You get a lot of strange looks when you tell people you intend to get arrested. Most often, they assume you misspoke, and that you’re trying to do the opposite—break the law, but evade arrest. It’s hard to persuade anyone that there are reasons to want to get caught.
It helps a bit to bring up some famous civil disobedience movements—U.S. civil rights, South African apartheid, Indian independence—and to remind them that arrests were a crucial part of each one. But then it sounds like you’re comparing yourself to Rosa Parks or Gandhi, which earns you another strange look.
I don’t aspire to be Gandhi. But I can take a page from his playbook. When you care enough about a cause, you’ll try nearly anything to raise awareness. And getting arrested isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
I wasn’t arrested during my first Extinction Rebellion march, in Halifax last April, but four of my friends were. They had a plan; they knew what would likely happen; they accepted the consequences of their actions, before they were even committed. Two were arrested for marching on the street (a “public disturbance”), and two for using spray chalk paint on the front of the Emera building (“property damage,” although the paint washes off with water).
If you haven’t heard of us, Extinction Rebellion is a worldwide network of climate activists who use non-violent direct action to sound the alarm about global warming. XR started in the UK in 2018. This spring, XR protesters basically shut down London for a week by occupying intersections. Over 1,000 people were arrested—the highest rate of single-event arrests in British history. Yet there was no violence or permanent destruction of property.
Those arrestees are still moving through the justice system, but in the meantime, their tactics worked. The British parliament declared a climate emergency, and outgoing PM Theresa May resolved to make the UK carbon-neutral by 2050. Civil disobedience works—if you have critical mass.
My second March for the Earth, in Sydney, included about 150 participants, which felt significant for a community its size. We walked from Open Hearth Park to the Civic Centre, marching on the streets despite warnings from the police. In front of CBRM’s city hall, we chanted, heard speakers and musicians, and—when it became apparent that Mayor Cecil Clarke had refused to come down and speak with us—we covered the plaza with sidewalk chalk messages: “Save Our Planet,” “Denial Doesn’t Change the Truth,” “Ignoring Climate Emergency is Global Homicide.”
That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. The facts are clear: if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% before 2030, we’ll face extinction-level threats by the end of this century. Children who are born today will come of age on a planet plagued with drought, famine, and extreme weather. Politicians, media, and especially oil executives will tell you we’re on the right track, but in fact our emissions continue to rise by 2.7% per year. The costs of this path—economic, environmental, and human—are astronomical. Horrific to contemplate.
Suddenly, getting arrested doesn’t seem so bad.
In Sydney, the rally at the Civic Centre was winding down. Councillor Amanda MacDougall had accepted our demands (they would be unanimously approved at the next City Council meeting). The police were watching quietly from the sidelines. Suddenly, two officers approached one of the protest’s marshals—a volunteer whose job it is to keep the peace and de-escalate conflicts—and put him in handcuffs.
As the protest organizer, I spoke off-the-record with police while my friend was being arrested. They said they’d received a call from inside the Civic Centre, complaining about the chalk graffiti. The arrest, then, was a statement from policymakers: if you get too loud (or colourful), we’ll shut you down.
The statement also cut the other way. Extinction Rebellion members who classify themselves as “arrestable” do so in order to tell policymakers: if you don’t take action to save the planet, we’ll shut ourselves down. Becoming arrestable takes leverage from the authorities. It’s costly, it’s bad optics, and psychologically it’s the opposite of deterrence, because once we’re under arrest, what have we got to lose?
The marshal (we might as well just call him “Marshall”) was detained but not charged. Instead, the CBRP transferred his case to a provincial program called Restorative Justice. According to the program website, Restorative Justice provides “those who have been affected by criminal harms” with the chance “to work with those responsible … to consider the contexts, causes, circumstances, and impacts of an incident.”
Primarily, Restorative Justice helps juvenile offenders to make amends in their communities. Marshall was 21, an engineering student at university, and his “criminal harm” was a peaceful protest. But in an unexpected way, Restorative Justice turned out to be perfect for his situation.
Marshall discussed the incident with a case worker and two volunteers from the community. No one from the Civic Centre or CBRP was present—the only legal authority in the room was the quiet threat that, if Marshall didn’t cooperate, his case would get sent back to the police. But there was no conflict whatsoever: everyone agreed that Marshall had done what he felt was right, and if reparations were necessary, they should be the “pay-it-forward” kind.
In the end, Marshall agreed to donate $200 to a local environmental charity. Coincidentally, that total is very close to the fine paid by one of the Halifax arrestees. Other protesters have had their charges dropped. So far, no Extinction Rebellion activists have faced prison time. That may change, of course. Until governments tell the truth and act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protesters will continue to perform acts of non-violent civil disobedience. The climate movement does not yet have a Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr.—someone willing to embody resistance by risking everything they have. But when that person stands up, they won’t be standing alone.