Last week, Mikaela Loach attended the International Rebellion in London with Extinction Rebellion Scotland. Joining forces with other peaceful protesters, she shares her experience of being locked onto a stage for hours and putting herself in danger of arrest.
It was the middle of the night; I wasn’t sure what time exactly as I’d given my phone to my partner once the police had cordoned off the road. I was sitting, anxious, preparing myself for a night in custody with my arm chained inside a metal tube onto a stage outside of Westminster Abbey. I was about eight hours in.
There were just a handful of us left holding the “Power In Truth” site, which just hours before had been bustling with the Scottish, Cumbrian and North East English Extinction Rebellion groups. We were there to tell the truth about the fossil fuel industry. This area had been our little home: we’d had trainings in gazebos, a food truck, tents all over the road, and music and speeches all day from the stage in the centre. This was day three of the rebellion and the police had closed in hard, seizing unmanned tents, removing our infrastructure and arresting those who got in the way. What had been a festival-like atmosphere was now only being held by a dozen people, glued or chained to different pieces of our infrastructure in the hope that this would save our site. Police surrounded us, warning us that by staying we were making ourselves liable to arrest. I wondered how I’d ended up as one of these people.
Growing up as a woman of colour in a white majority area, I never wanted to step out of line or give anyone another reason to restrict opportunities from me. I worked as hard as I could in school, and I did all the volunteering and extra-curricular activities I could fit in so that when I finally applied to medical school I could say with confidence that I had earned my place. I never would have thought that in the third year of my degree I would have deliberately put myself in a position vulnerable to arrest. I never would have thought that I would make myself so vulnerable to the police, or in any way compromise my future career. This was a sign of desperation: this was a last resort.
For the past five years I’ve been following the widely disseminated advice that to fight the climate crisis we just need to make individual change. I went vegan, zero waste and quit fast fashion. I changed to a green energy provider. I wrote email after email to my local MP, I signed every petition under the sun, I went to the climate marches. I did everything we’re told to do. Yet, the government were still investing in fossil fuels and called a net-zero carbon target for 2045 “radical”, when it only gives us a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5 degrees of warming. I had exhausted all other options so I joined Extinction Rebellion Scotland in non-violent direct action.*
Earlier that day, I’d taken part in a live reading of the 1.5 degrees IPCC report – written by the world’s leading climate scientists – after which I had broken down and cried. The section I read was about the effect of 1.5 degrees of warming on coral reefs, marine ecosystems and costal communities. It was as if at that moment I was able to feel the weight of all the things we had been talking about over the last few days suddenly hit my heart. It broke it. All the information I’d known in my head became more than just facts, more than far away ideas: I’d broken down whatever barrier I’d been holding up to stop me from feeling the severity of this. I’d known that the climate crisis was causing forced migration, droughts, loss of species and ecosystem collapse but I hadn’t really allowed myself to feel it. Once I did it hit me like a wave.
It was a few hours later that I got the message asking me to run over and lock-on if I was ready. After this morning’s emotion, I was. Suddenly I was there. Hundreds of people were looking at us and cheering, songs of rebellion were filling the air. I broke down and cried again. I shouldn’t have to do this – none of us should. We shouldn’t have to chain ourselves to stages, block roads and cause disruption in order to be listen to. The realisation that we live in a world where our government would rather arrest us than listen to us punched me in the gut. The people in power who are meant to have a duty of care over our population have no interest in listening to the truth which is affecting millions in the Global South already and is soon coming for us all – they choose profit over people and plane, and are more interested in financially supporting those destroying our planet – through £10.5 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry – than they are in protecting marginalised communities who will be affected most by the climate crisis.
I’ve always wanted to have kids but in this moment I questioned whether I’d want to bring a child into a world like this: a world where we have to go to these lengths just to be heard and protected.
It was all of this emotion – sadness, rage and love – along with the support of my friends, which kept me locked on to the stage despite the anxiety that filled my body and the police intimidation tactics. My privilege meant that I could put myself in this position, and so I did. For me, arrest did not mean the same as it would for many other people and I was aware of that. This didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid of it, it just meant that I was willing and able to make this sacrifice.
By 11pm, the police had cleared the site apart from the few of us left locked on. Most of us decided we should lock off and regroup instead. My lock on partner, a 67 year-old called John and a student from Glasgow, decided they wanted to stay until the end. They stayed until they were arrested at 4:30am. The police took our beautiful site.
I was emotionally drained and couldn’t stop shaking: my brain and body were a mess of nerves and guilt over the last day. It had been one of the most exhausting days of my life: but the rebellion wasn’t over. We were still standing. The police could take our site, or tents and infrastructure: but we are more than that. They can announce that all of our protesting – which is a right we all have – is unlawful, but we won’t leave. The rebellion won’t stop until the government acts as if we’re in the emergency we’re in. We won’t stop. We aren’t going anywhere It is only due to privilege that we can ignore the climate crisis: for so many on the frontlines of climate breakdown, they have no choice but to act. We are finally catching up with the work indigenous communities have been doing all over the world for years.
So many of my friends used their privilege for good, getting arrested to protect our site and maintain the disruption. Their bravery and commitment to this cause is endlessly inspiring to me.
Climate change affects us all, so we must unite to combat it.
Non-violent direct action
NVDA is a form of civil disobedience, in which members of the public participate in unlawful disruption as a form of protest. “Civil disobedience works on two levels; economic disruption puts pressure on the current political system, and civil disruption raises public awareness.” – Extinction Rebellion
Locking on is when someone, by glue, chains or locks, attaches themselves to something – infrastructure, a road or an entrance – to prevent the police from easily removing them. In my instance, I was chained to a layered metal arm tube, meaning that the police could not pull me out with force and instead would be forced to get a “cutting team” in with a motor powered saw to forcibly remove my arm without harm to myself. These contraptions are used to delay the police in removing people quickly.