London Climate Change Protests: what I learnt from four days blocking city streets and why I did it
I’m one of 10,000 people who joined protests across London from April 15th 2019. I offer this personal reflection of what is has been like to take part in large-scale non-violent direct action, from an emotional, practical and moral point of view*.
They say the coldest hour is the one before dawn.
It certainly seemed that this morning – Wednesday 17th April – ‘waking’ in the misty twilight, my head on tarmac, my body swaddled in seven layers of clothing, encased in a down sleeping bag, on a mat, on a piece of cardboard, on a pedestrian crossing in a road on Parliament Square. As my waking body creaked with cold in the zero temperatures, I felt new respect for anyone who has ever been homeless.
The city chatter was starting up – but it was strangely quieter and cleaner than normal.
This normally congested, honking 4-lane roundabout – which for the last few months had been the scene of broadcast after broadcast about our Brexit fiasco – now the central stage for a very different crisis.
Our own survival as a species.
Which is why I and thousands of others had been blocking roads around the capital in shifts since about 1.45pm on Monday 15th, when an Extinction Rebellion Parliament Square rally had spilled out onto the streets and ‘taken’ five key sites across the city in a co-ordinated ‘uprising’ to demand far greater and faster action on climate change.
My group – 15 women and men of different ages and backgrounds from Manchester – had been in the initial wave which stepped onto the tarmac to take Parliament Street – the road that links Parliament Square with Trafalgar Square to the north, and from which branches off the road the government’s leaders call home, Downing Street.
We were one of about 100 XR groups who had been pre-briefed on the plan, and had been given clear instructions on when and where our services were required.
GIANT BUMBLE BEES
We’d left Manchester individually, packing for many days living on the streets – tents, food, warm clothes, spare phone chargers, spare ‘burner’ phones in case of arrest – and gathered together in the capital to take part in Monday’s initial rally.
We had been sent a briefing a week earlier, though everyone had known ‘when and where’ since before Christmas, so time off could be booked.
And many of us had protested together in London in November – so we knew what to expect.
‘Come for the fortnight. We won’t stop until the government listen’ was the clear message this time.
Monday’s event had officially begun at 11am – though many got there earlier to help set up various bits of kit and turn Parliament Square into a kind of ‘festival for the earth’ – a giant jamboree of talks, speeches, workshops, performances, a sea of placards, flags and colour; groups like mine from around the country had spent time crafting special banners or outfits – the man dressed head to toe in plastic; the friends who came as giant bumble bees, the tiger, the polar bear, the drummers and the dead fish – all were there.
The most eye-catching part had been the hugely moving ‘Funeral for All’, a walking parade of people dressed in black who circled the square slowly to the toll of a bell and the tune of a lone saxophonist, the mourners holding giant animal skeletons they had made from wire and paper; a single hooded plague doctor a surreal blend of mourner and dead bird.
But as the sun grew warm and the party atmosphere continued, things took a different turn as the pre-briefed groups like mine gathered together and then moved to ‘take possession’ of streets across the city – here at Parliament Square and at three other pre-ordained protest hotspots – Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Oxford Circus.
There were co-ordinators in place at the hotspots – but XR is a decentralised movement and so groups like mine were free to act as we saw fit, as long as in line with XR’s guidelines – a short list, on which the most important element is the commitment to non-violence.
Then, there wasn’t a signal as such, just nods as we decided it was time and moved off the pavement to block cars, as hundreds of others did the same.
The scale of what was established at these four sites (together with more of a family zone at Piccadilly Circus) has been significant – by volunteers, using spare time, with tiny donated budgets, with a single office – installing protest villages in the lightning time necessary to avoid them being taken down by authorities.
To paint a full picture of the undertaking;-
Let’s start at Marble Arch – an entire tented village erected on the grassy area beyond the famous white arch and spilled out onto the surrounding roads – this the home of protestors like me who live outside London and need a place to call home and find a bed for the night.
Beyond the tents, a huge Festival-style performance stage and speakers, a smaller art stage with bikes where people could take turns powering the sound system, a stewarding zone for people to find out where to camp and other info, an induction zone to welcome new people to the movement, a camp kitchen with gas stoves, giant pans of soup and curry and porridge depending on time of day, a disabled portaloo.
Dozens of people on hand in hi-vis to help with setting up camp, finding food, directions to other protest zones (many of them seem to have been on hand throughout the three days – kipping under the benches in the stewarding tents or wherever they could find a spot to avoid having to leave post)
Now over to Waterloo Bridge – transformed it into a beautiful garden bridge – the middle section a beautiful wooded avenue of young saplings, budding into green life, some young deciduous pines, a host of other plants and greenery – all growing, all planted.
In the midst of the trees, a huge truck with the sides cut away to convert it into a sound stage – on top some protestors glued on, underneath others too. Along the bridge many other zones – a yurt for peace and quiet, a massage area, a skate park.
Another kitchen, with piles of wholesome ingredients ready to be cooked up – boxes of potatoes, carrots, greens.
And then to Parliament Square, my domain, where from first light on Monday morning an army of people had sprung into action to create a carnival scene.
Behold, the central stage going up in minutes – first pallets moved up into space, then pre-cut chipboard laid over, then the whirr of battery-powered drills and screws (by women! yay!). The sound system, the banners, the rubbish bins (including recycling), the flipcharts and the posters.
There was a citizens assembly; inspiring talks about democratic reform, about permaculture, about social justice. There were people sharing stories of changes they’re making in their community – in Stroud, in Frome, in Machynlleth, in Todmorden – dozens of small places up and down the country.
And behind all that in a discreet out of the way corner, a mini camp of organising tents – the steward zone, the wellbeing tent, the briefing tent complete with protest rota, the camp kitchen, as well as a faith tent.
HEAD OR FEET FIRST?
For the first and second day, Waterloo Bridge was the front line.
The arrests really started on Tuesday morning. Groups of four or five officers would move in on the rows and rows of seated protestors, but around them would be hundreds more, singing and shouting their support, the noise rising as an official warning would be read by an officer leaning right up close to their ear in order to be heard.
The baying rising to fever pitch as official hands would then be lain on the protestee, the offer to go quietly and walk away.
Many would stand up and walk, many would not – following veteran advice to go floppy which meant it takes half a dozen officers to lift them up.
The protestee – and we’re talking all sorts of ages, nationalities, professions, classes, some with hearing aids, some with walking sticks – would then be physically lifted and carried very carefully away in the arms of the officers, feet or head first.
They would then be taken into a van away from the noise, until the van was full.
The mathematics were not with the police.
This by-the-book process took about 15 minutes for one individual – and with 30 or 40 seated protestees all willing to be arrested, this would have meant hours to clear them away.
As it turned out, those sums were made meaningless anyway by the inspirational acts of strangers, time and again.
For as one protestor was picked up and carried away to huge cheers, another from the sidelines would step in to take their place. And the ritual would repeat. – another arrest, another willing volunteer to take their place.
And above all of this, standing up on the bridge parapet and a bus stop roof, like silent sentinels of justice, was a group of performance artists – a striking army of red-gowned, white-faced speechless figures creating a mysterious, eerie but appropriately grave backdrop, as they broke their stillness to mime pain at each arrest.
It is this creative expression of emotion that I believe is capturing so many to this cause – many find the science dry and divisive – unquestionable as it now is – but all can agree on how we feel about the earth and life on it.
The nature of the action in London has required a huge focus on logistics.
But it has also involved and enabled a vast expression of creative protest, of grief for many but also celebration of what we hold dear.
All I and thousands of others needed to do, was turn up and stand shoulder to shoulder and express ourselves.
I had taken part in my first Non-Violent, Direct-Action (NVDA)) in November, that big one-day blockade of five bridges across the River Thames, which had ended in a mass march down the Embankment and a commemoration in Parliament Square.
That November action had barely raised a flicker in the news cycle and Extinction Rebellion had been plotting how to make an impact with this spring uprising, ever since.
But it had given all of us who took part – the vast majority of whom by my reckoning were like me – protest newbies – a huge boost of confidence at what we could do when ‘normal’, down-to-earth, concerned citizens acted collectively.
Which was why we were all back in the same square in April, poised to do something that would have seemed crazy to me six months ago – to shutdown parts of London til the authorities listened.
Our Manchester sub-team was made up of different people from a variety of backgrounds – a teacher, a lawyer, several students, a web developer, a retiree, an ex-salesman, a musician, me.
Some had taken on informal roles within our group – legal observers; ‘wellbeing’ coordinators (people who would help the group look after itself, both physically and emotionally); and ‘high-risk arrestables’ (people who would be willing to put their bodies on the line and be arrested knowing the risks).
We’d been told in advance that we’d been assigned to the Parliament Square zone and – that it would be the job of all the XR groups from ‘north of Watford’ to hold this space.
(Waterloo Bridge was designated for the south west groups, and so on).
On arrival, while the rally was gathering pace, we were encouraged to sign up for the shifts our group would take care of on the barricades.
Our first day was a long one – on our feet for about 18 hours, having arrived about 9am, danced and sung in the rally and then manned the blockade until about 2.30am, when we had been relieved by the next shift.
We’d then taken the long walk back to Marble Arch through a deserted London, to slip into our tents inside the protest camp at the foot of the famous landmark.
Sleep had seemed to last minutes not hours, and most of us had ‘woken’ around 8.30am and subsequently spent the day at various points in the city supporting other protests and trying to get some rest, until it was our turn in Parliament Square again.
We arrived there for shift two at about 11pm – time to get a warming hot drink and use the loo in a nearby pub and then be the last customers kicked out … not to go home like the other drinkers, but to start our second shift on the barricade.
During the day, they seemed to be noisy, social, colourful places.
But at night – on those first few days anwyay – the protests in the Square became very different.
The crowds melted away, the music quietened, and the temperatures fell – and the numbers on each of the barricades dwindled to a dozen or so diehards.
In our makeshift huddle, we found new and inventive ways to amuse ourselves, wrapping up warm, we lit candles.
We sang songs we knew, and songs we made up. We performed poetry for each other and shared stories of our lives and our loved ones, good books we’d read, played cards or Scrabble, we shared any food and drink we had – and talked of better.
And we checked social media relentlessly to find out news of what was happening elsewhere, see what the world was making of our actions and share a snap or two to make our own mark.
Did people on the streets back our cause? In the vast majority of cases they either voiced nothing, or were supportive.
In three days there were a handful people who seemed angry (though many more seemed just bemused) – the tipsy man who shouted at us for making him wait for an hour for his bus which never came – who then came back 15 minutes later to apologise, flanked by two policemen, my personal favourite.
We also chatted to these officers stationed on duty, not here by choice like us.
In general, in my four days, I found the police approach highly professional – the Metropolitan Police stated publicly that their job was much about enabling a safe protest by us – our legal right – as much as arresting anyone.
Some campaigners advise not talking to police officers as the years have taught them that, however friendly, it is only an intelligence-gathering exercise .
But being on the same beat hours on end it was impossible not to talk, and in doing so, while one suspects both of us were keeping conversation away from logistical details, it seemed we ‘connected’ with many. Several expressed sympathy with our protest. A couple were even captured dancing and skateboarding at two blockade sites.
One 20-something young officer told me ‘we’d happily have your lot along any day’ – he told us that normally for a big call-up like this – a ‘level 2’ with 1,000 extra officers on duty – they would be preparing for ‘aggro’.
Level 2 events, he said, were normally things like a big tense football derby or a civil disturbance – where alcohol, violence, knives. would all be heavily present.
‘But’ he said ‘You lot are great – and you even clean up after yourself! It’s definitely not a level 2’
It was true – Parliament Square had seen many thousands of folk cavort across its space and when they all left, the streets were spotless, the rubbish all removed voluntarily, the recycling bagged separately, the flowers untrampled and the grass green. (the only ‘blemish’ apart from our messy blockades – a lot of pretty chalk slogans and pictures on the pavements, which would soon wash, or be washed, away).
As the hours and days passed, our blockade was adapted – gazebos, chairs, traffic cones, new banners and a small upright trolley all found to make it more substantial. While cardboard, blankets and a first aid kit were obtained for night shifts by thoughtful daytime predecessors.
We left enough room for cyclists and pedestrians to carry on unimpeded, and ambulances and fire engines should they need to pass.
The car-free streets may have explained the high numbers of cyclists who signalled their support – ringing their bells and waving (the air quality also improved noticeably in four days without motor vehicles).
But even with all the preparation and blankets and free food and hot water urns, it turns out the city streets are a pretty hostile place to try to lay one’s head.
And the morning of Day 3, eight hours after arriving at that pub and after our second night under the stars, was when this harsh reality had well and truly kicked in for me.
Coming round at 7am, my body felt like it was cold from the inside out, my lips were dry and cracked, my head pounded like a 10-pint hangover.
It had felt like this yesterday too, waking in that tented village in Marble Arch, freezing after a night in a borrowed pop-up tent that felt like a coffin.
But then… but then…! How to describe the sense of living what is right, with people who feel the same, finding the courage to break social norms, refusing to toe the line, to see status quo disrupted, to change the dynamic, in front of one’s eyes, with one’s own physical presence.
I’d take this sleep-deprived grogginess every time!
So while my body winced and straightened itself out, yet again my heart woke inside me with a swell of courage:
‘I’m here! The streets are still ours! We’re together! All we seek is still there to be won!’
And it was in this togetherness, during the night’s darkest hours, that I found my greatest surprise about life on the barricades.
When I’d set off to join this protest the previous Saturday, I’d wondered what my lowpoint would be – it seemed obvious that once the jubilation and exhilaration of a kickoff party turned into a cold dark night – that’s when I’d lose my conviction.
But instead the opposite happened.
The stillness gave us peace, the barriers space – and with the streets our own; we made the future we desired come alive.
People I’d only recently met told me intimate personal details – about breakdowns, about illness and inner insecurities – and I did the same, as we found strength from and with each other, through acknowledging our vulnerability – as social campaigners (we do not think we have all the answers) and as humans (we felt cold, hunger, threat) and as ‘direct action protesters’ (we knew we needed each other most of all).
It was as if in the very act of living a protest, we were creating the community we wished for – one where we were actually living in those few hours by the standards we craved, where all voices were heard, where friend and stranger were treated the same, where we supported each other unquestioningly.
And more so, that while the night continued, this society we craved was alive right. here, created by us – for as long as the sun didn’t rise. Which is why as uncomfortable as it was, none of us really wanted it to end.
They say an army marches on its stomach – but from my experience that must also include a good night’s sleep too.
Because the truth was that after four days of protest, some extensive travel by foot, tube and train, and two nights on the streets – I was completely shattered.
It’s quite unsettling to realise how much one can take for granted the ease of meeting our basic human needs on an hourly basis – with running water on tap, piped gas central heating on timer, fridge full of food, a flushing loo (or two).
And the irony was most certainly not lost on me, that the loss of these very basic needs was what the victims of climate change were going to face, are facing now – drought / famine, forced migration, and / or war caused by resource shortages and landscape change.
But here in protest mode – just the small acts of finding fresh water, a place to have a pee, to rest and be still in peace and quiet, to find warmth without spending money – these had become logistical challenges that sapped my mental and physical health.
So on Wednesday morning, with a heavy, guilty heart, I slung on my backpack and turned away from the protests, to catch a train to rejoin my family for some rest, a hot shower and clean sheets on a warm bed.
So I was not there on Wednesday afternoon when it became Parliament’s Square’s turn to become the front line.
Rumours began circulating at about 3pm that ‘P.S. would be hit’ – and then a clip swept round the social media channels showing at least 150 ‘yellow jacket’ uniformed police marching past the House of Commons, army style.
(An interesting aside to add to the debate about police tactics: the inspector on the Square’s morning shift had told several of us on the barricade at 7am that his team had ‘no plans to change its approach to policing to yesterday’ -ie no arrests. Whether this was a white lie he felt able to tell knowing the afternoon shift would be a different story or was a genuine piece of info that was true at the time, I will never know – but it is a good lesson in police engagement).
I knew that the blockades would not hold with the numbers there but also knew that word would spread instantly and reinforcements would arrive to swell the ranks.
And so, while police hit hard with dozens of arrests and re-opened four of the five joining streets, as night fell the rebels still clung on to a single corner.
It was then that the XR samba band turned up, alongside scores more ‘high risk’ people willing to be arrested, and the tide turned once again.
At around 1am on Thursday, news was sent round that ‘the square was back in rebel hands’.
This time, I followed all this from a sofa, via social media – live streams, tweets, Whatsapp, Messenger and Facebook flooded with minute by minute news.
Indeed, the effect on social media of this week has been powerful – XR centrally reporting a massive spike in interest and in Manchester alone there have been hundreds of people wanting to sign up.
Even more electric has been to hear and see the other reactions sparked – as with hindsight I realise that I had no expectation that what we were doing would actually work. It just had to be done.
Top stories on TV bulletins, front page headlines, minute-by-minute live pages, radio phone-ins, a disgraceful Sky interview, even statements from Environment Secretary Michael Gove saying that ‘he’s got the message’. And this brilliant satire.
But more importantly hundreds of messages of support from friends and strangers saying: ‘Thank you! Thank you for making this stand and representing me when I can’t be there’.
And other actions too – Edinburgh shut down for a day, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge blockaded.
Others may not realise, but the action was taken because it is right, not because it will /or won’t succeed.
With the protests scheduled to run into the weekend and all next week – with many more XR groups who weren’t able to join at the start of the week only arriving now and tactics on both sides presumably likely to change – it is too early to say where this will end up yet.
Even as I write, people I know are making plans to ditch an Easter holiday at home and join the protests. And police are no doubt planning how to respond to the latest news – of possible action at Heathrow.
But the worm – about what is deemed a sensible response to existential threat – just might be turning.
So as I sit on a sofa, in clean clothes and with wet washed hair, following the latest from the streets on my phone, a passing quote catches my eye.
‘The centre of human kindness is rooted in 10,000 ordinary acts of kindness that define our days’ – American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould.
It’s such an interesting idea that I seek out the longer quote for context, and I’ll end with it as I think it sums up what I hope beyond hope, is happening on the streets of London today.
‘‘If I felt that humans were nasty by nature, I would just say, the hell with it. We get what we deserve, or what evolution left us as a legacy. But the center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. What can be more tragic than the structural paradox that this Everest of geniality stands upside down on its pointed summit and can be toppled so easily by rare events contrary to our everyday nature – and that these rare events make our history. In some deep sense, we do not get what we deserve.
The solution to our woes lies not in overcoming our ‘nature’ but in fracturing the ‘great asymmetry’ and allowing our ordinary propensities to direct our lives.
But how can we put the commonplace into the driver’s seat of history?”
HOW CAN I SHOW MY SUPPORT?
If you wish to show your support for greater action on climate change and demand that the government and other leaders do more there are many ways to do it.
These protests demand one simple thing – that the government ‘tell the truth’ on climate change – and act accordingly.
There are two further demands – for the UK to be carbon-Free by 2025 and a Citizens Assembly be established to help decide how that is achieved.
But the single most important step – and the one that has to precede all else – is that the government acknowledge the scale of the problem and make it the priority it should be.
If you support that too here is what you can do:/
1. Join the protests – they will run for at least another week. There is a short guide on how here – being there for even a few minutes is valuable
2. Show your support for the protests on social media – this shows other people that many more back this action than just those on the streets – but also gives support to those taking action
4. If you prefer – join another campaign – Greenpeace, and Friends Of the Earth have both stepped up their activities and have local campaign groups working on this across the UK too
5. Demand your council declare a climate emergency and enact a plan to reduce carbon emissions – find out more and get help with resources, here
7. Cast your vote in any election according to how councillors and politicians propose tackling this – and let them know that is the defining issue that will decide your vote before any election eg this May’s local council elections. (Labour’s manifesto in Manchester makes little mention of any of this) and Euro elections
8. Tell the mainstream media especially the likes of Sky and the Daily Mail to step up their coverage on this. Use feedback forms and complaints, talk shows and phone ins
9. Take all personal steps you can – reuse, recycle, walk don’t drive, train don’t fly, don’t waste precious resources, insulate your home, cut down on mass-produced meat and dairy foods and don’t buy food flown to the UK – and many more
10. But also remember that the situation is now so dire that the only really meaningful course of action we have left that will deliver the scale of changes needed is for governments to legislate fundamental and radical changes to national and international economic, industrial, transport, construction and agricultural systems
And you can make a donation here.
*I’m not a core Extinction Rebellion (XR) organiser and not privvy to inside knowledge or plans about the protests, nor do I speak for them nor necessarily agree with everything done in the name of XR. My views are my own.
For instance, XR’s tactic of deliberate arrests is controversial even within the movement – and here is one quite damning external perspective.
Speaking personally, I had decided in advance I was not going to seek arrest – but know that had it come to it and I’d been in the road with my group when it was being targeted by officers, I may have found it morally hard (or not even legally possible) to walk away.
As it was, this time, it did not come to that.