Extinction Rebellion, like any movement, has its controversies. One the most pertinent of these is the relationship Extinction Rebellion (XR) has, or seeks to have, with the police. As one of XR’s police liaisons during April’s Rebellion Week, I am well placed to understand and address some of these issues. I will not be able to fully address the way in which XR attempts to portray its relationship with the police through the media or through its twitter account, but I do believe that the same rationale informs both the action and media relations with the Police.
The responsibilities of Police Liaison in Extinction Rebellion are primarily to act as a channel of communication between the Police and the activists, and to keep activists safe. This has worked well in Edinburgh, where I had negotiated with the Police during XR’s occupation of the Scottish Parliament, and during the occupation of the National Museum. I also acted as Police Liaison for XR in London, where I believe our relationship with the police was an integral part of our success.
Thanks to the extensive work which has gone into building the relationship between the Met and Extinction Rebellion, a ‘no surprises’ agreement had been worked out. Extinction Rebellion would inform the police of our actions before carrying them out, and the police would in turn inform us of theirs. Of course, neither side told the other absolutely everything about their actions before doing them. For example, we did not tell the Police exactly what the TFL disruption would be, and the police did not tell us exactly when they would make an arrest push site at the start of each day (most likely because they themselves didn’t know). However, on all of my shifts at Waterloo Bridge and at Parliament Square, I received at least a five minute warning before arrests were to begin, and was given a good indication of the areas in which those arrests would be made. This was extremely useful to us, giving us time to prepare for an arrest phase, and warn those who did not wish to be arrested to leave the area. The no surprises approach also helped to keep most people calm, as it enabled us to easily dispel rumours with a phone call or a question. Of course, some people will never trust what the police say, but despite the many rumours we heard, the police never came for us in riot gear or mounted on horse back, and whenever we questioned them about such rumours they told us the truth. This does not necessarily mean we should give the police our absolute trust in all future events, but it does mean that they are often more reliable sources than forwarded whatsapp messages about a friend’s uncle who is an inspector who overheard etc etc.
When arrests were not happening, I spent much of my time on shift talking to the police about our cause and myself1, in an attempt to justify and humanise ourselves. I am aware that this approach is seen as controversial by some, due to the many failings of the Police as an institution, or because they feel the very idea of Policing is fundamentally flawed. However, I firmly believe that institutions are made up of individuals, and whilst I don’t think that a fifteen minute chat with a PC or an Inspector will be enough to make them lay down their truncheon, I think it can at least help prevent them from raising it in anger. Of course, we should not have to go about with this work of humanising ourselves, and we should be seen as humans already. Unfortunately many find it hard to look past the headlines and see us as the concerned, normal people we are, rather than just eco-warriors, hippies or worse. The situation is even more dire for those of us who are not white, able bodied or cis. Police Liaison (PL) need to watch out for, and prioritise people in groups which are more at risk from Police violence. Alongside humanising activists through conversation with the Police, we can make sure we watch out for those at risk by warning them first when arrest phases start.
A positive example of good police liaison came on Saturday night in Parliament Square. The Police cleared the Margaret Street roadblock, after arresting some 16 or more Rebels. Throughout this operation, I spoke directly with the bronze inspector, in charge. He told me that he had come for the gazebo at the roadblock, and did not want to arrest anyone. I communicated this to the affinity group holding the location, who decided that they would not give the police the gazebo, but they would also not stop them from taking it, and began to lock on. I then communicated this back to the Inspector. As police liaison I ideally only pass messages between activists and police.
This careful management of police interaction lead to what was for me, and for many of us there, the most emotionally powerful scene of the week. The negotiation had given a choir time to arrive, who supported us with a simple, beautiful, song “this land, is all that we have for sure/this land, is ours”. Whilst they sung, the police silently moved in, positioned themselves around the large gazebo, and after a command from the inspector, began to dismantle it, taking care not to step on any of the protesters lying around them. After the gazebo was removed, the inspector informed me that he would be making arrests in five minutes time. I relayed this message to the affinity group who were holding the space. Nobody was surprised, but the time allowed for the non-arrestables to give sad goodbyes to their friends. Many of us cried at this point, and several members of the choir have sworn to me that they saw an officer wipe their eyes too.
The inspector granted my request of keeping the crowd of supporters safe from arrest, as long as they gave his officers room to carry out their duty. I passed on his message to the supporters, and asked if they could all take two steps back, and sit down. In an ideal world, this message would have been passed through stewards with the consent of the crowd, rather than me directly asking them. I made the decision to ask the crowd to do this because I felt it would help us more easily adhere to our non-violent principles, that the police would be there for a long time and our legs would get tired, and importantly because it was good enough for now and safe enough to try.
Thankfully the crowd were of the same opinion as me, and chose to sit down two paces back, allowing the police to form a gentle, spaced cordon through which we could easily see our friends. As the cutting crew arrived and began to de-glue and cut out the brave rebels remaining in the cordon, I was able to keep the crowd informed so they knew exactly what was happening. Cutting protestors out of arm tubes can be dangerous, but the calm atmosphere allowed the police to take their time and safely cut out our friends. It took them over four hours, and when they were finished they went home. We were left with about 400 people sitting at that roadblock, calm in our victory. We replaced the confiscated materials and rehung our banners within the hour.
However, this is not to say that operationally I was the best PL ever. Towards the end of the week, we were all extremely tired, and I was no exception. As PL we do need to pass on messages from the police to other protestors, but we do not need to enforce them. I was reminded of this when the police asked us out of the road, and I began nagging other activists to move out of the road too. That is not my job, and it is always up to the individual rebel how much they wish to comply with the police. Thankfully someone brought me up on it, and I remembered what my role should be. It is really important to keep PLs in line, because they do often have more power than the average protester due to their greater knowledge of the direct action, especially the police’s current plans. To mitigate for this, a responsible PL should share their knowledge as much as possible with all relevant groups, especially affinity groups.
I have written this article in an attempt to live up to XR’s 10 principles. Most importantly, this article aims to meet :
- Principle Five — Reflecting and learning on what we’ve done. It is important that we always strive for improvement
- Principle Seven — Actively mitigating for power. By disseminating my knowledge about this role, I also hope to disseminate any power which it gives me so that others can do it.
- Principle Ten — Autonomy and Decentralisation. I encourage other XR groups to create their own police liaisons - or not if they don’t think it is right for them. I hope that the information in this article is at the very least helpful in making that decision.
If you have taken part in the rebellion week actions in a well defined role, please consider writing about your own reflections.
1Of course I did not talk much about other activists to the Police, because to do so would infringe on their privacy. I did recommend that those who felt comfortable to talk to the police to do so, to build up that human relationship.