Climate Justice and Activism

Transcript of a talk a church group about my experience of being arrested during an XR climate crisis uprising.

Micah 6: 1-8 (abbreviated)

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! …”

Has he not told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? Do justice,  love kindness, and  walk humbly with your God.

But what is justice?

That is a question I would like you to hold in mind, and I will ask it again at the end.

I have always had a Christian faith and a concern for justice. As a teenager I restricted my diet to 1000 calories a day in solidarity with women in India. When I was at university in the early 80s I was aware that human production of green house gases plus our excessive use of raw materials was damaging the world’s environment. That knowledge together with my Christian faith has shaped the way I lived. As a family  – Paul and I have three children, now all grown up – we have constantly been adjusting our lifestyles to try and mitigate the damage we were causing to the earth. 

As the internet age developed, so I have signed more petitions, written to and spoken with our local MP, joined marches and protests. Yet nothing seems to change. The world is continuing to grow warmer, extreme weather events occur more frequently, ecosystems are being destroyed, the poor are being disadvantaged – and yet the human output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continues to rise. I felt that nothing was going to stop this crisis.

In the spring of 2019 I went to Cornwall with my daughter to walk the Celtic Pilgrim Way. We returned on Good Friday when the XR Easter uprising had begun and we stopped off at Marble Arch. Pitched tents, crèche, a stage, workshops, a welcome desk, sunshine, smiling people, even the drivers of vehicles whose routes had been diverted were cheerful. The same in Waterloo Bridge which had been transformed into a garden bridge with trees and pot plants, a skate board ramp, sofas and easy chairs, and story-telling circles. It was all a vision of what the future could be!

When I heard that the October uprising was to include a Faith Bridge I wanted to be a part. The Faith Bridge was conceived as a coming together of different faiths – Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Quakers, pagans, Christians – to express our joint concern for the well-being of the earth. We were to occupy Lambeth Bridge for the duration where we would set up a tepee for worship (which would be led by the different faiths throughout the day) a stage for talks and music and drama, places to meet and share with others our hopes and fears, and as the centre piece a large wooden ark. 

To secure the bridge we would need a small group of people willing to be arrested whilst a larger group of people set up these bases. Drawing inspiration from both my Christian faith and from the example of the Suffragettes, I volunteered to be an arrestable. For this XR provides training and on going support. 

The first day of the uprising dawned – literally -as we gathered by Lambeth Bridge. Initially we blocked the slip roads leading onto the bridge. Another group of protesters were doing the same at the other end. Once the traffic had been brought to a standstill we moved onto the bridge itself. The police  had pre-empted us. They were massed in lines across the bridge such that each group of protestors was confined to small area at opposite ends of the bridge. At the same time another group of police saw the ark being delivered in its flat pack state and confiscated each part as it was unloaded. 

I am in the blue coat sat in front of the green banner

Undaunted we sat on the tarmac surrounded by banners and prayer flags, facing the police line. We were a mixed group – all ages, backgrounds and faiths – and together we sang and prayed and shared our stories. Faith leaders and CEOs of charities and NGOs came and told us their stories as to why the climate crisis was such a critical issue. And still we sat and sang and prayed.   It was a uniquely special experience of being in the presence of God. 

Around mid afternoon, the police gave us the option of joining our fellow protestors at the other end of the bridge – provided we walked round the long way, via Westminster Bridge. We gathered up our banners and flags, our musical instruments and the remaining box section of the ark and set off along the road past St Thomas’s hospital, singing as we walked. We must have looked like the Israelites setting off for the promised land. Having negotiated our way through the blockades on Westminster Bridge and we’re almost in sight of the north end of Lambeth Bridge, we were stopped by another group of police who wanted us to divert with the ark to Horseferry Road. Negotiations took place. Whilst we waited we sat and we sang. Then a whisper spread round and looking behind us, a double line of police officers were advancing towards us.  On arrestables drew back, the rest of us sat firm holding onto the ark. Arrests began. A police officer tried to persuade me to let go, and when I did not, I was physically lifted up and back, ending up on my back in the road – time send to stand still. Them everyone was crowding round. The police officer  cautioned and handcuffed me. The XR legal observer wanted my details. People were shouting abuse at the police; others were cheering and applauding those who were being arrested. My mind went into a blur and my body into shock. My arresting officer was considerate and concerned and helped me across to the pavement where I joined others who had been arrested. We sat there for a couple of hours with our arresting officers whilst police stations were contacted to find spare cells. Four of were loaded into the cage compartments in the back of a police van and taken to Walworth. And still the wait continued, as we waited to be processed by the custody officer. Finally I was put into a police cell, given a vegan meal and a blanket. 

At 2 in the morning I was released pending further investigation having been charged with obstructing the highway and causing a public nuisance. As I left the police station I was greeted by an XR volunteer who offered me chocolate and looked up the night bus time table so that I could get home and to bed!

My day in court was delayed by Covid. After numerous postponements, the case was heard in March of this year at the City of London Magistrates Court. I was represented in court by a barrister – the cost of both the barrister and the lawyer were met by XR funds. I could have pleaded guilty  – I had indeed been obstructing the highway – but as a matter of principal I wanted to present the counter arguments: that I had been exercising my right of peaceful protest; I had done something that would ordinarily be criminal but in the circumstances it was necessary to draw attention to a greater danger vis the climate crisis. The example usually given is that one would not be prosecuted for breaking a window in order to sound the alarm for a fire. I also wanted to explain that my actions were motivated by my Christian faith and my belief that I – we – have a duty to care for and protect the earth.

The court staff were helpful and courteous. The XR observers were encouraging and supportive. Only the three magistrates seemed to be set against my defence. I was found guilty, fined and given a conditional discharge of 9 months.

Whose rights should have prevailed? 

My right to protest or the road users right to use that particular public highway? Had I merely sat on the pavement would anyone have taken notice?

Do road users have an unlimited right to use use the roads? What if the volume of vehicles on the road causes an obstruction either to other vehicles, or to cyclists? What if the volume of vehicles prevents emergency vehicles getting through? What if the volume of traffic creates levels of pollution that endanger people’s lives, or increases the risk of dementia? What if the volume of traffic increases CO2 emissions such that global temperatures keep rising? What then of the rights of people both here and in other parts of the world to live lives not affected by rising sea levels and extreme weather events? 

To return to my original question, what is justice?

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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