Today jumpstarted the two-week international climate protest led by Extinction Rebellion (XR). Good Trouble walked with the London rebels, to find out more about this new wave of non-violent civil disobedience
Photographs and words by William Alderwick
Extinction Rebellion is a protest disrupting five locations across central London, laid out loosely in the shape of the hourglass XR symbol. Each featuring talks, workshops, training, food, music, people’s assemblies. The group’s goal is to force the government to take climate change seriously, declare and act upon the climate and ecological emergency — and they intend to stay put until action is taken.
To get a sense of the shape and scope of XR, I walked a full circuit around each of the five rebellion points. Faced with what is the great struggle of our generation—one that seems to require revolutionary approaches to energy, economics, civil rights, equality, politics—how can we change course?
Starting off at Waterloo Bridge just after 11am, I could hear the drum troopers’ rhythmic bursts start to punch through the faint traffic. The bridge was blocked off by crowds at both ends. Flower pots have been placed on the tarmac, alongside kids’ chalk scrawls, yurts, a stage on the back of the truck, XR flags adorn the barriers—all transforming the vehicular artery into a parody of the failed garden bridge project.
As the organisers proclaim, XR is against business as usual. We’ve been lied to, the media hasn’t lived up to its job, and the denial of the implications of climate change and the collapse of global ecosystems is endemic. Fuck winter, it’s extinction that is coming. To avoid certain catastrophe, everything has to change. This is an emergency. It’s a sobering thought.
At Oxford Circus, a sail boat has ’run aground’ on London’s central shopping junction. A congregation clusters around, listening to speeches from the likes of Prof. Jem Bendell, whose “Deep Adaptation” paper went viral by highlighting how bad the situation really is. Another speaker addressed feelings of grief and shock, telling the crowd how to deal with the diagnosis, like a cancer patient borderline terminal.
The rebels are surrounded on all sides by an ever-present hoard of consumers, their ship dwarfed by the mega-store flagships of global fashion and beauty corporations. This juxtaposition highlights the other-worldliness of XR— an irruption in the midst of the status quo, obstructing and interrupting the usual flows of people, traffic, and money. Walking from one site to another, while roads may be empty of cars, the crowd of unaware tourists simply shopping and living their lives obliviously to the concerns of the rebels is utterly unavoidable.
And then suddenly you are back in the XR bubble. A yoga class is being given in one tent in Marble Arch; folk songs drift out over a PA from the other side of this little grass square that in that other world of the everyday is simply a roundabout, empty space. Here it is filled with people living. Everything in the modern world is about content it seems.
I ran into the student march at Piccadilly Circus, just as they arrived, sat down and shut down the junction, all full of youthful drum thumping enthusiasm and chanting song. Parliament Square felt like a village green on a Sunday, talks progressing to cheers from those sprawled out in the late afternoon sun. Students congregated around a sound system pumping out drum and bass, dancing in an awkwardly sober way to the rhythms.
There’s a strangely subdued atmosphere all around. It’s as if nobody is quite sure what’s going to happen next. The embodied wisdoms of two decades of protest walks in-between the families, small children, students, and retirees. Some might remember the police kettling tactics, blocking in protesters for hours at a time. But the police presence throughout is minimal, jovial almost, on the sidelines, respectful. As the protests continue, families and small children go home, and the camps aim to see out progressive nights, how long will that patience and detente hold?
The protests reminded me of Goldilocks and the three bears. Except this Goldilocks, a Greta Thunberg inspired avatar finds herself in a burning house. She’s not interested in porridge. The bears in this house are all hibernating, curled up in their comforts watching pay-per views. Our Goldilocks is trying to drag the hibernating bears out of danger by their tails. Maybe the bears will wake up, and in shock and self-defence attack our heroine. Maybe the bears will see the flames for themselves and try to put them out. Maybe there are seven billion bears, and maybe outside the house there’s only the cold emptiness of space.
As one of the speakers at Parliament Square summed up the mood with his sign off: ‘Dear nature, I couldn’t live without you’.
Join Extinction Rebellion in the worldwide protest, from April 15th until April 29th
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