Arrest of Absurdity

Stuart Basden
Mar 9, 2018 · 6 min read

This article was mostly written in May 2017, and includes a present-day addendum. There’s a related trial happening today (see below)…

I’m writing this as I sit in a police cell. On the floor of my cell I’ve used (clean) toilet paper to spell out various messages to the all-watching CCTV eye in the corner. At the moment it says “PLZ DON’T CHARGE ME,” and earlier I’d written “PLZ BE KIND,” “ANARCHY = JOY,” and “GIVE US A SMILE”. On the other end of the intercom the custody officer seemed to enjoy my little notes.

So why am I sitting here? Let’s go back a bit.

Having moved to Bristol in January of this year [2017] I quickly got involved with a group of people who were excited enough by the RisingUp mentality to meet a few times and decide to take action against fracking. We’d gotten wind of a mischievous ‘dilemma action’, which involved spraying chalk on the front of Barclays bank — in broad daylight — to write “#ToxicBankers Stop Funding Fracking”. We then sat down to drink tea and wait for the police to come screaming onto the scene, sirens blaring. After seeing we weren’t going anywhere, and waiting for backup, one of us was arrested, which triggered another in the group to wipe the chalk off with a sponge. A confused police huddle ensued — “what do we do?”, “there’s no damage”, “we can’t arrest her now” — resulting in my friend being promptly de-arrested (yes, that’s a word!). We made a 2 minutes video, which went viral — getting 25k views in just a few weeks.

Sitting down for tea after spraying the truth on Barclays with chalk

It seems that the idea was a hit, and groups across the nation pledged to do similar actions to Barclays branches near them. In Bristol, the action took place four more times, the last two of which happening simultaneously, and resulted in my current custody. But before we return to the present, we’ll look at the 2nd and 3rd actions…

On Thursday morning around 6am, two people stealthily climbed onto the roof of another Bristol Barclays in the central shopping district (Broadmead). They lay low, unnoticed (except by some builders on scaffolding opposite) for about three hours, revealing themselves as the workers began to arrive. They hung some anti-fracking banners, set up a tent, and locked themselves to each other using a lock-on tube (a simple device that’s used to slow police arrest). That morning, the Barclays didn’t open. I chatted with the bank manager a little, informing him that if only Barclays would divest from fracking and other extractive and problematic industries, then these kinds of actions probably wouldn’t happen. He wasn’t amused.

The police assess the situation, while the Barclays remained closed

The police brought in climbing and cutting crews, cordoned off the area, and a large crowd gathered. Eventually a fire truck appeared on the scene with a cherry-picker, and so the climbing crew retreated, unwanted and out-matched. The sitting heroes were arrested, and Barclays re-opened.

The police and fire brigade prepare to bring the heroes down from Barclays’ roof

About an hour later, more miscreants arrived with chalk spray. I hung back, intending to wipe it off if necessary — I was meeting a friend later, so was hoping to avoid arrest myself. However, the bank manager mis-identified me as the sprayer of chalk, resulting in a cop approaching me and searching my bag — finding five can of chalk spray inside! As he was rooting around in my possessions, I handed off the sponge and water to a friend, who wiped the chalk off the windows. The cop, having started to proudly say how he’d “put 2 and 2 together” trailed off into silence as he watched the chalk wash away. “Right then,” he said, “I guess there’s no permanent damage. On your way then.” And off we went.

On Friday, a friend showed up to spray another Barclays in a penguin suit. They sprayed away, and had oh-such-fun doing so. The cops arrived, engaged us in a philosophical discussion about happiness, told us (on camera) it was a lawful protest, pointed out to the bank staff that it just wiped off, and told them to clean it themselves. The bank manager — credit to her — grabbed a mop and started wiping it off, only to discover the penguin standing in her way. The police then arrested the penguin for getting in the way (but not for the chalk).

The penguin sprays outside the Clifton Barclays

Addendum (present day)

At that point I stopped writing, because I was released from custody. So here’s the rest of the story…

On the Saturday, two more chalk spray actions took place at different branches in Bristol. At one, the sprayers did their stuff, cleaned it off, and got off with it. But not so with me. I finally took part and did the spraying for the first time, and I did so (along with the penguin) within 10 metres of a couple of police officers (who were initially facing the other way). They quickly ran up and stopped us, and as they were deciding what to do I cockily started shouting to the onlookers about the problems or fracking and how Barclays are the true criminals (they are). There was a lot of support from people, who expressed support for what we were doing, and told the police officers to let us off since we were going to clean it. However, I think the police officer didn’t enjoy being told how to do his job, and in a typical manner of an insecure person who wants to “show who’s boss” he made the decision to arrest us.

We were charged with criminal damage, and it went to trial. And even though the police officer who had told us it was lawful testified on our behalf (quite an odd occurrence!), we were absurdly found guilty. Our sentence: nothing. No fine, no conditional discharge, not even an “absolute discharge” (something our solicitor told us was “basically never given” and was the smallest penalty from a guilty verdict that is possible).

And yet the absurdity continues. Just one day before my trial, another delightful fellow went to one of the Bristol Barclays branches and used spray chalk again, repeating the message against fracking. He sprayed #ToxicBankers, waited for the police to arrive, and then started washing it off. However, while he was washing the chalk off the wall the police arrested him and handcuffed him. He’s also been charged with criminal damage. The absurdity of it is astounding — he was arrested while cleaning! And then handcuffed, as if he were a dangerous criminal or posed a flight risk. While cleaning!!!

His trial is today, 9th March 2018. Surely the British court system is not so ludicrous that it’ll find him guilty — of cleaning!?!

Update: The trial was postponed until April 23rd. The absurdity drags on…

Stuart Basden

Written by

Extinction Rebellion co-founder. I facilitate the emergence of diversity, openness & complexity in our beautiful universe, and resist oppression & exploitation.

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