‘Swarming’ – Stories from Christian Climate Action Affinity Group -Part Two of Three

FOUR

I hadn’t previously heard about ‘Swarming’, a system of road-blocking which involves a number of affinity groups blocking road junctions for 7 minutes and then leaving the road for 3 minutes. Police were informed in advance of the days when this would happen and we were committed to do all that we could to ensure the passage of emergency service vehicles. I was involved in speaking to the drivers of the first few stopped vehicles to let them know how long we would remain on the road and why we were doing this. Their responses were a mixture of anger, frustration, understanding and support. We offered drivers a chocolate or cake and told them how long before we opened the road. Then if they were willing, we explained why are doing this and offered a leaflet. I soon found myself responding to the drivers on the inside lane where there were many buses. About three quarters of bus-drivers opened their window and the majority of them accepted a leaflet. If their response was at all positive, I asked if they would be willing to open the door for me to speak with passengers.  I warmed particularly to one who opened the door before I could ask and said ‘’Would you like to come in?’’ I explained to passengers that I am a grandfather who has big concerns about climate breakdown and what our descendants are heading for, and asked if anyone would like a leaflet. One put up a hand and others followed suit. The driver smiled and said ‘’You’ve got time to go upstairs!’’

We were joined by many young people and our experienced coordinators asked if anyone would be willing to take that role and be given support in developing it. Two of them stepped forward. The job carries considerable responsibility in ensuring that the group gets on and off the road safely and responds to the unpredictability of motorists and pedestrians. I saw these two take charge like ducks to water, and was later stunned to learn that the younger is 17.

All who wish to take part in Extinction Rebellion actions commit to accepting a ‘binding framework for non-violent direct actions’ (see Extinction Rebellion Action Consensus). This includes a commitment to being ‘strictly non-violent in our actions and communications with members of the public, workers, the authorities and each other at all times’. To get near this ideal is probably a life-long learning process so it should be no surprise when we fail. Being faced with a very angry or distressed person is likely to trigger fear or helplessness. That is sometimes so for me. The big advantage of an affinity group is that the support of others can bring us through. One incident was when two angry motorists grabbed the banner and tried to drag it to the ground. The coordinator saw that the lights were red and quickly told us to leave the road. The motorists, satisfied that they had ‘won’ got into their cars and drove off.

The anger of individual drivers who stayed in their cars was often much easier to respond to than that of pedestrians. Being willing to try to connect with the concerns of both was much more valuable than leaving them fuming or shouting.  The encounter which has most stayed with me is of a distraught carer who was weeping about an elderly patient not being able to take medication on time. My colleague asked if she would accept the fare for the underground but she was unconfident about that way of travel, and suddenly  set off to try to find the next bus stop. I am reasonably experienced in nonviolent communication but realise that I, and probably most others, need much role-playing of these situations before doing this work again.

Swarming is clearly the most controversial form of action in which we took part. We are seeking to achieve the aims of letting Government and all politicians know that inaction or half-hearted action is at an end; and of alerting citizens to the reality of the deepening crisis. Our request to all who are critical of anything we do is to tell us and, if at all possible, also to suggest alternatives which will still achieve these aims.

(A word about safety for others who become involved in this kind of action. Where there are two or three lanes of traffic it’s essential to take care going into these lanes because cyclists and motor cyclists use them. Always peek into a lane when coming around the corner of a high vehicle. And if the traffic is on a bend, ensure that you and the coordinator can see each other so that the road is only re-opened if you are obviously safe.)

 

FIVE

The support system of well-being for CCA and XR met many needs. Whenever we came out of police custody people were there to greet us. One of our group was released at 5a.m. on a cold night and someone was there to ensure safety and care. I wore thermals and plenty of layers for outside lock-ons and took blankets but found that the cold still seeped through. Requests to our well-being people for more blankets were rapidly met and many protesters helped out too.  One brought an aluminium foil wrap and a nearby policewoman asked if I was already cold, explaining that this foil only maintains heat and doesn’t build it up: so if I was already cold it would keep me cold. I thanked her and said ‘’My daughter will be very pleased with you because she worries about me’’. It seemed to touch her.

On my final release from a police station, I was met by three support people and one of them offered to walk with me to find Piccadilly Circus Underground. As we walked along Regent Street on a November day, Christmas shopping was in full swing and Black Friday had already passed. This turning of the birthday of Jesus into an enormous money-making venture and gross consumption disturbed me; it’s exactly the opposite of the way of life which he calls his followers to live. I remembered his words ‘’You cannot serve both God and money’’. How many of the people around us are deliberately kept ignorant by mainstream media of the World Wildlife Fund’s research that we in the UK are currently using the Earth as though we have 3 planets. This reckless consumption is at a terrible cost to our children and grandchildren, the poorest peoples, and other-than-human life. I sometimes find it unbearable to stay with that reality because I feel overwhelmed by the extent and mindlessness of the process; but another aspect is because however much simple living I achieve, I remain implicated in the overall system. How can the fetish of more economic growth be justified by any politician or citizen in the materially rich countries? For Christians this is a crucial area and Pope Francis has given a sound lead by calling for de-growth in materially rich countries alongside healthy growth in poor countries. (Laudato si para 193).

Our well-being support people were an essential link in the chain of effectiveness of these actions, bringing food, warmth and human support at times of loneliness and stress.

By Phil Kingston

 

‘The Best Customers’ -Stories from Christian Climate Action Affinity Group -Part One of Three

Stories from the Extinction Rebellion actions from 12th to 24th November 2018, by Phil Kingston:

ONE

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

TWO

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.

THREE

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.

 

To my dear companions in Extinction Rebellion.

I want first to put something right with you. An in-joke developed in our Christian Climate Action affinity group about ‘’getting Phil Kingston into prison’’ and when it went public some of you voiced disturbance because in countries across the world, going to prison means torture and possible death. I apologise for my insensitivity. To honour them, I point to Berta Caceres, the brilliant and fearless Honduran environmental activist who was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize. This is her acceptance speech:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AR1kwx8b0ms

She was assassinated 11 months later by government and corporate hirelings.

My campaigning has gone to new levels in this context where many groups work together with common purpose. I am relieved that at last the utter seriousness and urgency of the developing  Earth catastrophe is being pushed into public consciousness after decades of avoidance by almost all politicians, mainstream media and of course economic and financial powers. Our political ‘representatives’  have let us down. With notable exceptions, they lost their credibility by not  speaking about this.

To say a little about the last 12 days: not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I, a former probation officer and educator of probation officers and Local Authority social workers – all of whom  work in a context of  respect for the law – would within a week be arrested on three occasions and spend considerable time in police cells. Being given the opportunity to meet so many police as human beings has been a gift. Yes, I know that when the chips are down, they have agreed to  uphold  laws which I regard as fundamentally unjust, such as those which are heavily on the side of corporate and state power. Within that context I want to emphasize their  kindness and respect to me and my colleagues. Whenever I had an opportunity to speak about my concern for my grandchildren, I asked if they had children. I was grateful that so many were willing to speak about their concerns regarding climate breakdown. One of reasonably high rank immediately responded with his concern that there are now only 12 years  within which to halt his children’s  descent into  disaster.

These connections with those who we may often regard as ‘other’ are, I am sure, made more possible by our absolute commitment to nonviolence, including verbal nonviolence, to all persons. Hard as it often is to hold on to my belief  that politicians and and those in business and finance have a humanity exactly like mine, I am determined to do so. I have no illusions about the wrongness of their ideologies and behaviour but I completely refuse to say that they aren’t human.  If someone like me can change over the years by facing the traumas of life, especially childhood ones,  and seeking help for them, I hold hope for all.

I would like to address the rest of this note to other followers of Jesus, though the link in the final paragraph may be surprisingly congruent because it touches our common humanity.

I regard myself as a fortunate man to be alive at the same time as Pope Francis. His arrival has given immense encouragement to those of us in the churches, especially the Catholic Church, who have a vocation to justice, peace and care of the Earth. Prior to this, the experience of many of us was that this vocation was  suppressed more than encouraged. It is essential at this critical time of global suffering that this vocation be fully honoured and supported. His writings and speeches about the relationship between the current global economy on the one hand and on the other the destruction of the Earth and the exclusion of the majority of the world’s population from what should be the Common Good of everyone, have a clarity and reality which has often not been as forthright in many previous papal documents.  See for example his  Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) especially paras 52 – 75 beginning with ‘No to an Economy of Exclusion’:

http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

…and many parts of ‘Praise Be, Our Common Home’ (Laudato si). My experience is that there is often a focus upon the latter document by agencies like CAFOD and Caritas and minimal references to the economic one in Joy of the Gospel.  Criticising the current economy seems to be avoided as much within the Church as in society generally.  I often regard Pope Francis as a rather lonely man in the Churches of the materially rich countries where his pastoral care and simple living are acclaimed but his economic critique is made invisible by silence. He calls us to extend our focus upon personal sin to fully include structural sin.

An aspect of Pope Francis which I value hugely is his explicit seeking of the guidance of the Holy Spirit  and his request to all of us to do the same. Our Church so often seems dead to me in comparison with the one in the Acts of the Apostles.

I end by asking  if you will read the speech by Pope Francis to the World Gathering of Popular Movements gathered at Santa Cruz in Bolivia in October 2014. I imagine that it will shock many Christians whilst being an affirmation for others.  This is the link:

http://movimientospopulares.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Documents_ingles_web.pdf