On arrest, from the inside

This is a personal perspective on getting arrested: what to expect and how to spend your time in a cell. There may be one or two light-hearted bits of advice but I want to make it clear that I’m not underestimating the seriousness of arrest and being processed through the courts. At the same time I’m very much aware that if you’re a white middle-class sextagenarian woman like me, the whole business is pretty much exempt from the kind of add-ons that deter others: police racism, physicality and provocation. I’ve only been treated with respect, friendliness and kindness during my times in custody and I like to think the bad cops are a small minority, but it’s undoubtedly true that in protest situations the police response on the ground is increasingly reactive and excessive. And when I see scores of officers advancing on peaceful rebels, or lining the road to the London Arms Fair to make sure the lorries can deliver their weapons of war and oppression, I wonder who they are serving and whether they question what their duty, according to their vows, might be. It’s my hope that the thoughtful and principled officers I’ve met, who’ve wished me luck, said I should be proud, or told me they share my fears about climate breakdown, will soon take a stand for truth, and that informed lawyers will also unite to wake the justice system to a new reality.

For the majority in Extinction Rebellion, personal circumstances or work considerations rule out arrest. Some give their time to arrestee support at police stations, or court support further down the line. There are many other ways activists can play an important part in XR, by livestreaming or filming, caring for people waiting for arrest or looking after their backpacks or phones, through creative contributions on the street (placards and banners, structures, music, dance, theatre), by phoning and emailing, collecting data, talking to passers-by during an action or Rebellion or supplying the activists with vegan cake, donating towards costs and sharing the truth with friends or colleagues. As you will be told if you do NVDA training (Non Violent Direct Action), it’s important to know your rights even if you have no intention of being arrested, because if you are at an arrestable action, although you can step away and should be given three warnings, no one can guarantee your own personal immunity. And many have found themselves committing emotionally to arrest when they only intended to check out or support a Rebellion. The solidarity and conviction of a mass movement is a powerful thing. But I must reiterate that in my local group, XR Dacorum, only a handful of us have been arrested. It’s not obligatory and it shouldn’t be a badge of honour. I am arrestable because I can be, because emotionally I need to do the most I can to serve climate justice, because arrests make headlines and because the impact ripples through my own circles as a story to tell. It’s a form of outreach for those of us who aren’t great at engaging the public and find giving out leaflets quite a challenge!

So now the tips, first pre-arrest:

  1. If you know you might be arrested, especially if locking on, I recommend drinking as little as possible that day. I’ve always refused nappies so far.
  2. Ideally give your phone to someone or leave it at home. I don’t do burner phones because I feel guilty enough about one phone but I gather that more full-time activists find them useful.
  3. Make sure you have a bust card with the phone numbers you will need and any medication you will want to take over the next 24 hours or more.
  4. You might want a great book in your bag (and glasses if you’re like me and it wouldn’t be much use without them) a pen and another layer to put on in the cell.
  5. Also pack a snack or two for when you are released, in case by any chance there is no arrestee support to greet you. You will need an Oyster card or bank card in case your train ticket has expired by the time you come out.
  6. If you haven’t done NVDA training and don’t know your rights, ask a steward or a legal observer or someone near you to fill you in.
  7. If there’s a legal observer, give them your name and contact details of a partner/parent/friend.
  8. Breathe deeply and tell yourself why you are a rebel.
  9. Decide whether you are going to walk to the van or go floppy and be carried.
  10.  Some rebels sing or talk to their neighbour while the arresting officer talks to them. I found singing, eyes down, helpful the first time.

There is no predicting whether you will be handcuffed unnecessarily, travel in a comfy van or be thrown around in a ‘meat wagon’ with bars. The advice is not to chat to the police officers if you get the comfy van, in case you reveal more than you intend, but I admired my friend when she asked her arresting officer whether his role troubled his conscience. You might be driven a long way during a Rebellion or big action, and if you’re in London progress through traffic might be painfully slow. On arrival at a police station you might have to wait outside for hours if you’re one of many arrests, so your book could come in handy even before you are admitted into custody – but you might have to ask for it if – most likely in my experience – your bag has already been taken on arrest.

At the custody desk the contents of your bag will be checked and listed and you’ll sign your name many times. You’ll be asked about health, physical and mental. When I admitted to having taken a couple of overdoses many decades ago, or to being depressed, I had to remove a hoodie with a cord and my Doc Martens with laces to don police regulation grey sweatshirt and plimsolls. If you don’t keep them afterwards they’ll go on landfill so accept them as souvenirs. You will be asked whether you want to speak to a solicitor so ask for one of the protest lawyers on the bust card, NOT a duty solicitor. And be careful, because once when I did that I later received a phone call which I assumed was from Hodge, Jones and Allan but which was in fact from a duty solicitor who didn’t name his firm.

Tips for your time in a cell:

  1. Cells have only a basic, lid-less toilet and no loo roll so you will need to ask for that. I’ve usually asked for a pencil and paper but as you will probably be given one sheet a book will occupy more hours. However, a sheet of paper will allow you to prepare a statement in case you are interviewed.
  2. Once I was allowed to eat the food in my backpack because I explained that I was unlikely to be able to eat the meals I’d be offered. In fact, the veggie chilli is vegan and gluten-free and not bad if you ask for rice too (and it’s delivered hot rather than warm) so I’ve been known to eat two during a spell in custody.
  3. There’s no vegan milk so the choice is black tea or coffee (usually no decaf available) and water, all of which comes in disposable (polystyrene?) cups which are single use.
  4. You could be released inside twelve hours, especially on a first arrest, but you might stay twice that long, so it may be a mistake to ask the time in case the answer disappoints.
  5. I was once arrested with a very clever activist in possession of a hardback analysis of dreams and the subconscious but I personally recommend your favourite novel, one that will absorb you entirely and make time fly. I’ve packed Matt Haig’s The Humans and Susan Fletcher’s Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew for this purpose because I love them with a passion.
  6. Even if your hands are not too arthritic to hold a book for long at a time, I recommend breaks so your eyes don’t tire and the book lasts the course.
  7. Dance – if you do. Sing even if you do it badly like me, because the acoustics are generous. Both raise the spirits.
  8. I tend to do some exercises too, just to mix things up and keep supple, but you don’t have a lot of room. I’ve even been known to run on the spot or in very short circuits around the space.
  9. Oh, and if you were glued on, picking off the residue will constitute another time-filling activity, but afterwards whoever cleans the cell may think you have very bad dandruff. Although not in my case.
  10.   Most importantly of all, pray or meditate, or if you don’t do either, talk to yourself about why you rebel.
  11.  I always picture and name those I love most and surround them with light and warmth. Sometimes I talk to some of them too, about how much they mean to me and how grateful I am for their love.
  12.  Gratitude is sustaining but don’t forget that, to quote Gail Bradbrook, “We can only protect those closest to us when we remember our love for those furthest away.” Hold in the light those you have never met who live with climate breakdown now.
  13.  You can ask for a blanket if you’re cold and no one offers one. In future I’d be tempted to ask for two!
  14.  Unless you can kip anywhere, don’t expect to sleep overnight. The mat and ‘pillow’ are hard and flat, and it’s noisy because someone rattles the flap every half hour to check on you.
  15.  If you wobble, that’s allowed. It’s not a toughness test. But remind yourself that you’re doing what love requires of you.

During your time at the police station you will be called out of your cell several times, for fingerprints and DNA, for mug shots and possibly to take a call from the solicitor or to make your one other call, although sometimes you can talk into a grid on your cell wall with a button to press. In a Rebellion if you call the back office number on the bust card, they should have details of your arrest and contact the person you identified. If you’re in an affinity group for an action, this process will be sorted beforehand. If you have health issues you can ask to see the doctor or may be invited to do so, and in theory you are entitled to any medication you don’t have with you but in practice I’ve asked in vain. You may get to talk to a solicitor in person but in my experience if there’s one handy it’s probably the duty solicitor so not a good idea. Should you be interviewed by a police officer – which is quite intimidating and will be recorded – you should have your solicitor with you. That’s only happened to me once in five arrests. A female officer who had been pleasant until the recording started suddenly transformed into a rather aggressive and dogged interrogator, firing off the same questions on a loop. “No comment” is the only advisable response, and it’s a bit wearing when you think you’ve said it fifty times.

Eventually an officer in plain clothes will appear to tell you you’re being released and escort you to the desk and then either out of the building or into a kind of waiting room. First you will sign for receipt of all your possessions, and you’ll be told that either you’re being released subject to investigation – most likely for a first offence – or being charged and bailed. There are variations but if you’re not charged on release then you will be contacted within six months if a charge materialises. Six months is a kind of expiry date. If you are charged and bailed, as I have been twice, you will be given a date in court for a plea hearing, which will probably be within a couple of weeks. Conditions could be specific or more general, prohibiting you from going to an area like the borough of Westminster or to a particular site such as a print works, or from attending any Extinction Rebellion protests, until your court date. I understand that if you break bail conditions, facial recognition software may identify you and you could then be held in custody until the hearing. I haven’t yet taken that risk.

It’s a wonderful feeling when on emerging you find rebels to support you, whether they are your fellow activists released before you or arrestee support rebels with chairs, food and drink and possibly blankets. You may be greeted with cheers. They will ask for details for XR records and you may be offered a taxi home if no one can pick you up, or you might be escorted back to a Rebellion site on a night bus. Your release could well be some hours before the tubes resume service.

Then you’ll need to sleep. Before you appear in court you can get legal advice through XR and/or free advice from your solicitor, and there are email groups and chats for arrestees which you may want to join. Tell as many people as you can what you did and why. It’s witness. Your plea hearing might be a year ahead; the courts are seriously backlogged. You might not be charged, even if you blocked a road for five hours with your arm through a lock-on tube inside a suitcase and were grilled at the station as I did and was with Roots of Resistance trying to stop the Arms Fair in Docklands.

I hope this might be helpful and/or interesting from my own personal experience. I admit I was in shock the first time. It seemed a surreal development in a law-abiding life, and initially traumatic because I had no idea what to expect. Some rebels take it all in their stride but if it feels challenging that’s normal too. You may be one rebel among thousands but you’re also you.

I firmly believe that only mass civil disobedience will bring about radical change rather than greenwash and concessions. See you on the streets.

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