read more of DeSmog UK's coverage in a special series - Extinction Rebellion: Direct Action to Save the Planet from Climate Change
The Met’s tougher approach stirred up anger in other places too; Shami Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General and former Director of civil rights campaign group Liberty, accused the police of stepping out of line.
Dr Feyzi Ismail, Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS University of London who specialises in social movement strategy, points out that there are historical precedents for using arrest as a protest tool:
“The Suffragettes… would get arrested in a very deliberate way, and when they did there were hunger strikes and forced feeding. And it did draw mass amounts of attention.”
She says mass civil disobedience is effective because it draws public attention to the issue and invigorates the movement from the inside.
Although not yet at the level of the 1980s Miners’ Strikes, in which more than 10,000 people were arrested, XR has undoubtedly already had an impact.
On 1 May 2019, the UK parliament passed a motion declaring a climate emergency and a government survey published later in the month showed a record 35% of the public described themselves as “very concerned” about climate change. Even historically less supportive publications such as the Daily Express said the protests had worked.
John Valentine, an aide to XR’s legal team, says the way in which the group interacted with the police during the April protests was important in terms of its “general acceptability”.
“There was a police liaison group which was in touch with the police every morning to tell them what was planned and the police response was brilliant to start with. I think there was a genuine attempt to not have things go wrong. Non-violence was consistently maintained,” he said.
The group is now trying to maximise the impact of those arrests. Tim Crosland, Director of climate law charity Plan B who also provides legal support to XR, says the court process can be used strategically.
In May, a jury acquitted XR founder Roger Hallam and David Durant of criminal damage for daubing chalk-based paint on a wall while filming a climate campaign video in 2017. That was despite the clear orders of a judge that climate change should not be taken into account.
Durant, who represented himself in court, told Desmog that he hadn’t intended to get arrested but was glad the case went to trial because it showed that people are getting more sympathetic. “It’s come full circle. [The public] will have seen everything that’s going on and that’s helped us make the argument.”
Even cases where protestors do not win can have an impact. Paul Enock and Stephen McDonald, who were found guilty of criminal damage in April, felt that appearing in court gave them an opportunity to state the facts of climate change in public and to make an emotional plea to a powerful institution to act.
Ismail warns that arrest can’t be the only plank of a protest strategy.
One potential downside, she says, is that active people within the movement, particularly those with leadership skills and experience, become bogged down in the court system and diverted from day-to-day campaigning.
Another risk is that public discussion focuses on what happens to those arrestees and not the issues they’re trying to draw attention to.
Most importantly, Ismail stresses that arrest is not an easy option for everyone, particularly black people who are disproportionately stopped and searched by police and are far more likely to be subject to force at their hands.
Civil rights activists criticised XR in May for producing a guide - since deleted - that they said made prison sound like “a yoga retreat”. For its part, XR says it is aware of structural racism in the policing and legal systems but thinks it’s “important for white people to use their privilege.”
Arrest can also be financially devastating for those on the breadline, because costs can quickly rack up and jobs could be at risk. Valentine recounts the story of an agricultural labourer from Wales who was arrested and had to return to London several times to answer charges.
“The amount was high. He hadn’t really computed it. You are going to get court costs awarded against you - a couple of hundred quid minimum - even if you get away with a conditional discharge, plus travel,” Valentine explains.
Crosland stresses that XR isn’t a traditional organisation; it’s a network of volunteers who have tried their best to raise awareness of the risks.
A detailed legal guide says people should “inform themselves about their rights as protestors and the possible consequences”. During the April actions, people who were willing to be arrested - known as ‘arrestables’ - were told where to go to be most useful, while those who were not were warned when to leave a site.
Crosland admits that not everyone gets access to those materials or has time to read them, “but ultimately people have got to be responsible for themselves and decide whether it’s the right thing for them”.
Ismail stresses that arrest should not be a condition or obligation of taking part in a protest - and ideally it should not become a badge of honour:
“If you’re going to build a genuinely mass movement involving all sections of society, arrest can’t be the only strategy. There also need to be mass demonstrations, occupations, direct actions etc, on a scale that all people feel they can participate in and be part of.”
Valentine says support for people who have been arrested, and particularly charged, is getting more effective. Calls go out to local groups asking for someone to attend every hearing and sometimes accommodation can be arranged for those who live far away. The XR group in Oxford has even been fundraising to help people with court costs.
But he is concerned that some people get caught up in the heat of the moment and end up taking on more than they are prepared for. Not all parts of the country have well-established support networks, and some people do have money to hire a lawyer and may not be eligible for legal aid.
Valentine is also keen to stress that arrest is not the only way to protest. “It’s great to take part in an action - it’s seriously transformative stuff - and numbers are terribly important. But part of legal support’s role is to emphasise the fact that you can take meaningful part in an XR action and avoid arrest and that’s absolutely legitimate.”
What happens now depends on what the courts decide. Will protestors be found guilty or innocent? Will arguments that they acted out of necessity to draw attention to climate change win over judges and juries? Will sentences be tough or lenient?
XR’s legal team will be analysing and comparing outcomes to see if they are consistent and to look for opportunities for appeal. Crosland says cases have a cumulative effect, and the justice system is influenced by what happens elsewhere:
“If you’re a magistrate your daily diet is shoplifting, assaults and that sort of thing and this is a different kind of case. So just as the protest presents the police with a dilemma, hearing somebody like a primary school teacher who’s never been in detention before stand up and say ‘I was prepared to do this because I felt I had no choice’ is a dilemma for the court.”
“Naturally in those situations people look to see what others have been doing.”
Ismail says the courts’ decision to take a tough line on protestors could backfire if XR continues to grow and maintains its current level of popular sympathy. “But that depends on having the mass movement to back them up.”
“There is potential for a shift to occur,” agrees Crosland. “At the moment I think everybody accepts that magistrates are quite unlikely to find people not guilty. But that could change and it could change quite quickly.”
The way the courts react in the next few months – shifting towards acquittal or a doubling-down on protest by the police and courts - will be crucial for XR’s campaign, and the fate of climate action in the UK.
Image credit: Tom Morton. Amended 09/06/19: It was corrected that Roger Velentine is not a lawyer but is part of XR's legal team