An Extinction Rebellion Cambridge activist was wrongfully arrested in the early hours of Wednesday for alleged involvement in the group’s removal of Cambridge University’s anti-bird nets on the West Cambridge site – an action she did not participate in.
Edie was awoken by police in her University accommodation at 4.30am on Wednesday. She was then arrested for criminal damage at a laboratory – which she says she had never heard of – on the West Cambridge site and taken to Parkside Police Station. Edie was later released with no further action after she, the police and her solicitor viewed video footage supposedly confirming her involvement in the action, which showed there was little resemblance between Edie and the person she was mistaken for in the video. Edie then had to walk back to her college in her pyjamas, an experience she describes as “humiliating”.
The arrest came the day after Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Anthony Browne harangued the police in Parliament for allowing the peaceful Rebel for Justice protest to take place. The police’s decision to arrest Edie came within 24 hours of Browne’s authoritarian response in Parliament. It is a dereliction of duty for politicians to use up valuable Parliamentary time condemning peaceful protesters acting to protect the natural world and all its inhabitants. Sophie Draper, a member of Extinction Rebellion Cambridge, said: “Instead of vilifying peaceful protesters, politicians like Browne should be using their time in Parliament to talk about the climate and environmental emergency. Browne is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment and says he supports action on climate breakdown. Yet instead of calling out the governing party, of which he is a member, for their criminal inaction, he is letting down his constituents, exploiting the issue of ecological breakdown to play reactionary law-and-order politics.”
In a public statement concerning her wrongful arrest, Edie commented on the local police force’s knee-jerk reaction to Browne’s comments in Parliament: “Cambridgeshire Constabulary have pulled at the first vaguely plausible straw - a known XR member who, at a stretch, might be said to fit a description of someone in a couple of second’s worth of a video – in order to give the impression that they have taken up this political football. Luckily, all I have to fear from this arrest is damage to my standing at my university and college, but many XR members are parents, carers or vulnerable people - will Cambridgeshire Constabulary be turning up at their doors in the dead of night to terrify their households?”
Edie also expressed concerns about the competency of the police’s handling of her interview: “I was grilled about my involvement in XR, and about alleged sightings of me at other protests not related to the charge I was facing. Luckily, my solicitor stepped in at this point – the police are not supposed to question you about events not directly relating to your arrest. It worries me that the police so blithely overlooked this, and it worries me that they are seemingly willing to haul in and intimidate anyone who has been linked to an XR protest. This is a very loose interpretation of the right to peaceful protest and political freedom. If the police are intending to actually prosecute people who have committed crimes, then jumping so quickly and thoughtlessly on the political bandwagon introduced in yesterday’s parliamentary discussion is not the way to go about it. In fact, I think everyone will agree that chasing down and arresting innocent people is a colossal waste of taxpayer money and police energy.”
Last week, XR activists removed anti-bird nets cast over 20 trees on the West Cambridge site by Cambridge University. It is against the law to cut down trees in which birds are nesting. However, there is nothing to stop landowners such as the University of Cambridge from covering trees in netting to prevent birds from building nests, which enables them to remove the trees legally. The group found one of the trees, a 200-year-old willow, filled with foam to prevent species such as tree creepers and nuthatches from nesting in the holes. XR activist Sophie Draper said: “The removal of the University’s anti-bird nets – for which Edie was wrongfully arrested last night – resulted in their permanent removal as well as an apology from the University. Our action received a lot of support from the public as well as the backing of conservationist Chris Packham.”
XR member and conservationist Ben Ward said: “More people living in urbanised areas like central Cambridge are becoming disenfranchised from nature. The tree netting is a practice of making wildlife, protected species, look like a nuisance. We need to prioritise biodiversity in Cambridge – even more so, given that East Anglia is the most nature-depleted region of the United Kingdom as well as having the most agriculturally developed land.”
XR Cambridge stresses that it is resorting to minor acts of civil disobedience like this because politicians are not acting on anywhere near the scale needed to avert a level of environmental catastrophe which could see the collapse of our societies by the end of the century. XR activist Raluca Diaconu said: “The IPCC said in 2018 that we very likely have 1.5 degrees of warming locked in already – meaning huge natural disasters. Scientists also tell us we are facing the loss of 1 million animal and plant species. Over the last half century, half of UK bird species have become extinct while almost a third of woodland birds have been lost – and the University is exacerbating this through its use of nets to stop birds nesting. The natural world is a complex web and the consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss could be catastrophic, irreversible and like nothing we have seen before. We could be looking at the end of our societies.
“Yet politicians like Browne have their heads in the sand – they care more about a lawn being dug up than the future of the human race. Yesterday in Parliament, Browne described the oilfield services company Schlumberger as iconic and complained about direct action against Shell. The actions of these companies are killing people around the world today and will kill many of our children. Instead of defending the likes of Schlumberger and Shell, Anthony Browne should be calling for their abolition. It is politicians who condemn environmentalists while sticking up for fossil fuel companies who are the extremists.”
Last night’s wrongful arrest came within two weeks of XR Cambridge’s youth-led Rebel for Justice protest, a peaceful, week-long roadblock which sought to put pressure on local institutions to take serious action against the climate and environmental emergency.