For the past week, thousands of environmental activists and community members have poured into the streets to create grid-lock in Central London, blocking some of the city’s busiest locations, including Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square, and Waterloo Bridge. Their mission: force the government to do more to tackle climate change.
The protests are part of an international protest effort led by the British nonviolent climate group, Extinction Rebellion. On its website, the group describes a climate breakdown threatening all life on Earth, and calls for a series of actions from April 15 to 29 to stop an escalating environmental crisis.
“It’s time to rebel—and have a damn good time doing it,” says the website, which describes the efforts as a wakeup call to government to recognize the power of the people.
I joined the protesters for several days of marches, during which protest participants sang songs, played musical instruments, built a skateboard ramp, placed plants in the middle of streets, gave free harp lessons and free massages, practiced yoga, recited poems, staged street theater, opened free kitchens, provided compost toilets, offered free first aid in “wellness hubs,” supplied solar panels for charging phones, computers and electrical equipment, and slept in tents at some of the capital’s most iconic locations.
It was quite moving watching children play in a specially created mud pie kitchen and creating chalk pictures on what would normally be busy London streets and sidewalks. A theatrical group called Invisible Circus showed up, dressed in red veils to represent a bleeding planet.
Protesters of all ages took over the streets carrying placards demanding change.
Perhaps most poignant, scattered and parading among the various sites were groups of young people carrying banners asking, “Are we the last generation?” A coffin of endangered species was carried from Parliament Square to Marble Arch.
One of the major centerpieces of the protest was a large pink boat, named in honor of Berta Cáceres, the murdered Honduran environmental activist and co-founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. The boat was anchored in the middle of Oxford Circus, one of London’s busiest thoroughfares. I watched as the police gently removed the last of several protestors who had super-glued themselves to the boat.
Formally launched in October 2018, Extinction Rebellion wants the government and other institutions to declare a climate and ecological emergency, and to address biodiversity loss and reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025. The group also wants the government to create a citizen’s climate assembly to promote ecological justice.
Realizing that writing letters, signing petitions, and taking part in constant marches were not having an effect on the government, the members of Extinction Rebellion decided to form human roadblocks to disrupt business as usual.
As one of the members of Extinction Rebellion told me, “Many people may not agree with our methods and dislike the travel chaos but this is the single most important issue facing humankind at the moment. And we are doing this for everyone, even for the people who disagree with us.”
There have been warnings from the police and more than 1,000 arrests after the illegal occupations. But generally, I saw the Metropolitan Police—unarmed and not carrying tear gas or dressed in riot gear—mixing and chatting with protesters. One offered a policeman on Waterloo Bridge suntan lotion.
Elsewhere I saw someone offer several police officers food from the free kitchen. I heard one protestor ask a policeman if he wasn’t tired and sweaty standing in the sun all day. I even heard a policeman tell community members, “people being arrested are the nicest, most polite people I have ever had to arrest.”
The vast majority of those arrested have been held only briefly before being released, with many choosing to rejoin the protest. Extinction Rebellion insists that while they are challenging the system and the government, they are not challenging the police. In fact, the group has publicly stated, “We respect the police.”
One senior police officer commented, “These people are explicitly peaceful, they have liaised closely with us over their plans and have a legitimate cause. We all have a limit on what we think is the right level of action to take but I think everyone is worried about climate change.”
Things have not been entirely peaceful. On Oxford Street, I did see a barbour jacket-clad man with a briefcase yell at a group of chanting protestors. “ I am not going to give up my cigarettes, so get off the fucking street and let me do what I want.” I also saw a group of drunken young men yell, “You are all a bunch of dirty, smelly hippies,” as they wobbled down Bayswater past the Marble Arch encampment.
But generally, Londoners have been supportive, and it is not just the police that seem to have sympathy. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, along with his French counterpart François Villeroy de Galhau, wrote an article in The Guardian that called on the financial sector to tackle climate change. And David Attenborough presented a primetime documentary on the BBC, Climate Change: The Facts, supporting Extinction Rebellion’s central claim that the world is in a climate emergency.
At the end of one week of demonstrations, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate change activist, addressed a crowd of thousands at Marble Arch on Earth Day, amid thunderous applause and chants of “we love you.” She told the crowd, “For way too long the politicians and people in power have got away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and ecological crisis. But we will make sure they will not get away with it any longer.” As darkness fell over the crowd Massive Attack played a surprise DJ set.
London has just experienced one week of disruption and almost 200 hours of protests.
According to the columnist and foreign correspondent, Ian Birrell, “If you accept climate change caused by human beings threatens our world, than civil disobedience is a legitimate response.” And, as Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party MP ever elected to Parliament, recently wrote, “When we look back at this moment in a generation’s time, the real criminals won’t be seen as those blockading bridges—it will be those who understood the science of climate change, yet consistently blocked action to prevent its worst effects.”
Wandering around Marble Arch on Earth Day, day eight of the protests, I asked a group of young people what they were feeling. Positivity seemed to rule the day. I have hope, I heard, along with, this is an emergency but I am not as frightened as I was before; I feel good about the possibilities; I will never stop fighting for our planet, and finally, I think we will win.