Exemption

By Mat Osmond

Mat at the October Rebellion

I’d tend to say that I’ve not much use for hope when looking at the Climate and Ecological Emergency, but of course XR has a wild, improbable hope written all over it. The infectious power of that hope is surely why so many thousands of us have already responded to its call: the idea that if sufficient numbers of citizens confront this planned extermination of the living world by rising up in non-violent civil disobedience, our doing so might yet precipitate a significant process of change. And despite how bad things look, I most certainly feel the visceral pull that hope, or I wouldn’t be caught up in this.

One thing we can be sure of is that XR’s emergence has triggered something that’s caught many of us by surprise. A great many people, it would seem, already know the game is up on industrial civilisation, but have had no way of expressing that knowing, let alone of acting upon it. Which is to say, perhaps, they’ve had nowhere to place the burden of it, and have been left lying awake at 3am with an ever-worsening situation quietly gnawing at them.

I spent four days in London with XR’s October 2019 Rebellion, on the last of which I finally met up with an old friend from the Amida Shu sangha who I’d been trying to find all week – a Buddhist priest called Satya Robyn. Satya’s been deeply involved in XR this past year and it’s been a joy to watch the humane, grounded spirituality of her Amidist school of Buddhism – the one that’s most deeply shaped my own perspective on prayer – informing her response to and engagement with XR.

I joined Satya and other XR Buddhists early that final morning for a meditation vigil – one that would blockade the doorway to BP’s London Headquarters. Rookies that we were, we’d not factored on their second door, and by the time we crossed our legs we sort of knew our arrestible action was going to be politely ignored – as indeed it was.

After a couple of hours sitting there in silence we made our way to Trafalgar Square. By this point pretty much all the remaining XR presence in London had been corralled into that central zone, and the police had begun an accelerated process of removal and arrest. Mopping all this up.

I met some Cornwall friends at a road-block at the top of Whitehall and sat down with them. Peering between the legs of the police I found myself watching a troupe of young dancers who’d formed themselves into a ghostly, pulsating siphonophore, a composite creature floating and revolving in the open space between us and the main police lines, in complete silence. The Shimmer, as I later learned this many-legged being was called. As I sat entranced by its slow movement, Satya was carried past me by four police, sobbing deeply as she hung between them. You can read her own account of it here.

A few moments later an officer told me to move from the road, and when I refused, he asked if I understood the consequences of that refusal. I remember replying that what I understood was the consequences of this movement failing, and that understanding what its failure meant filled me with grief and terror. A bit hyperbolic, maybe, but true.

My mouth was now dry as sandpaper and I’d begun to feel dizzy. Then something unexpected happened: an old friend, a writer connected to the Dark Mountain Project, appeared out of nowhere and laid his hand on my shoulder without saying a word. The effect of his gesture was extraordinary. I felt rooted to the earth by it, as if the small weight of his hand ran down through me and into the ground, planting me there on the tarmac. The officer asked if I wanted to have more time to think about it, to which I replied I’d not been thinking about much else for the past four days, so now was probably good.

My friend was arrested a few moments after me, and like Satya and many others I know, he spoke of the overwhelming emotion that the experience evoked in him. For me it was rather different. Mainly, it was just a relief. To be finally doing something, maybe. As the police processed me I had plenty of time to talk to them about their role in the unfolding street theatre which our actions that week had co-opted them into. About the extra shifts they were working as a result. About why we were there.

The following nine hours were, I think, the most interesting of my recent life. They were also the quietest of that week. There’s been much discussion, since, about the privilege-bias of XR’s mass-arrest strategy. I certainly get that being arrested is a lot less vulnerable or high-stakes for some of us than it is for others – and yes, the whole encounter offered a nine-hour forensic examination of the social privileges that have shaped and still surround my rather sheltered life. So I’ve no real defence to offer this privilege-bias charge, other than to keep the situation where I can see it, as best I can anyway. And being on the wrong side of a police counter seemed to enable this quite effectively.

But about privilege itself. My friend Amos taught me that what the word privilege actually means is ‘exemption’. The term comes to us from an old tradition of papal exemption from communal taxes. And that’s exactly how privilege plays out in our culture, isn’t it? And why it has the bitter connotation that it does. What our culture tells us to do with privilege is to conserve it: hoard it, shore it up – keep it for yourself, and then pass it on to your own young.

One privilege I was aware of during that week in London was the behaviour of the police. None of us were being killed for being here, as is happening right now in so many other parts of the world – the Amazon especially – to those who dare to take a stand on these same issues. But more significant yet, for me, is the privilege that still enfolds most of us in the UK: the relative ecological stability we still enjoy, but that we can no longer expect to pass onto to our children – our own, or anyone else’s – as they set out on their lives. And along with that stability, pretty much every good or beautiful or otherwise crucial thing you can name or point to.

How do we respond to the fact that we’re living within a cannibal economy – a culture that’s knowingly and wilfully devouring the future lives of its own young? The dilemma of how to spend our own obscene exemption from what they will have to face still seems to me to overshadow these other, unevenly distributed privileges.

Meanwhile I found myself absorbed by those around me – especially the officer currently responsible for me, a nervous young man about my eldest’s son’s age, who seemed unfamiliar with the necessary protocols, and who I found myself feeling oddly protective of as he stumbled over some of the details and was met with a brisk impatience from his supervisor.

As you may have gathered, I’m not entirely convinced that this strange new composite being called XR has quite figured out what it is yet. We’ll see in the coming months and years, I guess. One thing I did learn that day is that a police cell is a good place to pray. This may sound stupid, but as XR UK’s next uprising approaches, I’ve noticed that the biggest obstacle to returning to arrestible action, for me, is that fractious argument around privilege. But however exposing those questions feel, I reckon that all things considered, such problems are best negotiated by going back and doing it again, and then again, as we work out together what this movement might yet become.

All of us now, one way or another.

Mat Osmond, Mid-Cornwall XR

Mat Osmond’s a writer and illustrator based in Falmouth, Cornwall, with a longstanding connection to the Amida Shu Buddhist sangha. His most recent piece for The Dark Mountain Journal, Black Light, picks up some of threads mentioned here. Mat’s convener for Art.Earth’s 2021 creative summit at Dartington, UK, Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change. Much of Mat’s spare time currently goes on helping to further the regenerative groundswell that is XR, within his local community and beyond.

Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.

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