Welcome to the Party at the End of the World.
This is a diary of one person’s fortnight with Extinction Rebellion. As a writer and sometime climate activist, I’ve been attending Extinction Rebellion (‘XR’) events since a month after the group’s foundation. In Australia I worked in the Extinction Rebellion media team, but for the worldwide October Uprising, I was in London, and so it was the London revolt I joined.
I spent a long time hesitating over whether I should get myself arrested. Ultimately I did not, because I had some serious creative deadlines of my own, and because I am a coward. As an Australian abroad, I was also not part of a London ‘affinity group’, and I’ll confess I found it hard to make more than fleeting friends during the protests. This, then, is something of a sympathetic outsider portrait of one the strangest and serious movements of our era.
Friday 4th October
Whispers of Revolt
In Stoke Newington, the Extinction Rebellion hourglass flag fluttered proudly from the roof of the church at the end of my street. Extinction Rebellion may not have conquered the world yet, but it has a pretty good hold on East London.
Word had gotten out about what was coming. In a garden cafe, I eavesdropped on a ‘normal’ couple next to me discuss Extinction Rebellion from an outsider perspective. The woman was explaining:
“Remember Ellen, she used to go out with my friend Mike? She’s gotten really heavily involved in Extinction Rebellion. And she’s like a proper…like she’s done all the training. They’re not like military, but they’ve done drills and all that stuff. They’ve been having these grief circles on a Friday night, and its all about mourning the world’s situation and they all sit around and cry. I mean wow, its extreme.
Their intention is to get arrested so that they take up all the cells, so that the police say we can’t deal with this because there’s so much other shit going on. But it is crazy, because there are still kids being stabbed all over town. But it’s about the future, I know. They say ‘we’re ok about kids getting stabbed and dying and stuff, because it’s about the future’.”
“Interesting,” said her partner, sipping his coffee.
Sunday 6th October
“The Wicker Man Without the Sense of Humour”
YOU ARE CALLED, read the Facebook event. Extinction Rebellion’s Opening Ceremony, ‘lighting a beacon of truth’, was set to begin at sunset at Marble Arch, the weirdly pointless architectural flourish that was described in 1847 as “discoloured by smoke and damp, and in appearance resembling a huge sugar erection in a confectioner’s shop window.” Now the flags of the world flutter around it, cars and buses circle endlessly, and a giant bronze horse-head rears to the clouds.
When I arrived the ‘Red Rebels’ were setting off on a stately, silent, march around the grounds, watched by a thousand people. Tall, white-faced apparitions wrapped in blood-red bandages and robes, they walked with hands outstretched, palms upwards. Behind them a man paced with a crimson skeleton on his shoulders, and behind him came the bearers of dark flags coated with astonishing art. Bees, ravens, moons, human forms built from animal imagery.
I have seen the Red Rebels drift through Melbourne’s streets as well. If Extinction Rebellion ‘win’, whatever that means, then this hallucinatory imagery could become the basis of future traditions. I imagined my great grandchildren wrapped in red and parading this same ancient plastic skeleton around a maypole.
Master of ceremonies in a golden coat was Skeena Rathor, a Labour Party councillor. “Welcoming the Red Rebels,” she called through a microphone. “Welcoming the flags of the elements. Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, Air.” A hodgepodge of the classical Western elements (which don’t include metal) and the Chinese (which don’t include air). This was followed by a sunset parade of people holding aloft pink beanbags. From the cheers, this apparently made sense to the faithful, but these symbols have now outpaced my understanding.
“It’s like the Wicker Man, but without the sense of humour,” commented a dude watching from the pavement.
I hopped onto the plinth of the giant, green-streaked horse head and looked down at earnest faces beaming in golden light. All ages, three-quarters women. Mostly caucasian, but not as overwhelmingly as the media likes to portray.
And then a heavy drum beat began, in competition with the yowls of sirens and the thrum of a hovering helicopter. A rapper dared us to be great, dared us to participate, dared us before it’s too late. A woman wanted the crowd to repeat mantras. She taught them the arabic words al-hai for life and al-huk for truth. Then she asked them to link hands and said, “I need you to be comfortable with a bit of chaos. Chaos is coming, so the more comfortable we can be with it the better we can all live.” Children were then called forth to Light the Twelve Beacons of Truth.
When I’d marched with XR last year, I’d noticed the tension between what you might call its Political Wing and its Mystical Wing. Tonight, at least, the Magicians were in ascendance.
Skeena asked for twelve women and twelve men to step forward, to combine their masculine and feminine energies. I thought that seemed a little behind current best-practise ritual, and indeed she hurriedly added, “I would also like to welcome the non-binaries, the non-gender specific, could one also join this fire please?”
“Now these masculine and feminine energies spiral into magnificent truth for these new yet ancient times. For us to remember who we really are. No longer will we be separate. Science and spirit can come together. Masculine and feminine can come together.”
The XR-badged young photographer next to me sighed and lit up a cigarette.
At this point I was feeling pretty alienated. But then the guest speakers began, they were funny, insightful, serious of purpose, and I remembered why I was here in the first place. The best was an actor in an oversized sweater, a Nigerian-background Londoner who talked about his upbringing; how his mum channelled her fear for her children’s future and drew strength from it to build them a better life. Now as adult, he understood how you could draw strength from fear, and said that being here with XR, for the first time in his life he felt like his actions mattered.
A trio of women told the bizarre tale of recently running into Boris Johnson alone in a rural gift-shop in southern England, and spontaneously singing him an ancient song about loving the planet. They claimed that tears ran down his cheeks and he stumbled out to his girlfriend crying, “where have they come from? It’s as if they emerged from the earth!”
A suspiciously convenient little girl asked if she could make an unscheduled contribution. “My name is Eve and I am nine. When I am older I would like to see the bees flying through the flowers and butterflies flying through the trees, but I’m scared because this seems like a dream…”
Night closed in, faces glimmered in fire and traffic lights. A heckler had joined the fringes of the crowd, and was shouting responses through a megaphone.
Skeena: “We are withdrawing our consent from this violent redundant system. We can’t be defeated!”
Heckler: “You can be defeated and you will!”
Skeena: “They can take our beanbags but they can’t take our…”
Heckler: “Take your bean bags, what on earth are you talking about?”
Skeena: “We are all crew. We are nature defending itself. We act on behalf of life. We act on behalf of life! We love you. We love you.”
It was two hours in, and only now were the terms carbon and food security mentioned for the first time, and then only briefly before we were back to us ‘having a divine purpose that tells us we need a participatory democracy’, and that ‘whatever visions and dreams you cherish will come true’.
This tilt to religion depressed but didn’t surprise me. The ‘grown-ups’, the supposed voices of rationality, have sent our whole planet into a death-spiral. If that is what cold rationalism offers, then people will reject rationalism.
After the show, I approached the few police who had been observing, eventually catching the unwilling eye of a young officer.
“What does it feel like for you? This must be all a bit weird to listen to?”
“Not really. Just making sure there isn’t a breach of the peace.”
“But how does it make you feel? Watching a new religious movement growing in the heart of London, challenging you with love?”
“It’s just work,” he said shortly and locked his gaze back over my head again, hands gripping his shoulder straps.
Monday 7 October
Whose Streets? Our Streets!
I spent all day with the Rebellion, but also not really connecting to anyone. It is a carnival atmosphere, but there is no central group to offer welcome. XR must lose thousands of potential allies, who arrive and feel awkward and then leave.
Nonetheless, today I felt huge pride in this movement, and the people I met. The plan to occupy the City of Westminster was a total success. Perhaps ten thousand people converged on twelve sites, completely closing the government district to car traffic. People came from all over Britain, and each geographical chapter of XR was given it own space in to hold. By midday, the whole space was completely locked down, including Trafalgar Square and two bridges.
Not everyone was a protester, but you could tell who was. With the traffic blocked, the protesters strolled along empty roads, reclaiming them as public space. The people who just work here stuck to the pavements, even when the bridges were empty and sealed at both ends.
I walked in the road. But I balanced my appearance so that I could pass as either an XR Loyalist or a Concerned Member of the Public, depending on who I wanted to talk to. I wandered the streets, writing real-time notes:
Westminster Bridge is completely blocked although cyclists being allowed through. Perhaps fifty police drift, performing a half-hearted arrest here and there. Each time they do, the crowd clap and sing, “we love you”, but not clear if to the police or the protesters. Both, I suppose.
A young man closes his eyes and lies floppy. Firefighters are mythically supposed to be able to swing someone over their shoulder to carry them out of a burning building, but it takes five police officers struggle to carry him to their van at the end of the bridge, and they have to lay him down twice to catch their breath. Cheers, applause and glockenspiels accompany his arrest.
A man raises a big orange traffic cone to his mouth. “This is the People’s Conch! If anybody wishes to express themselves, they may speak through the conch for as long as they like. We are CONCH-ientious objectors!”
Lord of the Flies is about democracy turning to massacre. Maybe not the best reference.
People dance around their bikes to “Mambo №5”. It reassures me that we are the good guys. Surely only good guys would dance badly and publicly to “Mambo №5”?
Later, a brass band performs in the middle of the bridge among trees in pots. After them, a lesbian couple is married in the midst of the melee, kissing as the hourglass flags snap around them.
Westminster, the heart of the British government, is totally blocked. But an ambulance approaches with sirens wailing, and the crowd part like magic to let it through. Watching them, I remembered stories of how Alexander the Great trained his phalanxes to open corridors for Persian war-elephants to thunder harmlessly past.
This path takes me to Trafalgar Square, which is clearly going to become the HQ for Rebellion. Here the police are completely outnumbered, and their orders drowned by drumbeats. Young men are constructing barricades out of plywood and screws.
Another sign — ‘Gandalf Wouldn’t Let This Shit Happen’.
A man has scaled his speedily-erected tower of scaffolding, and is shouting to the crowd like we are in the French revolution. “Mother Nature does not bargain! She just sets rules, and we ignore them at our peril!”
The rebels are organised and calm. While police flap about, XR citizens in High-Vis jackets are directing traffic away from the roundabout so it doesn’t get stuck. A pair of reinforcing police squads arrive with a great sound and fury, but after the vans pulling up on the pavement and police tumbling out, they are left to amble about with no obvious purpose.
In Lambeth, Eve, the little girl from yesterday’s Opening Ceremony, is giving the exact same speech with the exact same intonation and receiving the exact same cheers. I pass a bundled-up woman preaching from the back of a truck. “And a vision came to me in a dream of a mouse, and when I spoke to the mouse I was crying, for we have to grieve!” Across the roundabout, a house of plywood and sheeting has been erected for shelter, and people within are given training in non-violent disobedience.
I find myself sitting in the road outside the Home Office, where a truck has twisted itself across the street to form a very solid road-block. Civilly obedient servants peer at us from high windows in their grim building. A handsome constable is debating the rebellion with a woman in her 30s, chained to a lock-on device at his feet. Despite the absurd difference in their positions — he standing tall, she lying on her back, they chat with respect and dignity.
“As much as you and I might agree, I look at these methods and I think you might be alienating the people you want to convince,” he says. “Those that work here, and you are calling toxic.”
“The system is toxic, not you or them,” she says.
“Alright, and you tell me that. I’m the one stood here, right now you are talking to no-one but me. What are you gaining? What are you gaining? I’m gaining some nice conversation with some lovely people, but your message is not being heard by those who need to hear it.”
He is charming, but it is the same cowardly rhetoric from everyone. ‘This is not the way to make change,’ but then no suggestion or offer as to what we should do instead, after thirty years of sleepwalking to our deaths.
“Look, at the end of the day I’m not ‘pro-extinction’. Nobody is ‘pro-extinction’,” he says. “But in two weeks, you’ll have the Brexit Protests, and the media will have moved on, and this will be forgotten.”
“Then we’ll come back. As long as it takes.”
ST JAMES PARK
My final stop takes me to the Speakers Corner, where a stage has been erected on the edge of the park, as it might have been centuries before. An unassuming middle-aged man in track pants, blue jacket and a neat brimmed hat resolves in my brain into the actor Mark Rylance. He is speaking to a small crowd about pesticides.
“Insect decimation is no joke, insects are the fundamental tissues of the planet’s body,” he says in a loud, lilting, voice. A woman in a Mad Hatter hat plastered with stickers asks if he will relinquish the microphone a moment, and tells us all to beware of the wi-fi, of 5G. “It’s about militarisation, it’s controlled from outer space, please check it,” she urges. I feel shamed on behalf of our movement. Mark takes the microphone back and agrees that “a lot of people are concerned about wi-fi, a lot of people I meet”, in a turn-of-phrase that could have come straight from Donald Trump.
He reads some revolutionary texts about transitional capital and the paradigm of dominance through force, then puts his paper down to talk about something more important — stories. “The underlying stories that we’re telling each other, that is what’s changing. The people I work with are looking for guidance in the Greek Myths and Shakespeare, but it is a mark of how deep and unknown this transition is, that we need to write new stories for it.”
Someone suggests that The Tempest is a parable about mankind learning to give up our destructive power to return to a functioning society. Mark nods. “Many Shakespeare plays are about the exile of people from the court to the forest, and in many ways this reflects what we may face in coming years, as we go into exile from the world we knew. Shakespeare teaches us the true meaning of deep adaptation, and learning to survive the loss of everything we knew.
“People say that change won’t happen overnight, but that is how change happens. The visible structures of our society are like a termite-ridden building that could indeed collapse overnight. A healed world is possible.”
He then puts down the microphone to proclaim a poem across the park, ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
He waves shyly and is done.
When I return to Trafalgar Square there is another march, and a new chant.
Tuesday October 8th
For my birthday I returned to Westminster, where a band of fifty drummers beat improvised tempos outside Downing Street, watched by coteries of civil servants peeking from behind their curtains. “EXTINCTION!” drum drum drum “REBELLION!” DRUM DRUM DRUM. There’s a brand new dance and I don’t know its name, but the people from good homes were dancing it again and again — arms crossed for the X of the hourglass, arms horizontal at waist and neck for the rims of the hourglass, hands shaping a circle for the framing of the hourglass.
A line of a hundred police officers, two ranks deep, formed at the south end of Whitechapel Road to block the dancers advancing to parliament square, but otherwise did nothing except force a man riding a paper-mache seahorse to turn back.
I watched a 60 year old woman lie in the street surrounded by ketchup blood. Signs around her neck read BE A GOOD ANCESTOR and IF WE DO NOT WAKE UP, WE WILL BURN UP. It took five police officers to carry her off the road, while five more provided ‘support’, then as soon as they released her she hurried back and lay down again, whereupon they gave up. What could they do, anyway? The roadblocks meant their vans couldn’t get through, so they had to carry individuals two blocks to actually arrest them.
XR had retreated from Westminster Bridge, but still held nine or ten sites. More importantly, XR told the police that IF our protest was broken, we would move out to take three much more disruptive sites — the IMAX roundabout in Waterloo, Vauxhall Bridge and Hyde Park Corner. So, if the police believed that threat, it meant that all they could achieve by a crack-down would be to worsen the situation.
At this point I was telling myself that if the police got violent, I would get myself arrested. If they stayed relaxed, I probably wouldn’t. And so far, I had seen no violence. Both the police and the protesters were incredibly disciplined, displaying more humour than aggression.
At my birthday dinner, my friend John Clute was unimpressed with my attempts to fraternise with police officers. He pounded the table and said, “A foundation of civilization is that you don’t know what the policeman thinks AND YOU DON’T ASK!”
It made me reflect guiltily on what I was doing. Did I really want to police force to lay down its batons, announce support for a political movement? Perhaps to march with us to Downing Street and beat down the doors of Number 10? No…not really. What I want is for the authorities to acknowledge our shared humanity, even as they do their jobs.
Wednesday 9th October
A Deep and Abiding Strangeness
I watched people dressed as giant kangaroos jump six feet into the air on spring-stilts, waving XR banners above their heads. A man next to me was interrogating a senior sergeant about the police methods. The sergeant said, “Of course I know what’s happening in the world, I’m not stupid. But these questions you’re asking me are above my pay grade. You know we’re in an impossible situation.”
The Red Rebels came then, fifty of them. As always, a deep hush fell across the space when they arrived. They threaded their way towards the line of thirty police, strung across the road, and silently took up position directly in front of them, two ranks deep. Each young police officer had a white-faced apparition staring directly at them, a few centimetres away.
The crowd held its breath. The world balanced on its axis.
The police would not make eye-contact with the ghosts standing sentinel in front of them. They looked at each other, or at the sky, or up at Nelson’s Column. Their mouths twitched. Black tears trickled down the death-mask makeup of the red rebels, and some of the police look like they would like to cry too. The deep and abiding strangeness and power of the moment made me cry too.
The police picket had cleared a space fifty metres deep, but a student now stood on the other side. He cupped his hands and shouted, “extinction!”
“Rebellion!” called back the crowd around me.
And the call and response now sang out, over the heads of the police and their crimson reflections, and for the first time this week I felt compelled to join in and I shouted back the word that has been bubbling up inside me for a year. REBELLION! REBELLION! REBELLION!
The young man beyond the picket line fell silent, looking uncertain at how to respond to the emotion he’d raised. The red rebels each lifted a fist in the historical gesture of solidarity, and filed back towards Trafalgar Square. As they pass, the crowd chanted — Whose streets? Our streets.
“It’s uncomfortable, innit?” said a female officer, “when they’re just crying and staring at you.”
“I’m fine,” boasted the ginger-bearded boy beside her. “I’m getting paid. I’ve been in more stressful situations like this, believe me.”
More stressful, perhaps, but probably not as strange. Back in the Square, a giant pink octopus was being pushed around on trolleys, each of its tentacles held aloft by a rebel with a pole. They didn’t know where they were going, and as one dropped out someone else stepped in from the crowd to keep its slow perambulation going.
“Didn’t I see you on Twitter this morning, being pushed up Whitehall by the police?” I ask.
“That’s right, we were kettled all the way. Or cuttled, rather,” said a thin, grinning man, who then lovingly brushed me aside with his tentacle so they could continue on their way.
Thursday 10 October
Trafalgar Square is completely filled with tents. There is an XR kitchen, an XR first-aid tent, an XR prayer tent. The statue of Charles I, king who lost his head to rebellion, is now the mascot for a new revolution and the lions of Nelson’s Column are draped in XR paraphernalia.
Boris Johnson recently declared that we are ‘uncooperative crusties’ in ‘hemp smelling bivouacs’, although I smelled zero hemp from anyone. Today his own dad, Stanley Johnson, turned up at Trafalgar to declare, “I’m showing up here because I think what Extinction Rebellion are doing is extremely important. From tiny acorns, big movements spring. I regard it as a tremendous compliment to be called an uncooperative crusty.”
Friday October 11
My friend Chiara messaged me to ask if I was at the ‘Writer’s Rebellion’. No, because XR’s information channels are a garbled mess and I never know what is going on. But I ran down and found five hundred people gathered around a hastily-erected shack in Trafalgar, where the cream of Britain’s literary establishment spoke and sang their words out to the crowd, while a hundred yellow-jacketed police watched with crossed arms. It was chilling, it was amazing, this uprising was the strangest, sustained public event of my life.
Scottish author Ali Smith blew me away with her stream-of-consciousness account of the million children marching across the world, and Robert MacFarlane quoted Ursula LeGuin, and the sky darkened, and a woman said never doubt that a small group could change the world, and this was not a small group, and the crowd cheered, and more and more people were saying the words ‘peaceful revolution’, and someone quoted Oscar Wilde, that disobedience was humanity’s original virtue. Disobedience. Everything our civilisation has and cherishes comes from the disobedience of our ancestors, back to Prometheus snatching fire from the Gods.
Then Simon Schama started bellowing out Thoreau — “it is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen!”, the heavens opened, and police helicopters hovered, and water washed around our ankles, and the rising drums of rebellion drowned out his words.
The storm sent half the crowd fleeing. The last thing I saw were students dancing a silent disco in the street, badly singing along to the Spice Girls while bopping in their green headphones. If you want to be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.
Saturday 12 October
Twenty thousand people marched down Oxford Street, but I was with my Turkish friends in Stoke Newington and they had not even heard about the protests, except one woman who said, “oh is that why my mate’s dad been living in a tent all week?” Now that the protests are consigned to Trafalgar Square, they aren’t really inconveniencing anyone anymore. For most Londoners we are irrelevant.
Monday 14 October
Blockading the Banks
The Extinction Rebellion hit the Bank District today. We took up residence in the confluence of streets at Bank tube station. XR is smart about gathering at tubes. Police can’t stop people coming and going without disrupting the trains themselves, and in the meantime, we can be like Mole People.
The police moved in to clear us and I sat on a picnic blanket next to strangers until they gave up. The tall young man beside me, in a brown suit, had come down from the North. He was excited, eager to turn up the level of destruction. “I think we should be getting more aggro, sabotaging power plants and stuff,” he enthused, blithely proving the worst fears of everyone in Authority. He didn’t look like somebody who knew much about sabotage. Later I spoke with a transwoman uni student, also from out of town, who was staying in the tent-complex at Lambeth Gardens. She said that many of her friends didn’t respect XR. “Too radical?” I asked, and she said no, not radical enough. “They want more drastic steps.”
If things turn nasty, there are people here who would welcome it.
Tuesday 15 October
Margaret Thatcher’s Ghost
With over a thousand arrests, morale was flagging among protesters, but this was the turning point of the rebellion. The Metropolitan Police responded to the disorder with a massive step-up in their tactics, announcing online:
Any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’ must now cease their protest(s) within London (Metropolitan Police Service, and City of London areas) by 2100 hours on Monday 14th October 2019. Should you fail to comply with the conditions, you run a risk of being arrested and prosecuted.
My understanding was that this ban was a very generous reading of police powers to move people on during a specific incident. An ‘assembly’ could mean any gathering of friends, and how would the police determine who was ‘linked’ to XR? Was I? Was my friend Beth, who came to see me there? If it stood, this order more-or-less amounted to a ban on peaceful democratic protest.
The mayor of London is no huge fan of Extinction Rebellion, but he was quick to distance himself from this, tweeting out:
Neither I nor the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime was informed before the Metropolitan Police took the operational decision to impose a Section 14 order on Extinction Rebellion Autumn Uprising last night. I’ve met with senior officers today to seek further information on why they deemed this necessary.
In the afternoon I joined the protests at Lambeth, where they were trying to highlight food security issues outside MI5. Portable kitchens served up vegan stew.
A LOT of police this time, with their horse division. An old woman sat on the kerb sketching a superb portrait of one of the police cavalry. Above it she wrote, “It takes a moment to consider why we’re here.”
“Now who wants to learn about affinity groups through the medium of song?” called a speaker, and then began a riff on The Jungle Book’s “Bear Necessities”.
“Look for some, group affinity,
Find someone who will stand with me,
Find someone who will telephone your wife!
You need some, group affinity,
Some regen and a cup of tea,
To bring the bare necessities of life!”
I took a photo and for the first time was threatened with arrest myself. “Step back! If you make me ask again I’ll charge you,” snapped a harried-looking young officer. After ten days of this, I think the humour was wearing thin for the police. It wasn’t all fun and games for protesters either. A woman in her 40s was put in the back of a police van and as they slammed the door on her, she turned her face away and shook with sobbing.
On the way back, I went through Parliament Square. An Extinction Rebellion protester in a full-face gas mask was crouched on a gothic gatepost fencing Parliament House, holding a circular sign that spun lazily to say STOP or GO. His feet were in grabbing range, but fourteen yellow-jacketed officers stood in a bored semi-circle around him. Presumably Health and Safety rules stopped them from pushing him down onto the lawn, so the stand-off seemed set to continue for some time.
“Excuse me,” said a voice. A pair of Japanese kids in their early 20s had a little stall set up against Parliament fence. They offered me a brochure titled No Deal Brexit? Margaret Thatcher’s Messages From the Spirit World. Was she an Angel or Devil? What Does she think of current Brexit Issue? For the answer to these questions, I could attend a séance at a West London address called Happy Science London. Reservations Recommended.
Wednesday 16th October
The Met’s blanket ban on XR reinvigorated the protest. Over a thousand people congregated in Trafalgar Square where we were specifically told not to go, and the police were not even trying to enforce their unenforcable order. Who here, after all, was a member of Extinction Rebellion and who a bewildered tourist? You should not give an order you know will not be obeyed, and I assumed the police had done so just so somebody could report to somebody else that they were doing all they can.
I arrived in time to see XR spokespeople absurdly trying to organise a 1500-strong Citizen’s Assembly, to decide our next step. They were using the ‘mike check’ system where every line from a speaker is shouted back to them by the crowd. It works well for chanting slogans, not so well when the speaker is shouting, “So, let’s try and get into groups of, say, ten people, and nominate a facilitator.”
“Let’s try and get into groups of ten people and nominate a facilitator,” repeated the crowd dutifully.
They did so, shuffling into circles, each with a hourglass flag to mark its territory. It was bright, the sun finally out for this ponderous, inexorable, democracy. I joined in.
This discussion was important, because a sub-set of XR was planning to hit the the tube lines the next day. The response on Facebook and in that square, including from me, was very negative. The tube was NOT a legitimate target, it made no sense from a PR angle, and would lose us a huge swathe of support. But some hard-liners said that we were not here to make friends, but to cause economic disruption. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority made their opposition known.
The traffic around Charing Cross was snared, marking a likely new roadbloack. I wandered between stationary buses towards the sound of drums, and spied George Monbiot — one of my favourite Guardian commentators, and long-time eco activist. He had publicly announced his intention to be arrested today, and here he was with a smile on his face, sitting with his fellows outside the Trafalgar Studios playhouse.
George offered no resistance as two burly young officers carried him off the road, sat him down on the kerb and read him something from their pocketbooks. A crowd gathered, and George raised a hand to settle them. “Yes, I’ve been arrested. I’m under arrest. And this, right now, feels like exactly the right place to be. I will be able to look my children in the eye.”
It was so absurd. Monbiot was arrested for blocking the road there. I stood two metres from him on the same road, here, and was ignored. The police were only arresting people who made a theatre of their defiance.
People were lining up to shake Monbiot’s hand, while other arrestees were carried limply past. “Me and Georgy used to share a house,” said a grinning woman next to me, then she gave Monbiot a thumbs-up. “YOU HAD A COFFEE, GEORGE?” she shouts.
He raised his loose wrists. “CUFFED? I HAVEN’T BEEN CUFFED.”
“NO, COFFEE! WOULD YOU LIKE A COFFEE? THEY DO THEM AT MACCY Ds.”
In a beautiful example of middle-class privilege, George leaned over and asked young Constable NW1716 (no name on his uniform) if, since they have to wait for the police vans anyway, how about they all popped over the road for a coffee? The police conferred, perhaps unused to this sort of suggestion from criminals, and then remember the situation and said no! No, he was Under Arrest!
It is fascinating to watch the power dynamic in these little human dramas (comedies?). The police are used to dealing with people who tend to be younger and underprivileged. At these protests it seemed like the youngest police were being sent to the front, where they were being forced to exert authority over older, often more privileged arrestees who were serene in their righteousness. The officer’s conflicting urges towards deference and control were entertaining to see.
All sides ‘want a coffee’, and the local cafes did not seem to be suffering from the disruption. They were safe-zones, like stores in a computer game, where the music mellows and you can talk rather than fight. I asked a Welsh policemen if it was true they were working eighteen hour days?
“Don’t know about others, but yeah I did yesterday. Long day. Long week! And we’re a long way from home.”
“Where are they putting you up then? Hotels?”
“Yeah, hotels. Cheap hotels around the edge of London.”
“It must be tough.”
“Yeah, you know, people have a right to peaceful protest, but when you block off the city its not fair on others, not fair on the tourists, not fair on the people who work here. And once the tents go up, you know you’ll be here a while.”
“Well, hopefully you’ll get a few days off before the Brexit protests will start.”
“Yes, Brexit, yes. That’ll break everyone. Still, interesting times, eh? Hah!”
That was back when Brexit was still supposed to happen in October, of course. Hah!
Thursday 17 October
Violence on the Tube
They blew it.
During the morning rush-hour, the Extinction Rebellion splinter-group who had been begged not to proceed with their tube action…proceeded with their tube action. By the time I was awake, the footage was all over Facebook.
Dawn gloom at Canning Town station, an open-air stop on the Jubilee tube line. On the way to the banking districts, but at that hour filled with plenty of other working Londoners. A pair of men in business-wear briskly lay a ladder against an idling tube train and climb onto its roof. They unfurl a banner reading BUSINESS AS USUAL EQUALS DEATH.
The train can’t move in those conditions, so people are stuck on the platform and trapped as more rush-hour commuters push in behind. The crowd turns nasty fast, throwing rubbish at the two protesters and screaming at them.
The men on the tube look scared now. Someone in the crowd jumps up to grab at a protester’s ankles, in his panic the XR dude kicks out at this stranger’s face. The protester is white and wearing a suit, the man he kicks is black and wearing jeans and a beanie. The commuter snatches the protester’s ankles and drags him down into the crowd, which surges over him with a roar.
It’s terrifying just watching it on a phone. Men in the crowd kick and punch the dazed activist until other locals and tube workers force their way in to protect him from London mob justice, “yo yo, no no no!” someone shouts.
One of the people filming this assault is a young journalist from Extinction Rebellion, and in his footage you can see the crowd round on him too. “I am media! I’m not part of the action, I’m here to film the action,” he shouts. The niceties of this distinction are lost on the mob, and his phone is knocked away as he cries, “sir, we have a free press in this country!”
He was also knocked to the ground and apparently kicked in the head before being rescued.
After a week of shutting down Westminster, XR had started to become part of the tapestry of London, but the scent of blood brought the group back to the front pages. But there is such a thing as bad publicity, and this was it. I had a friend (‘A Notable’ in XR parlance) who had been preparing to stage an event in support of XR, but after today that plan was not mentioned again. Other friends who voiced theoretical support for Extinction Rebellion now had a reason to turn away. At a stroke, XR had lost the support of a huge chunk of moderate London, and solidified a class-warfare narrative.
I was so angry. 90% of XR had voted against the tube action. If XR cells are not going to feel themselves bound by all our ‘consensus decision making’, what exactly is the point of consensus decision making?
There was an official statement — two actually, as the group struggled with how to respond. I preferred the unofficial one given by Rupert Read, an academic and self-described spokesperson:
I deeply regret that the action on the tube went ahead this morning. XR Political Strategy group, to which I belong, advised strongly and unanimously against it, as did the vast majority of the movement. Lessons must be learnt so that never again can the actions of a tiny number of ‘XR’ activists tarnish the entire movement. Once it was clear that this action was going ahead, XR should have disowned it, yesterday. But we didn’t (it seems) have a process for doing so. In future, the process for such disownment, where necessary, needs to be clear.
The point of the action was worthy: to demonstrate the utter frailty of the tube. If climate chaos is not reined in, the tube will flood repeatedly and then terminally, and be taken from us forever. A small amount of disruption now might help prevent a vast disruption to come. BUT the design of the action was questionable, its execution obviously flawed, and its timing (after yesterday’s wonderful gathering at Traf Sq to protest the Government’s authoritarianism) quite simply catastrophically stupid.
The last few days I had been thinking of XR as ‘Us’, but now they were back to ‘Them’.
One thing I took away from it all — the veneer of civility is thin. It doesn’t take much disruption for some people to turn violent. And as climate breakdown gets worse, we’re going to be facing a lot of disruption.
Friday 18 October
It had always been the plan to depart on their own terms after two weeks, and now Extinction Rebellion’s closing ceremony was held in Trafalgar Square. Grey weather. Maybe 2000 people, which was ok, but a whole lot fewer than were here two weeks ago. The mood was still downbeat after the Tube debacle.
Unable to confront the existential horror of the climate emergency, the media instead criticises Extinction Rebellion on grounds of hypocrisy and a lack of diversity. The attacks seemed incoherent to me, should luckier XR activists use their privilege to help those less fortunate, or should they abandon ideas of solidarity?
Still, these constant attacks had got into XR leader’s heads and they were working hard to counter them. An organiser asked for volunteer speakers, “and we want to hear from people who are not usually heard, we want your learning.” Code for people of colour to come up in front of the cameras?
A sensible Lewisham councillor said, “I know people of colour who might want to be here, but they can’t on zero hour contracts.” A speaker in a wheelchair said “nothing about us without us,” as a call for people with disabilities to be included in decision making. A quiet older man who said simply that Extinction Rebellion had taught him to love.
Finally Skeena Rathor took the microphone again and suggested that perhaps we were ready for song, and would we welcome Gaia.
A beatific young woman in a big green hat rose and said, “hello beautiful people. I’d just like to take a moment to say, we are trying our best, and sometimes we get it wrong. But we have done an amazing job. We did this, we did this for two weeks, we did this together.”
Gaia began to sing John Lennon, the crowd began to sway, it wasn’t my scene. I descended underground to the strains of, “all we are saying, is give peace a chance…all we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
Wednesday 6 November
Two weeks after the Rebellion had drawn to a close, the High Court found that the Metropolitan Police’s blanket ban on XR in London had, indeed, been unlawful. That “separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly under the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1986 act.”
This means anybody arrested after the 14th October will probably now be let off. But the police probably knew this would happen when they applied it. In the meantime they had an easier time clearing the streets until the protest reached its end, so unless they are sued, it’s no loss for them.
It would be nice to think that this means the authorities will back off a little now. In reality, I imagine Boris Johnson will get back into power next month, and soon enough new legislation will be arriving to crack down on prolonged dissent. That’s certainly what is happening in Australia.
So was it a success?
Thirty thousand people apparently took part. Over 1800 people were arrested, and they’ll be clogging up the courts for a year if the police try to charge them all. It was certainly a success on its own terms. Whether these revolts will lead to change, or just lead to crackdowns on civil society, remain to be seen.
Some takeaways from a wandering observer:
1. This is a disciplined movement
I expected XR might be infiltrated by violent anarchists, and that things might get rough. They didn’t. For all the surface frivolity in Extinction Rebellion, they prepared and launched a two-week operation mobilising thousands of people with military precision, and everyone stuck to the plan. The people I met were brave, passionate and smart.
2. London has a good police force
In Paris, police pepper-sprayed XR activists. In Melbourne, they illegally blocked media, roughed up a few protesters and used horses to break blockades. In many countries you would be shot for doing what we did. As far as I saw, the London police were extremely professional under conditions of severe silliness. Sure, you can think of them as the iron-fist of a racist and oppressive state. But they could have been a lot fistier than they were.
3. This is part of a global trend
Right now there are protest movements in Iran, Iraq, Chile, Lebanon, Bolivia, Hong Kong, Algeria and many more. Many of them are adopting similar tactics to our own: leaderless, organised via apps, claiming symbolic city spaces. The triggers for these protests may be different, but they are clearly part of a global wave of discontent, in the same way that protests in 1848 or 1968 flared across nations simultaneously.
4. My friends won’t join, and that’s a problem for XR
My friendship circle are exactly the target audience for Extinction Rebellion. They are youngish, generally anti-authoritarian and passionate about the environment. Most of them voiced strong approval of XR’s cause. But they did not come onto the street. This is partly that they have more serious jobs than me. But four other issues stand out to me:
1. The hippy aspect is a big turn-off to most people in my social group.
2. XR’s focus on being arrested as the central tactic makes people think it is more dangerous than it really is.
3. When new people did join the crowds, there were not enough mechanisms to Welcome them.
4. XR communication is largely internal, so if you are not already in the group you don’t know what the group is doing.
If you’ve read this far, you might think this is a cult of crazy people, or perhaps an uprising of heroes. I think a little bit of both, erring on the side of heroics. When I think about how this movement has grown out of nothing in a year, I am amazed.
And you cannot fault their ambition. One of my favourite moments of the month was a small one. I was watching the division of labour among activists in Trafalgar square, the feeding and first aid tents, the traffic wardens, the systems of voting, and I said to a senior XR woman, “this seems less like a protest and more like practicing the responsibilities of a State. So we can step in if the current one fails.”
“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said.
I don’t know what the future will bring. But for a couple of weeks, London was transformed and the sense of political possibility broke wide open. Pseudo-public space became genuinely public again.
Whose streets? Our streets.