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‘I was arrested during the Extinction Rebellion protests’ – an architect’s story

Nick & tom at oxford circus crop

Studio Bark’s Tom Bennett (above right) explains how he came to spend a night in police custody and why he believes his actions were in the public interest

On Saturday 20 April, over the Easter weekend, I was arrested while taking part in the Extinction Rebellion (XR) traffic blockade on Waterloo Bridge. After I politely declined several invitations to remove myself from the road, four Metropolitan Police officers lifted and carried me off the bridge and I was held in police custody overnight.

The ARB and RIBA codes of conduct require that I inform them if I think I may have brought the profession into disrepute. I’ve viewed my participation in XR as a natural extension of my duty towards the public interest. But I’m also aware that the codes of conduct oblige me to avoid run-ins with the law. I do not feel that I have brought the profession into disrepute, but I also recognise this is a matter for others to decide. To that end, I will be writing to the ARB and RIBA pending the outcome of the ongoing legal process. 

I’ve viewed my participation in XR as a natural extension of my duty towards the public interest

Following my release from custody on Easter Sunday, I made my way to the XR encampment at Marble Arch. I sat down to listen to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Nobel Prize-nominated activist, address the gathered crowd. She shared the stage with Phil Kingston, a grandfather who has been arrested multiple times with XR, and who offered the following insight: ‘Be in no doubt that we will be opposed by very strong forces … They have the power, but we have something much more important: we have the authority.’ 

We all understand the seriousness of climate change. Last year saw the publishing of a slew of worrying scientific studies, including the IPCC’s report of October 2018 stating that we have just 12 years to implement drastic changes or face social and ecological catastrophe. 

In efforts to transition to a carbon-free economy, the built environment is clearly important and as architects, we do have agency within our work. However, opportunities and constraints are largely determined by systemic conditions. An initiative such as a ‘Green New Deal’ would see massive investment in low-carbon infrastructure and retrofit of the existing building stock. Architects could undoubtedly play a central role. But at this late hour, we are very far away from seeing anything like this even considered. 

Despite all sorts of polite campaigning, it is clear that we have been moving too slowly and often in the wrong direction. Given all this, how then should we spend these next few years – according to scientists the last in which we may still have a chance to avert disaster? 

This is where XR comes in. It employs the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience to agitate for three clear demands. Participants are obliged to adhere to a ‘Rebel Agreement’, which includes showing respect to everyone, including the government and the police, and not engaging in any violence – physical or verbal. Some have compared the XR protests to the civil rights and suffragette movements. While I feel the level of sacrifice and repression faced by members of those historic struggles was of a different order of magnitude, what is common with the present-day situation is the criminality of the status quo. 

Ext reb chalk slogan

Ext reb chalk slogan

Crucially, the effectiveness of XR’s strategy depends upon a significant number of people being willing to face arrest and potentially a criminal record. There are many people who simply can’t put themselves in that position, for a whole host of reasons, including visa conditions, kids at home, or work-related background checks. I realised that I faced none of these issues, only a general fear and anxiety regarding the process and its consequences. Given the urgency and gravity of the situation, and an arising moment in which collective action became possible, risking arrest felt like the appropriate level of involvement for me personally. 

Arrest is not something to be taken lightly. However our collective fear of state authority works against us when we attempt to challenge very serious structural injustices. XR has tried to overcome that through a ‘strength in numbers’ approach. The police cell is a less lonely place knowing that you are part of a movement, with thousands of others taking similar or greater risks and supporting you in a whole range of ways. Thinking back to Phil Kingston’s speech, I hope we can also find recourse to our inner moral authority in the times ahead. Much may depend upon this. 

Tom Bennett is a London-based architect at Studio Bark and one of more than 1,000 people arrested during XR’s Week of Rebellion

Photo: Nisha Zala


Readers' comments (12)

  • Tom I truly support your actions and would rescind my RIBA membership if they were to take any negative action toward you. Hope the AJ keep us posted on this story.

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  • Noble motives but surely the London disruptions were aimed at maximum publicity - how about disrupting the people who clearly signal that they really don't give a f**k about doing their bit to try and limit climate change?
    In London wouldn't the promoters of the 'tulip' architectural monstrosity be high profile candidates for protest, likely to be the subject of much publicity?
    ing to

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  • Thanks for the publicity Tom, now stop wasting your talent and get on with the serious work?

    Michael Gove And Sadiq Khan are on your side, but they should have met you on the barricades, not wasted Police time and money carrying you off the carriageways? Architects can lead this move to avoid Climate Change, if not zero degrees C, then certainly 1.5 degC. Cycleways not motorways? Hydrogen powered long long distance rail? Much more efficient air travel? Hybrid or electric cars, buses, vans and lorrys? Carbon Neutral housing using Green Bonds or Carbon Credits. The dosh is there if you know where to look, provided by the insurance companies so they avoid being wiped out by the climate change induced claims.

    I’ve been watching you trouble makers for 60 years now, from CND to Poll Tax to living wage. Luckily Hitler and Stalin were taken care of by others. Putin is a pointless Russian Bear from the 19th Century?! You are well educated, and often with private means of support. Wasting Police time, and providing stories for the Press, but not actually achieving much. The Suffragettes succeeded, by realising the democratic direction of travel. Impressive dresses and hats as well?!

    So go back to your screen and Iphone and design. And get the RIBA moving with us. And get rid of ARB, a real waste of money. (I’m not an architect. I just design buildings and other stuff) The 16 year old Swede has had her day. What did she think of the hollow old fart Corbyn?

    I’m sure you are one of the good guys Tom. Let’s get this done?

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  • That we should be good stewards of the earth is not in contention; But, when a brainwashed snotbrat in the person of Greta Thunberg is lauded as a saviour of the planet and given obeisance far above her station by the great and the good then we are in deep trouble.
    The Red Guards, the Soviet Pioneers, the Hitler Youth. Be very afraid.

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  • Stopping people getting to work, hospital, school, and generally going about their business is not making 'Extinction Rebellion' very popular. Wasting police time when they are already very short of resources puts people in danger. Stopping children getting to school prevents them from learning about the very thing the weirdy beards are all wittering about.

    Oh well - yet another group of middle class naive kids wanting their 15 minutes of fame. Seen it all before. Now go and get some work done like the rest of us are trying to do.

    Yes I know the climate is changing away from favourable conditions for one virus - like, destructive species, but it has done that in the past, which has given other species the chance to have their day. The planet won't care if we become extinct and every other living thing would be better off without us.

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  • The fact that this article even exists on the AJ, let alone has this much space, reminds me why i was glad to cancel our firms subscription.
    Tom, don't let the editor or anyone on the comment section fool you, you are part of the extreme minority (for avoidance of doubt), create a horrific impression of the profession and are completely misguided (translation: idiot).

    You went to university for 5-7 years and you believed it was worthwhile to stand around with a load of pot-heads. Wake up silly and do some work.

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  • The RIBA should declare a climate emergency.

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  • Underneath all the words, I think we agree this is a problem that if not addressed it will affect the poorest, and then all of us.

    I have called in these pages on the RIBA to co ordinate a meaningful response. My company will shortly be rolling out an exciting project, followed by more in the same vein. Architects will be needed, and they probably have more schemes of their own?

    Calm down and watch this space🐲✈️💙

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  • Hey, guys! You do realise that this is the AJ website and not Infowars, yeah?

    Peace x


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  • Well done, Tom!
    Painful systemic changes now are surely preferable to famine in the long run.

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