You Say Extinction I Say Rebellion

Many people asked me what being arrested was like so here are some notes covering general observations, tips and ideas about practicing meditation in the cell.


Everything I share below relates to being arrested in the UK. If you are considering being arrested in a different country some of what I am sharing here won’t be relevant. (I salute my Belgium sisters and brothers for their bravery).

I was in custody in Acton and Bromley. I compared notes with my fellow arrestees – there are a lot of similarities but I am not sure if this is also true for the rest of the country.

I am writing about arrests that happened last week. Seems our already fragile democracy has taken a blow last night so things might be different going forwards.

Arrests are part of XR’s strategy (but you don’t need to be an arrestable to be active.  There are lots of other roles too).  On both occasions I was arrested I was given an opportunity to walk away from the scene and refused.

First time I was not put in handcuffs. Second time I was.

XR rebels follow a non violent direct action (NVDA) approach to civil disobedience. Among other things, NVDA means that we go floppy, rather than struggle, when arrested. When the arresting police officer lets the operator know what kind of person they arrested they state gender and compliance. I was ‘female, compliant’.  My experience is that communicating with my behaviour, that I am compliant, makes this surreal experience easier to bear.

First time I was arrested I was put in a police personnel van rather than a travelling cage. Things were going well. Then Automatic’s Monster came on the radio and I quietly sang along ‘what’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster?’ The arresting police officer was not amused and muttered under her breath ‘oh, shut up’. It did not establish a good working relationships… . Second time I was arrested I went floppy. 100% floppy. No core strength at work. As heavy as I could get so that my arrest engaged as many police officers as possible. That slowed the arresting process and enabled XR to hold onto the site longer. When they put me down on the road, behind that cordon, I apologised. I said: “I am sorry. I know you are only doing your job. I am doing mine.” I let them know I see them and the inconvenience I cause them personally (I could have chosen to walk).

My first bit of advice is demonstrate (excuse the pun) that you are respectfully compliant. As far as I can tell in the majority of cases after one has been arrested the police’s aim is to keep you cooperatively compliant so if they assume you already are they want to keep you that way. If they assume you are not, things can go awry (this is based conversations I’ve had with fellow arrestees).

Have an arrest book in your bag (and reading glasses if you need them). There are books available to borrow but the ‘library’ is random and may not appeal to your reading taste.

Wear layers and remove the strings from your hoody before you get arrested. The temperature in the cells seems to vary throughout the day and from one custody unit to the other. Word is that is it cold in Brixton. I was not allowed to keep a top that had a string going through the neckline due to health & safety regulations so lost one layer.  I discovered during my second arrest they have tops and bottoms to borrow so you can ask for a sweatshirt and trousers if you need extra layers. You won’t be allowed to take your belt and jewellery, including your wedding ring, into the cell. I don’t have any piercings. I assume the same applies.

There seems to be no telling how long one will be kept in custody. I was in for approximately 15 hours the first time and just under 24 hours the second. Elders and princesses seem to be kept for shorter periods of time. I set up as if I would be incarcerated for the full 24 hours slot. Took my shoes off, found a way to sit so that I was facing the ‘window’ because I didn’t want to stare at the cell’s door and toilet for hours on end.

There is a limited amount of vegan food options. Unless you ask they only give you one microwaved dish at a time. If you are eating the bean chilli, ask for rice to go with it. I thought the all-day breakfast was dreadful – a few beans and potato slices swimming in sugary red gloop. A friend told me they liked it so don’t take my word for it. It all comes down to eating habits and personal preferences.

I have a feeling that slouching on the bench/bed for hours in the cell is really bad for one’s mental health. I happen to have loads of yoga routines etched on my brain so practiced whatever my bodymind needed at the time. When I was not sure what to do I ran and jumped on the spot. The first time I ran and jumped on the spot the hatch opened and I was asked if I was OK. I shared a friendly smile, demonstrating I was OK and compliant. After that they left me get on with it.  During my second stay the prisoner on the other side of the corridor started banging his head against the wall, explaining to stuff that he needed to see a psychiatric nurse and in the meantime was intending to concuss his own brain. I get why my running and jumping around got the staff worried.

First time I was arrested I mostly read. Second time I was arrested I had a feeling for the set up so found it easier to put a meditation schedule into play. I followed the Gaia House sit/walk format.

As in the films, the cell’s door has a little hatch that is opened at regular intervals by staff that is checking you are OK (whatever that means). When they change shift you definitely need to speak with them (show friendly compliance) at other times it is not necessary unless you welcome the opportunity to have a conversation or need something (water, tea, coffee, blanket, toilet paper…).

I used the hatch opening sound as meditation bells and alternated between sitting, yoga and reading. I think the checks are more frequent than the customary sitting meditation practice. Sometimes I sat/read for longer than one period.
To sit, I placed the long ‘mattress’ on the floor, put the ‘pillow’ on top, put a folded blanket on that and sat kneeling, back to the door, facing the ‘window’.

I chose Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Noble Eightfold Path for my arrest book. It is small (easy to carry around before arrest), jam packed with wisdom so a slow read, and includes plenty of meditation instructions experienced meditators can rely on while imprisoned. I am not sure it is a suitable imprisonment companion for beginners or occasional meditators.

In other words, if you are intending to meditate in custody, it is worth planning ahead and having a book that will help you keep the focus.

Also really good, I found, is to have somethings available, memorised, to recite to bring you back to focus and/or establish inquiry practice. I took refuge, reflected on the 5 precepts, considered Atisha’s wonderful advice, remembered that I do not need to crawl on my knees for a hundred miles repenting and that I too have many names. I found reciting very helpful and I hope that (if you made it to the end of this piece) reading about my experience was helpful to you.

Love & Rage,