Mikey

A Bigger Picture – Vanessa Nakate

Vanessa Nakate on the cover of TIME magazine

Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan climate activist, who started the first climate strikes in Uganda as part of the Fridays for the Future movement. She was invited to various international conferences and was famously cropped out of an AP photo of her and other (white) climate activists. In the book, she reflects on that incident, her climate activism, racism, and there is a deep emphasis on intersectionality, particularly the links between climate and gender.

I found the book a great read, it was an enjoyable mix of things that felt familiar (eg. awkwardly holding up a sign somewhere), but in a very different context, and Vanessa’s personal reflections and history. 

Some of my favourite bits of the book are the parts where she is describing her early climate activism.  Where she was doing something that was difficult to explain to people, often on her own or with only a few people, often feeling ignored by passers-by.  The questions of where to go, and what the signs should say felt familiar.  She mentioned that she wasn’t sure what to put on the signs but included one slogan which said ‘Thanks for the Global Warming’ which was intended to be sarcastic.

However, while there were elements of her activism that felt familiar, it was also clear that she operates in a very different context.  There was an illuminating discussion about how school strikes may be an option for young people in the West but are more complicated in a place like Uganda where schools have to be paid for, and where failure to attend can be more strictly punished by expulsion. She writes about adapting the school strikes for her local schools by bringing the striking into the classroom, with the consent of the teachers.

One of the threads which runs through the book is intersectionality, in particular, the intersections of gender and race with the climate crisis.  One of the difficulties she has in getting more women activists involved, particularly young women, is that standing in a public place with a sign is seen as not something a marriageable woman would do.  Or alternatively, she is only doing it to be noticed by men.  As she becomes increasingly involved in a global movement, she becomes increasingly aware of the role racism plays in the climate change conversations, as well as the reality of the climate emergency.  Not only is she cropped out of pictures, but she notes the general lack of voices from the global South and when they are included it can be in a tokenistic way.  However, she also pays tribute to the many other activists, particularly women activists who have inspired the work she does and she brings their voices into the book.

Summer solidarity Sangha

This summer, XR Buddhists are inviting you to think about how we take action in solidarity with marginalised groups.

In the first session we will be considering what solidarity is, why we might find it uncomfortable, and what actions we can personally take this summer.  The emphasis is on how participants can act in solidarity with other groups, supporting other activists from marginalised groups in a variety of causes.  When we work in solidarity with others we are able to magnify their voices and their causes, and increase our own knowledge and empathic understanding for the complex ways in which capitalism and colonialism intersect.  There are lots of opportunities for people to support different actions, some of which are in person, some are digital activism and some include writing letters etc.  There are many ways to get involved.

We will then meet  up later in the summer to discuss actions we’ve taken (or not taken) and what we’ve learnt.  All are invited to join us. 

The first session is on Saturday the 11th of June at 1800. We will consider the following questions:

  1. What has brought me here today? 
  2. Why do I value solidarity
  3. What holds me back from reaching out
  4. What am I going to do? (link people to anti-oppression telegram)

If you’d like to see some of the actions you could take part in you can join the Anti Oppression Telegram group, run by the Anti Oppression circle.  It’s a broadcast channel that posts lots of different actions which are available for support.

The zoom link is here (passcode is 782585). If you aren’t able to make the meeting you are welcome to add your reflections and actions you are interested in taking below.

An open invitation to Buddhist Faith Groups from Extinction Rebellion Buddhists

People dressed in black, sit meditating in front of a bank. They are wearing placards which say 'Barclays: the ecocide bank' and show a world on fire.  The meditators sit with their eyes closed but with one hand raised in a mudra.

Many Buddhists are concerned about the climate and ecological emergency (CEE) and are wondering what to do about it. 

We are a group of people who have come together as Buddhists to practice compassion for all beings. We recognise that we all have an important role to play in addressing the CEE and developing a fairer and more just world. XR Buddhists (XRB) has been in existence for three years: we have sat in meditation, organised vigils with other faith groups, joined non-violent direct actions and provided a supportive community for Buddhists who are equally concerned about climate change. 

We became part of Extinction Rebellion (XR) Buddhists because we felt strongly that our Buddhist wisdom teachings offer something unique to this movement which has allowed us to offer a powerful presence, stability and a place of refuge to other members of Extinction Rebellion. We were also drawn by Extinction Rebellion’s principles, which reflected the Buddhist principles of non-violence non-blaming, a regenerative culture and inclusivity.  

On the 9th of April, we are meeting at Hyde Park in London as part of a series of events and protests organised by Extinction Rebellion. This will specifically be a day of outreach, training, and meditation: it will not be disruptive to the public. The events will carry on throughout the following week and to the Easter weekend. We welcome people at any time, but Saturday the 9th is a particularly good day to join us if you are new to XR Buddhists. 

We would very much like to extend a warm invitation to members of your sangha and people from your tradition who would like to come along. You can either meet us at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park at 0930 on the 9th of April (we will be the ones with meditation cushions and an XR Buddhists banner!) or join our XRB Rebellion Telegram group to get updates on where we are.  

We would be grateful if you could pass this invitation on to members of your group, and if anyone wants to find out more, they could look on our website,  which includes some pre-rebellion events which might be of interest. Or they are welcome to contact us at info@xrbuddhists.com

COP26: Online solidarity

My home vigil shrine for COP26

My experience of this year’s COP26 was different as I didn’t go to Glasgow. Like others, I find going to large protests challenging due to a health condition I have, and although I have kept trying, I made the decision for COP26 to stay home.

My usual tendency is to want to be in the thick of things, up front holding the banner, showing my love and commitment through being right where it matters. Instead I found  myself on my sofa in front of my laptop, when the main action was hundreds of miles away.

I had offered to help out with the Faith Bridge online vigil, which ran alongside the in person vigil in Glasgow. Two colleagues had already put in a lot of work, and I joined the team just a few weeks before the conference.  As is my usual style I hadn’t thought much about it, just thought it seemed a good option as I wasn’t going to Glasgow but still wanted to be involved.

So it was actually a surprise to discover what I did: a tremendous sense of solidarity with people of all faiths – people moved by a deep care for the earth and humanity, based on timeless lineages of spiritual practice. Somehow, by having the time and space to witness this in others, these qualities opened up more deeply in me, in a way I haven’t experienced so fully before.

Taking part in the online vigil was full of treasures – sitting in silence with others on screen, each in our own homes, witnessing all the hard working rebels in Glasgow in the cold and rain sitting on the road side, listening to Muslims reciting Quran verses on stewardship of the earth, lighting candles for future generations, zooming in at 3.30am for an all night vigil,,,. It brought to life in me a sense of kinship, and of  the critical importance of giving and receiving support in these momentous times. So rather than it being about “me” “being an activist” and “doing” lots of things (all of which are of course valid and necessary), in this experience I was part of a larger circle. Offering my prayers, presence and deep appreciation, and trusting that that too makes a difference.  

Wendell Berry says it well: “protest that endures I think is moved by a hope far more modest than public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence”. And I would add – alongside one another. 

By Abbie who is a member of XR Meditators and XR Buddhists

Stepping into active hope and holding fear at bay

Meditators including Tamsin at Barclays HQ on the 27th August

Reflections after joining the Barclays HQ action August 27th Canary Wharf London by Tamsin Bishton.

It’s mid August and I’m trying to work out how I’m going to get involved in the Impossible Rebellion. I’m not new to XR or rebellion, but the fear and the way it is influencing my connection to this Impossible Rebellion is. My heart is telling me I need to take part. It is my intention to take part. But the fear keeps whispering in my ear … It’s been months since I’ve been on the streets. It’s a year since I was at the last rebellion in London. Things have been so challenging since then. The police seem harder now. The risks feel greater. I’m stuck.

My friend and fellow mindfulness teacher Abbie invites me to join the XR Buddhists’ action at Barclays HQ and it is exactly the direct connection and invitation that I need to help me step out of my frozen state. Yes. This is something constructive I can do with my fear.

I arrive at Canary Wharf with my husband (there for morale support and to help with outreach) feeling lighter than I have done in weeks. I have found that once you see the climate and ecological emergency, once you really let it in and feel it, it is impossible to shut it out again. Sometimes I am able to carry it with me in a spirit of “active hope” as Joanna Macy terms it. But at other times the grief is almost overwhelming. Through this last 18 months of pandemic and isolation the grief has often won out over the hope for me. So noticing my lighter heart as we sit on a bench and wait for others to arrive, I feel gratitude starting to bubble up. 

I’m new to XR Buddhists and this is my first meditation action of this kind. I’m always in awe of the spirit of comradeship, kindness and shared purpose that flows from person to person during XR actions. It’s wonderful to meet this spirit again as, slowly, the pairs and individuals, dressed in black, looking for each other in the young Jubilee Park, recognise each other and form a group with quiet dignity and a few smiles of recognition.

We don’t know anyone else, and my friend Abbie is taking a well earned rest from the rebellion so isn’t here. But within minutes we’ve been greeted kindly, have shared some stories and connected with people. The sense of welcome is generous and compassionate.

Joe’s holding of the group, his hosting and preparation for the action, is so moving and warm. I share my heartbreak about the climate crisis, and what inspires me about it too, with my walking partner (who it turns out is from Brighton like me – small world) in the preparation space. I listen to her words about the same things. For the first time in a while I am really letting myself feel it. And the opportunity to have a real conversation like this with another human being feels so precious. And too rare.

It’s strange how my fear – which had been strong and commanding even the day before – just evaporates. Even though the police presence is very visible and noisy with lots of walkie talkie jabber, as I tune in to my breath and the movement through my body as we slowly begin to walk from the park to Barclays, what I notice is calm, sadness, purpose and relief. 

I listen to the wind blowing with some force around the base of the towers all around us. I hear the talk on the radio. 

“They are setting off walking” [crackle] [beep] [crackle] “Walking … they’re walking very slowly.” [beep] [crackle]

I almost laugh out loud.

Sitting in front of the Barclays building with my fellow meditators and the blackbirds is like coming home. I don’t know how else to describe it. As we are guided to raise our hands and practice the fearless Abhaya mudra – right hand held up as if to hold hate, greed, destruction, chaos, hopelessness at bay – then later touching the ground and calling on the earth as witness, I experience a flow of energy and warmth through my body even though the wind is blowing cold and my arms are bare.

I think about my privilege. I can take an action like this with a reasonable certainty that my physical safety is assured and that if I’m arrested my legal rights will be upheld in the end. And I know this is a privilege of my white skin and my class.

My mind moves to thoughts of what our fellow rebels might be doing on the other side of the river. I know the plan is to highlight the story of the blood money that has blighted our world and the lives of black and brown people through centuries of exploitation and violence. I send my sense of fearlessness and this energy that seems to be flowing up from the ground into my body outwards towards them across the river. I think of what this river flowing past us has seen. The goods, the plunder, the human cargo from around the planet.

When we’ve finished meditating and are about to walk back to the park, I try to look up to the top of Barclays tower. It’s not the tallest building at Canary Wharf, but I still can’t quite see the top. The glass reflects back, impenetrable. Are there people there inside? Was anyone watching? Does our meditation, our plea, our desperation to try and make people with power make different choices – does any of it make any sense to them?

On the train home I continue to tune in to the spirit of fearlessness that’s flowing through me. I’m so grateful to the people who organised the action, who held us and guided us, and to the life situation I find myself in which means I’m able to take part. I know fear will be back. It’s an unavoidable part of stepping up to the reality of this terrible, inescapable emergency we’re all facing. But I’m certain that active hope will be here for me too. That’s enough.

Mudra meditation at barclays

At the Barclays action on the 27th August 2021 Shantigarbha led XR Buddhists in a mudra meditation which was developed with Nick and Joe. The spoken words are reproduced below. In the action the words were accompanied by the actions of the blackbirds, seen behind the meditators in the photo above. You can read Joe’s account of this action here.

Mudra Meditation

As I ring the bell we bow to the Earth.

We sit in meditation together in alignment with our practice tradition, in support of all people and all species on the Earth who are facing hardship or threat of extinction in the face of the climate and ecological emergency.

We raise our right hand in the fearless Abhaya mudra. By doing this we express our fierce determination to protect and defend all beings from the harm that is threatened them by the actions of Barclays bank and much of the banking sector, which is funding fossil fuel extraction and projects across the world.

We express our determination to protect and defend all people and species afflicted by oil, coal and gas projects. To bear witness and to stand against corporations who support and fund projects that lead to the contamination of our precious water and air. And we pledge to protect and defend those whose land has been colonised for fossil fuel exploitation. And to stand with those who do not have the resources to protect themselves.

We stand firm in the face of this threat by opening our hearts to our love of the world, the preciousness and beauty of all life.

Lowering our arm we feel our groundedness with the Earth, and our connection with our breath which is also the breath of the Earth.

Touching the Earth with our right hand we call upon the Earth as our witness, we call upon the Earth as our witness that we, representing all people, are part of the intimately interdependent web of life on this planet.

We touch the Earth to acknowledge our mutuality with all life. To acknowledge that which harms others harms us all.

The Buddha-to-be called on the Earth to be his witness on the eve of his Enlightenment.

Now we call on the Earth to witness our right to being here in the fullness of ourselves as part of all life, and the right of all people and species to a life free of contamination and colonisation.

Withdrawing our hand we feel our groundedness with the Earth, and our connection with our breath which is the breath of the Earth.

Opening our eyes in a soft gaze, we awaken to clear seeing. We see the truth of the pain and harm being inflicted across our world by Barclays Bank and the banking sector, which supports projects that make profit for the few and suffering for the many. We awaken to the reality of death, and so we see the preciousness of life. We awaken to the suffering of those who have been seduced by the promise of money and power. And we acknowledge the power of this seduction in our own hearts and the dominance of this in our culture. We acknowledge how we have personally benefitted by the use of fossil fuels and we hold this reality. We do not turn away.

Closing our eyes again we remember our groundedness with the Earth, and our connection with our breath which is the breath of the Earth.

We hold our hands together in front of our heartsin the ancient mudra of devotion and salutation. In our imagination we hold the Chintamani, the wish-fulfilling jewel, to our heart. This jewel represents Enlightenment, the potential for collective Awakening. We send our blessings our care and love to all beings who are suffering as a consequence of our industrialised society’s relentless hunger for oil, which is supported by Barclays and our financial sector. We send kindness and care to human and non-human species being devastated by fossil fuel exploitation in the Boreal forests of Canada, in the vast coal mine in Columbia, and in the areas of the USA blighted by fracking.

Releasing our hands we remember our groundedness with the Earth, and our connection with our breath which is the breath of the Earth

As I ring the bell we bow once again to the Earth.

May all beings on this beautiful precious blue green planet, our home, be free of suffering. May all beings flourish once again, free of the taint of pollution and harm. And so with love and pain in our hearts we meditate together…

You can order Shantigarbha’s new book on climate change “The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergencyhere.

Rebellion Report – Andy

Andy meditating on day one of the #impossiblerebellion in Trafalgar Square

It was my second day at the rebellion. Up to now I had been engaged but not emotionally. The action at BP HQ changed that, because of the thoughts it stimulated during the meditation.

I have developed the habit of meditating on the four immeasurable thoughts during actions, somewhat as follows:

  • May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes. May I myself bring them to happiness and its causes. Please Gurus and Deities, bless me to be able to do this.
  • May all sentient beings be free from suffering and its causes…etc
  • May all sentient beings abide forever in bliss and its causes…etc
  • May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, and its causes…etc

As I started to get into this meditation, I began to think about who the sentient beings involved in BP include. I began with the CEO, maybe sitting in a big office at the top of the building; then all the others in the company involved in making decisions; then the shareholders, investing in order to get a return; then the motor industry, continuing to produce vehicles that consume the petroleum; the construction companies who make the roads; the politicians who facilitate this whole process through decisions about taxation and planning policy etc; and finally, we the public, who wish to travel from A to B.

As I took the thoughts deeper, I reflected on all the karma (action) of creating the causes of mass extinction through the creation of carbon emissions through using petroleum. I reasoned that if people are ignorant of the consequences, as many of us were in the past, then the karmic consequences aren’t so great. However, now we all know. Everyone from the CEO down knows. So, like it or not, all involved in the process are creating the karmic causes of killing on a wide scale.

The Buddha taught that the karmic results of killing are several – rebirth in a lower realm; when born a human, having the tendency to kill again or experiencing being killed; and living in a place with much violence and lack of resources.

What about knowingly generating the causes of mass extinction?

Not far into this train of thought, I started to break down in tears. It happened a few times during our half hour of meditation. At one point I opened my eyes and saw the most beautiful huge trees opposite, in St James Square. This triggered a further burst of tears for all the forests and their inhabitants destroyed by warming.

As I said in the debrief after, I find this unbearable, when it pierces my inner defences. Meditation has the capacity to do this.

I am now going into retreat for five weeks. I will revisit these thoughts and feelings during the retreat, I am sure. For me, this is the benefit of being a Buddhist, that one has a method for facing and working with the grief of the unbearability of what is happening.

The situation calls for the most powerful compassion. Compassion is the basis for action. Whatever action we take, based on such extraordinary compassion, will have a powerful impact, because the mind is powerful.

Andy has been studying, practising and teaching Buddhism within the Gelug Tibetan tradition for 40 years. He joined XR in 2019, and is active in his local XR group in South Somerset.

Barclays, Buddhists and Blackbirds

The Barclays HQ action August 27th Canary Wharf London: by Joe Mishan

As I exit the station at Canary wharf with my friend Elizabeth to join the others in the  park, I notice with alarm a rather generous scattering of police; I immediately know that we have been rumbled. I am carrying a banner which is a bit of a give away I have to admit. A minute after sitting down in the park with the early arrivals for the action, the various exits to the park appear to be secreting police and security, some of whom amble casually toward us. I explain we are an XR Buddhist group and that we are constitutionally quiet, and have no intention to break anything; that we will be meditating in front of a bank in an undisclosed location. The police listen doubtfully, issue warnings about damage to property and general misbehavior before sauntering away to form an amphitheater of yellow jackets as we slowly grow in numbers. 

I am gladdened to see so many of us: about 36 Buddhists some of whom I have not seen for some time. And a group of the newly formed Blackbirds who are joining us with their bird-voices and movement as a backdrop to our meditation. 

I ask the group to pair up and to reflect on the impact of the climate crisis; what breaks our hearts? What inspires us? As I’m standing in the centre of the group amid the murmur of voices, a heavily uniformed policeman approaches me and says that since I don’t have a partner he is willing to hear my reflections! This is a novel situation (which is in no XR training manual as far as I know) and I’m aware of an instant conflict between curiosity, and eagerness to take up the opportunity to see what happens – and suspicion and hostility. I decide on the former course of action, and tell him about my deep concern for my children, how my early life primed me for sensitivity to harm to the natural world, and my guilt at my contribution to the crisis. He seems attentive in a somewhat distant way. He declines to reciprocate though, saying that he is not allowed to share his opinion whilst in uniform. He does tell me however that he’s been in uniform  – the army and the police – since the age of 17. I suppose I will never know what his intentions in approaching me were: and I wondered also whether he really knew what they were himself.

We form a column to exit the park. Our placards read: ‘Barclays: the Ecocide Bank’ under a picture of the Earth on fire. It’s pithy and in yer face: and also true. Barclays is the highest investor in fossil fuels in Europe. Since the Paris agreement they have poured $145bn into fossil fuel projects around the world, and despite net zero promises there is no sign of them slowing down. We set off in a slow meditation walk to the deep resonance of a single drum-beat. The sound echoes eerily off the glass and concrete of the streets. 

Canary wharf is in my experience a uniquely dehumanised, de-natured place. There is something almost sinister here: a place of rigid angularity, every centimeter privatised, claimed and conquered by the corporate dollar. Gleaming surfaces occupying the vertical and horizontal planes. It was into this arid place that our march took us: the slow heartbeat of the drum echoing the heart-ache of all we have lost in the name of profit.

On reaching the towering bulk of Barclays we were greeted (or intimidated), by the sight of more than 40 police lining the edges of the roads, backed up by metal barriers. Such is the mobilizing power of meditation. We were granted a place to sit at a safe distance from the front doors of the building and we settled onto our places. I was handing out leaflets to the few passersby and was privileged to witness the soft insistent power of lines of meditators sitting in stillness. It was in intensely moving experience shared, so I heard later, by the head of security at the bank. 

Shantigarba began the guided meditation as the Blackbirds gathered behind us, performing bird-language curiosity at the unusual stillness of these humans, and then joining in in appreciation with vocal calls and postures which echoed and amplified. The meditation moved through four mudras; the fierce abhaya mudra, the Earth-touching mudra, calling on the Earth to witness our belonging to web of life, then an invitation to open the eyes to see clearly into the pain being inflicting on the Earth. And finally in anjali, the meditators bowed to the Earth and sent kindness and well-wishing to all beings blighted by the impacts of the fossil fuel industry.

As I watched the silent synchronicity of movement flow across the lines of meditators, the grief I had been feeling all week broke through again. It was intensified I think by the unyielding immobility of the police ranks, the locked and closed doors and the empty glass windows of the building behind them. My grief was the grief for the lost heart of humanity; lost beyond reach in a labyrinth of greed and delusion. 

After the sitting meditation we walked again in slow procession back to the park to gather again and read the Buddhist Declaration of Interdependence. It was good to be back under the few trees in the park again, their generous shelter and reliable presence. 

At this action, like so many others, I was reminded of the exceptional grace and power of our faith and its expression through meditation. I felt honoured to be part of this Sangha of Buddhist activists which has such heart and courage in it. 

Thank you to all who took part, and a deep bow to the Backbirds who have flown into our hearts like a blessing. 

Namaste to all

Joe Mishan was one of the original co co-ordinators of XR Buddhists and is pictured below.

S14 trial at City of London Magistrates

By Mikey

A folder with tabs on it.  There is a statue of Quan Yin on the folder and a number of coloured cue cards with a lotus patch all pinned together.

As a teenager I was so bad at facing difficult things that I had my GCSE results sent away to a family friend so that I didn’t have to face them. I was acutely sensitive to failure and rejection and strived to remove myself from situations where they might be present. But as I grew into my twenties I found turning and facing unpleasant things was incrementally easier the more I did it. 

Deep into my thirties it came as a surprise to me to have this childhood coping mechanism re-emerge. When did this turning away appear? When I should have been preparing for a trial. I had been charged with a breach of section 14 of the Public Order Act, or as I called it ‘meditating in the road’. Instead of preparing my defense I found myself watching a lot of Homeland, and it also seemed far easier to watch long legal commentaries on the state of Britney Spears’ conservatorship than to prepare my own defence. To try and make progress I fell back on the bargaining that got me through my university coursework. Back then 150 words would get me a cappuccino, today writing a couple of cue cards would get me a whole episode of spy TV. I kept thinking that in the final week before my trial I’d be motivated to work on my defence, or in that final weekend, or the day before, or on the train ride to London. But motivation never really materialised. 

I managed to do bits and pieces. I decided I wanted to talk about heatwaves and drew on the Climate Change Risk Assessment from the Climate Change Committee, and particularly their briefing on the risks associated with higher temperatures. I wanted to make the point that while my motivation to act was the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable and those who had contributed least, there are very real impacts felt here too. 

The solicitor who had helped me with the plea hearing was kind enough to be quite direct with me about my chances in the trial. I had no effective legal defence. I had the sense that she was rather worn out by these activists pursuing legally incomprehensible strategies. And yet having a trial felt very important. After a long career of public silence in the civil service, the opportunity to state my truth out loud was important to me. 

However I felt quite confused about my own defence. Was I guilty? Had I set out to break the law on purpose? Was the aim to get convicted? And if so, what sort of defence statement should I make? I was holding in my head two slightly contradictory ideas: 1) that civil disobedience is a plausible tactic to enact change – and that can involve breaking the law – therefore I am guilty; and 2) I’m not guilty because this is an emergency – a moral argument, but not one the court accepts. 

A few things helped me in the run-up to the trial: Lucy Chan gave a lovely talk about Fierce Compassion at one of our meetings, and it helped me to connect with embodied compassion (something that I’d been struggling with); I took the Quan Yin statue I’d acquired after the last Rebellion with me to London for the trial; and I thought of my favourite chapter in Satya’s book Dear Earth about being held in the lap of the Buddha. As I made my way to court in a slightly cramped taxi, I remembered reading about the concept of bombu nature – that we are all foolish beings – and that cheered me up! Here I was, clasping my foolish folder of papers in my sweaty hands, my foolish cue cards, my foolish defence. And I would go to court and meet the foolish judge and the foolish prosecutor, and we would have a foolish trial. 

I was found guilty in a hot, stuffy courtroom on the 13th of July. The Judge had been reasonable and polite. In his judgement on the case he gave us a gentle 30-minute schooling on how the law does and doesn’t work. I had been worried about breaking down in court before the trial, but on the day I’d found myself nervous but steady. The only moment I felt a slight prickling behind my eyes was when the judge pronounced us guilty. The upshot of all of it was a nine-month conditional discharge and £322 in costs. 

On the coach back to Bristol I texted my friends and family updates on the trial, and assurances that I was feeling buoyant. “I’m a bona fide criminal!” I told them. I’m still processing what that means. 

The socialisation I received about crime and justice as a child – that only bad people are guilty of crimes – will take time to unlearn. I can hold in my head statistics and arguments about failures of the criminal justice system, including its systematic bias against Black people and other ethnic minorities. I know and respect many activists who have broken the law. I am inspired by historical examples of people who chose non-violent civil disobedience. I still think about Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. I was energised by John Lewis’s idea of ‘good trouble’. And yet, despite knowing all of that, my having a criminal record still seems novel and unlikely.

What happens next? I don’t really know, but the world is still not paying enough attention to the urgency of climate change. I still believe in non-violent civil disobedience as a tactic for creating change (though not the only one). I think there are more sacrifices I can make. 

But, if the Crown Prosecution Service is reading this, the answer is I’m definitely not going to get in more trouble. Or at least not for the next nine months. 

Mikey is an XR Buddhist activist currently working on the Camino to COP. They have previously written about their their arrest and experience of juggling their civil service career and activism.

Arrest report: September 2020 Rebellion

I shut down when I was arrested. I closed my eyes and tried to find some part of me inside which felt stable, while I was carried by officers through Parliament Square.  I could feel my jeans slipping. The officers put handcuffs on me because I wasn’t cooperating. At one point they put me down and told me to pull up my jeans, something I struggled to do while disorientated and with my hands cuffed in front of me.  Someone yelled out ‘throw them in the bath, they are all dirty’, and the police officers (who very much were fed up with carrying me) kindly told me to ignore it.  I was numbly aware that it was possible one of my civil service colleagues might see me ignobly dragged through Whitehall. 

I was asked to be searched, which I agreed to. The officers found a note I’d written asking for someone to call my partner if I was arrested.  A legal observer following me asked if I gave permission for them to take the note. I was so grateful to connect with someone who was on my side.  He took the note, and followed me. By this time I’d agreed to walk, but still mostly had my eyes closed. I can usually navigate my mild autism quite well but I felt it keenly during this period.  We eventually arrived at a police van down by the Foreign Office where I saw Kaspa and Satya. I was in too much shock to have a conversation, but their gentle chatter between themselves and with the officers helped to slowly calm me down.  Orientate myself.

We waited for a long time before setting off in the van.  I was still handcuffed and can remember feeling quite sick, through a combination of nausea, dehydration and shock.  Kaspa and Satya were offered water, I was not, and didn’t quite know how to ask for it, or how I would open the bottles while I was in handcuffs. So I watched the businesses go by and tried to note their names as a way of keeping my mind occupied. I could hear Kaspa and Satya chattering about family visits in the background and tried to leach some of their purported nonchalance.

We arrived at Lewisham police station.  We sat on benches outside the custody suite, they were the sort of benches I used to bunny hop over in school gyms. I was cold, and eventually managed to ask for my hoodie after I’d seen other people asking for things from their bags, which led to them finally unhandcuffing me. That helped unlock some of the mental paralysis I’d been feeling.  I sat next to Satya and overly conscious of not having any XR related chat grilled her on Pureland Buddhism which she gamely fielded. 

I was taken inside for processing.  I was very thirsty by that point, I hadn’t managed to ask for any water.  Asking for things made me feel vulnerable. Being processed was an odd mixture of deep concern (was I okay?  Did I have any injuries to report?  Did I have any mental illnesses? Had my rights been explained to me?  Would I like to take this booklet away to read more about my rights? Of course they could get me some water!) and being treated like an object – particularly when it came to being searched and having my fingerprints and DNA taken.  The custody officer had obviously been on some training as when I told him my title was Mx and explained it was a gender-neutral honourific he asked if I wanted to be searched by a male or female officer (presumably no non-binary officers were around…)

Eventually, and sort of blissfully, I was taken to my ‘cell’.  I can remember doing my NVDA training in Islington ages ago and discovering that in the UK you got your own cell when arrested rather than the more American style ‘drunk tank’ experience. I think that was the first time I thought that maybe I could get arrested.  Eventually, a vegan meal and orange squash appeared as well in the cell.  I was mostly preoccupied by the fact that there wasn’t any toilet paper.  Why wasn’t there any toilet paper?!  Was this on purpose?  Did we not get any?  It took me hours to convince myself that they must want you to ask for it, and that would be an okay thing to do.  Eventually, they took me to make a call to my solicitor and at that point I tried to ask for it as casually as possible and it turned up in my cell five minutes later. 

I couldn’t sleep in the cell.  The blue waterproof mattress wasn’t very conducive to comfort.  Someone was banging on their door.  There was a stencil on the ceiling saying ‘protected by Smart Water’.  What did that mean?  It conjured images of Jennifer Aniston protecting my cell.  I meditated a little. I read aloud from the Thich Nhat Hanh book. 

At some point in the early hours, I was told I would be released.  It’s very dangerous in Lewisham at this time of night, I was told by the officers.  You can stay in the police reception if you want.  I still felt adrenalised and a little numb. Eventually Kaspa and I with another rebel managed to get a taxi back into central London and I was able to jump out when the taxi met the Thames. We were told Satya wouldn’t be released for hours.  This turned out to not be true. 

It was an odd experience walking back along the Thames to my accommodation.  There was a full moon. It was a stretch of the river I knew well. I had many happy times at the National Theatre, at the BFI.  I could see the Houses of Parliament across the river. I could see my first workplace when I started in the civil service. Below that big moon it felt like my life had come to a turning point. 

This whole process has been a difficult one for me. And yet I’m also grateful for many things.  That I could take part in actions without expecting to be treated badly by the police, that I didn’t (in the end) lose my job because of my activism, that I’ve had legal support from XR, and that Kaspa and Satya were there with me. Being in a situation that is more likely to lead to arrest is not possible for everyone. 

The following morning I saw photos of my arrest. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my body, I hated being photographed and yet I shared those images with everyone I knew. I was proud.