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A Night in Central London with Extinction Rebellion

We toured the sites the group are occupying on the first night of their fortnight-long London shutdown.

by Rhys Thomas
08 October 2019, 2:31pm

Photos by the author. 

Once again, Extinction Rebellion are blockading parts of central London in an effort to make the government do something about the climate crisis. Once again, the government seems happy to leave it at "declaring a climate crisis" and not much else, besides labelling XR activists "uncooperative crusties", apparently missing the fact their whole strategy is to not cooperate.

I spent Monday night walking through the various occupied sites.

17:15: There have been over 217 arrests at this point, according to the Met Police, and most of the action has been focused around Westminster, Trafalgar Square and Lambeth Bridge.

17:55: I'm told my bus to Lambeth Bridge will be terminating at Vauxhall because of the protests, which means I have to walk a mile – my carbon footprint has already been disrupted for the better.

lambeth bridge police

18:10: Walking toward Lambeth Bridge, a lot of the traffic is made up of police vans and bikes. Police are gathered on and around Westminster bridge. A handful of XR sticker and sign-clad people walk past me smiling.

18:14: Lambeth Bridge is closed entirely, cyclists are redirected, a few people are on the phone saying they'll miss their trains. I'm told to trudge on to Westminster Bridge, where crowds are visible.

westminster bridge protest

18:24: A guy walks past shouting, "It's the same shit again!" into his AirPods as he barges through the main crowd.

18:26: I walk past someone called Jack who recounts their day so far: "I've been here since about 9:30AM, when we took the bridge. The police response was a lot stronger than it was in the April rebellion. But spirits are high – we've had a good 500 people here, and there's ten other sites."

18:31: "I've been on the bridge all day," says a girl in her twenties wearing XR earrings. "It's been a long day. And I have a story: there was an elderly lady with a walking stick shouting at us, saying that we'd caused her a lot of bother, and that she had to wake up much earlier for work now or she would lose her job, and it was sad to hear. But I decided to chat about it with her, and I agreed to walk across the bridge with her. And we've agreed to meet tomorrow before her shift so I can walk her across the bridge again. She said she was a rebel at my age too. So that was nice."

18:39: Someone asks if we'd like any snacks while we chat. "Nuts?? Anyone?" Vegan sausage rolls are rolled out a minute later. They smell very good.

18:45: A vehicle is let past for the first time in hours: an ambulance.

extinction rebellion protest

18:52: I've finally crossed the bridge and the van and huge tent at its centre, and make my way to the next site. I pass people wheeling wheelbarrows with speakers in them, which is unusual to see in London.

18:55: Parliament Square is absolutely empty, which is a funny bit of trolling given the fact it's been an XR epicentre for months.

18:59: Following the sound of drum beats, trumpets and radio hiss, I end up at Westminster itself. There are people skanking to a mix of Pete Tosh and Madness' "One Step Beyond".

19:04: People are putting barriers in front of their tents at Millbank. The cycling path will remain open.

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19:08: A stand-off between rebels and police occurs when a cyclist gets angry. Police: "He's trying to go home." Rebel: "We're trying to save home."

19:09: Someone – it looks to be the person who spoke back to police – is threatened with arrest. About a dozen legal observers shout "legal observer". The police decide to leave the guy alone.

19:14: A coordinator says, "The police are trying to do their jobs as best as they can. But we want to be here all night, and if we sit down it makes it much harder to move us. So let's sit, shall we." They all sit in the rain.

extinction rebellion hearse

19:16: A bunch of XR members are having a nice pint outside the Marquis of Granby. And you know what, fair play.

19:18: A territorial riot van joins the party. Never seen one of them before. They look like the normal ones, except they're dark grey.

19:24: Lambeth Bridge has been closed off completely by the police. There's a good hundred people between two ends of police rows who have packed their tents and are dismantling structures.

19:26: The police are just hoping "they bugger off from this point soon", I'm told by one of them.

19:28: Another police officer says to his colleague that it must be a right hassle getting home for these workers, before asking if I can avoid including his face in a photo because there’s one of him carrying a woman off Waterloo Bridge back in April.

extinction rebellion protest

19:29: It comes to my attention that the tents and cooking equipment have been "confiscated".

19:40: As we approach the Cenotaph, a group walk past with bottles of beer.

19:50: I sit down with a few people signing "Redemption Song", realise I'm actively aiding and abetting anyone who wants to paint XR as mere drum circle hippies and get up to walk over to Trafalgar Square. I realise just how peaceful it's been without the cars as I hear a screeching bus horn in the distance.

20:00: First time I've heard the town bells chime in ages, too.

extinction rebellion protest

20:08: Trafalgar Square is the busiest spot so far for both police and tunes, the latter because there's a resident DJ blasting music out of a rig.

20:28: There's a bit of a Burning Man feel to the site generally, decor included.

20:38: Some guitar amplifiers are being unloaded into the DJ tent. There's a lot of speculation as to why. Plenty of people are dancing and singing. The police are nattering.

20:41: The Tesco is entirely out of vegetarian ready-to-eat stuff, but there are a load of crisps left, so I settle for some of them and a cardboard carton of orange juice. Rate my dinner.

20:46: A woman is arranging another yoga session for the morning on the phone from inside her tent. She speaks loudly.

20:51: A woman in a suit is dancing. She says she's "been here a few hours, enjoying the vibe. Gonna see how the weather holds out into the night."

21:00: A police officer offers to do a Red Bull round. At least it doesn't come packaged in plastic, hey. Another decides to stretch off because she's freezing.

21:05: More smiling and singing and dancing and eating dahl.

extinction rebellion tents

21:12: We're back at the Cenotaph and I'm playing catch with eight other people.

21:16: People behind us start playing "Big Yellow Taxi" on a guitar. Basically everyone joins in, including the many sheltering from the rain in their tents.

21:15: A man called Kenny says, "This is the London I want to live in. The one full of nice people." Aw.

21:23: A tourist couple from Shanghai who have joined in the protest ask me for directions to Downing Street because they might as well look at it while they're here. Fair.

21:26: The police with the big guns look a little bored of carrying them.

21:27: One "Brexit Now" bloke is outside Westminster on a deckchair having a discussion with some XR people. He's on his own, in the cold, slowly turning to ice. Fair play to him.

21:34: Someone claims they've seen John Major walking past Millbank. I think they are wrong.

21:37: A group of Hare Krishna have donated some "lovely hot food" to the people nearest Millbank. Lovely effort.

21:44: A meeting between two officers: "Anything going on down there?" "Nah, not really, they're just sitting down. Food smells alright actually. Dahl."

21:48: It is much quieter around St James's Park. People are retreating to their tents, or moving over to Trafalgar for a dance. Some mutters of "a lovely day and more to come" can be heard in the tents, and new neighbours hug each other good night.

21:56: "Right: Burger King, piss, Tesco for a beer, and bed." – someone.

22:05: The silence is briefly interrupted by drumming, and then bass, and then chatter as I leave to walk to Trafalgar Square.

22:12: The best thing about this is that you can smell dahl and incense everywhere, and not exhaust fumes. Also, everyone has Nakd bars. Everyone.

pitch tent on concrete

22:18: I finally figure out the mystery that's been torturing me the entire evening: how do people pitch a tent on concrete? DRAINS. You tie them to the bloody drains, don't you.

22:19: Joanna is off to bed. Night hun, thanks for offering me a hobnob because "you quite like VICE".

22:25: "I usually sleep with fairy lights on, so being by the traffic lights is ideal." No idea who said this, but thank you for saying it.

22:40: Back in Trafalgar Square. There's some ambient drum 'n' bass on, and about 200 people sitting in tents or gently swaying to the music. It feels very much like 4AM on the first night of Glastonbury.

hula hoop london

22:53: People are teaching other people how to hula hoop. The results vary.

22:59: A group of teenage tourists have made their way over to dance to the music. They don't speak English, but they do say "is good".

23:02: A row of police officers in a McDonald's window present a great photo opportunity, but they start pointing at me and my camera so I run away with a blurry photo for my own personal memory folder.

23:08: The big speakers are turned down and the dancing is slowly dispersing. People are headed for the tents in St James’s Park, and just about everywhere else in the SW1 area.

The fortnight is young, after all.

@_rhysthomas_