“What if I got to jail?” I thought, when Extinction Rebellion Denmark asked me to speak at the opening of its week of protest. Because this is the point we’ve reached: the point where states come down more heavily on climate protest than on tax evasion. When he was jailed for his role in the resistance during the Occupation in the 1940s, the Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø said: “Now the state is giving me the recognition I deserve.” I turn seventy this summer, and I am not claiming to be as brave as Nexø. But I agreed to help block the bridges outside Parliament – if you watched Borgen, you’ll recognise them – because I simply don’t believe that politicians have the will or the nerve to do what’s needed. And when governments fail their citizens, citizens must take a stand.
Behind the tide of Danish government greenwash there’s been some modest climate progress here. But with agribusiness and industry still calling the shots and new motorways being built at the expense of public transport, our leaders are still overwhelmingly committed to business as usual. The largely unspoken truth is that no one, including (and perhaps especially) the political establishment, believes that Denmark will meet its much-vaunted target of slashing carbon emissions by 70 percent before 2030.
If the Earth is to remain habitable for future generations, then something radical must happen. Fast.
By mid-afternoon, the police have cleared all the occupied bridges except one: Højbro, which crosses the canal that encircles Parliament. When I’ve given my speech, I sit down with the others on the tarmac. Solidarity is infectious. One by one, we’re dragged off by the police, with the crowd chanting “You are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone!” It’s a simple message, and as I’m shoved into a van it gives me courage.
In the back are three other detainees, all achingly young. I could be their grandfather. The police take our phones and tie our hands behind our backs with plastic cuffs, and we speed through the Friday rush hour, sirens wailing. In a long windowless corridor at the police station we are greeted with cheers and foot-stamping by the 70 protesters already there, reminding us that we’re not alone here, either. I feel grateful to be among people who care enough about the planet to risk their liberty, and it strikes me that I have never been more welcome anywhere than here, and now.
After four hours sitting on a narrow bench in handcuffs with our backs against the wall, singing to keep our spirits up, we’re summoned in turn. The processing officer clearly knows who I am, and it’s equally clear that he’s not a fan. He says it’s a busy night, so I’ll have to wait in a cell until the ‘investigators’ can interview me, which might not be until tomorrow. I am now regarded as a criminal, he tells me. “But I’m sure you did a cost-benefit analysis before you made the decision”, he adds with a smirk.
The other rebels are locked up in groups, but I get the dubious privilege of solitary confinement. My suite, eight metres square with white walls and a filthy concrete floor, is bare. There’s no furniture, no toilet.
Then, instead of simply locking me up and leaving, the officer orders me to strip. I wasn’t expecting this but I comply. Are the other detainees being strip-searched too? When I’m standing naked in front of him, the officer orders me to lift my testicles, and I wonder if he’ll do due diligence and stick his finger up my rectum too. I don’t know if Martin Andersen Nexø endured the same humiliation when he was imprisoned. But since all states behave the same way when their power is challenged, my guess is yes. After the officer has looked me over (my rectum is spared) he lets me put on socks, underpants, pants and t-shirt, but not my sweater or jacket.
It’s around 8pm by now. It’s cold, and I haven’t eaten since morning. I know I have the right to make a phone call, but the officer tells me brusquely “that’s for the investigators to decide”, and locks the door on me. There will be no phone call. During the eight hours I spend in custody, I will be cut off from the outside world.
I have a choice, in this cell: moving in restless circles, or surrendering to the dirty floor. There is a bell on the wall, to use if I need the toilet – which within an hour, I do. I ring 23 times. Nothing happens. Getting desperate, I start kicking the door – my foot still hurts from it – and finally an officer calls through the door that the toilet “will be occupied for some time.” After an hour and a half of squeezing my buttocks together, there is a change of guard, and I can finally go.
Towards midnight the ‘investigators’ materialize. They seem bored. They mug-shot and fingerprint me, and swab me for DNA. One of them tells me that I might get 18 months in prison. “But you’ll probably get less,” he adds, sarcastically, “for being an innocent citizen”.
Outside, XR non-arrested activists are waiting with water, sandwiches and hugs. I learn that more than 150 of us have been arrested – close to the number arrested during the infamous COP15 in 2009, after which the police were formally reprimanded by the Supreme Court for their brutal handling of protesters.
I’m not an innocent citizen. But I hope one day it will be clear to everyone what a waste of resources it was for police to arrest and humiliate people who could be their siblings, their friends, their kids, their parents or their grandparents, when all those people wanted was a better world. I’d like the generations ahead to see me as a good ancestor who realised the urgency of the climate emergency in time and did what he could to lessen the impact of what was coming. And that I was far from alone. One day history will speak of the young idealists like those I met on Højbro, who refused to let their future be colonised, and it will call them the most responsible generation it had known, because they embodied the possible when it was still a dream.
May these young people be seen as role-models. May there be a mass global movement that fills the police stations and the prisons until they’re bursting, and sweeps away all that blocks the vital change this planet needs.
And if the parliaments of the world are one day the nests in which a just future is hatched, may the Earth’s most visionary citizens fly in through their windows and lay their eggs.
Carsten Jensen is one of Denmark’s most celebrated literary voices, and the prize-winning author of many books, including I Have Seen the World Begin, The First Stone and We, The Drowned.