Save Yourselves

Extinction Rebellion's Climate Protest Blocked Vauxhall Bridge

We spent the morning with activists slowing down the city to highlight the greatest threat of our time.

by Michael Segalov; photos by Chris Bethell
18 April 2019, 1:35pm

Extinction Rebellion blocking Vauxhall bridge in London (Photo: Chris Bethell)

“Get a job, dickheads,” yells a bloke from a white van, Rita Ora blasting out from his tinny in-car radio. He’s hurling abuse at a group of 20 or so Extinction Rebellion activists. The climate protestors are blockading Thursday morning traffic, as vehicles try to make their way across the river towards the north side of the Thames at the busy intersection of Vauxhall Bridge and Milbank.

They can’t hear him, though, huddling as they are on the pavement, chanting what sounds like an environmentalist manifesto in the form of call and response. “Just remember our love for all humanity in all corners of the world,” reads someone from a megaphone. The small crowd say it back to him in unison. “Let’s direct our sincere desire to protect all of this for ourselves and for all living beings. And for generations to come, as we act today, may we find the courage to bring a sense of peace, love and appreciation to everyone we encounter, to every word we speak, and to every action we make.”

“We are here for all of us,” comes the final line, before they erupt into cheers. And then they march brazenly back into the middle of the road – holding their banners and stopping the traffic once again, much to the dismay of one black cab driver who yells “fucking wankers” as they take up their position.

1555593010219-ChrisBethell_ExtRebSwarm-11

It’s now day four of Extinction Rebellion’s mass coordinated climate change actions, which have taken over the capital. Parliament Square remains shut down (I cycled through it on my way to Vauxhall – it’s much nicer pedestrianised). Meanwhile busy protest sites at Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Oxford Circus show no signs of stopping. According to organisers, the group have had 50,000 new website visitors each day since the 15th of April, and donations look to have reached the hundreds of thousands. More than 400 people have already been arrested, but not here. The nine police officers I can see look unfazed by this politically charged round of the hokey cokey.

“The action we’re doing right now is called swarming,” 20-year-old student Miriam Instone tells me from the middle of the road. “We’re blocking the road for five or seven minutes, then coming off and going back on again. We are blocking the road temporarily, but it’s not against the law because we’re still letting the traffic flow. Miriam has travelled down from Manchester to join the protests. There’s a palpable sense of fear in her voice when she talks about global warming and the climate.

“I’ve not had much of an adulthood yet,” she continues, “and I genuinely worry I won’t get one. We’ve been conditioned to think it’s fine: there’s food at Tesco and the bus comes when it should. But we’re not fine. There are countries facing horrific conditions due to climate change, and unfortunately it takes middle class white people in the UK to have to use their privilege and their voice and bring it to other people’s attention.”

1555593065184-ChrisBethell_ExtRebSwarm-7

Whatever you make of Extinction Rebellion’s tactic of mass indiscriminate disruption, their attempts to force the issue of our climate emergency onto the agenda is paying off. I clock at least three TV news crews filming this relatively small-scale action, which under normal circumstances would barely be covered by the Evening Standard. After discussing the group on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme this morning, presenter John Humphries was quizzing a guest about her concerns for the future of a listed building. Why not start your own protest rebellion, he suggested.

And while a one-day protest march that goes from A to B might leave passersby bewildered about the specific cause, everyone being blockaded here knows what’s happening. “It’s a good movement; my English is not very good but yes, I like it,” one stuck box van driver asks when I ask what he makes of it all. “I think it’s really good. It’s amazing and incredibly important,” says a woman leaning out a cab. “Although I’m feeling incredibly guilty because I have to go and catch a flight.”

1555593091124-ChrisBethell_ExtRebSwarm-20

Not everyone is so supportive, though. By now another cab driver has yelled “eco-dickheads.” At least he knew why they were there. Meanwhile many long-established activist groups still struggle with name recognition – at least eco-dickheads is pretty memorable.

It’s about 11.30AM by the time the swarming winds down – another huddle sees all the rebels raise their hands together to confirm it’s time for this action to come to an end.

Brett Thomas, a 22-year-old physics student, is preparing to head back to the group’s temporary HQ at Marble Arch. He only lives up the road by Paddington, but he was up all night Wednesday helping secure the road blockades. “This is the first time I’ve ever taken to the streets for any sort of direct action,” he says. “I live round the corner and was inspired by this. I’ve taken all my time off from my PHD to get involved.” He tells me about the beautiful spirit he has discovered, the sense of community and the vegan biscuits.

1555593139140-ChrisBethell_ExtRebSwarm-13

I get it: climate change is the greatest crisis of our times. To just be around people like you who share the same worries and are determined to take action seems empowering and comforting in equal measure. But I ask him: what’s the point of temporarily blocking this quite busy road and potentially pissing people off?

“I get it, but at the end of the day it’s not just affecting me or them,” he replies. "The whole planet is going to be hit by climate change. These people’s kids are going to pay for it. We need the government to take notice and action.” The way Brett sees it, this action is one small step in helping make that happen.

1555593181109-ChrisBethell_ExtRebSwarm-10

Another young woman put it to me little earlier that they’ve all written to their MPs, signed letters, joined Greenpeace and trundled along to protest marches; to no avail. And now, they say, we’re almost out of time.

“How could I sit by knowing what’s coming and not do anything?” asks Brett, setting off towards the next location. “I lost my passport, so I’ve got to not get arrested before tomorrow so I can go to the meeting to get a new one. But tomorrow night I’m not going to leave if the police tell me to. If everyone who agrees with us came out and did the same there’s no way the government could ignore us – I can see it happening.”

According to Extinction Rebellion, 4,000 people are signing up to volunteer with them every day. If that’s true, there’s a chance Brett’s prediction might come to fruition. If you're not into a climate apocalypse on balance that's probably a good thing – even if some people were a little late to Tesco this morning.

@MikeSegalov / @christopherbethell