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Being Arrested Scares Me, But the Climate Crisis Is Pushing Me to Act

Petitions and tweets won’t cut it. We need mass civil disobedience to set us on a new course.

An activist wears a jacket with the imprint "Fridays for Future" during a demonstration in Frankfurt, Germany, on September 13, 2019.

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My eyes are glued to a walk sign before I cross a road. I was never told not to run with scissors because, as if by instinct, I wouldn’t dare. I have never been arrested. I have a safe day job that involves writing about the climate crisis for news desks. For most of my life, I had not been one to take any risks.

But something changed after I began to grasp the increasingly dire circumstances the planet is facing. I went part-time and took a pay cut in order to devote more of my life to activism. Lately, I’ve been going to Extinction Rebellion direct actions.

Outside the Brazilian Embassy last August in London, I joined Extinction Rebellion to protest the damage being wrought on the rainforest and in support of Indigenous women who were marching in Brazil to demand recognition of their rights. We were protesting mining and fossil fuel extraction on land that non-Indigenous people have no right to be on, much less exploit, and organizing in solidarity with Indigenous leaders marching for their rights just to be alive. We used paint as a symbol of blood to bring attention to state violence against Indigenous people.

There were six people arrested that day in London; the police arrived quickly, in numbers. People braver than me climbed on the deco awning above the entrance, spilled paint and made red handprints on the embassy. I dodged paint and smiled at the police, just out of habit: I’d been taught since childhood that they were there to help me, even though now I know better.

Truthfully, I was scared. But in other countries, with alarming increase, environmental campaigners are murdered for defending their land. In Brazil and around the world, people are taking serious risks to protect our planet. Comparatively, what have I got to lose here in London?

There is also recognition within Extinction Rebellion that participants in our actions don’t share privilege equally. This is not an us-problem, but a society-wide problem.

Organizations need to commit more time and resources in order to center front-line communities much more, including Indigenous activists. It’s not enough to just say things, deeds have to follow. In countries that are hit by natural disasters worsened by climate crisis, people with disabilities often bear the brunt, because society is not arranged to support them in moments of disaster; thus, we must more properly prioritize the needs of disabled organizers. Since poorer countries are, of course, hardest hit, it’s the voices of activists on the ground that need to be listened to, and that’s not happening enough.

Climate apartheid is real. The rich will do what they’ve always done and pay to escape crises of their own making. This is what UN human rights experts outline: Climate breakdown means rights to water, food, and yes, life, are on the line, and already marginalized communities are often most seriously affected.

Meanwhile, the climate continues to break down, with devastating effect. Scientists are telling us to keep below 1.5°C global warming: Currently we are on a trajectory for 3-4°C warming, with no strategy in place to bring this global temperature down.

Petitions and tweeting won’t cut it. What’s actually left? Civil disobedience. In my journey through Extinction Rebellion, I have met people with far more to lose than me who are taking action. To understand the importance of civil disobedience in these times, I spoke with three activists who are already putting their bodies on the line.

Zion Lights, a British Indian mother of two and a science communicator who has blocked roads during direct actions coordinated by Extinction Rebellion, told me:

Any system that allows the planet to cook and burn is broken. We are in active Rebellion against the British government, which is failing to protect us from climate and ecological crisis. To be in Rebellion requires constant disruption – nonviolent civil disobedience – which will continue until our demands are met. The government must tell the truth about the climate emergency. This demand has so far only been met with lip service: we need all politicians, governments, and industries to tell the truth about the state of this emergency. None of us want to stand in front of traffic and cause disruption, but before we were doing so – alongside Fridays for the Future and other climate movements – climate crisis wasn’t even on the agenda.

I am not motivated by anger or rage, but grief and despair at the mass extinction and sheer loss…. I am also watching the rise of fascism with great trepidation and awareness of what my children may one day face and what displaced peoples around the world are already facing. The Earth is our only home. If standing in a road before oncoming traffic helps to salvage something for my children, I see no other choice but to do it.

Simon Bramwell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, was recently charged with a group of six others for causing criminal damage to Shell’s London headquarters during April’s Rebellion.

Simon told me:

Direct Action has become the last bastion of any authentic sovereignty we have left to us in this commodified, diminished mode of being we insist on calling life here in the western world. It’s a pure expression of agency, a will to advance change and walk towards a vivid, meaningful existence. It’s highly likely that aspects of direct action like civil disobedience are our only chance at ensuring this living planet of ours has a future, that’s what I believe and why I keep going.

Despite the consequences, I can no longer look the young people I know in the eye and do otherwise. Direct action has many forms, whether it’s destroying badger traps, planting trees, shutting down fracking sites or indeed entire cities, training people or taking children out for nature education classes: it’s ultimately about doing what love requires. To me it’s a moral obligation, a sacred duty. I am deeply and profoundly in love with both nature and life, sitting back whilst it’s obliterated in the name of profit or progress is not an option.

Cathy Eastburn, who was sent to a high-security prison for gluing herself to a Docklands Light Railway train earlier this year, told me:

For 30 years I’ve tried to do my bit — using public transport instead of driving, cutting down on flying, being vegetarian and now vegan, insulated my home well, etc. And I’ve also joined in with petitions, marches, writing to my MP and all that. The IPCC told us that unless massive action is taken now, we will reach the point of no return and will face imminent and catastrophic climate breakdown, meaning unimaginable loss of life, food shortages and war. I realised that my children’s future was in serious peril and that all my good citizenship to date had been in vain. In order to try and prevent serious harm from coming to my children, and all children, I joined Extinction Rebellion in November 2018. Initially I helped out by supporting people getting arrested and donating money. I feel I have no choice but to do this, in order to wake people up to the climate catastrophe that is now unfolding.

I’m struck by how many activists have told me they feel they have no choice but to give what they can to this movement. This isn’t just about arrestees: sound and structural engineers, scaffolders and sculptors are also needed to support direct actions. A wide variety of skills is useful to this growing movement, whether or not you can join us in the streets.

It’s challenging to leave whatever “normal” is for you, and place yourself in the struggle for climate action. But the question I’m asking myself is: If I don’t do this now, when will I? Who else is there? That’s the choice I am facing, and why paint on my clothes might just be something I will have to accept — maybe in a cell. I’m facing the fact that I just can’t accept climate apartheid and mass loss of life and species extinction on our one and only earthly home. If that’s the choice, then ultimately, I don’t need much persuading.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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