Trial and error
Quaker activist and co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Ian Bray, talks to Stephen Tomkins
Ian Bray, one of the creators of the Extinction Rebellion campaign for action on climate catastrophe, is a Quaker and a member of Christian Climate Action. In April 2019, Ian was one of seven people arrested for criminal damage to the Shell Building in Waterloo, London. They had poured fake oil on the floor, glued themselves to the building, cracked windows and painted the words ‘Shell Knew’, in reference to Shell’s research into the effect of carbon emissions on the climate 30 years ago.
The defendants represented themselves, to allow them to explain their actions to the jury. Judge Perrins called it ‘a highly unusual case’ in that they pleaded not guilty, despite admitting causing the damage. He told the jury the accused had no defence under law, and that ‘this is a court of law, it is not a court of morals.’ The jury acquitted them.
Ian told the court: ‘I am much more afraid of climate change than I am of arrest or going to jail and, to use some Quaker terms, I hope I’ve lived adventurously enough to speak a small amount of truth to power and that my body has stopped the wheels turning just long enough for us to be here.’
Does your activism come from your Quakerism?
Yes, I was Quaker first, and through that I discovered peace activism. And peace and environmental justice are not very far separated. It’s the same work.
How did you become a Quaker?
It was only six years ago. I’d been a seeker when I was younger, but nothing ever clicked for me, and I dropped it for a long time. Then I realised a lot of friends were Quakers, so I went to a Quaker meeting as an experiment and I felt at home there from day one.
What got you started in activism?
In my Quaker meeting in Huddersfield, a few people were very active in the peace movement. I went on a Peace News camp as an experiment and there was a workshop saying: ‘You can do activism.’ Before that I didn’t know how you got into it; it was a revelation.
With activists I met at the camp, I went to the Earth First [campaign] gathering in 2016 and that was the first time I met Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam and Simon Bramwell, who were just starting their Rising Up! [environmental activism] project.
My first activism was vigils with Veterans for Peace. We ended up laying the white poppy wreath at the Cenotaph. We weren’t officially allowed in, but it was kind of tolerated. I went to protest the arms fair for the first time in 2017 and met people from Catholic Worker. Their ethos and spirit was really inspirational.
How did Rising Up! lead to Extinction Rebellion?
Rising Up! was a fusion of Roger’s campaign design, Gail’s ideas about compassionate social change and Simon’s experience of direct action. There was an interesting alchemy going on, and it snowballed from there. Extinction Rebellion is basically a Rising Up! Campaign, but it gained a life of its own. Everything else we’d done was iterative campaigning – try, assess, adapt, try again. Roger was researching nonviolent direct action for social change, so he’d discover some ideas. Then he’d design a little campaign and we’d try it out. The first thing we did as Rising Up! was the mass arrest on the M4 around the Heathrow third runway. Then we did various campaigns around clean air in London.
While doing that, we experimented with the roadblocking techniques that XR is famous for and with the ‘criminal damage’ of chalk spray on windows. The point was to see if we could get put on remand for non-imprisonable offences, without too much hard work to sort it out afterwards. A journalist said to Roger: ‘If you get 50 people in jail at once, it’s front page stuff.’ So for a long time, that was our ambition. It was always experimental. The first roadblocks were quite interesting, and that culminated in XR…
This is an extract from an article published in the September 2021 edition of Reform