To succeed, environmental activists Extinction Rebellion must urgently change their attitude to the police

Cops with cameras with Extinction Rebellion logo
Emily Apple

The environmental activists at Extinction Rebellion (ER) are hitting the headlines and appear to be gaining momentum. Based on the premise that the planet’s climate crisis is at a point we can’t ignore, ER argues that radical action is needed – that rebellion is needed.

I couldn’t agree more. But if the rebellion is to be successful, ER urgently needs to reevaluate its relationship with the police and address the language it’s using.

In the spirit of critical solidarity…

As my colleague Steve Topple argued in a recent piece about ER:

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To put it bluntly: we’re fucked. And the only way it will change is by all of us taking drastic action now. We can’t leave it to politicians and corporations to decide. Unless someone can name one point in history when leaving power in the hands of a few has been good for the many? As in every single lifeform on this planet? And when it actually lasted.

Enough is enough. It really is time to rebel. Before extinction snatches the opportunity away from us.

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So I write this piece as a critical friend, both from personal experience and from years of critiquing and analysing policing.

The police are not your friends

Let’s start with the basics. The police are not your friends. One account from an arrestee at the ER launch event on 31 October reads:

By the time… we were released… my fellow arrestees and I had become friends with these decent men trying to keep London safe from violence and crime. We recognise that it is their job to arrest us on such occasions, on behalf of our fossil-fuel drenched government.

I realise this is one particular account. And I’m not using it to target the individual concerned. I’m using it as an example because they were one of the speakers at the event and because it seems to be symptomatic of a lot of the rhetoric coming from ER.

The account also concedes that:

we naturally oppose any and all discriminatory abuse of police power.

But that misses a crucial point. These very same “decent men” may well be the same men who are ‘abusing police power’. I spoke to someone recently who’d witnessed me being violently arrested at a climate camp. One of the things that struck them was how quickly the cops involved changed. They described, in particular, talking to one man who seemed like a friendly grandad beforehand turning into a violent thug. It emphasised to them the reasons why legal support groups emphasise the message that the ‘police are not your friend’ and ‘there’s no such thing as a friendly chat with the cops’. And the point is that this wasn’t a one-off. It’s a daily occurrence, as anyone who’s had regular dealings with the police can attest.

Power relationships: what is the purpose of the police?

The account also fails to critique the fundamental relationship between the police, the state and corporations. Ultimately, the police are there to protect the interests of the state. Those interests are firmly linked to protecting corporations. As Green peer Jenny Jones outlined in a recent video for the Network for Police Monitoring:

It’s obvious to me that policing has changed a lot. The police seem to have lost focus on facilitating peaceful protest. What they seem to be doing is prioritising private companies and protection of property over local people who are there to protest something they care very deeply about.

This isn’t about “decent men” taking a break from dealing with nasty criminals to arrest climate protectors. It’s about the fundamental structure and purpose of the police force.

Just look at the violent and oppressive policing used against anti-fracking protesters at places like Preston New Road; or the draconian actions taken against people trying to save trees from destruction in Sheffield. Time and again, policing priorities appear to focus on protecting property and companies rather than our right to dissent.

So ER’s language seems to fundamentally ignore the role and the purpose of the police. As sociologist Alex Vitale explains in his book The End of Policing, the creation of the Metropolitan Police:

had at its core not fighting crime, but managing disorder and protecting the propertied classes from the rabble. [The founder of the MPS Sir Robert] Peel developed his ideas while managing the British colonial occupation of Ireland and seeking new forms of social control that would allow for continued political and economic domination in the face of growing insurrections, riots, and political uprisings.

The importance of saying ‘no’ – and police reactions if you do

At a recent ER ‘Know Your Rights’ training, the facilitator spoke about your rights when arrested. In relation to being booked in at the police station, he said:

Be polite – they’re not generally unfriendly or aggressive.

If you’re white and you’re compliant, it’s possible that you can go through the custody process without encountering a violent or aggressive cop. Not always. But it’s possible.

The moment you assert your rights, though, and the moment you say ‘no’, the gloves come off.

Saying no is important for rebellion. It’s also important in asserting our rights. And it’s important when you’re caught up in a system that is doing everything it can to take those rights away from you. I wasn’t being violent or aggressive, for example, when I quietly refused to co-operate with police officers over a wrongful arrest. But that didn’t stop male officers dragging me to a cell and strip searching me by force. It hasn’t stopped police officers threatening to break bones or threatening to “cause as much pain as possible”.

To truly embrace intersectionality, diversity and inclusion, the attitude to police needs to change 

As I’ve written many times about my experiences with the police, I’m lucky. Those interactions were a result of political involvement. They didn’t happen because of the colour of my skin; and I am very aware of this privilege.

ER, and its sister organisation Rising Up, are rightly aiming for a movement that acknowledges intersectionality; placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of organising. The Rising Up document on diversity and inclusion states its aim of being an “inclusive movement” and that:

We do not wish to pay lip service to this issue, we seek ways to embed it into our strategy, processes, training and thinking.

Absolutely. But this isn’t going to happen unless there’s a fundamental shift in the language ER is using about policing. Because we have a police force that even senior police officers admit is still ‘institutionally racist’. While the overall number of stop and searches have decreased, Black people are now eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

Meanwhile, a report from 2015 found that:

While 3% of the population was from African-Caribbean groups in the forces we inspected, people from these backgrounds represented 9% of the custody throughput, and 17% of those strip-searched.”

Language is exclusionary when it ignores or denies people’s lived experience

So when the language used by a group includes statements like cops being ‘your friends’ or that they’re not usually ‘aggressive or unfriendly’, it’s exclusionary. Because it denies the lived experience of many people, especially those from Black and minority ethnic communities.

This is also the case with comments such as “trying to keep London safe from violence and crime”. For example, a recent report from StopWatch found that the Metropolitan Police’s gangs database is “ineffective”, “humiliating” and “racist”.

Speaking at the launch of the report, anti-racist and civil liberties campaigner Stafford Scott stated:

This war between the police and young Black people has being going on since the Windrush. This particular iteration of this war began after the execution of Mark Duggan… in a time of austerity, in a time of economic downturn the system always looks at people to blame.

Chief executive of StopWatch Katrina Ffrench, meanwhile, said:

The young people we work with describe being stopped and searched as a daily occurrence, like putting on clothes – some people report being stopped and searched as many as three times a day. I think it’s hard for most people to imagine that level of invasion of personal space and the mental strain the young people experience.

It may be hard to imagine. But it’s important that people try. Because unless they do, and translate that thought into their language, it will be impossible to build a truly inclusive and diverse movement.

A true understanding of rebellion means preparing to face the full force of the state

Fundamentally, the language ER and its supporters use appears to lack a true understanding of rebellion. The group claims that:

The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits.

When Government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.

I agree. It is our duty to rebel. But effective rebellion will mean facing the full force and the full power of the state, and being prepared for the consequences. It only takes a cursory look at the policing at Preston New Road to see what happens when actions start effectively challenging corporations.

Meanwhile, we’re at the heart of a scandal over undercover police officers intruding into our lives, disrupting and manipulating our movements with no indication that anything’s changed; we’ve experienced police harassment designed to deter people from protesting; and we’re living at a time when authorities view any disruptive protest as domestic extremism and police it with counter-terrorism strategy.

Information is empowering – but that information must be accurate and realistic

People need to be equipped with the right information to engage in effective rebellion. This doesn’t mean scaring people. But it does mean making people fully aware of the fight and what’s at stake. Because we need to go into a rebellion with informed consent.

This means, for example, stopping giving presentations that tell people they can choose to go to prison for a week for breaching bail conditions and that going to jail “gets you a meeting with Sadiq Khan’s chief policy officer”.

I’ve been refused bail and remanded twice. Both times, the refusal was taken to a higher court. Both times, a judge saw sense and freed me in under a week. But the scary thing about being on remand is not knowing how long you’ll be inside for. It could be a week, it could be six months, it could be longer. And I’ve certainly never been offered a meeting with any senior policy officers.

It also means not promoting language for training that includes learning “how much fun it can be being locked up”. Actions can be fun, of course. Even court cases can be fun. Both can certainly be empowering. But at best, having your freedom taken away is fucking boring. And at worst, it can consist of humiliation, threats, assaults, and even death.

Informed consent and awareness of mental health consequences

Informed consent also means being realistic about violence and trauma, and the impact these things can have. No amount of statements of non-violence (analysing ER’s approach to non-violence would take a separate article) will stop the police going in with full force if what you’re doing is a threat to the state or corporate profit. It won’t stop fundamental police tactics of harassment and disruption; tactics designed to deliberately deter people from protesting.

I’ve had two breakdowns as a direct result of harassment and violent policing. I know what the price is when self-care and mental health aren’t at the top of the agenda. I know what it feels like to think the thing you’re doing is so important that you can’t stop; until, that is, your body just shuts down and refuses to co-operate any more.

But the fact is that, for any rebellion to be successful, it will need to threaten state and corporate interests. And if we’re serious about doing that – and the climate catastrophe we’re facing dictates that we must – then we have to be realistic about the way the state operates.

Let’s work together to build a truly diverse, realistic and sustainable rebellion

At the moment, the language ER uses and promotes is not only alienating but also upsetting to a lot of people like me.

But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because the central message ER is promoting is vital. And I’m hopeful that people in ER will see this and the critiques from elsewhere as coming from a friendly place.

Rebellion is needed. Rebellion is essential. So I’m hoping we can all work together to build a truly diverse, realistic and sustainable rebellion.

Get Involved!

–  Support the Network for Police Monitoring and learn more about policing, protest and your rights

–  Check out Green and Black Cross for your legal rights and the Activist Court Aid Brigade for defendant support.

–  Find out more about Extinction Rebellion

Featured image via author’s own screengrab

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