I am officially a rebel. In fact I was arrested on Thursday 18th April for the first time in my sixty-two years. When a friend asked me why this was my answer: Everything that makes me an activist is deeply connected: peace and the arms trade, justice for refugees and this climate emergency which we face together as one human family. But if one issue is bigger than the rest it’s this threat to our existence and the challenge to live differently or die. I arrived at Waterloo Bridge on Monday 15th April prepared to be arrested, and once I had become part of a beautiful, loving community living that difference, I found hope and with it determination. I have taken part in protests where as a Quaker I have been uncomfortable with words if not actions around me. Here at Extinction Rebellion my soul has found deep peace in the non-violence that holds and unites regardless of diversity. There has been nowhere I would rather be, spiritually and physically. And being arrested after sitting on the ‘heart line’ (front line being a military term we didn’t want to use) for the best part of two days was a shock just for a couple of minutes before I felt that deep peace of knowing we serve the truth and all people and species, that others were grateful and that the first time would not and could not be the last.
It’s frightening to watch police vans arrive and officers advancing with purpose. Arrest is a profoundly serious matter and I think all of us taken into custody, some long-term climate activists and some who had just arrived at a place of support for XR’s aims, felt the weight of that seriousness. But nothing can be more serious than this climate emergency. We know we are privileged to be able to protest on behalf of those who are feeling the impact ahead of us. And while being on Waterloo Bridge for six days was joyous and beautiful, it was a profoundly conscious commitment, with induction into the principles of XR and the set-up of the community, with wellbeing support, de-escalation training, an ecological washing-up system after free vegan food, composting, and traditional wood-cut printing onto T-shirts instead of merchandise. We were very fortunate at the bridge to have use of St John’s Church at the south end, where some slept in the crypt and all of us visited the toilets. We were young and older, from various faiths and none, but love and respect were fundamental to every decision made. Everyone who stepped onto the lorry stage expressed the same hopes and fears, including thirteen-year-old Max, whose speech had a call and response: “It’s bonkers!” and “Shut it down!” Isn’t that exactly how the business as usual that Sadiq Khan wanted to see restored must seem to a child becoming aware of the course we are still taking towards the end of the human race?
I went across to Oxford Circus on Thursday on hearing they needed numbers as the police moved in. It was a very different space, pace and energy, but in spite of the heat, overcrowding and tension, the spirit was warm and strong, with songs and chants, and dancing on the pink boat labelled TELL THE TRUTH. But my heart was on Waterloo Bridge, and I returned to be arrested. I walked rather than being lifted, and as I took my seat in the van a kind of disbelief set in. I’m well-behaved! Within minutes, a mother with a young child looked in at me, touched her heart and then held out both hands, saying “Thank you.” There was bonding in the van with the other three ‘prisoners’; the police were friendly and courteous. My experience in the station was interesting and relatively brief and at no point did I ask myself what I was doing. When I was released there was arrestee support waiting – another XR system efficiently in place – and I felt glad and at peace. In a statement I never needed (I wasn’t charged but released subject to further investigation) I said that as a Quaker I had done what love required of me.
On Easter Saturday my husband Leslie Tate, also a Quaker, was arrested when the police kettled us on the bridge in order to dismantle the lorry which was our stage, while we sang, “Police, we love you. We’re doing this for your children too.” At this point I discovered that it’s very much more distressing to be the partner of an arrestee than to be taken into custody oneself. Both of us, in the holding cell and van, talked about climate breakdown, introducing officers there to the Birth Strike and details of the Sixth IPCC report. Then on Easter Sunday when we had a day off, I wept to watch live footage of people being arrested on the bridge to the sound of Amazing Grace. The next day there was only one site to go to, at Marble Arch. We took friends who were hugely impressed, and at one point I joined XR families in a die-in under the blue whale at the Natural History Museum. When we all stood up, it was to a great cheer from those observing from around and above. A couple of days later I was part of an impressive lobbying group in Parliament. Rebels have a depth of knowledge and understanding of climate change that would shame most politicians.
Developments are fast with XR and I have no doubt that imaginative actions lie ahead. Disrupting people’s lives is not something any of us would choose but it has had an enormous impact, airing a taboo subject and generating conversations everywhere, including TV and radio. Nothing is perfect and it’s not unreasonable to call the movement white and middle-class, although there’s more ethnic diversity than some suggest, and one could blame the media for the irresponsible silence and downright misinformation that has denied many people access to the facts. Women, many of them young, fill key roles and everyone is heard in an attempt to be hierarchy-free. And to those who say that it was inconvenient and stressful for those trying to get to work or the shops, I can only ask for a better idea that would grow the movement by 30,000 in a week by making headlines – and point out the completely different scale of the disruption ahead if we don’t address the crisis now. It seemed to all of us that the police had no wish to waste their time harassing “nice” peaceful people, and that it was the tabloids that nudged the Home Secretary to demand that they used the full force of the law. A Sky News reporter asked me if I saw myself as a criminal. No, I am a Quaker, and a grandma, and an author who writes mainly for children. I am a conscientious protector. I have been a follower of Jesus all my life and my week on Waterloo Bridge took me closer to paradise than any other experience I’ve lived.
The rebellion will not end until the demands are met, so even if the last site has been cleared by the time you read this, nothing is over. I am ready to be arrested again, because there are no peaceful lengths to which I will not go to protect the future for my children and grandchild, and yours.