When the Conservative MP Mark Field leapt from his chair, pushed a female Greenpeace protester against a pillar, gripped the back of her neck and then manhandled her out of a Mansion House banquet in June, he probably did not anticipate the headlines.
Janet Barker, the climate emergency activist, was not alone in being stunned at his hot-headed actions. When TV footage emerged capturing Field’s ferocious look as he propelled Barker roughly towards the exit, it unleashed a formidable backlash.
The image of male physical dominance over a slightly built female, attired in an elegant red evening gown and wearing a climate emergency sash, triggered anger, disbelief and the immediate suspension of Field as a foreign office minister in Theresa May’s government.
Field’s reputation was certainly not enhanced when Barker, with red marks still visible on her upper arm, told the Guardian the following day that the parliamentarian had shoved her into the street with the words: “This is what happens when people like you disturb our dinner.”
Six months on, Barker, 40, says that although she was “surprised and shocked ” by the incident at the time, it really hit her afterwards when she saw the footage. “It’s strange. When you are in that position, you don’t really realise what is happening. When I watched it afterwards, I was shocked; more shocked in a sense than when it happened.
“You see it from a different perspective, the perspective everyone else viewed it from. So I was quite taken aback afterwards when I viewed it and I could then kind of understand why it got so much attention.”
Barker’s action at the banquet was designed to draw attention to the climate emergency; what it led to was a debate on male aggression, entitlement and privilege.
As a longstanding activist, Barker had been one of a group of 20 to 30 Greenpeace members carrying out peaceful protest at the black-tie City event. Their aim was to deliver a copy of a speech, in a sealed letter, to the then chancellor, Philip Hammond, who was sitting at the top table, about government investment in fossil fuels.
Field later apologised for “grabbing her”, claiming he had reacted “instinctively”, fearing she might be armed. He referred himself to the Cabinet Office for investigation.
“The only thing I was armed with was peer-reviewed science,” Barker, who was carrying a phone, a small handbag and some leaflets, said later. She suggested Field might like to avail himself of some help for anger management. Declining to make an official police complaint, she thought it “something best dealt with in the court of public opinion”, and a Cabinet Office investigation was enough for her.
Except that there has been no official investigation into Field’s actions. Nor will there be. When Boris Johnson became prime minister, one of his first actions was to drop Field from his ministerial role as part of a reshuffle, and drop any Cabinet Office investigation into the behaviour of the then MP for Cities of London and Westminster. It was, said Johnson, a matter for the previous prime minister.
Barker, who is from a village in mid-Wales, where she works in environmental education and homelessness prevention, says: “It was a bit of an eye-rolling moment for me. I just thought: ‘Oh God.’ I wasn’t surprised, let’s leave it at that.” Field is not contesting his seat in this election.
City of London police received a number of third-party reports that an offence of assault had occurred that night. After “careful assessment”, it later announced no further action would be taken against Field. When the Cabinet Office inquiry was dropped, Field said he was “hugely relieved” that the matter was now considered closed and pointed to the police exonerating his actions “as proportionate and lawful in the circumstances of the serious breach in security”.
Barker still stands by her decision not to make a formal police complaint, fearing the climate crisis argument would be lost in any subsequent legal fray. “He has now resigned. He was an MP, a representative, in a position of power, of setting good standards, of responsibility. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So I think that the right thing has come out of it,” she says.
Suddenly finding herself at the centre of media attention was overwhelming, she says. “I just went in for a climate protest and then found myself in the midst of many other ongoing social issues – almost part of the whole #MeToo movement.
“I mean, I am privileged in that I hadn’t come across that kind of behaviour from men in my past. And I did find it upsetting at the time, but I didn’t find it traumatic, probably because I haven’t had that experience.
“But I understand that for other women it probably triggered some deep feelings, quite rightly in the circumstances.” She had social media messages from people urging her to take the matter further. “I did sympathise with that and I did feel perhaps I was letting people down in that sense. But I also felt that the message we wanted the Treasury to start thinking about, about where money is invested, would perhaps have been lost a little bit.”
Media attention was a sharp and sudden “bombardment”, she says. “Then it seemed to stop. One or two days, then after that normal life completely resumed.
“In our little village, a few people said: ‘Well done.’ The rest just seemed to ignore it, or maybe they didn’t see it.”
Barker has carried on with her activism as before. “I am continuing with pushing forward the issue that we have a climate emergency,” she says. She joined an Extinction Rebellion peaceful protest in London, and is still active in her local Greenpeace group. She is campaigning on the link between some fast food chains and Amazon rainforest destruction.
“I will always have fire in my belly. I just appreciate our natural world. I love going out walking. I’d be doing much more walking if it wasn’t for all this protesting,” she says.
As for her feelings on Field. “He can get on with his life and hopefully his behaviour will change in a positive way. And he might learn from it, and become a better person.”