Donheads-based environmental campaigner, Richard Ecclestone, has appeared on Sky News and BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire Show recently. He has joined Extinction Rebellion’s action, trying to ensure police and protestors behave within the law. His previous job as a Police Inspector, has interested the media.
Richard is used to the term ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’. He laughed when I mentioned the phrase. “It is quite ironic, isn’t it,” he said. But it is his understanding of police procedures that means he’s an asset to the XR campaign.
“My role with the movement on the ground is what they call police liaison. My job is to be the conduit for communications between the police and the rebels. The idea is that if everybody knows what is going to happen next, then there are no surprises. That keeps everything peaceful and orderly for both parties,” he explained.
Thirty years ago, Richard was directing his officers, policing protests in Devon and Cornwall, where he served as an Inspector. “I have been very interested in how these protests have been policed because I was policing the roads protests in Devon back in the late 1990s. I was running a police support unit which is similar to the units deployed in London.”
Richard says that he always recognised the right to peaceful protest when he was a serving police officer. “It is an important right and this issue is an existential threat to humanity and all the other creatures on the planet,” he said. “It’s only right and proper that we are able to express those concerns and views to our government, which is failing to act in the way that it should be, but in a peaceful way and within the bounds of what is acceptable to the law. That is under debate at the moment but, ultimately, no great social change has come without people being able to express views in a peaceful way.”
Richard is not the only XR member who has worked in the police service. “There are quite a few of us who are ex-police and we’ve done quite a lot of media work. We put a video together just to try and dispel the myth that all Extinction Rebellion members are ‘uncooperative crusties’,” Richard smiled, quoting a term used recently by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to describe the protestors.
“I think it’s interesting to the public to know that there are former police officers in the movement because, otherwise, they might think it’s a ‘them and us’ situation. I think it breaks down those barriers and creates a ‘we’ mindset. It’s all of our problem,” said Richard, referring to the climate emergency.
I was interested to hear Richard’s take on how he felt police officers would have viewed XR’s recent London activity. “Talking to the bobbies on the ground, they were all put on twelve-hour days and their rest days were cancelled. A lot of them came from well out of the Metropolitan Police area. I was talking to guys from my old force, Devon and Cornwall, and people from Scotland. There were units from every single force,” he said.
Officers share a range of views about the protests with Richard. “Some were, ‘Bring it on. I need the money running up to Christmas’. Others were, ‘This has messed up my family life but I’m here to do a job so that’s what I need to do’. Generally, talking to officers on the ground, 90% of them were fantastic and we had some great conversations about the climate and ecological emergency. They get why we are there. They understand why we are doing it and they just get on with their jobs.”
Some of the police Richard spoke with were aware of why XR was taking action. “Officers on the ground, quite senior ones, were saying, ‘Whilst I am wearing this uniform, I don’t have an opinion’, but they had a big grin on their faces, so you knew they understood what we’re doing and why,” said Richard.
I asked Richard whether he had any verbal confrontation with police officers on duty. “I wouldn’t call it confrontation,” he said. “I had some robust discussions about the use of the law. There was one in particular, when they tried to arrest a guy who brought some food into one of our sites. Because I was there with a former police colleague, we were able to dissuade the officer from making that arrest. That went all the way up to the Command Team as to whether this person should be arrested. Our contention was that they didn’t have the power or grounds to do it, so he got away. That was a good result. It was useful having some knowledge of the law and how it should be applied,” said Richard.
Richard says he has empathy with the police position. “With the guys on the ground definitely. With the Command Team, I don’t know. It’s a difficult one because my position would be that they have over policed it and that it would have been better to have had more of a sensible discussion with Extinction Rebellion prior to the rebellion, to agree some rules of engagement and what could and could not be allowed. That would enable the police not to throw so many resources at it. It would have cost a lot less money that way.”
Some press articles have been critical of XR protesters, whom they accused of wasting police time and resources. “The policing bill for the April and October rebellions is put at something like £37 million,” said Richard. “The Metropolitan Police only allocate £15 million to the serious knife crime situation we have at the moment. My response is that it is a policing choice to police peaceful protest with such a lot of resource. It could be done in different ways, much more cheaply. I wonder whether there has been political pressure put on the police to police it more robustly,” he asked.
Richard added, “If you had a threat of violence or disorder then clearly you have to resource it proportionately to deal with that threat. Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent movement, so it is always going to be peaceful. There is, in my view, no need to deploy so many resources to it. Nobody is going to get hurt at an XR protest.”
Richard repeated the message that XR does not sanction violence but, nevertheless, many of the protestors could have faced arrest from their actions. I asked him how far he was prepared to go. “Personally, I don’t particularly want to be arrested. I think my role with the movement in terms of police liaison means it’s better if I’m not in custody. I can perform that role better. People have to understand that if you do get arrested and convicted of an offence, it goes on your record. For some professions that could have consequences for your career and employment. I work with children. I have to be DBS-enhanced checked and I don’t want to jeopardise that.”
One of Richard’s XR duties is to advise rebels, who are putting themselves in a position where they might be arrested, of the consequences. “There were several people whom I spoke to who decided that, after that conversation, they would stand up and move out of the road. That was an important contribution to make to the movement.”
Richard accepts that sometimes mild-mannered law-abiding citizens can get carried away. “It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment, when all of your peers and your friends are putting themselves in a position to be arrested. It has to be an individual choice, taken with full understanding,” he said.
Richard also tries to make sure that people with an agenda don’t try and take things too far. “In order to take part in any of our actions, you have to sign up to the rebel agreement. It’s about non-violence. Across the movement, we have de-escalators who have had training in bringing tension down and diffusing a situation if temperatures are rising, or the police do something that people perceive as over-the-top or not appropriate. It is an important role that the movement embraces.”
Richard travelled to London with his wife Karen for the October protests. She said that just being there was important to her. I asked Richard whether he had received much acknowledgment and reaction from locals in The Donheads after being seen on TV. “It has been universally positive. I’ve not come across anyone yet who has disrespected what we have been doing. I guess The Donheads is a small place and most people know us anyway,” he said.
And as Richard is now in the phone contacts of TV news producers, expect more people outside our area to become familiar with Richard’s name and face if high-profile XR action continues in the future.