I Spent a Night with Protesters Willing to Be Arrested to Fight Climate Change
Photos: Chris Bethell
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Planet Earth is hurtling toward irrecoverable destruction at an alarming rate. The Arctic is melting, the seas are rising, temperatures are increasing, and the world is burning. We’re collectively entering the 9th Circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
We owe this unavoidable truth almost solely to the exploits of capitalism and its overarching ethos of endless consumption—a worldview that's quite simply incompatible with our planet, a tiny rock in the vastness of space with a distinctly finite amount of resources.
But what can be done about it? It can feel helpless being a single person in the face of the great grinding gears of capitalism, but affirmative and direct action in the form of collective protest can prove a powerful vehicle for change, and spurn those with power into action. Extinction Rebellion is a network of climate activists across the globe doing just that. So I decided to check out their planned protests in London—where they have decided to stop traffic in five key locations of the city until the Conservative government meet their demands—to see them in action and join the picket line. Maybe all hope isn’t lost after all.
7:00 PM: I'm packing for the protest. I'm excited because rumor has it that musician Thom Yorke is making an appearance.
7:20 PM: I quickly tidy up my room and water my house plants. They're dying but that's fine because I'm about to save the entire world so…
7:22 PM: It's time to get arrested in the name of planet Earth baby!
7:34 PM: I crack open a can of beer for the road.
7:39 PM: I catch up on some current affairs on the bus, then play that game where you rip the head open of someone in the paper and the word behind is what they're really thinking. Sajid Javid [Home Secretary of the United Kingdom] is thinking about “Dragons.”
7:41 PM: Matt Hancock's [Secretary of State for Home and Social Care] face is making me feel ill. I move to the front of the bus to feel less ill.
7:50 PM: The bus stops for three minutes to even up the service, another win for the climate fighters!
8:00 PM: I read the news about Notre Dame cathedral catching fire. Fuck.
8:11 PM: As the bus pulls up to Waterloo Bridge, I'm ready to stop traffic + reverse climate change.
8:14 PM: My footy leg warmers are already chafing under my pants because I'm in Uniqlo ankle pants. Long night ahead, let's go activists.
8:18 PM: I get to Waterloo Bridge. Some guy is being hauled into a police van. Apparently, they're arresting every single person on the bridge no matter how long it takes, sweeping from the north to the south side of the bridge.
8:30 PM: Police steadily pick people off one by one, the drums beat ever louder. Camping is mostly happening in Hyde Park, I'm told.
8:30 PM: Having seen several arrests now I'm feeling a little exposed, but see a small child clapping in time with the music and decide that I can handle this—I'm a climate fighter once more. I grab the nearest flag and get really pumped up, waving it to the thumping of the drums as I gaze in wonder at the moon and the stars above; this is for you Carl Sagan and your “lovely, lovely” Earth.
8:40 PM: I am told drinking is bad activism so I put my beer away.
8:42 PM: Someone on the Extinction Rebellion WhatsApp says people are being asked to stop livestreaming or face arrest. I turn around to see a police officer recording me.
8:43 PM: Drumming on Waterloo Bridge is right next to the big steampunk heart (there's a ten-foot steampunk heart sculpture on the bridge now) truly, I'm at the beating heart of the protest.
8:40 PM: Oh my God, is that Thom Yorke?! No, just a sweaty old man gesticulating wildly in the middle of Waterloo Bridge on a Monday evening.
9:00 PM: Time to take in some of the radical speeches at the solar-powered stage: “...now I can see it is the ice in peril and we are in danger, standing by as parts of our word carve into the sea… sinking us all into oblivion… I ran my tongue to try and taste its ocean past which I discovered later at home in bed tastes the same as the salt we make with our bodies when we sweat or bleed or cry.”
9:05 PM: It’s the London One World Choir now: “you're a vibration!” someone shouts from the crowd. Am I a vibration too?
9:08 PM: I Make my way to the north side of Waterloo Bridge. The atmosphere as I approach is ominous—dozens of people in outerwear are huddled around some wheelbarrows under a flailing gazebo skeleton. It feels like at any moment, I'll be shot with a crossbow and the blood will be squeezed from my lifeless body as an offering to the climate gods—a kind of sick ritual where I alone pay for the sins of mankind.
9:09 PM: Police are closing in on the stage. Radiohead haven't played yet. Police seize control of the drummers on the bridge but the beats hammer on louder than before: “thud thud thud thud.”
9:14 PM: The drums fall silent but give way to a rising chorus of “Whose police? Our police!” which in turn gives way to rapturous applause.
9:21 PM: Police flank protesters and pick them off one by one.
9:24 PM: An onlooker comments on the final drummer being forcibly arrested: “I'm very left, but sometimes I can't comprehend the resilience of these people.”
9:52 PM: Time to take a piss.
10:20 PM: The city center, Piccadilly Circus—the “heart” of the protest—is totally empty.
10:33 PM: Police are using the “Swedish softly, softly” approach I'm told by some happy campers pitched up in the “well-being tent,” which is an old sofa in a cheap gazebo.
10:45 PM: Emma, who trekked here all the way from Birmingham, says she came to save the planet. “We need to disrupt the flow of the city or the powers that be won't do anything at all.”
10:35 PM: There's a big pink boat sitting in the middle of the road. That'll show the powers that be.
10:47 PM: Tiana who says she's had two hours of sleep in four days is currently manning the boat. Where to, captain Tiana? “We are serious. We are not a rave in the street. We don't want all the drunk people in London rushing in who don't understand our values. We're going to have a good time, why the hell not, but the most important thing is the occupation.”
11:00 PM: The WhatsApp group falls silent. Has everyone been arrested?
11:10 PM: I arrive at Marble Arch. There are tents and a music stage. Banners are still being held aloft. If there's one thing I've learned tonight it's that climate change protesters have arms as thick and strong as the great oak trunks they so long to protect.
11:15 PM: Is that Thom Yorke? No, it's the Sound of a Bee’s Hurt on the main stage and they're killing it. Crowdsurfing in full swing. I feel like I'm at Leeds music fest in 2009 again.
11:40 PM: Ed from Radiohead genuinely was here! (I am reliably informed by the XR music coordinator). He was out on the lawn giving guitar lessons to kids apparently. Nice one Ed.
11:45 PM: The music coordinator says there are people who stand to lose a lot of money if the protester’s demands are met. Momentum tried to get involved with XR he tells me, but they don't want to have political affiliation. “We didn't block contact but we're not providing a platform for them,” he tells me.
12:15 AM: Few guys are hanging around in tuxedos. They've come from a Kitchen company award ceremony at the nearby Grosvenor Hotel. Ian, tells me he didn't win an award but he's here “for the vibes.”
12:33 AM: Protesters are still holding Waterloo Bridge. There haven't been arrests for an hour.
12:47 AM: At the information point. Someone says they took the wrong backpack from bag depot. I'm getting serious Fyre fest vibes.
12:53 AM: In Marble Arch campsite itself, the vibe is peaceful, but stoic and resilient. Tents line the lawns in defiance. They will not be moved. A man meditates by candlelight on a rug beneath a great open tent.
1:13 AM: Mike, a camper at Marble Arch, talks about the fountains over the road: “We’ve got our own pool here it's great! I made my own XR-YURT with an inbuilt stove. This is where people come to recuperate and relax. There’s an underground parking lot just over there which resurfaces past all the roadblocks. There's Bentleys, Lambos, and Ferraris in there and my Volvo is sitting among them, ready for my escape when this all dies down.”
1:23 AM: It's that stage of the night when I'm doing laps between campsites chatting with what's left of the protesters. But instead of frazzled festivalgoers I meet well-informed activists with a central goal: to shut down the city until their demands on climate change are met. So far, they're succeeding.
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