Last September, 40,000 people took to the streets of London for one of the largest climate change marches in history. In the time since, it doesn't really feel like the political agenda has been ratcheted up in quite the way it should have, considering the world is becoming an uninhabitable mess of drought and despair before our very eyes.
So on Saturday, a bunch of people decided to have another go at it. The Time to Act climate change march failed to surpass last year's protest in numbers, but upped the ante in terms of angry, if not entirely successful direct action tactics.
When I got there at about midday, there were already loads of people buzzing around Lincoln's Inn Fields. Hare Krishna devotees were handing out free food to the large crowd. There were a lot of familiar scenes from last year: parents with push chairs containing children who will never be allowed to eat fast food, evangelical cyclists in latex and banners making clever puns about how "frack" sounds almost like "fuck." Compared to last year, however, there were a few more aggy looking protesters in black bloc gear. They hung around awkwardly in the shade beneath the central bandstand, eager for the march to begin.
As we spewed out of the square, the full expanse of the crowd became clear—later estimates said there were probably 20,000 people present. Ironically, most of the march was spent crawling between snaking lines of traffic, around idling engines spewing extra carbon into the atmosphere.
This guy honked his horn at the march, and quickly found himself surrounded by stern anti-capitalists—"the rich, the rich, we've got to get rid of the rich!" they chanted. The guy clammed up and feigned a smile, which saved him from any lynching that might have been about to happen… or at least more chanting from upset protesters.
As the march reached Downing Street, a black bloc of anti-capitalist protesters squared up to cops in front of David Cameron's house. Another group split away and headed down the side of Downing Street, charging past the Foreign Office, and spilling out into Parliament Square.
It was here we met a group of activists dressed as polar bears. They told us they had just come from Heathrow, where they had spent the morning in Terminal 2 giving holiday goers pangs of guilt with a flash mob. Now they were dancing around in front of an unimpressed warden while the march dutifully passed by toward its anticlimactic conclusion at the House of Commons.
Eventually, a bear called Owen told us that there was a plan to break into Shell HQ, on the other side of the river. "We're looking to take the energy and actually do something," he said.
After blowing up a large black balloon as an esoteric figurehead, a large group broke from the main march. Immediately a group of riot cops came out of one of the dozens of vans lining seemingly every side street. One polar bear got slammed into some fencing and cuffed. Their habitat destroyed by global warming and now getting grief from the cops, polar bears really can't catch a break. The guy in the above photo laid into people with his baton before being restrained by his colleagues.
The sun beat down as the breakaway crowd crossed Westminster bridge, with a rank of cops briskly marching to contain them at the other end. The group we were with broke into a run, and ended up down the side of Shell HQ. The plan was to find an entrance, but the convoluted instructions of various leaders took us to a dead end. We ended up running back around the building, through crowds of confused tourists.
Since there was now no chance of getting in, the crowd milled around outside; eventually someone halfheartedly spoke about the Ogoni people of Nigeria and their battle against Shell. There was a mixture of standoffishness and amiable chats between and activists and cops.
As people left, a few arrests were made, and activists threw themselves to the ground in order to obstruct the police vans containing their comrades. For the better part of an hour we waited in the sunset as polar bears strategically lounged in front of the vans, almost goading them to slowly drive over them, and then claim it was an unavoidable traffic accident.
That hour was mostly made up by the quiet, passive-aggressive chit-chat between cops and protesters that characterizes British dissent. This foreplay eventually turned into a scrum. Someone got dragged to the ground by her hair as the remnants of some 1664 cans flew through the air.
As the protesters who were left drifted back toward Parliament Square and then home, I reflected on the day. Activists did not seize Shell HQ. Owen's plan to "actually do something" hadn't quite paid off—they didn't really do a whole lot. But they had made it clear that climate change is becoming a real concern for people who will probably still be on the planet in 50 years. A political change occurring to reflect this seems more a matter of "when" than "if." Then there's the question of "How?" A "Green Surge" at the election seems likely, but will that be it? Or will people—perhaps dressed as polar bears—increasingly take matters into their own hands?