September 10, 2018: António Guterres said
“If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change”.
The Global Carbon Project finds that global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are likely to have increased by about 2.7 percent in 2018, after a 1.6 percent increase in 2017.
We are now a few months from 2020, and carbon emissions are still rising, in fact they are accelerating. The real work to “change course”, the political and economic choices that need to be taken are nowhere to be seen.
And so this sets the scene for several thousand brave, stubborn souls who took to the streets to protest, to rebel against our extinction. This is my story of what I saw leading up to, and on the streets of London in the first week of the rebellion.
I have been attending my local XR group meetings for several months. The atmosphere was optimistic, and I was happy to be a part of this movement. The group was growing. More and more kept coming. The attendance in the last 2 months in Totnes went from around 120 to 200. XR meetings are a mix of practical information and learning how to do non-violent direct action, getting people comfortable with the idea of being arrested, putting yourself in harm’s way, and practicing regenerative culture.
XR is amazingly well organised. They have thought through so much and make it easy to engage however you want. You don’t have to be arrested, and you can work in a number of different ways. In the July action in Bristol, I cooked in a remote kitchen and attended the demonstration on Bristol bridge. There are always jobs to do, from working in the back office, to standing outside of police stations waiting for arrestees to be released. I am impressed by the way XR treats people: making sure they are ok, can get home when they are released, and making sure there is always someone there to greet them.
There are many trainings: ‘know your rights’, ‘non-violent direct action training’, legal observer and legal support training, deescalation training, regenerative culture, etc. And so it goes on, there is a very clear structure, and it is all very impressive. I got a bit bored with the trainings, and I remember thinking it will all be clear on the day, just do it. In retrospect I am glad I did the trainings.
I joined an affinity group. These are the engines of Non-Violent Direct Action, (NVDA). Each group needs to have a spread of people who take on different roles, from organiser, to arrestable, to station support (the people who hang outside police station waiting for arrestees to be released) to legal observer, to action support, media, and deescalation; a bewildering array of roles and work. And then there is the business of getting to know your affinity group and becoming an effective group who can support each other in testing circumstances.
XR has a series of ‘movements’ it helps people make. The first is to come together with people who have come to a similar personal, moral position to rebel against the current social, political, and economic regime. Any reading of the current science, combined with a cursory look at the social and economic inability to adequately react to the science has caused many to come to this conclusion, including myself.
We are headed towards extinction, with social, political, and economic breakdown occurring along the way at different times and in different ways depending on where you are standing. As William Gibson remarked, “The future is already here, its just unevenly distributed”. In other words many people are already experiencing collapse of varying degrees and severity. I would argue that we are all experiencing collapse. Our political, social, and economic spheres are exhibiting varying signs of collapse to varying degrees. Economically we have not recovered from the crash of 2008, there is significant politically warping, and socially we appear to be more polarised between those who see a progressive way forward and those who want to try to hold on to the old ways.
Once that initial step of coming together is taken, the next step of opposing the existing social, political, and economic regime becomes obvious. But how? XR’s solution is to rebel or resist. They have come up with a formula based on past social changes. NVDA is key. The resistance must be non-violent as violent opposition almost always leads to politically unsavoury regimes, and won’t be politically supported. This means activists have to be comfortable with putting themselves on the line to be arrested, and go to prison if necessary to highlight opposition to the present regime. We need to be able to take the step of putting ourselves in harm’s way.
This level of opposition is a big step. The more privileged our position in society, the harder it will be. Disenfranchised people will have already made this step, having to graft and grift their way through life. Those of us who have been groomed for success and live with an expectation of being taken care of by this society, will find it harder to oppose authority. Why? Because this authority is our authority, these police are our police, this regime is our regime. We know people in power and our allegiance to this regime is and will continue to be rewarded. Many of us have dropped our allegiance. But this puts us in opposition to all we have sworn allegiance to our whole lives, and to our friends and family who have not yet made this step.
This step begins to tear apart the social fabric of the ruling class, the intelligentsia, and the managers who are managing the regime in government or business, as well as the social contract between workers and the governing classes. We have begun the process of stepping outside into the rebellion and into very uncomfortable and unknown territory. It is a process everyone, from very different starting points, will make as the regime breakdown occurs.
And let’s be clear that the current trickle of rebels will become a flood as maintaining our allegiances to the regime becomes increasingly untenable. Unless the reality of our climate and ecological emergency is reflected in government policy, support will drain away as our way of life and our culture dies. Some suggest that government policies are being hijacked by the multi-national corporation, the real power in the systems, but I do not believe this is completely true. The real power in the systems come from all of our interests in the regime. Hence the XR action, ‘We are all Caught Red Handed’.
We will raise our red hands, taking responsibility for our actions – we all have blood on our hands. We march in admission and recognition of the part we play in the injustice of this emergency, and the ongoing suffering of thousands of people around the world due to climate and ecological breakdown
We in Europe, North America, Japan, and increasingly the BRICS are net beneficiaries of skewed systems, where those benefits are tilted in our favor. What will it take to realign our systems with ecological and climate regeneration? There is no political will in any of the countries mentioned above for the type of far-reaching policies and economic revolution needed. Think degrowth, think consumption reduction to be invested in regenerative infrastructure. Think whole industries disappearing. Think redistributing the basics of life so everyone has enough. Where will the political will for these kind of changes come from? Where will the political will come from to go against our short term political and economic interests and in alignment with our long term interests?
Monday 7th October
Twelve sites in central London are ‘taken’, blockaded to traffic, open to foot traffic, and occupied by rebel activists. Our XR region’s original objective, Lambeth bridge, was only held for a few hours before police cleared the bridge. Other smaller actions occurred in the area, but the bridge was open. The previous day an XR warehouse was raided and bits of infrastructure was seised, and the first arrests made. It was now clear that the police were adopting very different tactics to the April uprising. Some activists travelling to London were concerned that as known activists, having been arrested in the April actions, they might be arrested at London train stations. These fears proved unfounded.
Tuesday 8th October
We head down to the site on Marsham Street outside the Home Office and DEFRA, as the plan B since Lambeth bridge was no longer blockaded, is to join the Bristol area XR site. The bus we took only went to Victoria, and we had to walk the last mile, which helped to calm me. Marsham street was tense. I felt apprehensive after what had happened to Lambeth bridge. There were lots of police and lots of people camping on the street. A kitchen was operating. There were some people locked onto a lorry parked blocking the street. Someone said they had been there for over 24 hours. The police just left them there. We joined a demonstration outside DEFRA. Not much was happening, there were a few arrests.
We decided to go walk about to the different sites. It was a eerie feeling to walk around central Westminster. There were no cars. It was quiet, peaceful, and empty, apart from a few tourists. The other sites were similar; stands, music and speeches, and spontaneous actions at the Treasury and other places. Many people were camped on the streets and in the royal parks.
I felt optimistic and buoyed by the successes. All targeted sites were taken, only one was lost, and there was a fair amount of stages, gazebos, and other infrastructure operating. Arrests were being made, and sites were holding. It felt like a new world was being born right before my eyes, with the complicit agreement of the British establishment. Leaflets were being handed out. Red rebels were spotted from time to time as they glided from one site to another, and samba bands filled the air with vibrant sounds to a Latin beat. What was not to like? The rebel broadcasts on Telegram were upbeat. Our organisation proved solid, effective, and capable of organising and maintaining mass civil disobedience. The Marsham street site was still holding, as were the other 11 sites around Westminster. This level of organisation and operations that resulted from that represented a step change in XR mass action.
But this was about to change…
Wednesday October 9th
When we arrived at Marsham street in the morning, the police had given notice that they intended to clear the site. Another site gone only two days into the planned two week action. We milled around, demonstrated outside of DEFRA again, and then the police drove us towards Westminster Abbey where XR Scotland and the North of England were camped. As we arrived, the bells of Westminster Abbey started tolling a slow dirge. We all raised our hand in acknowledgment. It moved me, and many others, to tears. Someone ‘up high’ in the British establishment resonated with us! There was nothing that was going to stop the British police from removing us from the streets though.
It was becoming clearer by the day, even to a new direct activist like myself, that the police had developed new strategies and a new approach since last April. They no longer were going to tolerate streets being closed and they had the power and strategy, as well as the full force of the law, to organise and execute this strategy. It went something like this:
- All infrastructure like vans or stages were surrounded. Anyone failing to move on was going to be arrested and the infrastructure with towed or removed.
- The streets coming into the site were closed by police barricades.
- Anything on the streets, any physical barrier was taken and removed.
- Tents were taken and trashed.
- Anyone refusing to be removed by glueing themselves to the road or other places, or those who refused to move by the police issuing a section 14 or other order were arrested and removed.
- Everyone else was moved slowly and non-violently to another place.
In this way sites were cleared and streets were reopened to traffic. It was like a big game of Go. It was slow and seemingly irresistible. It was clear to me that whatever the feelings of the police they had clear instructions from whoever is in change of the Metropolitan Police to not allow these protests to ‘succeed’. Why?
Thursday October 10th
We were informed on the ultra secure app Telegram that there was an action planned for early Thursday morning. It just said to make our way to Marylebone, incognito, between 7-7.30 in the morning and wait for instructions. Our instructions came at 7.30 which were to swarm outside BBC Broadcasting House. The BBC and the police were obviously not expecting us. We quickly formed outside the main entrance, and started singing and chanting. Someone climbed on top of the canopy over the main entrance and raised a banner, and others glued themselves to the doors.
The samba band came along and we had quite a party singing and dancing, and then the police arrived at about 8.15, and fanned out across the main entrance. No one had made any attempt at entering the building and we were peacefully protesting. The police actions made no sense at all. It was just a show of force. I and a few others went along to the back entrance where most BBC staff were entering the building. We leafleted and wished staff the top of the morning. Most were friendly, a few were not, some were neutral. A few thanked us for what we were doing. Esther Rantzen commiserated with me at the lack of coverage of the climate emergency when frivolous stuff dominated the ‘news’ and other bits of information that Auntie Beeb saw fit to publish.
The Westminster site was becoming unstable, and so was Whitehall. We went down to Parliament Square to bolster numbers, but it was becoming clear that this site would also go.
Friday October 11th
The Westminster and Whitehall sites went in the night. We were told to join the site in Trafalgar Square. Vauxhall Pleasure gardens was opened by Lambeth council and used for camping. St James park was also cleared. The number of sites were dwindling by the hour. Trafalgar Square was going strong, with a lively stage, good music, and passionate speeches. The police were intent however in taking back the streets. The feeling of central London being a new place, a place devoid of traffic and a new world opening up was quickly colliding with the reality of a massed police presence, and their steadfast determination to clear us from the streets. The political decision had been made. By whom? And why? In whose interest was this decision made and carried out?
The main message of the Transition movement was that deep changes were needed, almost unthinkable changes, like a completely different economic system, and big, big personal lifestyle changes. And then, if we created an orderly energy descent (in ‘Western lifestyles’) we just might be able to retain some of our Western lifestyle. What was said, but unspoken, was that those of us living Western middle class lifestyles might, if we were lucky, retain at least some of the privileges we enjoy. This will be a controversial assessment to many, please forgive me. But, many have wondered why Transition was a middle class movement… At any rate this invitation was refused.
Now XR have come along with a much more unappealing proposition; completely change everything about our lives very rapidly, and unless we do that we face not just the end of our civilisation, but possible extinction. We in XR are not saying this for fun or because we don’t like big business, or because we are killjoys, but because the science demands this. It may be politically difficult if not impossible, but physics trumps politics. Science is all we have to rely on; it is the closest thing we have to collective truth.
For demanding political and social action commensurate with what the science demands, we were swept off the street of London, water cannoned and pepper sprayed off the streets of Brussels, and kettled and mass arrested on the streets of Amsterdam. What kind of society firstly ignores the early warning signs, and then the clear unambiguous warnings of its most respected and erudite profession? What kind of society sweeps those who point to these facts off the streets like so much inconvenient trash?
Much was made of some of the tactics of XR. And what I say to those who choose to criticise XR is please by all means criticise us, and come up swiftly and proactively with something better we can do to meet the challenges of imminent climate catastrophe and ecological disaster. I would be the first to be behind you. But if you cannot then I would think very carefully about what you are going to say to the present generation, Greta’s generation, today’s children and grandchildren when they ask, ‘What did you do when we had our last chance to avoid catastrophe?’ Think very hard about that question.
Saturday October 12th
Trafalgar square was mostly opened to traffic, the last of the barriers were taken down, the bathtub removed, and barricades put up. We were in the pedestrian part of the square. Later in the weekend even that was to go.
The climate march went ahead on Oxford Street.
Mr Broccoli was arrested.
We learned as we left London that police were trying to apply a complete ban on XR across the whole of London.
The protests continued somehow for the next week.
And the protests will continue for the foreseeable future.
We have no other choice.