Marnie Johnson tells Hugh Sullivan how and why she was arrested 

I feel that climate change is an emergency, a crisis. We don’t have much time to turn things around. Even in the West we are seeing the effects; elsewhere in the world it’s already hitting hard. 

But we’re not taking it seriously. We need a lifestyle change. Politicians are ignoring it because it’s beyond their four- or five-year cycle. 

So I joined Extinction Rebellion. 

PICTURE: Kathryn Vale

I did a couple of events in Hastings: bike-swarming on the car-free day and stewarding on the funeral march. But I was particularly enthused by the local group that practises samba drumming, which is a good medium for raising spirits. (Though if tension gets high, drums raise it higher – then it’s better to sing.) That brought me into contact with the XR South-East Drumming Group based in Brighton. They were taking part in the two-week campaign in London from 7th October, and I decided to go with them.

‘Taking’ Whitehall

I travelled up on the Sunday night, booking into a hostel near Waterloo, so as to start the day early. (That’s cheaper overall than taking a commuter train). In the morning we headed to a rendezvous in St James’s Park. We learnt from the XR website that the day’s objective for the South-East Group was to ‘take’ Whitehall. Other groups had other objectives – London aimed for Trafalgar Square, South-West for Westminster Bridge.

I’m not all that keen on this military language, but clearly some planning is required if you’re going to disrupt effectively.

We spent much of the first morning drumming outside Westminster Abbey, apparently as a diversion to the main action. People were meanwhile gluing themselves to the pavement at the entrance to Whitehall from Parliament Square. We came by later and drummed around them to keep their spirits up. Others were setting up tents in the middle of Whitehall. There was a large police presence – many waiting in vans on side streets. I saw a few people being arrested that day, but the police were generally light-handed.

I went back to Hastings by train that night, and returned in the morning. The mood was still cheerful, but it started to rain, and the police adopted a more resolute, if not aggressive, tactic of forming a line and advancing slowly up Whitehall to clear the street, arresting anyone who refused to move. People were sitting down in front of them. They would single out an individual demonstrator, read out an order under Section 14 of the Public Order Act (which limits where you are allowed to demonstrate), then bodily remove him or her into police custody.

My Arrest

Most people didn’t want to be arrested. I understand that: they have jobs, families, personal responsibilities. A young woman asked me: “Are you an arrestable?” i.e. was I willing to be arrested? Up to that point I was thinking 80 per cent, perhaps 90 per cent, that I was. She said she was a single mum and couldn’t do it. I said I could. She gave me a big hug, and I sat on the road waiting to be removed. I felt calm, pleased that I was choosing this course positively.

The police handled me with care. I went floppy, and three of them carried me off after the order had been read out to me. That’s probably because I’m over 60. Some younger women were dragged. The XR drummers drummed for us as it was happening.

We were held for a long time further down Whitehall, cold and wet from having sat on the ground, then eventually driven off to Croydon. On arrival we were penned in a holding cell for a further period while each arrestee was ‘processed’ – having identities checked, phones examined, earrings removed and placed in bags with other ‘evidence’ (like my agogo bells and my watch). I wasn’t asked any questions about my alleged offence, but had to field several concerning my mental health. I was actually desperate to go to the toilet, but was told I couldn’t until my “process” had been completed. 

Eventually I was put in a small cell on my own which had a bunk, a rubber mattress, a flush toilet and an intercom system. It also had a bright light which stayed on all night. I was given a blanket and tracksuit bottoms to substitute for my wet trousers, a card with the names of four duty solicitors to choose from, and some books to read (three children’s books and a playscript of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – some irony?) I was offered a ‘vegan’ meal – a considerate touch, but I wasn’t hungry and turned it down – and tea or coffee, both of which were horrible. It was disorienting sitting or lying under the bright light not knowing the time, but I asked through the intercom on several occasions and an officer would tell me.

A solicitor did call me, and read me some stuff about the Public Order Act, but I couldn’t really concentrate, and he hung up after five minutes, which seemed to be the time he was allowed. 

Something To Tell

At around six in the morning I was taken out of the cell for fingerprinting, DNA sampling and mugshots. The police officer was friendly. He asked me if I’d ever been arrested before for anything. I said it was the first time. He said: “It’s something to tell the grandchildren.” I said: “That’s why I’m doing it – for them, because it’s their future we’re destroying.” 

After that there were further hours of waiting. I was given some porridge for breakfast, and did some press-ups like I’ve seen prisoners do in films. Eventually I was released around 10.30am. There was a support group waiting outside with (good) coffee and croissants. Then I took the train back into London to rejoin my samba group. 

I found that street demonstrations and resultant arrests were continuing. By that stage the police had got an order – currently being challenged in the courts – to apply Section 14 to the whole of London, so people were being arrested without meaning to be. I didn’t want to be arrested a second time, but I stayed with the drumming group for another three days before I had had enough.

I assume I will be charged for my part in the demo, but it hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t know what’s planned next. But I’m fit and ready to return to the front line. All campaigning is worthwhile in my opinion: something is needed to shift people’s consciousness. For me it’s important to disrupt politics as usual, business as usual – not so much to disrupt people’s daily lives.


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