LONDON–It takes only two minutes following Claire, a member of Trafalgar Square’s Action Wellbeing team, before we encounter an arrestee in need.
I never learn this young woman’s name. Within an hour, however, it is hard to imagine that she isn’t my niece, or the neighbor’s college-bound daughter. We find her lying, propped on a sleeping bag on the pavement, with her right arm locked via a wide metal tube to another woman who is sitting in a yellow bathtub–yes, I realize this is a difficult image to keep in the mind. Picture a ceramic bathtub sitting on the road in the middle of Trafalgar Square, then a woman laying in it under several layers of blue tarp, then a metal tube stuck into a hole sawed into the bathtub’s body–and this young woman, with her grey hat to keep warm, connected to it all, her arm jammed into the pipe’s outside end.
Civil disobedience with a side-dish of the surreal.
When we come across her, tears pool under her glasses. Sometimes, no matter how much you consider your decision to act in the name of Extinction Rebellion, no matter how prepared you are, the emotions of the moment overwhelm. I learn this myself, by the end of this story. But that part is for the end.
Claire swoops in. She takes the girl’s hand, lays another on her stomach. This is her job: Action Wellbeing. What she’s signed up to do. The group is private about the details of its everyday rounds, to protect those at risk, but long-time member Chris describes the job to me as physical and emotional support for arrestees, providing food, blankets, warm things. They help arrestees use the toilet. They just stay with them, saying: ‘you ok?’ until the last possible moment, or, when they’re being carried by police, they ask, ‘do your arms hurt?’
Sometimes they are in shock, he tells me, and his job is talking to them, encouraging them. We have a phrase, he says, ‘What’s brought you to this moment?’
Claire appears to be an expert in this regard. What follows is a conversation of such tenderness, consideration, and intimacy, I didn’t have the heart to record it. I will have to tell you the story based on recollection, on notes scrawled in the brief seconds I’m not holding this girl’s hand.
So, going back: we find her crying. Claire gets down close to the girl’s ear. She puts a hand on her head, whispers like a mother soothing a child to sleep, so quiet I lean in as far as I can just to get the vapors of words. She starts by pointing out the trees–Maple?–growing on the borders of Trafalgar Square. I miss nature here, she says to the young woman, as the girl’s breath evens out and her eyes turn to the stretching branches, but there are the trees, even here it is nature, and it is wild. It’s really nice when you think about those trees, you can let them ground you.
By now, she’s taken the girl’s whole arm and has been massaging her palm, her forearm–then she moves to her legs. Gotta keep your whole body organized, she tells her, as the girl’s sneakers stick out from under her blankets on the street.
A noise comes from outside the arrestee’s field of vision, above her head. Her eyes turn to Claire’s, wide and quivering, and asks, What is that?
Claire soothes her: It’s just the police, they have the gazebo (the tent). Within a few minutes, the muscles in the young woman’s face seem to spring back into the forms you’d see if she were chatting in the student center, sitting with family at the TV. Claire finds out she’s a second-year university student at King’s College, just down the Strand, less than a mile away. She’s studying English Literature, and she’s decided to bring Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment into the jail cell. I can’t help it–I balk. Are you sure you don’t want me to get you something from Waterstones? Something less dark and terrifying? I ask her, but no, she’s thought through her choice, she wants to read Crime and Punishment because it will be honest about real life at a moment that real life comes to grab her.
We keep her occupied. We talk about the limitation of literary translations; the Canterbury Tales; shepherds in the Bible. She is really, really into medieval literature. All the while, Claire continues to massage her, lifts her elbow, puts it up on a pillow, moves to massaging her trunk. It turns out she has training in shiatsu massage. I start to get mildly jealous. She teaches the young woman to breathe, slowly pulling in the in-breath, slowly letting go of the out-breath, and adds that she can use these skills while she’s in the cell.
I tell the girl after you do this nothing will scare you, and she says back I’m just gonna pick up spiders when this is over.
Live-streamers come. Professional photographers come with their massive zoom lenses. They snap shots and run off, or put the camera up close and ask a simple–how are you feeling? They pan on the arrestee for fifteen seconds, then Claire, then me. All they get is this brief snip of a young person crying on the ground and murmuring I’m doing this for my generation’s future, and then they leave.
They are missing a lot.
At least four different people from arrestee support, first aid, and sustenance come by with offers of more pillows, granola bars, sandwiches, chocolate. She munches while lying down. Two legal observers come to check that they have her personal information–the name I’m never given. By then, I’ve got her hand while Claire massages her temples, the top of her head.
Claire warns the girl about the experience of being arrested: They will have some sort of kit with them, it can be a bit daunting but just to let you know. She also has advice, such as: Do you do a bit of yoga? I mean, just in general, we all need that in our life.
I try to remind her of the significance of what’s she’s doing: A lot of people around the world are watching you, I tell her. But at the same time, it all feels strangely routine: when a woman in a fuzzy leopard-print moto jacket is carried off behind her by at least six cops to loud cheers, the girl remarks, this is like a team-building exercise.
We are talking about Baba Yaga, and her fairytale cottage made of chicken legs and pancakes, when the police come and surround us.
From there, there is nothing Claire, or I, can do.
An officer grabs me by the backpack and throws me backwards. He snarls: What do you think you’re doing! …but I don’t quite fall. I throw my hands up instinctively and shout Sorry! Sorry. I want to tell him–I was just holding her hand. We were just telling Russian folktales.
Within seconds, a shake overcomes me. A legal observer, unaffiliated with XR and trained in observing arrests, approaches and informs me I saw that, I’ll get the officer’s epaulets. I can’t give you emotional support but there are others. I stumble to the first aid tent, I demand tea and collapse into tears with an immediacy that can’t be controlled. A first-aider runs and gets a free cup from the local Pret. Soft voices sing, a lilting Police, we love you, we’re doing this for your children too, and I sink into a chair.
Two days later, I visit the arrestee support back offices, where calls are taken, and discover that the legal observer had, indeed, officially recorded the police aggression he witnessed against me. If I wanted, I could look at the record.
I knew then that someone had my back.
I hope that young woman knows it, too.