The Police Tried to Ruin Extinction Rebellion's Week-One Party
Photos: Chris Bethell
A week has passed since climate action group Extinction Rebellion kicked off their most recent round of protests – which have, at times, engulfed the capital, blocking off traffic and bringing London to a standstill.
By the end of Bank Holiday Monday, while little remained of their blockade of Oxford Circus – some XR-branded flags attached to traffic lights; a few police officers stationed on every corner, just in case the moved-on protesters reappeared – less than a mile up the road the demonstrations showed no sign of abating.
Most protesters were cleared out of their encampments on Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Oxford Street by police over the Easter weekend; the number of arrests is now well over 1,000. By last night, everyone not in church or banged up in a custody suite looked to have converged on Marble Arch, the newest of XR's ever-evolving outdoor headquarters.
Just after 8:30PM the setup looked like a mini Shambala: two samba bands playing in different corners of the site, a food tent, various camping areas and long queues of people waiting to use the compost toilets. The main stage was a truck flying a banner that read, "This is an emergency". Harry Belefonte's "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)" blasted out as thousands of mostly young people smoked and talked and danced. There was a welfare space; a big open marquee hosting some sort of discussion; and a vigil being held with flowers, candles and a rogue turnip to mourn the future of humankind.
The thousands of people gathered certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, but before arriving I'd assumed the mood would be a little less positive. When I last joined the protests, last Thursday morning, they were expanding all over London, while climate change and direct action had been forced to the top of the national news agenda – no mean feat. Now, though, just one London site remains. With MPs returning to Parliament on Tuesday after their recess, no doubt Brexit will once again dominate headlines. And many of those who'd come to spend their Easter weekend fighting for the future of the planet will surely have to return to work. So why was everyone so positive?
"I’m here to support our world, so we can live in a world where – you know – we can actually breath," 13-year-old Iris from Hackney told me, clinging onto an inflatable as she swam through a fountain. "I'm happy there are loads of people here involved and supporting, but it’s sad that the police are shutting everything down and now it’s only Marble Arch where we're allowed to be."
I asked Iris if she'd stop coming once school started again. "No," she replied – a sentiment echoed by all the other teenagers listening. "I'm going to keep on coming down here for as long as it goes on."
Iris's teenage friends. Lyla and Khol, both chimed in to agree with her. "We definitely need to keep protesting and raising awareness," said one. "If the police or Prime Minister think our generation is going to let this go, they've got another thing coming," added another.
"I've definitely thought about being arrested," said another of their group, 15-year-old Hazel. "I feel like, at this age, I don't really know where my life is going to go, so I don’t know if it’s a good thing to do. I might want to go to university." That said, her mind wasn't totally made up: "I've heard at these sort of things the number of arrests is what makes the biggest difference – so let's see," she said thoughtfully as her group headed off for another swim.
By now, Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" was blaring out from the impressively loud rig and speakers. "Let's praise every person arrested since we started," shouted the DJ, to rapturous applause. Four children rushed the stage a little later and grabbed a microphone. "Stop denying Earth is dying," they chanted in unison. The music was paused, the crowd joined in.
At one point, I sat down on the pavement with 29-year-old Mel, who lives in London. She's been coming to the protests every day since they began. "It feels really special," she told me. "We know what’s happening with the climate, but the government just won’t face up to it." Like many others I spoke to, the end of the bank holiday didn't mean the end of her involvement – she planned to take Tuesday off work, and said she'd be returning when she could throughout the week.
"Now would be a good time to speak to people in power," Mel continued. "The other sites are shut for now. The people really involved need to make their demands." But, she argued, the protests must also continue. "This [protest site] needs to stay as long as possible, until we make progress."
Reports throughout the weekend suggested there was a split among some organisers, with one faction arguing the protests should come to a halt to allow negotiations with Sadiq Khan to go ahead. However, it seems that the vast majority of XR's many decision-makers have come the conclusion that when blockading public space is your main piece of collateral, you should probably cling onto it.
Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, confirmed this when I had a chat with her outside Footlocker, suggesting the rumours about putting the protests on hold were mostly down to miscommunication. "We're working through a system of distributed organising, and so while our communication channels are OK, they’re not perfect," she said. "Of course some mistakes have been made, some people were out the loop who shouldn’t have been. But whatever – we’ve regrouped after an amazing evening here on Sunday night with the guy from Massive Attack and Greta Thunberg visiting."
Bradbrook was also keen to make clear that the fact that only their Marble Arch site remains, for now, is no sign of weakness: "If we wanted to take Waterloo Bridge tonight, we could – we could just do it," she said. "We’ve let some sites go, and they’ll probably try and clear this site at some point. But this movement is here. They have no power when people are determined and feel connected."
Close to 10PM, the area suddenly began to feel tense. Well over 100 police officers surrounded the main stage and switched off the music, apparently using Section 136 of the Licensing Act and Section 19 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act as justification to unplug the music and carry the sound system away.
Soon, protesters were surrounding the police, prepared to be arrested. Out the front, a small drum circle accompanied everyone singing, "We are the sound system," while on the other side of the truck a sombre folk song – "this land is our land" – rang out.
This time at least, it seemed officers were more interested in filling their paddy wagons with electronics, rather than human beings. "Cops always kill the vibe, man," a guy called Jonny told me, from the ground, as he lit a joint.
And then, a man appeared at the front of the stage, in front of the ring of police officers. Without a working microphone, he relied on a clever technique to get his voice heard – one you might remember from the Occupy days: he said something, and then all those around him who could hear repeated it in unison so those further back could hear too.
"Tomorrow morning, there is talk of a walk to Parliament Square," he said, to a sea of cheers and whooping. "We are still waiting for confirmation of times, so let’s get to bed early to be fresh as a daisy."
While they had loudly agreed, nobody heeded his advice: the (now acoustic) night continued. "We may as well enjoy the rest of the night," Jonny continued. "Who knows if we’ll still be here tomorrow evening. Most of us will probably have been nicked."