Stories from the Extinction Rebellion actions from 12th to 24th November 2018, by Phil Kingston:
I was delighted to meet old friends, Elsie (10) and her mother Heather. They live according to the Catholic Worker tradition, hosting destitute asylum seekers in their home, and taking direct action on matters of social justice. They are long admirers of Pope Francis and were in Colombia when he was there in 2017. The Catholic Worker tradition isn’t widely-known in the Catholic Church and it’s significant that when Pope Francis addressed the US Congress in September 2015, he included Dorothy Day, the CW co-founder in his reference to four Christian contributions to the US: ‘’A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; and the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.’’
Heather and Elsie came to meet members of Christian Climate Action to see if we would support Elsie on a special mission, namely to visit several of the London head offices of the 100 companies most responsible for 79% of global carbon emissions. She wanted a few of us to accompany her, quietly adding, ‘’…as long as you are willing to be in the background’’. The first stop after we joined her the next morning was Chevron, where she went in with her placard with a photo of the Managing Director on it, introduced herself to a security man, explained why she was there and asked to speak to the Managing Director. The security man explained that he was in the US so Elsie asked if she could speak with whoever was in charge in this building! After many internal phone calls, with Elsie speaking on some of them, the outcome was that a meeting wasn’t possible without an appointment.
I skip the next visit to Total because, again, a meeting wasn’t possible. The third was Royal Dutch Shell where, unlike the previous two, no member of the public can walk in. Elsie got her message through via the outside security and eventually received a promise that someone would speak with her. For the next hour and a half there was no news, but Elsie, undeterred, kept asking everyone coming out or going in ‘’Will you speak with me please about climate breakdown?’’ Perhaps 5% did so, most of them with warmth but the conversation usually ended quickly with their ‘thank you’. I marvelled that so many adults were frightened to engage with a 10-year old who was knowledgeable about ‘dirty fossil fuels’ and so persistent in not taking no for an answer…. Yes, a woman did eventually come out and invite them in. I heard that the next day she was going to BP, 10 Downing Street and the BBC to demand that they declare a climate emergency. On the third day, she was on page 17 of The Times for her efforts. And that led WWF to nominate her for a Green Heart Hero award!
I met them on another day when I was going into a police van. We could see one-another through the window. Elsie had a placard with ‘Thank you for giving up your freeness for my laterness’; and she and Heather held a banner with ‘Let your heart be broken by Climate Breakdown’. Heather and I shared tears. Film of Elsie going to BP: https://tinyurl.com/elsie-bp
Relating with the police. Being in close contact with police has been one of the most meaningful aspects of this fortnight. I have been treated with respect and consideration. This may partly be related to me being white, elderly and middle-class but we have more general evidence that the XR commitment to nonviolence to all persons in word and deed played an important part in police responses. I also know that some companions had a very different experience from mine.
In conversations with the police I tried early to say: ‘You have your job to do and I have mine; and there are no hard feelings either way’. Whenever the opportunity arose, I spoke about taking these actions because I am a grandfather and followed that by asking if they had children. My concern about climate breakdown was clearly shared by many, even if not always verbally expressed. One senior officer said ‘’We have 12 years in which to turn this around before my children face disaster’’. A policewoman said ‘’having nice people in the cells hurts my heart’’. When I said that there are likely to be thousands in future, she winced. The general demeanour of a large number of us in the same police station led one constable to say ‘‘You’re the best customers we’ve had’’. Whilst this is my experience I recognise that when the chips are down, the police are employed by a State which often does not work for the common good of all, and puts corporate power before the rights of citizens. Freedom of protest has strict limits in law and current laws offer virtually no protection for the Earth or future generations. Hence the necessity for us making a moral stand through civil disobedience and trying to use the legal defences which have enabled people to be found not guilty in the past, should we wish to do so.
I am happy to have met so many police who share the concerns and values of Extinction Rebellion whilst not condoning some of our methods. I added this verse to a song of Marshall B. Rosenberg’s which I sang to them in a number of contexts:
‘You have a difficult task, I can only ask that you keep your care going despite the cut-backs!’
That’s the society I want.
This next meeting with police was valuable learning for me. I was engaged in a non-arrestable action when someone called out ‘’Phil’’. Expecting to see a colleague, I was faced with a policewoman. She said that she had reason to believe that I was Phil Kingston. I was shocked but not much in touch with that at the time. I said ‘’Sister, you must have eyes in the back of your head’’, meaning that I was acknowledging her competence. She looked a bit blank and I hoped that my words hadn’t been interpreted as a put-down. I acknowledged who I am and she said that I was breaking bail conditions by being inside the M25 perimeter. She then warned me that if today or tomorrow (the last day of these actions) I was seen within this perimeter I would be arrested. I checked that I wasn’t being arrested now and she said that was correct so I said ‘’So is it OK if I go for a coffee?’’. She said ‘’Certainly’’. Relieved because I would still be free to be with my companions tomorrow, I went into a cafe and considered why I was so shaken. On previous occasions when I’ve been arrested, I’ve known it was coming. This time I’d moved in a flash from being a free man to being in the power of others. My need for security had taken a knock. It took me some time to re-find my equanimity.
Her responses were professional and courteous. I regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask her name so that I could have spoken it when I said goodbye.