The Day the Scientists Rebelled (and Got Arrested)
On April 6th, the scientists rebelled. Hundreds of scientists around the world stood up, sat in, protested and demanded to be heard as part of a global day of action organized by Scientist Rebellion. Here in California, four scientists who have spent years trying to make their voices heard and spur action on the climate crisis met up in Los Angeles and chained themselves to the doors of a Chase Bank to protest the lack of action by Chase and other financial institutions to protect the planet and act on the climate emergency. This non-violent action direct action (NVDA) was met by an outsized reaction from the Los Angeles Police Department which arrested and briefly detained the four.
After securing themselves and the doors of the Chase Bank building at around 12 noon local time, the scientists took turns addressing those gathered about the need for urgent action on the climate emergency and their demands for climate action. Their goal was to force Chase to commit to no new fossil fuel investments. In effect, the scientists and organizers from Extinction Rebellion LA demanded that the bank Stop the Money Pipeline. As temperatures rose to near 100°F, the LAPD slowly gathered forces and shut down access to the area. Late in the afternoon approximately 100 LAPD and LAFD forces, clad in riot gear, used bolt-cutters to extract the four scientists, and arrested and detained them until early April 7.
One of the four scientists is San Francisco-based physicist Greg Spooner, a member of the new global organization Scientists Rebellion and a long-time member of Extinction Rebellion SFBay. We spoke to Greg to better understand what happened and how he felt:
XRSF: How did you become focused on climate activism?
In 2008, I began traveling to Earth’s polar regions for fun and adventure. The changes occurring in the polar regions were so dramatic that even though I was new to these places, I could tell they were in tumult. Evidence of the rapid, dangerous changes taking place was obvious to every guide, tourist, and local. Ever since I experienced first-hand just how fast things were changing in the Arctic and Antarctic, I’ve ramped up my activism.
Why did you feel you needed to take this action?
Scientists and science workers have felt like it was our job to study, understand, explain, and report on global heating and biodiversity loss. But in an accelerating emergency that’s not enough. No amount of reporting or analyzing or modeling or educating the public or policy makers has changed this situation. Scientists like me would like to just stay in the lab or behind our computers, believe me. It’s uncomfortable for us to take big risks or do ridiculous looking things like chaining ourselves to a bank. But we can’t remain on the sidelines. We have to show society that what we are saying is real. How will society believe that we are in an existential emergency if we don’t act like it? And who better to act, than someone like me who has privilege, money, and status? If not me, who?
How did you feel that day, when you saw the number of police coming toward you?
When the LAPD moved in on the action at Chase Bank, I was thinking about what an overwhelming display of force was being mounted. There were around 100 officers in riot gear, some with automatic rifles, some with crowd control weapons. I thought that this display meant that the fossil fuel interests and those in power wanted to send a strong message of intimidation. In a way, I felt good about it because it seemed that what we were doing represented a real threat that the powerful were taking seriously.
What was it like being arrested?
When it became clear we were definitely going to be arrested, I went from being somewhat anxious to fairly calm. But as riot-gear clad LAPD slowly swept all the media and supporters from in front of the Chase Bank building near Pershing Square, the emotional temperature went way up for me and the crowd. The cops pushing back all the supporters and media folks made a kind of vacuum that local folks with their own beefs with LAPD — as well as 2 or 3 clearly mentally disturbed people — quickly filled. A few angry residents loudly confronted the police. I felt for the first time the possibility of real violence. And here I was chained to a door without a key. After a kind of stand-off, a group of the LAPD surrounded us. Four of them carried crowd control rubber bullet weapons or automatic rifles. These four stood in front of the four of us and blocked us from the view of the now-distant crowd. Between 10 and 20 other officers and LAFD members came over with bolt-cutters and cut us loose, one by one. The stood us up, hand-cuffed us with zip lock cuffs and walked us into a single van. We had previously decided we were not going to “go limp” or otherwise resist arrest.
We were escorted with sirens to a local precinct near the downtown/Pershing Square area where the action took place. We were sat on a steel bench facing the wall and doubly cuffed to the bench. Our belongings — including shoelaces — were removed and processed. But they let us wear our lab coats throughout this process. They took information like our medical conditions and IDs. We had to sign some documents about our possessions and medical conditions, with our cuffs still on and unable to see what we were signing behind our backs, which did not seem legal. They removed our zip lock cuffs and put on steel cuffs. Then we were loaded into a pair of squad cars without back seats — they had a kind of hard plastic scoop that was very difficult to sit in with cuffs on. We were transported from downtown LA to a jail facility in Van Nuys. Took 30–40 minutes to drive — very uncomfortable. My companion, Allan, had his cuffs improperly locked, so they continually tightened during the drive.
We were then walked into the booking area, held together for a while in a holding cell, and individually fingerprinted, mug-shotted, and booked. Immediately following the booking process, each of us was led to a dorm-style cell. We were given a blanket, and a sheet and then locked up. The experience then changed for all of us at that point, because it all suddenly felt very real and threatening. We were no longer being processed. We were simply in jail. We occupied four bunk beds together, while other arrestees for “regular” crimes were brought in during the night one-by-one. A trio of officers entered the cell every half hour, and loudly inspected the room. If anyone was not in their bed, the officers would shout at you to get into your bunk. We had a couple of open toilets for around 15 arrestees, and sinks that would occasionally provide drinking water. No way to tell the time except for the TV which blared the Kardashians until probably 10PM. The constant slamming of the cell doors was unnerving. At times, I struggled to remain calm.
Finally, our jail support and attorney got us released around 12:30AM. The relief was immense. We celebrated by downing large bottles of water, scarfing energy bars and — most crucially — being able to urinate in peace.
What’s next for you?
This is my first arrest for an NVDA action but it likely won’t be my last. I will continue the kind of NVDA activism I’ve been doing with XR SF Bay and others like Sunrise and 350. But I will also ramp up my high-risk activism with Scientist Rebellion. I really, really hope to activate other scientists to use their privilege and power, to stand up and act. So far, I have largely failed in that goal. (Any scientists out there: Email XRSFBay with questions for Greg and we would be happy to connect you.) Follow Greg on Twitter.
What would you say to a young person considering becoming a climate activist?
It sounds like we are doomed, I know. But we are not. Every 0.1 C degree of warming we prevent will make your future better than it would be otherwise. It is not too late so please don’t give up. And many of us older folks do understand that it is our duty to fight for you — you didn’t cause this emergency, so many of us will spend the rest of our lives fighting for you. Also, in addition to Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion, there are many great youth-led climate justice groups to join and organize with. Sunrise, Youth vs. Apocalypse, Fridays for Future… Contact us and we will get you plugged in!
Scientists Stage Worldwide Climate Change Protests After IPCC Report (Smithsonian magazine)
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