Speak to any Extinction Rebellion activist and they'll tell you they're a democratic climate movement whose plans are made collectively. That's almost definitely true: I've witnessed firsthand their huddles and assemblies and put-your-hands-in-the-air style of consensus decision-making. But, as is always the way with activist groups, there are also those who are just the leaders. In Extinction Rebellion's case, that leader is Gail Bradbrook, the 46-year-old campaigner who co-founded the group between May and October of 2018.
Just over a week into the action that brought some of central London's vital travel arteries to a standstill, Bradbrook has passed the point of exhaustion. When we met on Monday evening on the edge of the group's Marble Arch protest, she was wired. "We're in active rebellion against the British government for their criminal inaction on our environmental and ecological crisis," she explained in a soft Yorkshire accent. "We're basically all going to die in a few years time if they don’t sort it out."
VICE: I was out on Thursday when multiple sites were being blockaded across London – it looked like XR was spreading. Now, everyone has converged here on Marble Arch. Are you retreating?
Gail Bradbrook: No, not at all. We know we can’t take on the force of the state. If the state wants to get rid of us from a particular location, they’ll be able to. We'll go along with it and get arrested if we have to. But it can't get rid of a movement. It's like water: it'll just go into a different shape, a different space. It’s like mycelium under the ground – a mushroom will just pop up somewhere else.
I've been watching; at one point, people were cleared from Oxford Circus and then another group just took it. If we wanted to take Waterloo Bridge tonight, we could – we could just do it. We have the people, and so many people are donating to the crowdfunder that if the police take, I don’t know, a gazebo, we'll just get another one. Do you see what I mean? They're finished. The system is done with.
Some critics of XR have raised concerns about whether another week of sustained disruption to people's daily lives is necessary. Do you think actions like this lose the climate movement support?
There are two separate things here. One is whether people like Extinction Rebellion, and one is whether they’re talking about our climate crisis and the fact we’re facing extinction. Now that conversation is happening – and that’s our main job. It’s not to get everyone to like us.
However, I think there’s also been a real joy for people in London in what’s happening: less air pollution, more open public spaces. If London is going to sort out its air pollution crisis it's going to have to shut down a lot of roads and make them oil-free. That could make space for a much better transport system, too. That’s just my personal opinion, but I’d be hesitant to portray the way locals see Extinction Rebellion as a negative. It’s just not what we’re seeing and hearing.
Looking around, this is mostly an incredibly young group of people. Were you expecting that to be the case?
I'll be turning 47 in a couple of weeks, and I was on stage earlier this weekend with [Bristol’s protesting pensioner] Phil Kingston, who’s 82. We were looking out over this crowd of young people who’d all come together. I’m quite sick of my generation. There’s a togetherness among the younger lot, and they're intersectional. There's diversity there.
And just look at the choice they’re having to make: spend your life fighting to make a place for yourself in a system that has no space for you? There’s no mortgage for most, no fucking jobs or pension funds for the majority. That’s a route to depression and disease. Or join us in the rebellion, realise you’re already gorgeous and have what you need. I don’t want to put the pressure on, but young people will make this movement – they’ve got nothing to lose.
There have been over a thousand arrests already in the last week, and signs that more will come. Why is getting arrested an XR tactic?
We’ve got to be careful not to fetishise arrest, not to celebrate it. The issue here is not minding if some people are arrested, and appreciating it’s an element of resistance. If we all spent all our time desperately trying to not be arrested, then that’s where all our energy would go. Plenty of people are willing to be arrested, though, and that creates a political crisis. The fact they’ve arrested 1,000 people already this week… what does the Crown Prosecution Service do with thousands of people who are not criminals, but who are acting on their conscience? Who knows! If you say you don’t mind what happens, it’s freeing.
You mentioned diversity and intersectionality earlier among younger activists – what do you say to those pointing out that the climate movement is already very white, and inciting arrest keeps it that way, given the whole police and state racism thing.
Our diversity is not perfect, it’s not right. It’s definitely much better among younger people. The climate crisis is an indication of the racism in our culture, because there’s a version where you hope, subconsciously, that climate change is something that happens to other people in another country. What’s that other than racism, if you think about it? What we’ve been trying to do as a movement – and it’s slow and deliberate and taking its time – is to reweave the family. We don’t want to shame and blame white people for not getting the climate movement right in the past, but we need to do the work now.
Last night we held an internationalist solidarity panel. A lot is happening on anti-oppression work behind the scenes. This morning I was involved in drafting a statement concerning people of colour and the police. We need to get a video online about deescalation as well. We always need white people to step up if people of colour are being targeted by the police, and that starts with this movement. It can and must be OK and safe for black people in Extinction Rebellion. White people here must get up and put their bodies in the way if the police are targeting people of colour.
Direct action has been widespread and disruptive, but Extinction Rebellion has very concrete demands of our – currently – Conservative government. Do you really see Theresa May sitting down to talk with protesters?
Interestingly, on Sunday, The Times - a right-wing newspaper – ran an opinion piece from a woman who said she went onto the streets not expecting to like these people, but couldn't help but be affected by what they were saying, and that if she was Theresa May she’d hold a citizen’s assembly, because why not? I’ve sat down with two people who know Theresa May’s advisors, and they tell me she knows we’re right, and maybe they actually just need a social movement to give them the permission to step up. I’m actually relatively optimistic that the government will come to the table, but even if they do this fight wont be over.