Arrested for climate activism

Sophia Cheng / 14 min read / Newbie Activist Life
9 November 2019
And one month on

Written: Friday 11 October 2019 – scroll down for one month on reflection ⬇️

Wednesday afternoon I was arrested as part of the Extinction Rebellion protests going on in London to sound the climate crisis alarm.

It is part of a series of disruptive actions taking place in 60 cities around the world. More than 1300 people have been arrested in London so far.

Firstly, know that I am ok. I was treated well by the police, locked on with a friend and rebel from my hometown – and surrounded by others from Chelmsford too. Five people from Chelmsford were arrested at the same time. I was afraid, it was very nerve-wracking at points but I was clear on why I was doing it.

Secondly, know that I did it knowingly after receiving training on Knowing my rights and did my homework to understand the rationale behind civil disobedience. I weighed up the potential consequences giving up my liberty would have (future possible issues with loans, jobs, travel and adoption – the one that worries me most tbh) against two things:

1 – that adding my body to the growing number of other people willing to risk their liberty and add weight to fact that our government’s inaction is what is really criminal and

2 – I did it, in a way, for you and all the people that know me. I don’t like to break the rules (granted I’ve got a bit more daring in the last few years) but I am historically very obedient. If you’re in a suit, older than me, a man, talk more articulately than me or are wearing a uniform – I do what I’m told. I also don’t really like to make a fuss.

So I made the choice to get arrested because this is how serious I understand the consequences of the science – and our inaction to be.

I broke with my obedient mould on Wednesday by refusing to move from Horseguards Road (right at the back of Downing Street). I made a fuss by being locked on with my arm to another rebel – so a specialist team had a cut us out (safely), it took about 3.5 hours. It was witnessed by hundreds of people, young toddlers and grandparents, other rebels and curious bystanders, the poignant red rebel brigade; taking photos, filming, live-streaming and interviewing me. It was very surreal, at times when the sun was out and people were singing it was joyous and we were making jokes, at other times I was very emotional, nerves got the better of me and my legs were shaking. I was not allowed to eat or drink anything while arrested and waiting.

I was handcuffed and put in a police van. I’ve had my mugshot taken, my fingerprints, my shoe print and a DNA swab taken. I was detained in Wembley police station and put in a cell. I was given (vegan) food and tea. I was allowed my phone call and spoke with Jayme (who arguably was more strung out than I was). I was allowed a book but couldn’t take the words in. I actually slept, and in the quiet isolation stewed over everything that had happened that day.

After 3ish hours, around 10.30pm – I was released by the sergeant on duty – ‘released under investigation’ – I waited for my friend who I was locked on with – we went to regroup with our Chelmsford rebels in our little den – and waited to hear what had happened to them. By 1.30 am everyone was accounted for and all heading for a warm dry bed.

My mum called me afterwards: “I love you, I didn’t want you to get arrested but I understand why you did. I admire what you are doing to help protect the planet.”
At this point, I let all the tears out.

Why did I do this?

The science is clear, for more than 3 decades, scientists, politicians (including Margaret Thatcher) and corporations (including Exxon) have known how huge increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases would affect our climate. The knock on consequences of a changing climate and rising seas is uncertainty over food and water shortages, mass migration, increase in tropical diseases – and much much more. There is uncertainty over when exactly it will happen but there is little debate that this is the future we are heading for. I have a go at trying to explain it over in this blog post I wrote back in March this year:…/calling-all-the-polite-well-…

The UN’s body of scientists said in October 2018 – we have all the technology to tackle the climate crisis – what we lack is “political will”.

I have also had the privilege to work alongside indigenous activists for the last 5 years with If Not Us Then Who? 3-4 environment defenders are killed every week for protecting our biodiversity and forests that we depend on – to feed our desire for certain products. As a UK citizen, we have dominated and exploited other lands and their people, extracted their resources to make ourselves the wealthy nation we are today. (I’m not gonna go further into the issue of colonialisation and capitalism in this post)

In addition as a UK citizen and white-ish/enough, I knew I would be treated well by the police. It’s a different story for other people and in other countries.

So that’s my story so far. Thank you for reading down to the end.

If you have questions, please ask me.

I am happy to have challenging and respectful conversations about this, I’m also happy to have a giggle about it over a pint.

We have about 8.5 years of carbon left to emit at the rate we’re going before we fall into the unknown territory of runaway climate change. This is THE issue of our generation.

Let’s talk about it, and reflect on what is going to have to change in order to turn this ship around.

One Month On

A month ago today, I was arrested.


Yep, still feels weird saying that.


It was a whirlwind few days; continuing the Rebellion, the defiance of the city-wide section 14 ban as more than 1000 of us showed up in Trafalgar Square, the crashing low of the Canning Town incident and my mixed feelings about the choice of location balanced against the realisation that XR was here to push the boundaries and sometimes it was not going to get that right; being asked these questions on live radio as it was unfolding; how the conversation got monopolised by tactics – once again, leaving the science to the side.

Thankfully, for me, taking part in the red handed march on the last day of the Rebellion with my local XR group, including re-uniting with some of those who were also arrested was what my soul needed. The sombre nature of the march, the symbolism of being ‘caught red-handed’, acknowledging that we’d been disruptive and apologising for it. We took a detour and returned to the ‘scene of the crime’, five of us stood in silence for a few moments, to let it sink in. At this point the arrest total stands at 1823 in London. I was one of those 1823.

Then we went to get some chips.

And then like that, it was over [Aside: I joined the Brexit March the day after and couldn’t help but wonder where we’d be if hundreds of thousands of us blocked the streets? ] .

Going back to normality when you’ve spent two weeks declaring that ‘business as usual is doomed’, is not easy. A flurry of catch-up activity for two days gave way into a sinking low, that has lingered for weeks.

The Reaction

A few days after the arrest, I wrote the passage above and shared it with friends and family before going public on Facebook. I had to re-read the statement several times, the longer it had been since I’d been arrested the less real it all seemed. I busied myself replying to as many people who reached out.

I’ve by and large received friendly and positive comments and started a few conversations about the gravity of the climate crisis, which was one of my main reasons for deciding to take this action. All sorts of folks came out of the woodwork; old flames, old bosses, old teachers. Friends I’d made in countries around the world. Even indigenous activists friends where the stakes are so much higher.

  • One person has gone and watched Climate Change The Facts. (Here’s the link)
  • One person read out a portion of my statement at a youth activist event in Norfolk.
  • One person has committed to not flying in 2020 and using her voice to talk about climate justice more often.
  • One person who I haven’t spoken to in more than a decade said he’d been weighing it up for a while and on reading my post was now prepared to get arrested.
  • One person trolled me – suggesting I eat Tide Pods (I had to Youtube that 2018 meme) Interestingly I traced it back, we are connected by an online Brene Brown course we did in January 2016. Ironic really, given how vocal Brene is about integrity, authenticity and trolling.
  • Other strangers have been offering far kinder words, offering unsolicited kindness

The gratitude is kinda unsettling though, I mean I’m terrible at outwardly receiving praise (don’t get me wrong though, inwardly my insecure-younger-self is mopping up every drip of it) but it makes me squirm and immediately look in a different direction to avoid eye contact, shuffle my feet about and want to change the topic.

I’ve been wrestling with friends from countries like Russia, and frontline activists suggesting I am brave. To be honest I’m not sure I would have chosen to be arrested in many other countries other than the UK (if i was a citizen of another country). I was confident I would be treated well.

But on a group call with fellow Digital Nomad Girls, a Swedish human rights lawyer made a point: safety is relative. Paraphrasing her words, it is unlikely that governments and corporates will consent to a complete systems overhaul without some conflict, which means the goalposts will move. What seems safe now, is unlikely to remain that way. And a friend from France noted that although the police might be more violent in her country, the legal institutions seem more lenient. She was horrified that I had been DNA swabbed, something French lawyers are suggesting no-one complies to.

The Lull

Getting back to normality has been difficult. Adrenaline got me through the first few days and then there was an emptiness.

I attended an in-depth debrief with my local group, something that XR is really strong on. There was just seven of us in the room, five of us had been arrested. It was the first time we’d all been back together. Once the door closed I could tell my emotions were rising. Since going public about my arrest I’ve been in storytelling mode; shifting the conversation to the climate crisis. I didn’t need to do that with these people. In this safe setting, let myself feel the weight of it all:

F***! that was intense.

And my biggest fear:

What if it doesn’t amount to anything?

Cue days, if not weeks, of rolling with these feelings. Cue nihilistic apathy.

Here I was behind my screen again, one removed from life, again. ‍ Earning some money with micro-movements from my fingers. Fretting over a tweet, or a newsletter. I mean.

What’s the point?

I’d just spent two weeks in a vignette of the possible; in three-dimensions, kindness from strangers, days not orientated around consuming or making money, real and enriching.

The Rising

The High Court has ruled the City-wide ban of XR last month as unlawful; a magistrate has ruled an XR had ‘lawful excuse’ for criminal damage due to climate emergency. There is to be a general election and Labour announced they are running on a Green New Deal and in a flurry of election-spurred promises; fracking has been paused and 30 000 letters have been sent for a sort-of non-binding Citizens’ Assembly following a promise from April’s rebellion. And a poll by “YouGov found that 56% of people back the total decarbonisation of the UK economy by 2030.

Engineers, scientists and even doctors are advocating for non-violent civil disobedience. This is huge.

Meanwhile, I am waiting to hear about my case but a change of scene and new housemates has me on the rise again. It is eventually sinking in; this is what the near-future will look like as a newbie activist. This is part of the cycle, winter is a time for regeneration, taking stock and bedding down new roots.

It helped being validated by Mike Berners-Lee, researcher and author, at the Ethical Consumer Conference. [He is in a video clip I use in my climate crisis presentations, so was quite the fan girl ].

If we’re not being scared by the latest science then there’s something wrong with our brains.

I’ve reluctantly reached the conclusion that non-violent civil disobedience is what is needed and hats off to Extinction Rebellion and 95% of what they’re doing, especially making it a positive and safe experience to protest, offering a taste of a better world.

I welled up, three rows from the front.

Before Extinction Rebellion, I did not know anyone who was arrested for protesting. Learning from and with other more experienced activists, I upped my game. Now more people know someone who took this risk; me. I’m shifting the social norm ever so slightly. We need everyone to step up in a way that is stretching but makes sense and is safe for us.

When real change comes, it will come fast but we’re not there yet. There is still so much to do. And it’s not in isolation. Protests are erupting in Lebanon, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and of course ongoing in Hong Kong. “The data shows that the amount of protests is increasing and is as high as the roaring 60s,” reports The Guardian.

The world is sick and people are rising up.

And in the lyrics of a guy who knows how to write a protest song; “It’s not the waking, it’s the rising” that really matters.

So what that means on the micro-scale of my life is a renewed structure in my week; clarifying to my clients that I will not be available towards the end of the week. I need to protect my time to do what I consider to be truly important. Mostly I make time for what people will pay me to do despite realising last year that my most impactful work is unlikely to be my paid work. I’m seeking out fewer social opportunities, opting for a Friday night in mapping out ideas I’ve been sitting on for years. A Saturday morning in to write this. I haven’t written a blog post in months.

But this is not the time for playing small.

I’ve declared a climate emergency to myself; so I need to act accordingly.

I aim to leave most of my self-doubt firmly in this decade.

The Thanks

Thank you to Lightscaper Photography, who captured this photo and in fact the whole sequence so poignantly and accurately. This is my friend Ellie in this picture just before she is dragged away.

Thanks to everyone who replied to my message, for engaging with me.

And if you’ve read this far, thank you.

The Invitation

I invite you to consider;

  • Where is your line? We all have to stand for something – on what issue, and at what position do things need to get to for us to stand up and act? How long will we hide behind our privilege?
  • What does your life look like, in light of the climate and ecological crisis?

And lastly, I invite you to use me. Use my story [Here’s the link on Facebook], strike up a conversation with someone you know;

  • What is motivating so many people to give up their liberty?
  • What is the science saying?
  • What is the world we want?
  • Is it worth fighting for?

Avatar photo Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts
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