One Rebel’s Rebellion Of One

More than a year ago, I emailed the actions team at XR to express my dismay at the idea of individuals blocking roads because I felt strongly that we’d done enough of that and needed to focus on the government, banks and fossil fuel companies, the big emitters. I’d also become aware of the white privilege that makes me question the tactic of mass arrest through the eyes of Rebels of colour, but it seemed that with RO1 arrest was not compulsory or necessary. Sometimes where we stand – or in this case, sit – can shift. Time passed, Covid hit, activism was curtailed and I came across a trial in Cambridge on Facebook. Watching individuals with sandwich boards who were sitting facing traffic, largely sustaining their own silence, had a huge emotional impact on me because I experienced the power of the action. There’s a big difference between a crowd with songs and drums, artworks, tents, theatre and police road blocks, and one vulnerable human protesting alone. I felt the ‘spell’ that was later mentioned in training workshops. I was moved and inspired. One of the phrases I used on my first XR trial was doing the most I can do. I signed up.

The Zoom training workshops were heartening. A Rebel friend scouted for locations and suggested a street in leafy Harpenden. Because the road turned out to be too wide for me to block all traffic, I borrowed a buggy, and echoed the message on my sandwich boards with a cut-out cardboard child representing THE WORLD’S CHILDREN. I was a little spooked when Herts Police called me a week before the action wanting information I didn’t give. They have me “on intel.” As usual with XR, there was transparency online and the police could access the action documents so I’m sure they knew that sitters would have support ‘hidden in plain sight’ amongst the bystanders who would naturally gather. I love and trust mine, so much so that I wasn’t thrown when health issues made it hard for Leslie to be there unless he sat on a recently purchased fold-up stool which would blow his cover. He’s as committed as me and holds more science in his head, so I was sad for him, but he insisted that should I be arrested, he would come and collect me wherever I was, even though pain means he’s been avoiding driving. A couple of days before the action I felt an urge to change the location to the high street where there would be more traffic but crucially more pedestrians. Then I realised that my support team would be frightened for me, and restrained myself.

Originally the action was planned to coincide with the second reading of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill tabled by Caroline Lucas, but that was postponed and still there’s no date. And no urgency, apparently. 1st May was chosen to make use of relaxed Covid regs and to mark the second anniversary of Parliament declaring a Climate Emergency. I was there that day – such joy, and so much inaction and greenwash since. The science says 2050 is way, way too late, and yet there’s a boastful complacency from government, Shell, BP and co, preventing real change.

Yesterday morning I woke with that bodily feeling I’ve experienced anticipating imminent surgery. It was hard to focus. Leslie and I walked in sunshine admiring flowers, hand in hand. I was anxious about the mechanics of being dropped off right by the chosen crossing, and managing the boards, buggy and ‘child’, but I also knew that, as with entering the sea on a cold beach, it must be done without pause for thought. I sat down, watched by Waitrose shoppers, and forgot to remove my backpack before awkwardly putting the connected sandwich boards (Heath Robinson style) over my head. Echoes of gluing one hand on to a tower in Trafalgar Square with my backpack unreachable behind me! But I was relieved to be there.

In spite of my layers and more sunshine than forecast, I did become cold, but it wasn’t a difficult experience. Even with the buggy alongside, cars tried to pass me and found they could, but although to pedestrians it apparently looked as if the SUVs were dangerously close to this small grandma, I didn’t feel at risk. I really am a hundred times more scared of climate chaos. I had a relatively easy number, partly because the police arrived quickly: ten or fifteen minutes in? With no phone, no watch and no clock visible, time was hard to measure. The police asked me to move just a little to one side to allow traffic in one direction, closed the road at the other end and ensured that those vehicles that did pass me went slowly. Drivers attempting to be abusive out of their windows were told, briskly and firmly, to move on. Several officers engaged with me, very kindly, all expressing support for my ‘cause’ but actually, in the nicest possible way, undermining me by casting doubt on what I hoped to achieve by remaining and suggesting that I’d been filmed and got my message across so there was no reason to continue. One special weekend constable, a teacher whose class adore Greta, was sincere in his support but feared for my safety as well as the wisdom of the strategy. A couple of members of the public tried the same approach, one offering to buy me coffee and listen “to my woes” – but they’re not mine, they’re not woes but fear and grief in response to solid facts, and disruption, hard as it is for a well behaved activist like me to cause, is effective. Protest works. That’s why Johnson and Patel want to shut it down.

With bollards blocking off half the road, I remained in place, trying to ‘centre down’ as Quakers say, into my own meditative, deeply connected truth space at the human core. Where, if you like, God shines a light. Or simply where the love is. There was some abuse but it was, as far as I heard, mild. The support was wonderfully encouraging. I was thanked repeatedly and the mother of two boys emerged from Waitrose with a plant for me, introducing her sons as eco-warriors. Bless you, Sam and Isaac. I hope the delphinium will thrive in the shared space at the back of my flat. I declined a bottle of water, hoping my gentle rejection of plastic would be received with understanding that Rebels don’t just mess about getting arrested; we try to live this. When a woman said that unfortunately I was causing an increase in emissions (negligible, surely) I talked about a much bigger picture, and asked what else she suggested I should do given that I’ve tried everything as a no-fly vegan who pesters my MP and drops banners from bridges. Interestingly, she backed down and wished me luck.

I used to be too emotional – too shocked – to speak in these situations. When I told a female officer about my granddaughter born two days earlier, I cracked. But I did explain that my message about government greenwash was absolutely true and quoted the Committee for Climate Change: only 17 of 21 progress indicators not met. I’m getting stronger. It dawned on me that although I’d initially been open to the idea of sitting for a couple of hours, I wasn’t going to get up and walk free. Complete respect to those who did, including a friend who stayed a while on the pavement making an impact there, but it’s a question of self-knowledge. I’d already been arrested five times so I knew I could manage the experience, and I would have felt disturbed and disappointed in myself if I had walked away. Arrest and courtrooms offer an opportunity, a platform. It occurred to me – rather belatedly – that if I lay down I would block the road completely, so I did. A few minutes later I was escorted to a police van and taken to Hatfield. No cheers but no boos either. I felt a little unsteady but also peaceful.

At the station I was treated with respect. I’m still quiet and polite. For me it’s like being in hospital, and saying thank you hundreds of times while being vaguely apologetic for taking up their time. But I did have conversations about holidays and not flying, and about electric vehicles. Allowed early on to call speak to Leslie, I cried when he said I can do this stuff because “you’re fragile, you’re a Quaker and you love your grandchildren.” He was surprised to hear my voice break but I’m a long way from hardened. As I told an officer on the road, I’ve always been a Rebel for the world’s children. In the cell I said aloud something from Gail Bradbrook which has stayed with me: “We can only protect those closest to us when we remember our love for those furthest away.”

These days I go prepared with a favourite book – in this case, The Humans by Matt Haig – and glasses. I always commit to some Quaker-style worship, dance a little and do a few exercises to break things up. I named and spoke to those I love, holding them in what Quakers call The Light. I bonded with all those other Rebels in police cells around the country. In fact I never finished the book, because after five hours I was released – a record! Thanks, Herts Police. So I was able to avoid food and as a result the most significant gut problems, and be home by bedtime (even our old people’s bedtime!). On the down side, I was charged and bailed – no going to Harpenden before 28th May when I’ll be in court. More fines ahead. My thinking at the moment is that with a three-day June trial to follow, where I’m self-representing in an attempt to justify blockading the billionaire press, I will probably plead guilty to this particular offence of obstructing the public highway. But as recent trials have shown, acquittal is now possible – especially with a jury, of course, which sadly Magistrates’ Courts don’t have. This is why we need a Citizens’ Assembly with the power to direct government policy.

Earlier today I admitted to a very dear friend that I’m “fine but ever so slightly traumatised.” That seemed true at the time, but now I’m just tired, and glad to be home with my dear, wonderfully supportive and proud husband. I’ve been retweeting images of other lone Rebels in other towns, many of whom were much braver than me in tougher circumstances. There will be debriefs; XR is good at those. I’ve watched a bit of film footage of this wrinkly in the road but it’s not riveting! Now I just need my digestive system to adjust. Part of my determination is a concern that I may not be able to do this much longer…

Oh, and I’m overwhelmed by the online support. Thank you.

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