The extraordinary success of Extinction Rebellion

A previously unknown climate change movement made everyone sit up and take notice

26th April 2019

It’s Tuesday afternoon, the sun hangs low in the sky above central London and the air is something like electric.

“Remember why you were put on this Earth,” screams a young boy of maybe eight years old, into the face of a police officer who is explaining — in an impressively calm manner, all things considered — to a woman sat on the floor that if she doesn’t get up, and move on, she’ll be arrested.

The woman, entirely unperturbed, looks around to the hundreds of other men, women and children on the bridge with her. There’s singing and chanting, flag-waving and placard-wielding. Sprawled out on the length of the bridge behind her, as well as the people, there’s a skate ramp, food tent, a stage and a makeshift children’s creche.

The woman on the floor smiles up at the officer looming over her, and he tries again.

“You’ve got to move on now, or I’m going to arrest you.”

A few moments later, the woman is scooped up from the floor by three officers. She allows her body to go limp as they carry her away, while the crowd breaks into a sing-songy chant.

“We love you, we love you, we love you.”

Another officer approaches another protester, this time a young man who is sat a few feet away from the spot the woman was carted away from moments before. The process repeats.  

We’re on Waterloo Bridge — typically one of the busiest thoroughfares in Londo — which for the last couple of days and the week or so which will follow, has hosted part of the biggest display of civil disobedience in modern British history. By now you’re no doubt aware of the protests and the organisation behind them, Extinction Rebellion (XR), as they’ve had wall-to-wall coverage in Britain’s media and caused quite a stir around the world too. They’re a group that, this time last year, didn’t exist, and this time last week, most people had never heard of.  

But on Monday 15 April they set out to wake the world up to what they see as the impending doom of our species and our planet by shutting down one of the world’s busiest cities for two weeks, as well coordinating other actions around the world.

I headed down to London as things got underway to find out firsthand what an International Rebellion looks like.

This is an emergency

When the rebellion begins on Monday, there are five main hubs of activity spread across Central London, each with its own name and vibe.

I head first for Marble Arch, or “This is an emergency” (presumably not a Pigeon Detectives reference), where a six-lane arterial road will be blocked for more than a week through non-violent direct action.

Sorry for what we’re doing

I can see and feel the effects of the protest long before arriving at its heart. The roads are entirely empty of vehicles as I walk alongside Hyde Park, save for a long line of stationary police cars and riot vans, and the distant thump of a drumbeat grows steadily louder as I get closer.

It’s difficult for me to fully appreciate maybe, as someone who doesn’t spend much time in the capital, but a lot of people comment on how nice it is for so many of these usually-bustling streets to be temporarily pedestrianised as a result of the protests.

Blockades have been set up on all the roads surrounding John Nash’s famed 19th century construction. And most of the other sites are manned by dozens of volunteers holding signs and banners whose numbers decline only slightly through the long night shifts.

Those manning the roadblocks are on rotation, and members of the crowd are encouraged to relieve their positions every few hours, so as to share the load. They go on all through the night, with probably 20-plus people manning each blockade most of the time. XR activists with training in conflict resolution linger around near each blockade, giving out information to interested passers-by and attempting to assuage the tempers of the occasional angry pedestrian or driver.

Not long after I arrive, there’s a commotion and some raised voices by one blockade, and I head over, expecting to find an argument. It’s a few passers-by who seem to have enjoyed a few after work drinks, that are actually just shouting encouragement and support to the protesters. A volunteer waves them off, smiling.

Will is 25 and a teacher, originally from the Lake District. This lucky rebel has been tasked with manning the corner near Marble Arch. I speak to a few people doing this job while I’m milling around London, and they were all really pleasant and did a good job of explaining Extinction Rebellion’s message and demands, staying “on message” without feeling rehearsed or scripted. Almost as if they genuinely care about the planet!

Sooner or later if we don’t act, the problems people have faced today and over the next few days will be absolutely nothing compared to the situation we’ll all be in as a result of this climate crisis

Will also discusses his feelings about causing this disruption. To those who’ve suffered as a result, the primary message is apologetic.

“The first thing I would say is actually, you know, sorry. Out and out sorry, for what we’re doing. Because it is a pain in the ass. And I’m sure there are some people that have been stopped today, who have actually been in a very tricky situation. I am actually apologetic for that.

“But then I would also say that the reason we’re doing what we’re doing is because sooner or later if we don’t act, the problems people have faced today and over the next few days will be absolutely nothing compared to the situation we’ll all be in as a result of this climate crisis.”

We want to facilitate completely peaceful protest

There are several hundred people gathered in and around the Arch, most of whom are — at risk of running into Jon Snow-type controversy — pretty white. I haven’t handed out any wealth/means questionnaires, but judging by the accents and the aesthetic of most attendees, this is also a very middle-class affair, specifically a grungy, gap-yaaah kind of middle class.

Bordering the main section of Marble Arch are rows of tents, and a grassy area in the very centre is almost entirely covered with them too. Though Piccadilly is “The Heart”, Marble Arch is the hub, and thanks to the campers and the stage — which later in the evening will host Nick Mulvey and later in the week will host Massive Attack (!) — feels as much like some boutique eco-festival as a rebellion.  

A voice over the tannoy proclaims, “We intend to hold this place as long as we can” and is met with enthusiastic cheering. This is night one, spirits are high, and as the campsite of the protests, Marble Arch seems to have attracted the most dedicated to the cause. Plenty of people I speak to have every intention of living here on these little patches of grass until they’re forced to go elsewhere. As long as it takes, is the prevailing attitude. 

At about 9pm, word reaches Marble Arch that arrests are being made at Waterloo Bridge. Nobody seems particularly put out, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Among the organisers and people who’ve turned up to show their support are a number of volunteers with badges or stickers saying “police liaison” who are here to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible with the police by maintaining contact with them and keeping abreast of their plans. Right now, I’m told, the police have no plans to make arrests here at Marble Arch, but that could all change at any point. 

If we know when there will be the possibility of arrest, people can make the decision as to whether they want to be arrested or not

Though lots of activists have come here knowing they might be arrested and even wanting to be, some are less keen, and the police liaisons will try to make sure that nobody gets caught up in arrests that doesn’t want to be.

“We want to facilitate completely peaceful protest. So in order to facilitate peaceful protests, we want to make sure people are aware of what’s going on. That way, if we know when there will be the possibility of arrest, people can make the decision as to whether they want to be arrested or not,” one woman, a police liaison, says.

My phone’s dead and I don’t know the way back to my hostel, so I black cab it back across London. It’s fairly late and our route doesn’t take us directly through any of the blockaded areas, but the knock-on effect of the disruption prolongs the journey and despite myself, I’m instinctively irked by the delay. The driver makes a few comments about the extra traffic and its causes. He’s reasonably pissed off about the disruptions he’s faced and will do over the next week or so, but he sees the bigger picture.

A lot of these people making life difficult for me and other normal people in London today probably have two or three skiing holidays a year

His issue, and it’s one that has come up again and again as events have proceeded, is with the overwhelmingly middle-class nature of the protests. The word “trustafarian” is used more than once.  

“I’m sure it’s not all of them, but a lot of these people making life difficult for me and other normal people in London today probably have two or three skiing holidays a year.

“The kids on the shitty estates I grew up on, the last thing on their agenda is climate change. They don’t have that privilege.

“But I do get it,” he says. “[Climate change] is a really scary thing. We could all be underwater in 60 to 70 years.”

Tell the truth

“So I got here yesterday morning to help get set up,” says Steven, a Green Party councillor from Bristol. “I was here before the boat arrived. That was a wonderful moment, something so beautiful about it.”

He’s referring to a shocking pink speedboat-type thing (I don’t know about boats, feel free to correct me via email), named Berta Caceres after the murdered Honduran environmentalist, and emblazoned with the slogan “tell the truth”. It was brought here via transit van. This is the centre of Oxford Circus, which dissects one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe.

Aboard the good-ship Caceres is a sound system that blasts out music for the bemused passers-by, which is occasionally taken over by a jolly looking guy in a purple velvet suit to make short speeches. There seem to be fewer protesters based here than the other sites, though there are still several dozen. There does seem to be more engagement with the public here than anywhere else though, in keeping with this site’s theme.

It might all seem a bit wacky and a bit airy-fairy, but the intention and logic behind this is clear and seemingly sound. People stop, and they chat, and everyone’s smiling and people take leaflets away and give their email addresses and stop and take pictures. Opinion polling suggests that XR hasn’t quite won over the hearts and minds of the nation, but they seem to achieve that with more or less everyone who encounters them directly.

Look at all these kids. You wouldn’t bring your kids with you if there was any chance of it being violent

The fun is a big part of this, but equally crucial is the nonviolence. This is a fundamental tenet of Extinction Rebellion’s strategy, not just because it’s morally correct — though that’s clearly a factor — but also because extensive research done by XR’s founders shows that ultimately, peaceful protest movements throughout history have had the most success. For Steven, it’s easy to see why.  

“[Non-violence] draws in a lot of other people who might not usually get involved with serious activism. I mean, we’re growing exponentially, the numbers have been huge. And I think if there was violence involved…  I mean, look at all these kids. You wouldn’t bring your kids with you if there was any chance of it being violent.

“The police understand that we’re not going to be violent, too. So they’re not violent. The police presence here is pretty minimal, can you imagine! We’re blocking Oxford Circus! How many policemen do you see? Not many. Because they know we’re not going to be violent. It makes a huge difference.”

It is a bit elitist right now, simply because it takes a certain degree of comfort and stability in your own personal life to be able to come out and do something like this

Natalie used to have what she describes as a “typical corporate job”, but in the last couple of years has abandoned that lifestyle and looked for ways to try and fight climate change. Until she came across Extinction Rebellion, she says, she hadn’t found anything that seemed to recognise the severity of the issue and the need for drastic action.

This is a common thread among many of the people I speak with, so many people who have been concerned about climate change but felt alone in that concern, or that the options for action were just not sufficient. Clearly, Extinction Rebellion has tapped into something.

Though optimistic about what Extinction Rebellion might be able to achieve, she has one concern, which ties in with my discussion with last night’s taxi driver.

“Let’s be fair, it is a bit elitist right now, simply because it takes a certain degree of comfort and stability in your own personal life to be able to come out and do something like this. If you’re working to make ends meet and can’t make it, if you can’t show up, or you’ve just got more pressing concerns, obviously that’s fair enough.”

“But it’s difficult, because long-term concerns are just as important as short-term concerns, if not more so. I think it’s kind of on those of us who have the option to think and act on this now to do that.”

Seems like it’s too late to do anything anyway, so what’s the point?

I wander down to Piccadilly from Oxford Circus. I’m walking behind a middle-aged couple who sound traditionally well-to-do. A protester hands the man an XR leaflet, which he takes with a smile, and then out of earshot has a bizarre exchange with his partner about it.

“It’s certainly bad, but the way they’re going on about it seems like it’s too late to do anything anyway, so what’s the point?”

“We’ll leave it to them to sort out then,” she answers. “They are so very entitled.

Whether you agree with climate protests or not, this attitude doesn’t actually make sense.

Fair play to ‘em

At Picadilly, a smart-looking guy in a properly nice suit who looks like he spends his days shouting, “Sell, sell, sell!” tucks into a Pret wrap and takes in the spectacle before him. A hundred-ish people, mostly kids in their mid-to-late teens, sit on the ascending ledges surrounding the jet black statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. Dotted around it are speakers blaring ska-adjacent tunes, a couple of camera crews, three smaller groups of young people sat on the floor in circles, and a gazebo under which a few people are decorating items of clothing and signs with Extinction Rebellion logos and slogans.

What do you reckon? I ask.

“Honestly?” he says, almost wincing.

I brace, fully prepared for a rant about jobless hippies making life difficult for hard-working “real people” like him.

“Fair play to ‘em. Something needs to be done. They don’t seem to be causing that much chaos. Good on ‘em.”

And with that, he’s gone.

Act now

The atmosphere on the bridge isn’t quite as tense as your typical protester-police stand-off, but it certainly comes closer than any other part of the protests at this early stage.

There are several hundred, maybe a thousand, activists holding the bridge, which has now been closed to car traffic — cyclists and pedestrians are allowed, nee, encouraged to cross — for a day or two, and will remain that way for the next few days, though the police tactics will escalate as time goes on.

Right now though, a handful of police officers march purposefully up from the south side of the bridge, breaking away from a larger contingent of perhaps 30 officers stood together at the foot of it. They get to the bulk of the protesters and split into two smaller teams, before each team selects a single target and starts the warning and arrest procedure.

I’ve not been here long, and I would say it’s quite clear that I’m an observer rather than an active participant, but before long I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around to face a decidedly jovial copper from Huddersfield, who, as it turns out, I might well have played football against as a kid.

Our time (potentially) shared on the soggy greens of West Yorkshire isn’t enough to spare me arrest though, apparently. He’ll give me a minute to decide. Move on, or stay and get arrested.

It’s bizarre, being given the option to be arrested in such a controlled way, and I’m pretty tempted just to do it. It would make a good headline, I think to myself, even if it means sacrificing half a day of reporting being stuck in a cell.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of activists who came here fully prepared and expecting to be arrested in support of their cause. Whatever you think about them or whether you agree, in their eyes they’re doing it for you and me and everyone else who can’t or won’t. It’s quite an easy thing to say or to think, that you’d do that. But when there’s a policeman in front of you showing you the handcuffs, it goes against every innate sense of self-preservation in us to go, “Yep, take me away, please.”

Obviously, I bottle it. On I go to my last stop, Parliament Square.

Beyond politics

As someone who hasn’t been involved in much activism, particularly around climate stuff, I’ve wrestled with a feeling of alienation at aspects of these protests. Like so many people, I’m totally on board with the message, and unlike a lot of the standard complaints about these protests, I’m also fully supportive of direct, disruptive action. The most important rights people have ever wrestled from those in power have come from being disruptive and creating headaches for them.

Where it loses me, just a little bit, is the hippy stuff.

I get to Parliament Square, and I’m pretty knackered. And everyone’s just dancing.

I’m not a dancer. Don’t like it. Not just because I can’t do it, but a lot that.

And honestly, despite myself, despite the irrefutable evidence that we must act now to save the future of our planet, and the fact that Extinction Rebellion have done more to get people talking about climate change than more or less any group in the last few decades of climate activism, the dancing really, really puts me off. And I think about friends and family, and the taxi driver, and stony-hard men seeing this in the newspaper tomorrow, and I think that this type of thing probably puts them off too.

I know it’s petty and kind of ridiculous to think that people might be put off getting involved with a movement to literally save the future of our entire species because dancing and yoga and spoken word poetry and white dreadlocks are a bit cringe, but like, people (me) are petty and kind of ridiculous. Can we just like, save the world and not do a spirit circle about it? I’m so here for radical action and systemic change, but can you not waft that burning sage in my face, please?

We’ve recently written about Englishness, and I think there’s maybe something fundamentally English about this attitude. Some deep lurking suspicion that for something to be important, it has to be serious and shouldn’t be fun.

But then again, how are you supposed to sustain this kind of momentum if everything’s dull? For Extinction Rebellion to have any impact, this will have to be a long-term project with bigger and better actions all the time. That means getting people involved and keeping them involved. It means asking people to commit hours of their lives and glue themselves to trains and sleep on the streets for a week and get arrested. Maybe you need some fun to sustain that kind of commitment?

It is privileged — no shit — but privilege exists whether we like it or not. And if it does, surely the very best thing anyone can do with it is wield it for good — particularly on behalf of those that can’t.

Having promised to end things on a high, the final day of action, on Thursday 25 April, sees hundreds swarm the city’s financial district, with some gluing themselves to each other and buildings, some sat atop a train, and the continued blocking of roads before a “closing ceremony” near Speakers’ Corner. As the dust settles and London gets back to business as usual, it’s worth assessing what Extinction Rebellion have and haven’t achieved.

They’ve garnered unprecedented media attention for a climate protest, and while some of this has obviously focused on the group itself and the controversy surrounding its methods, there’s no getting around the fact that people are talking and thinking about climate change much more than they would have been.

Theresa May didn’t wander over to Marble Arch to discuss their demands, but there are some signs the government are ready to listen, though whether politicians will act on what they hear is another thing. XR has gained the backing of the Labour party though, with senior ministers Dianne Abbott and Barry Gardiner offering supportive comments, as well as Ed Milliband.

Anecdotally, people seem to be broadly supportive of what Extinction Rebellion have been doing here, even if there are still reservations about certain aspects. Sure, they’ve gained critics but plenty of fans too. A total of 30,000 people have signed up to volunteer or donate, and the Extinction Rebellion coffers have swelled by a sum of almost £200,000 of mostly small donations, though they’ll likely need to put much of this toward legal fees for the 50 or so who’ve already been charged and any more who still might be.

And honestly, the world does feel like a slightly different place. It’s not just these protests. In the time since they got underway, Attenborough’s grave BBC doc Climate Change: The Facts provided perhaps the most unflinching look at climate change yet to be seen by a mainstream audience. Greta Thunberg has addressed Parliament and sat down with party leaders (apart from Theresa May). Even Mark Carney of the Bank of England made a rather stark warning relating to the threat of climate change. But the rebellion has played a major part.

There’s a palpable feeling of momentum building behind the climate movement, which is good and entirely necessary.

We’ll need all of it and much more to avert the crisis that looms.

26th April 2019