Nick Howden-Steenstra, 26, actor from South London - Extinction Rebellion UK

Nick Howden-Steenstra, 26, actor from South London

Nick, who is also a mental health facilitator and originally from Warwickshire, was arrested on 16th April 2019 under Section 14 of the Public Order while singing Hey Jude on Waterloo Bridge during the 2019 April Rebellion. He was tried at City of London Magistrates’ Court on 28th November 2019. His case was dismissed after his arrest was ruled unlawful. (He was told to move within two minutes, he was arrested after 30 seconds).

“I trained at Lamda and do TV, stage and voice work. I’m a cyclist, and was one of the 7000 Olympic torch bearers. I got involved with XR after reading about Gail going to South America, taking hallucinogens and developing the foundation for XR. I was at Oxford Circus and on Waterloo Bridge and the atmosphere was beautiful with people singing Hey Jude [italics].

I am glad I took part in the 2019 XR protests. Though at the time of my arrest, I was naive and didn’t think I’d be taken to court, I still do not regret it. However, over the last two years I’ve become more involved with other ways to support protests; I trained as an Independent Legal Observer and have subsequently been a Legal Observer (LO) at XR & Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. LOs monitor police powers and ensure protestors are informed of their rights. When I was arrested, the LO that witnessed my arrest and Arrestee Support at the police station made me feel safe. After my arrest on Waterloo Bridge, my parents began providing support for other arrestees, both at court and when they had been released from police stations, I am very proud of them.

I say this to say that being arrested is not the only way to support XR, or any other cause, and everyone should do their own research about the consequences of being arrested and should feel empowered to leave a situation they do not feel comfortable in. The push back from the police and Government since the 2019 XR protests and 2020 BLM protests is scary to watch in real time and protestors must be increasingly more aware of their rights and the risks they face. Therefore, these other ways of supporting protests, Legal Observing and Arrestee Support are becoming increasingly more important as peaceful protest becomes increasingly criminalised.”

Nick’s court statement

“My statement is split into two halves, what led me to be singing ‘Hey Jude’ on Waterloo Bridge on the 16th of April and why due to personal, physical and environmental circumstances I am not guilty of breaching section 14 of the Public Order Act. 

Who I am: 

My name is Nick Howden-Steenstra, I’m half English and Dutch and I’m an actor from Warwickshire. I lived there for the first 18 years of my life. In 2009, at 15, with my dog Jaz I became the youngest person to walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats. It was a charity event to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support and Barnardo’s Children’s Charity and it took over two months, during the summer holidays. 

At 16, I completed my A Levels two years early and went to the Oxford School of Drama to do a Foundation Course in Acting. Over the next two years, I worked at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, giving talks on Shakespeare’s life and work to tour and school groups and at Warwick Castle, where I coordinated after-hours events for international students.

In 2012, to celebrate the London Olympics, I cycled from Athens to London to raise money for Macmillan and Amnesty International. In recognition for these events and for raising nearly £10,000 for charity I was honoured to be selected as one of the Olympic torchbearers for the 2012 London Olympic Games, running a stretch near my home town of Stratford. 

Also in 2012, I moved down to London to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. I graduated in 2015 with a BA (Hons) in Professional Acting and now work on stage, screen projects and audio projects and have set up a theatre company called From the Gut. 

Alongside theatre productions to tell unrepresented stories, we’ve provided Drama School style workshops without the associated fees to young artists at Theatre Royal Stratford East and Goldsmiths University. This summer we ran our debut “Making Work and Well-being Retreat” in Cumbria to empower actors and artists to put their mental health at the forefront of their creative work. At the heart of our company is the belief that better mental health means better art. 

When I was two I had an ear infection in my left ear, and due to an auto-immune condition, my immune system attacked my hearing instead of the infection, since then I’ve had an invisible disability. So invisible that my parents didn’t know until a year later that I was unilaterally deaf. It affects my day to day life in subtle and profound ways and in ways I’m not even aware of. 

In a room such as this, as long as there is only one person speaking and there is not too much ambient noise I don’t struggle at all, it’s made especially easier if I can see the person who’s talking’s mouth. I cannot locate sound as I lack sound localisation; so I can hear the noise but not tell you where it is coming from unless I can see it. It makes finding my lost phone when it’s ringing very difficult. 

I struggle when people are on my left. When walking down the street with anyone, if they are not on my right, I will disappear and pop up on their left. It is completely normal for me and slightly odd for anyone who has never walked with me before. 

At a restaurant with friends I will have to jump in quick to select a seat on everyone’s left. I’m sure some of my friends and family are nodding along in agreement to this at the back of the court. Weddings and funerals and anywhere with a roundtable is very anxiety provoking, because if someone is on my left and talking to me while there is noise on my right, I find it nearly impossible to hear, unless I turn my head in a very unnatural way like this. This is one of the reasons I’m quiet in group situations, to try and focus on listening. 

It has taken me a long time to own the fact I have a disability. Because growing up with it, it’s impossible to remember you’re different, because you just are. 

What happened: 

On the 16th of April of this year, in preparation for the retreat I was doing a Level 2 Royal Society of Public Health course on Young People’s Health and how to signpost those with issues. Afterwards I met up with a friend at Oxford Circus and we observed the protest, it was a beautiful lively energy with good music coming from the pink boat, the kind of good music that would cost £20 in any of London’s clubs. The police began moving in and making arrests, we were intimidated by this, and not wanting to get arrested, we moved and meandered our way to Waterloo Bridge, talking about climate change and our responsibility as young people to act. 

When we reached the bridge, it was almost unrecognisable to the hectic bridge I’ve cycled over a 100 times before. As we walked from the north side to the south side, we drunk in the peace and tranquility, the trees, the free hot food and drink, the skate ramps, which all felt so alien and so right. £53 million pounds had been wasted on a plan for a London garden bridge that was never built, and here was one, made overnight and it was perfect. 

The cycle route 1 leads from my front door in South Bermondsey to Central London, crossing Waterloo Bridge, so it’s an area I know well, I’ve even been knocked off my bike by a taxi, while I was coming off the bridge, so the immediate hazards of traffic on the bridge are well known to me, so I can say with confidence that Waterloo Bridge has never seen such a lively, fun, friendly, clean and supportive environment as it was during the Extinction Rebellion protests. Everyone that went there during the protests was immediately struck by the positive, welcoming environment, including my 60 year old parents, who since my arrest and their visit to the bridge have been inspired to provide support of tea, flapjack, hugs and conversation to other arrestees. I am very proud of them. 

As we reached the south side of Waterloo Bridge, me and my friend joined those holding a banner at the southern end of the bridge and I began singing ‘Hey Jude’ along with the crowd. I’m not the best singer, so I couldn’t help taking the police immediately forming into a line and marching up the bridge a little personally. With every step the police took, the singing and chanting got louder and louder. The police approached a man on my left, I didn’t hear what they were saying as there was too much noise on my right. He left, then police tried to talk to me, I couldn’t hear them and said ‘I can’t hear you’, I then turned my right ear, my good ear, towards the officer to try and hear what he was saying. I was anxious. It’s stressful not being able to hear what people are saying. When the police were trying to talk to me, the chanting was at its peak, I assume it was a struggle for anyone to hear anything, even people with two ‘good’ ears. 

I made out that I had two minutes to move. They then went away to leave me to decide what to do. At that point I had a choice to make, move within the next two minutes or be arrested, 30 seconds later that choice was taken away from me by the arresting officer. He arrested me, I did not resist, I walked with him and his colleague, quietly, peaceful but very confused. A man with a camera asked if I was proud of what I was doing. “I think so,” I said, I hadn’t intended to do anything. 

I was asked for my name, which I didn’t give, I was then told I was further arrested for not giving my name. I was searched. As it was a scary, confusing and intimidating situation, I was comforted by the Legal Observer who made notes on my arrest and monitored the actions of the police. She also gave me a ‘Bust Card’ with the names of solicitors specialised in protest law on it, which the arresting officer immediately took away from me, saying ‘You don’t need that, we’ll give you a duty solicitor’. I was so comforted by the legal observer, that the next week I undertook the Green and Black Cross ‘Legal Observer’ training, to give basic legal advice and act as independent witnesses to police behaviour at protests.

I was put in the hurry-up wagon and taken to Wembley Station. The drive took nearly an hour and the following waiting at the station to be processed another hour. I found out at the station my friend had also been arrested. There were a number of Extinction Rebellion arrestees and we talked with the police about the protest, about their nights and the upcoming David Attenborough documentary. When I was being processed, the duty sergeant was very pleasant, kind and explained what was going to happen. I gave my name, address, made a phone call to my Dad, gave the name of a solicitor I had remembered from the Bust Card and then was placed in a cell. Five or six hours later, I was told I was free to go. I was met outside the station on this cold morning, after being in a cold cell, by a pair of Extinction Rebellion members in a small campervan, bearing gifts of a blanket, a cup of tea and some biscuits. The support was so welcome after what had been quite a scary experience. I waited for my friend, who was released shortly afterwards. After he was tea and biscuited up, we said thanks to the guys in the campervan and made our way to Wembley Central Station to catch the first tube. We got a thorough cooked breakfast in Brixton, before I went back for the final day of the ‘Young Health Champion’ course, which I received the certificate for just last week! 

This had been my first climate protest, first arrest and first time in a cell. Beginning to end I was probably on Waterloo Bridge for ten minutes. 

Why was I there: 

What had led me to Waterloo Bridge was an accumulation of things. 

I want to begin by saying I am not a climate change expert, not even close to being close, my only knowledge and understanding comes from people who are far more aware, informed and concerned than me about the climate crisis. 

But for me, a loud alarm bell was sounded at the Extinction Rebellion protest, when Farhana Yamin, one of the co-authors of the 2015 Paris Agreement was arrested for attempting to superglue herself to Shell’s London HQ. When the people at the front-line of international environmental policy are forced into taking direct action, it becomes clear the threat of climate change is urgent and not nearly enough is being done about it. 

Added to that is the UK’s personal responsibility, that we are still the largest cause of climate change on a per capita basis, using accumulated data from 1751-2007. Our responsibility per person exceeds China by more than 10 times the amount and by India by 25 times the amount, these figures were taken from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre and BP. It makes it all the more unjust then, that, as Professor Richard Lazarus of Harvard Law School said “Those parts of the globe which will suffer the most and the soonest are not those parts of the globe that have actually loaded all those carbon dioxides into the atmosphere in the first instance.” 

As of now, 30% of the world’s corals have died, 8% of all species are at risk of extinction as a direct result of climate change alone and just this month, 2000 people were evacuated from their homes near Doncaster as the river Don flooded for the second time in 12 years. After which, a climate change emergency was declared by the Sheffield City Mayor on November 19th, which is one reason Extinction Rebellion was protesting in the first place. 

Climate change hasn’t suddenly snuck up on us, Dr. James Hansen, climatologist and former Director at NASA, over thirty years ago testified to Congress that NASA was “99% confident that the warming is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere”. Since then we have not done enough and not nearly fast enough. This year Dr. Hansen stated that “it would have been so easy to solve the problem if we had started gradually, to make fossil fuels more expensive and develop the technologies to replace them, but we didn’t do that and now there are consequences.” We have made it harder for ourselves but we still have a slim chance, but only in this small window before we reach a tipping point, where climate change speeds up so much that all our models and predictions will be completely out the window, where nothing we can do can reverse the change any longer. I don’t want my children to look back in 30 years time and say I didn’t do enough before it was too late. 

And the direct action worked. On Google, during the two weeks of the April Extinction Rebellion protests the amount of times ‘climate change’ was searched in the UK went up by over 300% from the previous week. I grew up in Warwickshire, which, just three months after the Extinction Rebellion protests, declared a climate change emergency. One of my jobs is I work as a Harry Potter walking tour guide, so I walk around London on a daily basis. On the same day, 25th July, it was the hottest day in British record, ever. Ever, ever. So unbearably hot the tours were cancelled for the afternoon due to concerns for safety. On the 1st May, less than 2 weeks after the XR protests, Parliament declared a climate change emergency. And support for Extinction Rebellion is growing nationally and globally. Last month, there were XR protests in over 60 cities worldwide. In October, despite an unlawful city wide Section 14, over 20,000 protestors took to the streets to campaign for our future and our planet. 

The day of my plea hearing, I came here to City of London Magistrates’ Court and was gladdened to see some members of Extinction Rebellion playing their instruments outside. Within 30 seconds of them starting, a police officer appeared to read his unlawful Section 14. They weren’t protesting, they weren’t being a nuisance, they weren’t causing a disturbance, they were just there making music. And the fact they could be moved on, so effectively and quickly was so scary. The fact that nearly all of the Extinction Rebellion protestors who were arrested have been charged and taken to court, can only be seen as a shameless attempt to stop peaceful protest – to stop bringing timely attention to the climate emergency we now face. And it’s working. I didn’t attend the XR protests in October, as I was preparing for my day in court, and that makes me sad and full of shame and guilt. 

And it is convenient to look the other way, climate change is so big, so vast but also so urgent. It’s easy to go about our daily lives, struggling to forge a career, paying the rent and caring for your loved ones. To take the example from leading psychiatrist Judith Herman: ‘It is very tempting to [turn a blind eye]. All [it] asks is that the bystander do nothing. [It] appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. [The truth, that we are in a climate crisis] on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The [truth] demands action, engagement and remembering.’ It is our moral imperative to act now, while we still have a choice, before – like my choice on the 16th April – it is taken away from us.”

Main photo credit: Helena Smith

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