Hollie Geraghty looks back on the biggest display of civil disobedience on a national scale in decades, and asks the organisers: what's next?
Just outside Marble Arch station in central London, hundreds of protestors gather in the road – some surrounded by police, others flanking the site with flags and encouraging cheers, all united by passionate camaraderie and driven by a common goal: to make the world wake up to the threat of climate change.
Police officers carry rebels by their arms and legs towards police vans, and with every arrest a cheer erupts, followed by chants of, ‘We love you’. People are playing Christmas songs on the clarinet and singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ around a set of drums. A giant inflatable elephant with ‘Ecocide’ printed across it is marched around the crowds. “This isn’t the beginning, this has been building for a really long time,” one rebel tells NME. “But this splash, this dedication, this passion and what all of us have experienced here is a turning point.”
This was the most recent display of civil disobedience from Extinction Rebellion, the socio-political movement that uses non-violent and innovative methods of resistance to highlight the urgency of the threat of climate change. Over 10 days in London, they occupied sites at Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square, creating roadblocks and disrupting traffic. A pink boat named after murdered environmental activist Berta Cáceres was placed in a busy intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street, becoming the recognisable emblem of the protests. The actor Emma Thompson flew to the UK specially for the protests and addressed crowds from the boat. Rebels even staged a ‘die-in’ at the Natural History Museum, lying down en masse beneath the whale skeleton in the entrance hall. Over the two weeks some glued their hands to buses, a Docklands Light Rail train – even Jeremy Corbyn’s fence.
There was an energy and a buzz at the protests that we haven’t seen before. Normally law-abiding citizens pushed personal boundaries and participated in bold acts of disobedience for a greater cause. There was a palpable giddiness among the younger protesters about the brazen boldness of their statements. The simple act of sitting in the road was empowering for protestors putting themselves in line to be arrested for their actions.
Behind all of these demonstrations are three demands, laid out on banners, leaflets, direct requests to the government, and even on the pink boat: Tell the Truth, Act Now, and Beyond Politics.
They want the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, to act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and to create a citizen’s assembly to oversee the changes needed to achieve these goals.
Though easily written off by right-wing press as a bunch of crusties, protestors were people from all walks of life – and different parts of the country – who came together to be a part of an historic movement. People with full time jobs took two weeks off of work; parents camped with toddlers; pensioners travelled from around the UK to be a part of the road blockades.
And, crucially, many university students spent their Easter holidays on the streets of London. Climate change has undoubtedly become a both a problem and a cause célèbre for the younger generation, and because of this we have seen young people suffering from ‘eco-anxiety’ at the forefront of the action. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, has become an icon in the movement for her instrumental role in initiating the school protests last month, and made headlines when she spoke at the Extinction Rebellion protest and met MPs to discuss possible ways forward.
In Marble Arch, Philosophy student Edie Turner, 20, was barefoot, having spent 10 days at the protest. She told us: “I’m here because I’ve grown up my entire life in a rapidly collapsing world. People in the global South are already experiencing the kind of horrific life-changing climatic events that we put forward as our terrible possible future. So I want to amplify their voices and stand up for the injustice that is them suffering because we live our lives the way that we do.”
She added: “I’m here for my own life – for the possibility that I might be able to one day have children and they can grow up somewhere where there are birds and bees and flowers.”
Another student, Chloe Potamita, 21, from Athens, told NME she was at the protest because people don’t seem to be listening. She said: “It just became apparent that even though tiny changes are happening all the time and supermarkets are bragging about the small changes they’re making, it’s not really doing enough, and most importantly the government aren’t doing enough, so they’re the people that need to be pressured the most.”
Desmond Johnson, 29, who travelled to London from the Lake District with his one-year-old daughter Luna. “I’m here for my little girl,” he said. “I know full well that we’re killing our planet and it’s her future at the end of the day. I know that in about 30 years time the planet’s gonna be in a much worse state if we don’t start making changes now.”
The prominence of young people at the protests goes far beyond students, and the presence of children there was striking. The feeling in the Marble Arch site was similar in atmosphere to a festival, with a food stall, information points, t-shirt printing and activities. But the activists were vulnerable to people angry at the disruption to their everyday lives. The hostility from onlookers was no secret, and one protestor even woke up with their tent on fire in the night.
Many rebels spoke highly of the safe space created in the communal camp. One protestor, Hugo Talbot, 35, took two weeks off caring full time for his mother to attend the protests. He hadn’t slept for two days after spending the nights on the Marble Arch blockade, and this was the first protest he’s ever been involved in. “I suppose the tone of this is one that’s not with anger or aggression, he said. “And I think if it was I wouldn’t be involved.”
“I think the non-violent aspect and the alcohol-free, drug-free aspect has been really lovely. What that does is it’s more accessible to more people. And when we’re talking about trying to tackle the greatest threat to the human species, we need everyone. Absolutely everyone.”
The movement doesn’t put expectation or pressure on participants, and they can be involved in any capacity they choose. For both passive onlookers and active participants, the nature of the protest was uniquely inviting. Chloe Potamita explained: “It’s been really beautiful and peaceful. I’m from Greece so protests there tend to be quite violent and aggressive and police have been horribly violent and brutal like tear gassing people. This is a really beautiful experience for me.”
Some of the most active advocates of the peaceful protests were people who may not even experience the worst of the effects of climate change. Older people made up a large portion of the protestors, there to fight the battle for their grandchildren who may not have the capacity to do it themselves just yet.
Julie Bluemoon, 57, from North Wales, told NME: “I’m here because I fear for the future of my children and my grandchildren.” Choking back tears, Julie, who is a carer for her husband and has 12 grandchildren, said she was only able to make it to the protest because other environmental activists raised money for her travel to London.
We also spoke to veteran activist Andrew Basden, 70, from the pot washing station at the Marble Arch site. He’s been involved in environmental activism since 1980, but felt the Extinction Rebellion was creating a new phase in the climate change debate. “At last somebody is talking about climate change and environmental responsibility,” he said. “I’ve been waiting 30 years for this.”
He added: “I see signs that it is different now compared to what it was in any of these environmental protests before, there seems to be a change in the amount of discussion going on, and it just so happens that it’s coincided with David Attenborough’s climate change action, Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, and it’s coincided with a break in which we haven’t been talking about Brexit so this could enter the discourse.”
Bringing together such diverse demographics of people certainly promotes the idea that this is a welcoming, open-armed movement for everyone, but there’s a type of luxury in having the ability to protest in a movement such as this. Perhaps missing two weeks of work is a privilege not everyone can afford. And is it fair to punish commuters who may very well support the cause but are suffering the effects of a protest simply because practicalities don’t allow them to participate?
Karlene Cassandra Heath, a 37-year-old teacher told NME: “Whilst I appreciate that drastic action was necessary to make people listen, I think there were less extreme alternatives that would target the attention of ministers rather than disrupting daily commuters who simply needed to get to work.
“The environment is important to me and my family are reasonably green. I support change and raising awareness. I do not support needless disruption and cost to the companies and thereby the service users.”
Similarly, Mayor Sadiq Khan, despite showing support for the Extinction Rebellion cause and referring to them as ‘allies’, last week said: “I support the democratic right to peaceful and lawful protest, but the recent protests, some of which were unlawful, placed an enormous burden on our already overstretched and under-resourced police.”
However, inconvenience was precisely what the protestors wanted, even if it resulted in arrest. “I only got arrested once this year,” Blythe Pepino told NME.
The 34-year-old activist and musician locked herself onto the lorry that occupied Waterloo Bridge and spent the night under it. She spent a second night on top of the lorry, and when she returned on the third day she was only on the bridge half an hour before getting arrested.
She was arrested three times last year for her activism with Extinction Rebellion, but is willing to put herself in that position because she realised climate change was an “existential” and “life or death” issue.
She said: “When you get arrested usually you are photographed and it slows the police down, and when you get photographed and fall to the floor or go limp, it’s a way of showing that you are not willing to be moved. In a sense it’s a bit of theatre really, to show you are being moved against your will, and it also slows them down and means they have to use five people to carry you off.”
She added: “I feel that I have a lot of privilege in my life and I’m very aware that in this country we have much more of a softly approach by the police than they would in other countries. Further afield you could expect to be tortured or even killed.”
Despite some opposition from the public and government, there’s no doubt the Extinction Rebellion protests were extremely effective in generating attention. But they are keen to not let the momentum fizzle out. Alanna Byrne, a media coordinator who was heavily involved in organising the protest believes it was a success, bringing them closer to their goals. She said: “I think moving forward now we’ll be regrouping and thinking about how we can further put pressure on the government and various industries to implement our demands.”
She added: “I think it was the right thing for us to do to step back and say let go of this and move on to the next phase, because we’ve achieved a lot. I’m sure we’ll be very very keen to not let the momentum die away. We’ll be making a real point of keeping up our action. This is not the end of anything.”
Part of what could be considered ‘controversial’ about Extinction Rebellion and their methods is that people feel confronted by the truth, particularly by people who insist others need to change their habits, for example by flying less and going vegan. But Alanna presents a reality that is a far more persuasive argument to those on the fence about climate change and are unwilling to change eating, buying, and travel habits.
She said: “We do not like to blame the individual within Extinction Rebellion. I think it’s really important that people understand that obviously it’s important to make changes but unless the government does something, it’s a drop in the ocean and nothing seriously can change until global governments really do something.”
The rebels NME spoke to at the Extinction Rebellion protests all felt broadly the same about how changes can be made: that bigger governmental changes are necessary. But there was a general consensus that reducing plastic waste, cutting down on travel and going vegan were important moves individuals could make.
However, Alanna believed the most important thing was something the protests have undoubtedly achieved. She said: “I think the biggest thing for me, is talk about it. Talk about the problem, tell your friends, tell your family members. It’s so important that we talk about this message but it is absolutely urgent that we do something about it right away.
“I think that’s more important than the other lifestyle changes, although I do think they’re really important.”
Just five days after NME spoke to Alanna, the UK Parliament declared a climate change emergency.
Their methods are inconvenient, but the message is clear and effective. “I believe that we have the ability to make drastic change quickly,” Alanna said. “ Human beings are capable of amazing things.”