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Extinction Rebellion London climate change protest
photography Daniel Wong

Inside London’s huge protest against government inaction on climate change

Activists from extinction Rebellion blocked five of the city’s bridges, as over 80 protesters were arrested

Eco activists gathered in their thousands over the weekend to shut down five of central London’s busiest bridges. Crowds of people from across the UK occupied bridges at Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth for Rebellion Day. Making national press, over 100 “conscientious protectors” were arrested in the name of climate change activism. Contingents – which included everyone from teenagers and young families to pensioners – arrived with banners, flags, musical instruments and sound systems, determined to make some noise and, for many, risk arrest in order to highlight the UK government’s damning inaction on climate change.

Kate Hodges, 45, travelled up from Hastings to attend the demo. “I had my kids with me, 7-year-old twins. We started off at Westminster bridge. The vibe there was joyous; people were determined, but in high spirits. After an hour or so, there were calls for people to move to Lambeth to bolster numbers, so we made our way there.” She described the atmosphere at Lambeth as “moodier”. “There were people locking on (physically chaining themselves to the bridge), and the police presence seemed more tense. People were being taken away around us.” Not wanting to risk arrest, Kate and her children watched from the pavement. “The whole thing was incredibly well-organised.”

The movement responsible for Saturday’s historic act of peaceful civil disobedience is Extinction Rebellion (XR), a “democratic and inclusive” UK-based network. XR use non-violent direct action (NVDA) to push for climate justice, holding regular workshops for would-be climate rebels. They’ve earned high-profile supporters in recent months, figures such as Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Green Party MP Molly Scott Cato and British artist Gavin Turk, one of the many arrested during Saturday’s action.

While seasoned activists number among their ranks, XR are also invigorating the ordinary, everyday people of all ages and backgrounds who’ve been compelled to join the movement and risk arrest in the name of a greener, safer future. Their concerns are many: soil erosion, rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, deforestation, increasing air pollution levels, crop failure, extreme weather and flooding, to name just a few. They’re drawn to XR’s non-violent approach to disrupting business as usual. In recent weeks this has included a mass glue-in (wherein protestors glued their hands to the doors of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), a peaceful sit-in at Greenpeace’s offices (XR believe the NGO need to “up their game”) and a warm-up rally-slash-mass-sit-in at Parliament Square.

“We believe that the climate crisis and biodiversity depletion will only be taken seriously by the government if we hit them where it hurts: their pockets,” explains XR’s Marijn van de Geer. “Imagine the incredible waste of resources that had to be spend on Saturday – police, helicopters, vans, police stations. Wouldn't it make more sense for the government to acknowledge the dire situation we are in and make a plan? Because we aren't going to stop until they do.”

“I’ll protest again. Unless we want Malibu-scale fires, Yemen-scale starvation and escalations of the far-right in every town and country, there is simply no choice”

Like Kate, Ray, 50, joined XR after hearing about them via Facebook, and attended the Rebellion Day – as part of the Waterloo bridge contingent – out of a sense of “utter desperation”. “In September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres gave us until 2020 to radically change direction, or face unstoppable climate catastrophe. For around 48 hours, I waited for the government to announce a mass mobilisation to deal with the vast infrastructural challenges of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero, and ensuring food security, and nothing happened…except fracking.”

XR also want a mass mobilisation, of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. This, along with (1) a transparent approach to climate change by policy makers, and (2) a commitment “to legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025” make up XR’s three main demands. They do not, however, “trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians.” Instead, XR propose a Citizens’ Assembly to “oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.”  

Saturday’s action – which ended with an interfaith ceremony outside Westminster Abbey, a tree-planting exercise in Parliament Square and a buddy-system for arrestees coming out of custody – marked the first of many, says Marijn. “There will be further actions throughout this week and another big one, Rebellion Day 2, on Saturday November 24.”  

Kate intends to keep demonstrating with XR, and hopes the action spreads further, disseminating from London to the provinces, market towns and rural corners of the UK, and plans to attend more XR events in the future. “I’ll keep demonstrating, definitely. I think it’s important to show solidarity in the real world, to take up space, to be seen, and not just sign petitions online. I’m also doing this for my kids; it’s important that they see people actually doing something about all the scary news stories they keep reading.”

Ray also plans to stay the course. “Until the government fulfils at least the first two of XR’s demands – for the public to be told the truth about climate breakdown, and for a mass mobilisation to avert it – yes, I’ll protest again. Unless we want Malibu-scale fires, Yemen-scale starvation and escalations of the far-right in every town and country, there is simply no choice.”