This Is What It's Like To Be Arrested With Extinction Rebellion, As An Ex-Police Officer

John Curran spent 12 years throwing criminals in jail. So how does it feel to be on the other side of the law, protesting as a climate change activist?

John Curran hadn’t planned to glue himself to the pavement when he arrived at London City Airport last Thursday.

In the end, the decision had been made in the length of time it had taken to watch a bottle of superglue roll across the ground and settle at his feet, away from another activist who was now sitting with his hands fastened to the floor.

“I thought ‘I’ve got to make a statement, I’ve got to do something’ – and so I glued my hands to the pavement.

“It’s what I’m sure most people must see to be a ridiculous and pointless act, but as I said at the time: ‘What is more ridiculous? Me gluing my hands to the pavement in protest, or ignoring the climate crisis science which is absolutely clear?’”

Four years ago Curran, a 49-year-old guitar maker from Nottingham and an Extinction Rebellion campaigner, would have played a very different role in this scene.

As a former Met Police detective sergeant with 12 years’ experience, Curran knew better than most the sequence of events that would unfold the moment the first police officer walked his way.

John Curran being arrested at London City Airport.
John Curran being arrested at London City Airport.
Extinction Rebellion

“It can’t have been more than half an hour before they had both of us unstuck,” Curran said, describing how specialist police “release teams” use an acetone solution – usually nail polish remover – to dissolve the glue.

“I’d had a couple of moments of panic as soon as I’d done it because one of the police officers saw me lunging down to the pavement and started trying to stop me.

“He was moving my hands, I thought he was going to pull my hands off – to be fair to him I don’t think he was doing it on purpose. After that initial rush of adrenaline I was committed.”

Whilst cooperation with the police forms a central part of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics, with protesters not resisting arrest, most arrestees do not physically assist with the process.

Curran refused to walk, and so was carried away by three police officers, put into a van, and driven more than 20 miles to Sutton Police Station.

“I’ve arrested countless people, and driven them to custody countless times, so there was nothing in the process that came as a surprise,” Curran explained. “The only difference was that I was on the receiving end.

“It was a very strange feeling. As we were sitting in the van I was having a chat with the officers and it almost felt as though I was still a police officer myself.

“I understood their style of talking, and they understood me. It was almost as though I’d gone back five or 10 years – and then I was thrown in a cell.”

Once the van arrived at the station he was held in custody for “eight or nine” hours.

“Again it’s a very strange thing, you lose all sense of time,” Curran said.

“For someone who doesn’t have my background it must be a very intimidating experience. I know that every eight hours the inspector will come to review my case, and every hour one of the officers will come and look through the window – I know those things are going to happen so perhaps it’s not such a frightening experience.

It was, Curran says, the thought of his family that he held onto most firmly when remembering why exactly he had landed himself in police custody.

John Curran pictured on the day of his graduation from police training.
John Curran pictured on the day of his graduation from police training.
John Curran

“I have a three-year-old daughter – that’s the simple answer,” Curran said. “What won’t I do for her?

“I spend most of my life worrying about her; is she crossing the road properly, has she fallen off her bike, have I put her seatbelt on properly, will she choke on her food?

“Part of being a parent is being full of those worries, and now I have to worry about what her life will be like in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years. What I’ve been through is nothing in comparison to the worry I have for her.”

“I had tears in my eyes as they read me the caution”

Thursday wasn’t the first time Curran has been arrested. In April he was taken into custody after being arrested on Waterloo Bridge, where he had formed part of a blockade with Extinction Rebellion.

“The first one was much more emotional,” he said. “I hadn’t done it before and when I was interviewed the first time that was a very strange experience as my interviewers were both trainee detectives.

“I sat there and I thought ‘I have trained countless young detectives like that, I could have trained them’, so to be interviewed like that was actually quite emotional in a way I wasn’t expecting. I had tears in my eyes as they read me the caution.”

“I never expected to have that said to me.”

The police response to Extinction Rebellion has been criticised over the course of the past year, with Boris Johnson urging police to “use the full force of the law” during the International Rebellion.

Extinction Rebellion have also been accused of an over-familiarity with the police, with many questioning how a group which condemns the ‘establishment’s’ inaction in such strong terms can justify close links with one of the most visible signs of law and order.

John Curran (middle row, second from right) pictured on the day of his graduation from police training.
John Curran (middle row, second from right) pictured on the day of his graduation from police training.
John Curran

Curran has found himself caught between his past in the force, and a newfound sense of urgency to do something to highlight the government’s inaction on climate change.

It’s a conflict he believes many serving police officers are facing on the job.

“Most of the officers I speak to, once they’re out of earshot of their reporting officers, they will say that they support us,” he said.

“Normal people do. We’ve all got children – police officers have family and children and lives exactly the same as we do.

Speaking on Friday, the Met Police's commissioner Cressida Dick said the force's resources had been "stretched" by the protests.

She said she hoped activists would either "protest lawfully" or "go home" after what she described as a "failure to take and occupy" a number of streets in central London.

“They watch David Attenborough and worry about plastics in the ocean, and all the rest of it. Police can’t be members of political organisations, but to me it’s been absolutely clear that they are on their side.”

Rising through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police, Curran attended protest after protest as an officer – but before becoming involved with Extinction Rebellion, he said, “had never been an activist in any form.”

That changed shortly after he left the police, following the birth of his daughter.

From there, he said, he started “worrying about everything in a different way” – becoming aware of the amount of rubbish his family was producing and the energy they were using.

“Police can’t be members of political organisations, but to me it’s been absolutely clear that they are on their side”

He started reading around climate change, and eventually found an article about Extinction Rebellion. “I just thought, ‘oh, they’re right’”, he said. “We really have to do something.

“Once you read up on the science it’s terrifying really. For the sake of my daughter, I’ve been left with no choice. I’ve got no choice but to act.”

Having spent more than a decade enforcing the law, Curran is well aware of the legal implications around what he has done. If he could see himself as he is now, back then, he says, he would have arrested himself.

“When you’re in the police you have a mindset to carry out the orders that you’re given, and as far as I can see at the moment the police are being given pretty reasonable orders,” he said.

“My instinct is that if I had been asked to do the same things I would have done them because that would have been my job. The police are there to keep public order, and Extinction Rebellion are breaking the law.

“We should expect them to try and stop us. I think I would have fairly happily arrested me.”

Leaving the force in 2015, Curran was well-versed in the impact funding cuts had imposed on policing in the UK, and said he is “perhaps more aware than anybody” of the impact the tactics of Extinction Rebellion will have on the police’s ability to cope with the extra demand.

He said: “That process of getting arrested is a form is a political pressure – by using police resources and using court resources it puts pressure on the government.

“Even when I was there the police were completely snowed under and incapable of doing what they were asked to deal with – since then it would have got even worse.

“The police should not be spending their time having to deal with us.”

Despite this awareness, Curran stands by the group’s tactics when it comes to arrests. “However,” he continued, “the responsibility for that does not lie with normal protestors, but with the government.”

“I immediately saw a willingness to be arrested as a really powerful weapon, because as a normal person what power do we have? The United Nations has said we need to act now – not tomorrow, not after the next general election, not in 10 years time, now.

“In these circumstances, where I feel the government is criminally letting us down, what power do I have? Sitting in the street is one of the few ways I can think of drawing attention to the lack of government action.”

As of 8am on Monday morning 1,336 people Extinction Rebellion protestors had been arrested on the streets of London, the group said.

Protests have sprung up across the capital for a week, and the International Rebellion is set to last for another six days – there’s no telling yet how high the number of arrests that could rise by Sunday.

John Curran being arrested at London City Airport
John Curran being arrested at London City Airport
Extinction Rebellion

Although the end of the week will mark the close of the planned rebellion, many campaigners have vowed to stay on the streets for “as long as it takes”.

With two arrests under his belt, Curran is unsure about how many more times he would be willing to break the law.

“I don’t know – the more times you get arrested, the more likely you are to go to prison,” he said.

“I’d have to weigh up whether I would be willing to leave my daughter. The only times I’ve left her at night have been during the rebellions and so the thought of going to prison to leaving her is just something I’m not sure I could do at the moment.”

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