Multiple arrests at Extinction Rebellion’s Oily Hands day of action in Cambridge with Mother Earth
An Oily Hands climate change protest by Extinction Rebellion East of England in Cambridge on Friday (August 28) led to nine activists being arrested.
University of Cambridge buildings - including the chapel immediate beside the iconic Newton Lawn - were daubed with black handprints, created from chalk spray, to protest the involvement of fossil fuel money in the city’s financial architecture.
Police said protesters were arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage, or going equippeed to cause criminal damage.
A march began at 2.30pm outside Senate House. Torrential rain accompanied by thunder segued seamlessly into the frenetic drumming of Extinction Rebellion’s East of England protesters.
When the drumming ended, a silent ceremony began outside Great St Mary’s involving a symbolically chained woman carrying a boulder-sized representation of the Earth.
Wearing black rags and mortar boards in a twisted, Goth-tinged, portrayal of an academic world gone wrong, their silence led into the first chant of the afternoon:
“We are unstoppable, another world is possible...”
This was replaced by a gospel-flavoured chant:
“The river is flowing, the river is flowing, down in the sea
Mother carry me, a child I will always be
Mother carry me, down to the sea.”
After the third song - “This land is all that we have to share, this land is all” - the heavens started rumbling mischeviously again but the rain held off.
In the quiet before the non-storm a man shouted out: “Jesus is alive, I met him three years ago, he’s alive, Amen”.
It was hard to work out whether he was having a revelation on some personal road to Damascus, or if this was another new XR theatrical protest of some kind, but just then the church bells struck 3pm and the whole colourful caravanserai of red and black, of placards and flags, samba drummers, whistlers and singers trooped down King’s Parade, along Downing Street and round into St Andrew’s Street.
The first arrests took place at Gonville & Caius and Christs’s College on the junction with Sidney Street.
By 4pm the march was outside Trinity College, with the ruined lawn from February’s action a stark reminder of one of XR’s most controversial actions. The memory of Sir Issac Newton - one can only guess what he would have made of it all - was then witness to this latest form of protest on the walls of the chapel next to the tree: hands held against the stone, spray-painted with black paint.
The noticeably expanded police presence then moved in to make two arrests.
As they waited for the police van to come and take the arrestees away, the Red Rebels lined up outside the Chapel, facing a dozen police as they went through the arrest procedure.
An XR spokesperson said later: “Something has changed. I think the media characterisation of Extinction Rebellion over the last six months has helped influence and even poison some people’s view of XR but also clarified some people who were waivering. There is now more of a split between those people who are motivated to make positive changes in the world and those that aren’t.”
The mood outside Trinity College in the afternoon was far from ugly, however. The police were engaging and not forceful. One of the arrestees laid on the ground for half an hour, declining to get up. The police waited. One commented when asked about the delay: “She doesn’t want to get up at the moment - it’s entirely up to her, it’s a free country.”
A long tailback of vans and cars waited until the police van came to escort the woman away. When an XR steward apologised to one of them, the clearly irritated man responded: “It’s just inconvenient, mate, that’s what it is.”
“ Direct action is always the last resort, ” said the XR spokesperson. “ The university has had at least 10 years of student and staff pressure to divest and to come up with a plan to disinvest and reinvest that in clean technology.
“We wouldn’t be taking direct action route if all other routes hadn’t been exhausted. There have been years of discussions and still nothing moves and we’re running out of time if we are to slow down global warming. There’s an urgency about the shift we need to make now, and the university needs to understand that they’re not going to be seen as good ancestors if they don’t act now.”
The spokesperson said the action was symbolic: “The people defending Mother Earth are arrested, and the ones polluting and damaging Mother Earth are the ones getting away with it. It was a full-on emotionally charged and draining day.”
At 5.30pm a personalised letter to each of 14 trustees was handed in to the porters of Trinity College calling for full University of Cambridge divestment from fossil fuel investments.
“The letter points out that it is the legal duty of the trustees to safeguard the college’s investments, which are now imperilled due to their becoming stranded assets,” said Colin, one of XR’s stewards.
Cambridgeshire police confirmed they made “a number of arrests”. The University of Cambridge was invited to comment.
The Oily Hands event was the start of four days of XR action, with Silent Rebellion, Shoe of the Missing, Ocean March and Light the Beacons events all taking place over the bank holiday weekend.