As I lay in the middle of the road outside Downing Street, surrounded by police, awaiting my imminent arrest, I looked up at a cloudless blue sky. It felt like a sign that the rain had finally stopped and, as I enjoyed the sun on my face, one of London’s famous parakeets flew overhead. I will never forget how peaceful I felt in that moment, in the eye of the storm, even as the electrical saws shrieked, cutting my fellow Extinction Rebellion rebels out of their lock-on devices.
The peaceful feeling came from knowing that I was exactly where I should be at that moment. It also stemmed from my position of privilege: as a white woman protesting in the UK, my main pre-arrest worry was expensive court costs, not police violence.
That same October week, as Extinction Rebellion brought central London to a standstill, as Writers Rebel was being born in Trafalgar Square, even more dramatic events were unfolding in my adopted home country of Ecuador. The announcement of austerity measures had triggered the largest indigenous-led uprising in over a decade, and the situation on the streets of Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, was anything but peaceful.
Indigenous groups from the Amazon, Andes and coast had collaborated to effectively paralyse the country, blocking roads and cutting off food supplies. Thousands of people from the Amazon region had walked hundreds of miles to join protests in Quito, where they were met with brutal police and military repression, including tear gas and rubber bullets. Seven demonstrators were killed, among them indigenous leader Segundo Tucumbi Vega, who was beaten to death by police. In a poetic example of indigenous justice, four law enforcement officials were captured by demonstrators and forced to carry the casket at Tucumbi Vega’s wake, before being released.
I’ve been working with indigenous activists since 2013, but I wasn’t in Ecuador to stand alongside them. Instead, I was in London, reading about their uprising as I sat in the road outside Downing Street with Extinction Rebellion.
We’d held the Whitehall site for two days and two nights, targeting the heart of government to demand a citizen’s assembly on the climate and ecological emergency. The experience had been rather like a festival, except the marquees kept getting confiscated. In the outpouring of rebel cooperation, creativity and collective decision making, I had seen a glimpse of the future in action. And it had been beautiful.
We’d held an improvised street party on the second night, dancing to a sound system against a backdrop of riot vans. I don’t know if Boris could hear us from Number 10, but an elderly MP had shuffled out in his pyjamas to ask us to keep the noise down.
On the morning of the third day, the police had swooped in and cleared the site of all tents and non-arrestable activists, leaving eight locked-on rebels in the middle of the road, surrounded, chained together in pairs, doggedly refusing to move. On the other side of the police cordon, a circle of XR activists drummed and sang their support.
My right arm was attached via a metal tube to a softly-spoken Brighton rebel who I hadn’t known very long. We’d formed the kind of bond that comes from peeing together on an immaculate government lawn in broad daylight, awkward and conspicuous, still joined at the wrist, after a sudden fit of pre-arrest nerves left us with insufficient time to dash to the public loo. We must have looked like bionic conjoined twins after a night on the tiles.
To explain why on Earth I had put myself in such a situation, I would ask you to imagine this scenario. You’re on a bus. For some reason the driver has decided to drive directly towards a wall at a speed that would destroy the bus and probably kill all the passengers onboard if he crashes into it. The driver has ignored all polite requests to alter course. Most of your fellow passengers are too afraid to acknowledge the impending crash and are looking at their phones, even though their kids are also on the bus. Only you and a few friends are watching in horror as the wall comes closer and closer. You realise that the only way to save the bus and its occupants is to grab the wheel from the driver. It will cause some disruption, but it’s that or everyone dies. What do you do?
Now imagine that it’s not a bus but a vessel containing all of humanity, all of human progress, millions of species, in fact the only known life in the universe. Surely there is a moral obligation to try to prevent that crash?
In fact, no imagination is required, because this is our current reality. World governments and corporations are speeding us ever faster towards the fatal collision of environmental catastrophe. All polite requests for them to alter course, all the marches and petitions over the last 30 years, have achieved nothing. I believe we have no choice but to disrupt their genocidal trajectory using the only means available to us: peaceful mass civil disobedience.
I also believe that Extinction Rebellion offer the most well-thought out approach to this disobedience. In the words of XR co-founder Roger Hallam:
Firstly, only through disruption, the breaking of laws, do you get the attention that you need. Second, only through sacrifice – the willingness to be arrested and go to prison – do people take seriously what you’re saying. And third, only through being respectful to ourselves, the public and the police do we change the hearts and minds of our opponents.
And that is why I found myself lying on the road with seven other XR rebels outside Downing Street, as a jovial police officer knelt down beside me and explained that I was being arrested for breaching a Section 14 order. When I refused to give my name, he asked if he could put a sticker on my shoulder with a number 4 on it, so that he had a way to identify me.
I said, “That would be no problem at all, officer”.
“Call me Andy”, he said.
When the specialist team arrived with their cutting equipment, their sergeant explained that most of his colleagues agreed with what we were doing, but that their job was to remove us from our lock-on devices. Fortunately, they didn’t need the circular saw to cut through our tube, just a few snips with the bolt cutters. When my arm had been freed, Andy asked if I would be prepared to get up and walk with him to the kerb to await the police van. When I declined, he and two of his colleagues picked me up, carried me and deposited me on the pavement outside the Cabinet Office, amid cheers from the crowd.
Sitting on the floor, waiting for the van to arrive, I refused to answer Andy’s questions. When he told me that he was just trying to make conversation, I explained that my training had recommended that I not give him any information, but he was welcome to tell me about himself. So he did; about why he joined the force, about how he used to run a pub. A human connection was forged. When I told him about the climate crisis, he seemed genuinely interested and unaware of the scale of it.
When he asked me if I was carrying any weapons, I said, “Just my razor-sharp wit, officer.”
He laughed. “You get a fist bump for that,” he said. As he stood and surveyed the group of singing activists in the road, he turned to me and said, “You know, you can really feel the love today.”
I was taken to Charing Cross station, only five minutes’ walk from Whitehall. I guess XR had done a good job of blockading the roads because it took nearly half an hour to drive there. Andy had been humming under his breath for a while before I realised he was humming “People Have the Power”. When I pointed this out, he laughed and looked a bit sheepish. “Well, your lot do have the best tunes,” he said.
Upon arrival at the station, I was booked in, searched, and my belongings were taken away. I had my fingerprints, footprints and photos taken (disappointingly, I was told it would not be possible to get a copy of my mugshot). DNA was taken from my mouth with a cotton swab. I was put in a clean cell with a bed and a toilet. When I asked if I might possibly have a glass of water, I was offered tea and porridge, and would I like sugar with those?
After my food arrived through the hatch in the door, I was left to semi-doze for five hours, which was quite welcome after a cold, sleepless night spent on the road. When I was let out, I was told that I was been released under investigation. I was met outside the station by XR activists offering hugs and food.
During my brief spell of incarceration, I had time to reflect on a few things. I felt good that we’d made such a valiant attempt to hold our Whitehall site, but ultimately sad that we had lost it. (I found out later that, after the locked-on rebels had been removed, the crowd of singing supporters had surged in and sat down in our place. They’d held the site for another twelve hours). The whole experience had been surprisingly fun. I’d been afraid of being arrested, had built it up in my mind, but in the end—for someone in my position of privilege at least— there had been little to fear.
I reflected on the value of forging human connections wherever possible, even with people who might seem like opponents.
Mostly, I thought about the contrast between my experience and that of the indigenous protesters in Ecuador. I’d been met with tea and porridge; they’d been met with tear gas and rubber bullets.
I’m still waiting to find out exactly how much my court costs will be, but certainly they will be nothing compared to the price paid by those who peacefully took to the streets of Quito.
Beth Pitts is the author of the Moon Guide to Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands (2019), the first international guidebook on Ecuador with a focus on ethical travel. She has been working with indigenous communities in Ecuador since 2013, especially those defending their territories from extractivism. Her particular focus is the struggle against oil exploitation in the Amazon. Beth has recently joined the Writers Rebel team.