At 4:30am this morning (4th March) I woke to the sound of someone knocking on the door of my bedroom in my university college accommodation. After putting on some pyjama trousers, I opened the door to find a porter and two police officers, who promptly arrested me in association with “criminal damage” to a laboratory on the 27th february. Whilst being paraded through my college in handcuffs, and put in the caged area in the back of a police van in my groggy state, I wondered what I could possibly have done. I had never heard of the laboratory they mentioned, and quickly worked out that I spent the day in question - last Thursday - with my mum who was visiting me for the first time at uni. We went to the cinema that evening. This arrest was clearly a mistake.
After a number of anxious hours in the police cell (I threw up at one point due to the stress I was feeling), I was able to see a duty solicitor and have an interview. The minute my duty solicitor saw me, he exclaimed how unreasonable this arrest was. Having just been shown the video which supposedly identified me at the action in question, he saw straight away that I looked nothing like the person in the video. The interview itself almost made me feel embarrassed for all involved. The officers, too, on seeing the video, could clearly see that this person was not me, and were obviously keen to get the interview over as soon as possible. The person in the video had ginger, curly, shoulder-length hair. I have brown, waist-length dreadlocks. After the interview, I was promptly released with no further action. But I still had to walk home through the centre of town, in my pyjamas, in the middle of the day - which was humiliating - and spend the rest of the day defending myself to college authorities, clarifying that I have done nothing wrong.
A number of things have really worried and angered me about this experience. Firstly, it is clearly a response to the comments made by a local MP in parliament yesterday that not enough was being done to prosecute XR protestors in Cambridge. However, it seems the 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? Maybe this haphazard tactic, and ridiculous mistake, is testament to an overworked and under-pressure police force which, like most of our public services, has suffered detrimental cuts under austerity. This is the most charitable explanation I can find for what I went through this morning. The only other alternative I can think of is a very scary one: this arrest sends the message that the police are happy to profile and intimidate peaceful protesters on very tenuous links to any action.
In my 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. However, if the police’s aim is to scare people away from taking a stand against the rapid murder of our entire planet, for fear they might be arrested in their homes in the middle of the night, then they are achieving it very well. But this is at the cost of any pretence of a free democracy involving legitimate dissent, and quite possibly at the cost of all our lives to climate crisis.
It must be said that, whilst this was a new and scary experience for me which has prompted fears about the state’s response to peaceful protest, many communities are, of course, no strangers to profiling and illegitimate arrest. The police force in this country has a long history of bending its own rules, and of manifesting institutional racism and unjustified, excessive intimidation. Whilst I wanted to share my experience, and hope it sparks discussions amongst those engaged in the environmental movement, we must remember that the police have never been ‘friends’ to many communities, and it would be a foolish and privileged stance for us to assume their sympathy, co-operation or even their adherence to their own stated standards. Being wrongfully arrested is not fun, and my thoughts are with the many people who have suffered the confusion and fear of situations similar to that which I felt this morning.