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
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