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Personal story: 3am in police custody

This is never a good time to be awake. Locked in a police cell for the first time in my 67 years, it is spectacularly bad.

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First, I was arrested. Extinction Rebellion protesters were sitting blocking Whitehall, opposite Downing Street, where we’d been for a day and a half. There was a sudden switch by the police from benign presence – glorified bollards, basically, occasionally cracking a smile at a witty placard – to machines of power and control. An officer bellowed, “If you do not fall back you will be arrested!”

They surged towards us looking twice as big – yellow torsos padded and squared by stab vests, bristling with chattering radios, glinting handcuffs and coshes, a robotic army. They were backlit by the blinding headlamps of their vans and blue flashing lights. The officer who bent towards me was a gigantic shadow whose face I couldn’t see. There were hammer blows of sound – horns? sirens? – which enveloped us in a nightmare.

My first reaction was disbelief: surely no one could expect me to make a serious decision while I was being blinded and deafened – followed by the understanding that this was precisely why they were blinding me. They wanted me to move. The only way I could stay in position was to close down. Nod my agreement to whatever the giant policewoman was saying, allow her to pull me up, stumble past the roaring vehicles into the weird dark emptiness behind. And there, one by one, we were lined up against a wall, patted down, and all belongings confiscated.

Three am is never a good time to be awake. Locked in a police cell for the first time in my 67 years, it is spectacularly bad.

Why am I here? Because I, along with hundreds of other members of Extinction Rebellion, was obstructing the highway to protest against parliament’s inaction on climate change.

Why am I really here? For a person who is banged up, freezing cold, with a fluorescent light glaring down on her and a thin blue plastic mat to lie on, this is a difficult question. Why, really? Because I don’t like it. I’m frightened of many things.

I’m most frightened of the waves of claustrophobia that I’ve suffered in confined spaces ever since being trapped in a bomb scare on the Central Line, 40 years ago. I know it’s there at the edge of my consciousness, that panic, and I’m rigid with the effort of blocking it. I knew in advance it would be a problem. Just as I knew in advance it would hurt to have a baby. Knowing’s not much help, when the time comes.

The panic begins as a rushing motion in my peripheral vision and I mustn’t let it in. I stare fixedly at the ceiling where it is written: IF YOU’RE HERE WE HAVE YOUR BIOMETRIC DATA. There are lines of fast-moving traffic on both sides of me, almost out of sight.

I’m frightened because I don’t think my solicitor knows I’m here, and the officer who booked me in refused to take his mobile number even though I had carefully written it on my arm with a Sharpie on Monday morning. She told me she’d contact him through the system, but I don’t know how “the system” works, and I’m imagining an automated call to a landline in a closed-for-the-night legal office. Must I ask to call him myself in the morning?

I have no means of telling the time in here. Someone glances in through the slot in the door fairly regularly, maybe every half hour? And I did start counting the slot-glares, but now I’m not sure if there have been three or four. I was locked in at 1am, I do know that.

I’m frightened about what will happen in the morning – that I’ll miss my advance-ticketed train which is supposed to get me home in time to pick up my grandchildren from school, as I have promised.

I’m frightened they may find a reason to keep me beyond the 24-hour statutory limit. I’m frightened I might forget the name of the police station I’m in, which I shall want to give to my lawyer.

I’m frightened about the biometric data – saliva, finger and palm prints, mug shots. Will I have a criminal record, and might that prevent me from going to Australia to visit my 91-year-old mum, who’s lived over there for many years?

Which circles back to: why am I really here, really? How can anyone who cares about the environment defend taking an intercontinental flight?

What’s closest to home rankles most, so I abandon any pretence of sleep and pace around my cell. Displacement. The individual officers here have all treated me humanely. But I’m trying to imagine how it might feel to know you were sentenced to be in here for years rather than hours.

The walls are coated in something smooth and shiny (custard coloured); the floor is tough speckled lino; the door, steel; the toilet and sink, stainless steel. The blanket is man-made fibres. On the floor, I’ve left a disposable plastic cup of tea full of lumps of undissolved creamer. The only sound is the buzzing of the fluorescent bulb. There’s a shiny black panel halfway up the wall opposite the door. I run my fingers over it, hoping it might be a window. I press my forehead against it searching for a glint of streetlight. But if it’s glass, it’s frosted on the other side, and possibly facing a wall. The outside world is blocked.

There’s nothing in this cell that’s natural – no wood, no fibre, no stone, no fresh air, no glimpse of sky, no drinking water, no living sound, no way out. And it occurs to me that this unnatural box is a good metaphor for the world we are moving towards, if we don’t curb climate change. A world where there’s nothing natural to see or smell or touch or taste or hear. A world the senses recoil from. An alien place, unfit for human habitation.

OK. This is my greatest fear, and this is why I’m here. 

Jane Rogers’s latest novel is “Body Tourists”

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning