‘I’ll continue to fight’: the prosecuted Extinction Rebellion protesters – The Guardian


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Just after 10am on a bright and sunny Monday in April 2019, hundreds of people stepped off the pavement and on to the road on Waterloo Bridge in London.

Within a few minutes, one of the main crossings over the River Thames was full of people, tents were erected, banners unfurled, mobile kitchens opened and trees in planters dragged into the carriageway.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) – which had launched a few months earlier to sound the alarm about the climate crisis – had arrived.

In the coming days thousands of people took part in a 10-day blockade of key sites across central London. The April “rebellion” was the start of the biggest civil disobedience campaign seen in the UK for generations and it was followed by two more major demonstrations as well as scores of other smaller protests targeting “bad actors” in the system, from fossil fuel firms to the printing presses of rightwing newspapers.

The wave of civil disobedience helped transform the way the climate crisis is discussed and led to climate emergency declarations by parliament and scores of councils around the UK.

But it was also met with a growing chorus of criticism from rightwing commentators and an increasingly harsh backlash from the state. The latest figures show that since 2019 more than 3,500 people taking part in XR protests have been arrested, almost all for minor public order offences such as obstructing the highway.

Police officers carry away an Extinction Rebellion protester on Waterloo Bridge in London in April 2019
Police officers carry away an Extinction Rebellion protester on Waterloo Bridge in London in April 2019. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

And away from the glare of the media, more than 2,000 have been prosecuted and taken to court.

From husbands and wives arrested together to first-time protesters, climate scientists to grandparents – their stories shine a light on how XR became one of the most significant protest movements in the UK in recent years and the wider fight for climate justice.

To the surprise of some observers, many of the people who took to the streets in April 2019 were not young, or long-term environmentalists. Instead the ranks of the first wave of XR activists were awash with “respectable” older people – often retirees and grandparents.

Stephanie Howlett
Stephanie Howlett, 68: ‘I decided that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything I could.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/Extinction Rebellion

Stephanie Howlett, 68, a retired NHS psychotherapist and former probation officer from Sheffield, was arrested at Parliament Square in London during the April 2019 protests as she sat in the road singing. She received a six-month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay £105 costs.

“I didn’t want to do this and found it hard knowing that our actions in April were causing disruption and inconvenience to many people’s lives,” she told the court in her written statement. “But I felt impelled to act in the face of the catastrophic future I saw unfolding before us all.”

She said that since her daughter became pregnant with her first grandchild, “delight at this news has been overshadowed by fear of what kind of world this new little being will grow up in.

“I decided that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything I could to avoid what was looking like a sleepwalk to disaster, leaving a planet unfit to live on for all future generations.”

Jill Whitehouse
Jill Whitehouse, 66: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose by joining in.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/Extinction Rebellion

Jill Whitehouse, 66, a retired teacher from Exeter, was also arrested during the April protests in Parliament Square. She received a conditional discharge and £110 costs.

“At my time in my life I’ve got nothing to lose by joining in,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to make reparations for the damage that we’ve done to the environment.”

There were lots of young people on the frontline of the XR protests too – some of whom were prepared to be arrested. For them this was not just a case of defending future generations, it was about a visceral fight for their own survival – and part of a wider struggle for global climate justice.

Eve Merrall, 23, a zoology master’s graduate from Sheffield, was arrested in Parliament Square in April 2019.

“I am not talking about future generations, people are suffering and dying now … if we keep silent and do not act then we are complicit in their deaths,” she told the court.

Eve Merrall:
Eve Merrall: ‘I believe in a better future and I will continue to fight for it.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/Extinction Rebellion

“This is where we get to decide what we’re made of, to fight for everything that we love. We have an opportunity to build a better and more just world that respects life and shares resources evenly and sustainably. I believe in a better future and I will continue to fight for it. I hope you will join me.”

Some of those who ended up in court had been involved in the environmental movement for years and a few had been arrested before. But for most this was their first brush with the law – and in some cases their first protest.

Several had been working on the climate crisis for years either as scientists, researchers or campaigners. But their testimony shows they had grown exasperated that, after years of signing petitions, going on protests and writing to their MPs, nothing had changed.

James Ryle, 53, a university project manager from Bristol, had worked on environmental issues for a quarter of a century – from a conservation volunteer to “sustainability adviser” to corporations, governments and the United Nations.

But he told the court: “I’ve become increasingly despairing at the lack of meaningful government action to address climate change. The truth is, nothing has changed and so things have just got worse.”

James Ryle
James Ryle, 53: ‘I realised I had no other choice but to break the law.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/Extinction Rebellion

He said the manmade catastrophes happening now were causing “untold human misery and loss” and were also a warning “of much, much worse to come” if only people would listen.

Ryle said he had no intention of getting arrested when he joined the XR protests, planning instead to “help with outreach to members of the public”.

He added: “But on Good Friday afternoon – sitting in front of the pink boat listening to moving testimonies from climate refugees, mothers, nurses and young people living in fear for their futures – something different happened,” he said. “I felt suddenly and deeply the exquisite vulnerability connecting me with the millions around the world already suffering as a result of climate breakdown … In that moment of clarity, I realised I had no other choice but to break the law.”

Ryle was given a six-month conditional discharge and £105 costs.

For others, the protests and subsequent arrests were a family affair.

Tim and Sue Ponton
Tim and Sue Ponton: ‘I feel sad that politicians appear to listen more to lobbyists rather than scientists.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/Extinction Rebellion

Tim and Sue Ponton, who have just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, were arrested together twice – once on Waterloo Bridge in April 2019 and then again outside the private jet centre at London City airport during another XR protest later that year.

Sue, a former civil servant, said she was “driven to join XR” after 30 years of “writing to and petitioning politicians and getting nowhere”.

“I am really concerned for my children, my family and friends’ children, grandchildren and all children and young people around the world, as temperatures and sea levels rise,” she said in her court statement, adding: “I feel sad that politicians appear to listen more to lobbyists rather than scientists.”

Tim, a former NHS orthotist, said he felt “outraged that successive governments” had failed to protect him and his family from “impending economic and social breakdown and potential human extinction”.

He added: “I feel deeply saddened that each and every day over 200 species become extinct, losing our vital ecological balance and many potential solutions to human problems for ever. I feel incredulity that intelligent people in high public and corporate office continue to deny the reality of scientific fact and conduct business as usual.”

The photographs of XR activists who have been through the court system show a diversity of age, gender and, to some extent, occupation. But those pictured are almost exclusively white – highlighting an ongoing criticism of XR and the wider climate movement.

Zoë Blackler from XR said this was something the movement was working to address but that it reflected a broader, structural issue.

She said police data showed one in 10 of those arrested during the April protests were from ethnic minorities, but that most appeared to have pleaded guilty remotely rather than attend court, and of those that did come to court, most asked not to be identified.

Reparations Rebellion and Brixton Extinction Rebellion protesters during the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations march in Brixton, London on 1 August 2020
Reparations Rebellion and Brixton Extinction Rebellion protesters during the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations march in Brixton, London on 1 August 2020. Photograph: Helena Smith/Extinction Rebellion

“And while of course we acknowledge the lack of diversity within the movement and are doing all we can to become more inclusive, the disproportionate number of white defendants does reflect a much broader problem of racism in our society, that means some people are excluded from public protest, and from speaking out about it, through fear of police violence and targeting by the media,” Blackler said.

There are still more than 1,000 prosecutions progressing through the courts, although there is growing pressure on the government from civil rights groups and climate scientists not to waste time and money prosecuting peaceful climate protesters in the midst of an ecological emergency.

Blackler said that whatever the government did to crack down on legitimate protest – most recently in its controversial crime and policing bill – the determination of ordinary people to make their voice heard and to demand urgent, far-reaching action on climate justice would not be denied.

“What we’ve learned from this unique moment in British legal history is that ordinary people will act in extraordinary ways, to make their voices heard and demand the urgent, systemic changes needed to safeguard all our futures.”

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