One Night in Central London with Extinction Rebellion
Photos: Chris Bethell
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 is 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 spur those with power into action. Extinction Rebellion are 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.
19:00: Packing for the protest. Excited as rumors are Thom Yorke is making an appearance.
19:20: Quick room tidy and water my house plants. They're dying but that's fine because I'm about to save the entire world so…
19:22: Time to get arrested in the name of planet Earth baby!
19:34: Crack a tin for the road.
19:39: Catch up on some current affairs on the bus. Played 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 is thinking about “Dragons.”
19:41: Matt Hancock's face is making me feel ill. Move to the front of the bus to feel less ill.
19:50: Bus stops for three minutes to even up the service. Another win for the climate fighters!
20:00: Read the news about Notre-Dame catching fire. Fuck.
20:11: Pulling up to Waterloo Bridge, ready to stop traffic + reverse climate change.
20:14: My footy leg warmers are already chafing under my trousers because I'm in Uniqlo ankle pants. Long night ahead, let's go activists.
20:18: Get to Waterloo Bridge. Some lad being hauled into a police van. Apparently they're arresting every single person on the bridge no matter how long it takes, sweeping north from the south side of the bridge.
20:30: Police steadily pick people off one by one, the drums beat ever louder. Camping is mostly happening in Hyde Park, I'm told.
20:30: 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. Grab the nearest flag and get really stuck in, 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.
20:40: I am told drinking is bad activism so I put my Kronenbourg away.
20:42: Someone on the Extinction Rebellion WhatsApp says people are being asked to stop livestreaming or face arrest. Turn around to see a police officer recording me.
20:43: 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.
20:40: 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.
21:00: 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.”
21:05: It’s the London One World Choir now: “you're a vibration!” someone shouts from the crowd. Am I a vibration too?
21:08: Making my way to the north side of Waterloo Bridge now. The atmosphere on approach is ominous, dozens of people in outerwear are huddled around some wheelbarrows under a flailing gazebo skeleton. It feels that 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.
21:09: Police closing in on the stage. Radiohead haven't played yet. Gutted. Police seize control of the drummers on the bridge but the beats hammer on louder than before: “thud thud thud thud”.
21:14: The drums fall silent but give way to a rising chorus of “Whose police? Our police!” which in turn gives way to rapturous applause.
21:16: A policeman gets cramp. He leans on his pal and starts stretching off. Get ready for the second half lads, that section 14 isn't going to enforce itself.
21:21: Police flank protesters and pick them off one by one.
21:24: 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.”
21:52: Time for a piss.
22:20: Piccadilly Circus – the “heart” of the protest – totally empty!
22:33: Oxford Circus. Police using the “Swedish softly softly” approach I'm told by some happy campers pitched up in the “wellbeing tent”, which is an old sofa in a £10 gazebo.
22:45: Emma trekked here all the way from Birmingham. 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.”
22:35: There's a big pink boat sitting in the middle of Oxford Circus. That'll show the powers that be.
22:47: Tiana who says she's had two hours 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 gonna have a good time, why the hell not, but the most important thing is the occupation.”
23:00: WhatsApp group falls silent. Has everyone been arrested?
23:10: Arrive at Marble Arch. There are tents and a music stage. Banners 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.
23:12: “So we've got a line of old bill on one side, a line of old bill on the other, and a truck with music in the middle?” Yes. Exactly that.
23:15: Is that Thom Yorke? No, it's Sound of a Bee’s Heart on the main stage and they're killing it. Crowdsurfing in full swing. I'm at Leeds fest 2009 again. Very good.
23:40: 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.
23:45: The music cooordinator 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.
00:15: Few lads hanging around in tuxedos. They've come from a Kitchen company awards ceremony at the nearby Grosvenor Hotel. Ian, tells me he didn't win an award but he's here “for the vibes”.
00:33: They’re still holding Waterloo Bridge. No arrests for an hour.
00:47: At the information point. Someone says they took the wrong rucksack from bag depot. Fyre fest vibes.
00:53: 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: Mike, 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 carpark just over there which resurfaces past all the roadblocks. There's Bentleys, Lambos, and Ferraris in there and my Volvo is sat among them, ready for my escape when this all dies down.”
1:23: It's that stage of the night when I'm doing laps of the campsite cracking on with the dregs of the session. 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 – and so far at least – they're succeeding.