For most of my life the threat of prison has loomed not far away. I grew up in a kinship network which, in order to materially survive, engaged in illegal activities that regularly led to custodial sentences. During my teens and twenties, days of sex work, street level drug dealing and small time thieving did not pass without the possibility of ending up in custody, and many of us did. I lost nearly half a decade of my life to the prison industrial complex. At no point did I find transcendence, nor did it “mature me” as Extinction Rebellion suggested it might. What prison did do was further traumatise me and push me down into poverty and violence.
As a political organiser and activist in my thirties, I engaged in direct action that I knew would put me back into custody. Locking myself to diggers at coal mines, blockading arms manufacturers and deportation flights, I knew the likelihood of arrest was high, and a court appearance was very possible, but that prison was unlikely. I was arrested but never charged for other offences or sometimes I was just brought in for questioning. I often organised meetings in which plain clothed police would be parked outside my home or the community centre at which the meetings were held. All of this stemmed from the choices I made to try and engage with what I viewed to be the structural cause of the existential threat we were facing, namely the economic system of capitalism.
During this time, each interaction with the police and the courts was shaped by my identity as a white cis-gendered man. They didn't see me as a petty criminal: they saw me as a hippy, a do-gooder, a trouble maker of a different kind, and whatever the psychological experience, the physical experience was not the same as it had been as young person living in poverty.
I'm in favour of communities taking direct action to take control over their lives. I agree with Extinction Rebellion that the environmental threat is a matter of life or death, and direct action must be taken to defend the planet and everything that lives on it. But, I cannot fathom an analysis where the prison system is used as a tool to defend the environment, where protesters can recharge with a good book. Whether I think trying to fill up the courts and prisons with climate justice activists is an effective strategy in achieving the required change is not relevant right now. What questions I might have about whether blockading bridges and making policy demands to government constitutes direct action isn't relevant here either. What is relevant are three things:
1) The prison system, the judicial system and the police have physically and psychologically traumatised the poor and working class, and this is doubly so for black and Asian people.
2) The environmental devastation has already begun, and it is physically and psychologically traumatising poor and working class communities, primarily Black and Asian poor and working class communities.
3) The prison system, the judicial system and the police are all sides of the same coin as the environmental devastation that has already begun. In using the practices and processes of the former as a tool to end the latter, you will exclude those most at risk from the movements you are trying to build.
I don't write this in order to capture the attention of the organising committees, spokespeople and theoretical leaders of Extinction Rebellion. Nothing so far suggests they would listen. I'm writing this to the activists on the ground, some of whom I know, many of whom I am sure are thoughtful and compassionate people who want to defend this planet. I want them to know that they will not find any peace through prison and the ways in which you find it moving will also scar you for the rest of your life, and negatively affect every personal relationship you have for decades.
Being inside prison has become more violent, more isolating and more psychologically harmful since I was inside. When I was there I was raped and beaten on a regular basis and had little to no direct contact with the outside world. The friends I have visited over the last decade have turned to substance abuse, self-harm and in some cases suicide in order to cope with their experiences. The overcrowding, the under-trained staff and the private companies who penny pinch to generate a profit have created situations where men and women whose lives have toughened them, in the way Roger Hallam couldn't even imagine, have been broken inside prison.
I would accept the risk of going back to prison – not if I thought a cause was righteous and so in need of action that everything must be risked, but if I thought its strategy was coherent, if it was built on the lived experiences of those most affected and if it did not require making policy demands of states and corporations to remedy their ways. I'd accept the risk of going to prison again if organisations like Wretched of the Earth said, “Here's a strategy we think will work, and it requires people to take that risk.”
The climate crisis is real, and its effects have become a lived reality for many people. Those who are the most affected are the experts; they're the ones who Extinction Rebellion should be taking their cues from – people of colour working on the front lines of the climate crisis. I can't be sure, but I suspect that those on the front lines won't tell you that prison is a place for maturing and meditation.
Finally, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, Extinction Rebellion is a resource drain in the fight to save our planet. Those of you who have donated your money to it, because that is how believe you can help, need to check that you're not just doing that because the people involved – economically secure, university-educated white people – look and sound like you.
D Hunter is an agency care worker and author of Chav Solidarity
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