Day one. 15/4/19
Until around noon on Monday I couldn’t have told you there was a protest.
I was in London to see a few exhibitions and do a little street photography, and I’d headed to Parliament Square to see if there was anyone waving a Brexit sign.
There wasn’t – not that I saw anyway. Plenty of signs, but no Brexit. I’d wandered straight into the middle of Extinction Rebellion’s London protest, which was breaking out here, in Oxford Circus, on Waterloo Bridge, at Marble Arch and apparently in cities worldwide. There were signs galore. In the middle of Parliament Square there was a podium where a succession of people were airing views on climate change, and the actions required of those in power. There were a reasonable number of police, and quite a few folks wearing orange hi-vis vests with “Legal Observer” letter across the back. When I’m in London – or any city for that matter – I tend to have my camera slung around my neck, with an 85mm f1.8 lens ready for action, to try and catch those fleeting moments. Now I was in an environment where the moments were all around you, and it was a matter of choosing the ones you wanted.
To help people understand this better, Extinction Rebellion is a group, or network. They espouse non violence, and civil disobedience. Their demands for this protest are as follows – (taken from a leaflet I was handed during the four days I spent following the protest):
The Government must
tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change
The Government must
act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025
The Government must
create and be led by a national Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice
(Italics taken from quoted source)
I spoke briefly to one of the legal observers who’d asked if I was with the police – apparently leather jacket and baseball cap isn’t the in look for climate activists. After I’d assured him that I wasn’t with the police, or the press, I asked him what his role is.
“Watching the Watchmen,” he replied. “Liberty sent me down here. I observe the police, and if anyone gets arrested I go with them”.
It was around that time that the guy at the microphone mentioned that “affinity groups might be blocking the roads at two o’clock”. Well, almost as if he was forewarned, he was right on the money. At all four corners of the square, at the traffic lights controlling the flow of traffic, groups of people with banners and placards sat down in the middle of the road and settled in for a long wait. Traffic ceased to flow.
And it was marvelous.
What got me was how quickly people got used to their new freedom of movement, and strolled down the middle of the suddenly empty roads as if it was something they did every day. The whole place was supremely relaxed, and populated by strolling pedestrians and ecstatic cycle messengers. I walked, and sat on walls and took pictures. It was a bright day throwing hard shadows, which made for tricky photography conditions, but the sea of brightly coloured signs gave me the issue known as “the agony of choice”.
On the grass, something called a Citizen’s Assembly was being held. Small groups (around five) discuss the topic and make points. The points they feel most important are written down. The scribe takes these points to the podium, presents them to the assembly, who indicate by actions (arm waving etc) their support or lack thereof. I may be missing the finer points, but that’s the gist of it. The topic on the agenda was climate change.
I didn’t see any arrests. There were plenty of police around, observing and giving directions to tourists. There were some guys with ski masks and anarchy symbols – frankly they looked a little out of place, being massively outnumbered by people who’d brought their grandchildren. The whole thing was still going strong when I headed off to find food and my hotel.
Day two. 16/4/19
First job of the day was to go to an exhibition – it was, after all, one of the major reasons for my trip. I went to Don McCullen’s exhibition at Tate Britain, and it was mind blowing. I’ll tell you all about it in another post, there isn’t room here.
Then I went back to Parliament Square, where the pedestrians were still ruling the roost, and the signs were still out in force. From that morning what sticks in my mind is the conversation I had with one of the stewards, who I got talking to when I asked about the sash she was wearing – it turned out that this marked her as a steward for the event, someone to help ease things along. This was demonstrated during our conversation when the crowd blockading our corner of the square shifted en masse to let an ambulance get through. She also said that her role was to inform anyone who asked about the protest, its aims, its tactics. She very kindly filled me in on all of them.
There was, she said, a stigma attached to these kinds of protests where people attending were seen as what she called “Loony Lefties”. To be fair there were few banners of the “Socialism Is The Answer” variety. But to me the crowd was better represented by the lady I spoke to – polite, well spoken, retired, probably a few years older than my mother. She quickly mentioned that her motivation to be there was wrapped up in her twelve year old granddaughter. In order to ensure a livable world for her, the steward said that she was prepared to protest, and to be arrested if that was what it took.
I asked if she felt that was likely to happen – the atmosphere in the square as on the day before was extremely good natured, and I said so. She agreed. The police, she said, had been wonderful. She did say that people had been arrested on Waterloo Bridge the night before, but that that was always going to be what happened. They planned the protests and blockades to last two weeks.
I left, and caught the tube to Oxford Circus. You’ve probably seen this one on the news – it’s the one which had the pink yacht moored up in the middle of it, which with the protestors was effectively blocking any vehicular traffic. There was music blasting from speakers on the deck, there were speeches being made. As in Parliament Square there was a field kitchen turning out vegan food for the protestors, and there was an active print studio in production making up patches to go on jackets, t-shirts and whatever else would hold a safety pin. The whole atmosphere was like a party – unlike in the square we were hemmed in by the buildings, and clustered around the boat as a natural focal point. The protestors were outnumbered by the people who’d simply stopped to see what was going on, stopped to take picture, gotten caught up in the moment. The Legal Observers and the Police were both out in force. After a while I headed off and walked down Oxford Street toward the protest I’d heard was happening at Marble Arch.
Despite the afternoon in Parliament Square the day before, this was when it actually started to sink in. I was walking down the middle of Oxford Street. At two in the afternoon. No traffic. The only time I had to get off the road was when a protest march came the other way.
And when I got to Marble Arch….. I’ve been there a few times, and it was so different without the traffic that it was hard to orientate myself. I knelt down in the middle of the road to take a picture.
Suicide on any other day, but here it seemed like the most natural thing to do. I wandered over toward the park, and took some pictures of the sea of tents where people were camped out.
At some point I went back to the Oxford Circus blockade, parked myself on the curb and watched the passing parade. Then I headed off to get some dinner, and came back as the light was starting to fail. With the light going the whole feeling of the place was starting to change – less fun fair and more party, with a harsher edge to it. That was when I saw the first arrests.
I very rarely shoot with a flashgun, and never in street photography. Part of that’s artistic choice, but it’s mostly pragmatic – very often when photographing people in the street after dark it’s not a bright move to advertise your presence by shooting with a flash. In this case that was irrelevant, as every other person in the street was holding a camera of some description. But this wasn’t the moment to alter my approach, so I shot with available light, using the same techniques I’d taught myself and learned by trial and error on a lot of nights on a lot of streets. I got a few shots of arrests in progress, but the best pictures I got that night were the atmospheric ones of people and place. It was still a relaxed atmosphere – as with the days to follow every arrest was met with cheers, applause, chants of “Hero!”, “We Love You”, “Thank You!”.
They were there to get arrested. The police were there to arrest them. Based on that understanding the two sides were getting along very well. I spoke to an Officer who was talking to someone else about the order that had been put in place to try and end the protest. Unlike his colleagues in Hi-Vis, he was wearing a blue vest with “Police Liaison Officer” across the back. I asked what the difference was between an Officer and a Liaison Officer. Was it to intercede or mediate?
Pretty much, he said. They specialised in communicating between the marchers and the police, trying to keep things as smooth as possible. They tended not to be the ones doing the arresting unless someone committed a blatantly illegal act in front of them. He was very upfront about why he personally wanted to end the protest. It wasn’t because of the protest’s aim, or the protestors – he agreed that they weren’t drinking, taking drugs, littering, behaving violently, making threats or any of the usual threats to public order. The issue he saw was that this set a precedent – if the Police allowed this to go on, then a month down the line a far-right group could say “If the eco-lefties can do this, then why can’t we?”
I had to admit I could see his point. The police weren’t doing anything to inflame the situation – no riot gear, no force – I later saw in the paper that two of them had been caught on camera dancing with the crowd, and it didn’t surprise me in the least. I’d seen a poster on a lamp post in Parliament Square the day before, advising everyone not to talk to the “Nice Policemen In Blue Jackets” because they were gathering intelligence. I imagine that’s true up to a point – if a serving police officer while on duty is told about, or hears of, or witnesses an illegal act, well he’s going to do something with that information. That is, after all, what he’s paid to do.
I took another walk down Oxford Street, and listened to the music playing on the stage at the Marble Arch camp before I headed back to Oxford Circus. I left around eleven to get the last tube back to the hotel.
Day three. 17/4/19.
First priority that day was to go to the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. But frankly I was getting caught up in covering this whole thing. So, I figured that if I took the district line as far as Embankment I could then walk across Waterloo Bridge, see if the camp was still there (I’d been told they were making arrests there on Monday night, and it was now Wednesday morning) and then be practically at the gallery’s door.
So I did that. The weather was starting to heat up now. I walked along the Thames embankment to the North side of the bridge, climbed the stairs to gain access to the pedestrian walkways behind the crash barriers at either side.
No traffic. Cones and police vans were blocking off the entrance at the North End. I walked along the pavement for a hundred yards, then I planted my arse on the crash barrier and swung my legs over onto the roadway – with a backpack of lenses on your back and a camera around your neck you think twice before you hurdle over obstacles.
The blockade here was toward the southern end of the bridge, and as I approached it I was walking past trees that had been potted up and placed down the centre of the roadway. More signs, more banners became evident, and then through the forest of signage the lorry that had been parked sideways across the road to form the blockade. Up on top of it the protestors who the police had presumably been unable to grab were camped out with their signs,while in the body of the truck the speakers were set up and the speeches and music were going.
I did make it to the gallery. I’m not sure if this was before or after I watched a string septet (six violins, one cello) perform Pachelbel’s Cannon in the middle of Waterloo Bridge. There was something very…..British about the whole scene. The crowd were the same mix as the day before – plenty of people with dreadlock’s and piercings, plenty of people with dogs and small children. There was a skateboard ramp, there was a book exchange, there were bins labelled for every kind of recycling category you could imagine, there were kids playing football. It was.. it was a really nice place to be. I’d think later that it reminded me of the high-line, the stretch of elevated subway track in New York that’s now been turned into a long, narrow public park. The sun was out. A nice lady in a First Aid tabard offered me sun block. It was while I was on the bridge that I saw the first person who wasn’t in favour of it all – an older lady who was walking along the pavement on the East side of the bridge yelled “Go Away” repeatedly, without breaking stride or stopping to debate the point. Around the same time a man on the same walkway was pointing out to the police that if tried to set up camp in the middle of the bridge he’d very quickly find himself nicked.
Back at the Oxford Street camp, when I got there in the early afternoon, the tempo of arrests seemed to have stepped up. In full daylight I was keen to get one on film. Unfortunately so was everyone else with a camera, and everyone had one. There were guys like me – people with semi-pro cameras and plenty of practice using them. Then there were the pros – agency guys with two or more full sized DSLR’s. There were film crews, with presenter doing standups. There were hordes of people snapping pictures or filming with their phones – both the protestors themselves, and passers by. Not to be outdone the police had their own cameramen to supplement the body cameras they were all wearing.
When an arrest happened it would normally be in the dense crowd around the boat. You’d see the police – usually around eight of them – go in. Then there’d be cheering and chanting from the protestors (“Thank You!” “We Love You!” “We’re Not Violent, How About You?”) and then they’d emerge – three or four police carrying the lucky winner, while the rest formed a corridor through the crowd. The arrestee was always accompanied by at least one of the Legal Observers. The second they emerged, photographers swarmed around.
I’ve photographed on the streets for years, not to mention a lot of sports work, but this was entirely different. Rather than trying to frame your subject or track rapid movement, here it was a case of swimming through a flood of people to get to a position where you had a shot, and then trying to get it before another photographer, a protestor or a policeman blocked it from you. Bear in mind that there’s six feet of me, and I’m not well co-ordinated or quick on my feet at the best of times. At this particular time I had a backpack full of kit on my back and two cameras around my neck – I was carrying a Nikon D600 with an extra battery grip as my main tool, and a Nikon F65 for shooting film. I’d swapped the 85mm lens of the D600 for a 50mm. In the crush of people anything far enough away to need the 85mm was going to be obscured. And so, in the crowd, sun beating down and camera straps trying their darnedest to strangle me, I struggled to make the shots.
The best one of the day came from being in the right place at the right time. It gave me a complete view of the arrest protest, which was well worth seeing.
The arrestee was a guy in his twenties, who when things got under way was lying in the sun with his shirt off reading a book. He was on the edge of the encampment, which had shrunk since the day before – no print studio now. A policeman came over, knelt down next to him. They conversed, quickly joined by a legal observer, and later by another. I wasn’t close enough to hear the words, but from context I’d guess it to be a spoken version of the order I’d discussed with the Liaison Officer the night before – a verbal warning to leave or be arrested for causing an obstruction.
He chose not to leave. Things got under way. The policeman left. The legal observer spoke to the protestor. One of the stewards took his phone for safe keeping, and asked what he wanted done with his tent. The legal observer took a permanent marker and wrote some phone numbers onto the guys arm – a solicitors contact number, looking back at the photos. The protestor put on a gilet, stuck his book in the pocket. Aware of the photographers he showed us the stencils on his chest of the movement’s hourglass symbol. A man with “Rebel” stenciled across the back of his jacket was kneeling in front of me and filming all this. The police came back.
I’d been shooting pictures throughout this, from about six feet from the guy about to be arrested. It wasn’t until the extra officers arrived that I realised there were photographers and cameramen packed in behind me about five deep. At that point the man in the “Rebel” jacket stood up, and my view was blocked. Then the police started moving us back to form a corridor, and when the cameraman in front of me was moved to the side I had my eye to the viewfinder and that’s where I got the picture.
I went back to Parliament Square that afternoon. It was still a pedestrian zone. There was still music and dancing at the corners of the square, although less activity on the green. People were getting more settled in now – there were groups playing chess on blankets on the road. But the roads were still blocked, the signs were still in evidence, there was still no traffic but bicycles and the occasional police van.
My abiding memory is of standing on the corner of the green next to two Officers from the Met. A man with an American accent came over and asked:
“Could you tell me where Big Ben is?”
One of the cops indicated the tower of the houses of parliament, which from this angle had its fascia entirely obscured by scaffolding as restoration continues. There would be no landmark selfies today.
I was back in Oxford Circus before too long – time stamps on my photographs indicate I was there by around five. More arrests were taking place. And now I was getting a sense of opposition to the protest.
For me, this whole thing was really rather nice – it was like half a dozen street parties with built in photo opportunities. And the people protesting were an extremely nice bunch to be around. Friendly, positive, upbeat, and very happy to discuss their movement with anyone who cared to listen. But I’m forced to admit that I was on holiday, and that the thoughts of people who were trying to get to work through all this might be rather different. This I discovered as I read The Standard while on the Underground. But, a couple of incidents aside, the tube ran pretty well for the four days I was there. There was some disruption sure, but then most of the London trams were out of action for planned engineering works, so it didn’t seem too much of an imposition. I imagine the busses were disrupted – I didn’t use one, so I wouldn’t know. I imagine cars were as well, if it’s possible for driving in London to be more stress inducing than it already is. I felt for people trying to make deliveries. The black cabs however seemed to have figured out a way around all this – they were among the few motor vehicles moving on parts of Oxford Street.
Still, outside of my little bubble, feelings were running high. That afternoon I saw at least one group of people loudly demanding of an Inspector in the Met, why the police weren’t doing something about this. I wasn’t close by, but body language speaks pretty loudly in these situations. I don’t think they were especially pleased with whatever answer he gave them.
That was about it for the night.
Day Four. 18/4/19
Last day of the trip – train to catch by mid afternoon. I headed along to Oxford Circus to see how they’d done overnight.
The camp had contracted again, and there was less of a crowd around the boat – the tourists hadn’t gotten there yet I guess. The folks guarding the blockade were still in place. I took some more pictures, and after a while I spoke to one of the stewards from Extinction Rebellion.
“Question,” I said. “You’re planning to blockade for two weeks?”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s the plan”.
“Do you really see it lasting that long? I’ve been photographing this camp for three days, and it’s shrinking like an arctic ice sheet. Which is quite appropriate, but still….”
He agree that it was an appropriate metaphor.
“Thursday today,” he said. “I don’t see the police doing anything big over the bank holiday weekend, so we’re probably OK until then. After that, I think they’ll come down hard on us.”
We talked a little bit longer. I mentioned how pleasant I’d found Waterloo Bridge as a place to be, and he said he’d heard that a few times – people saying how it was pity it couldn’t always be like it was right now. On the other hand I saw a few other signs of opposition. During one speech from the yacht the speaker was interrupted twice. Once was by a large man, with a hood pulled low over his eyes and a bandana wrapped around the lower part of his face, who yelled “No! No!” from edge of the crowd as he walked past. The other, and rather more articulate interruption, came a few minutes later.
The speaker was talking about a recent interview she’d given. She stated (as near as I can recall) that people often asked about the inconvenience this protest was causing, and that she didn’t believe the answer was complex.
At that point, she was interrupted by a middle aged man, who had been passing by and who now walked into the area in front of the yacht. He was average in both dress and appearance with nothing in particular to draw attention to himself, but from his speech he was quite clearly in an extreme of both emotion and personal stress. I cannot recall what he said verbatim, but it boiled down to the fact that she had no idea of the problems that people were having. That he was attempting to get across London to the hospital his mother had been rushed too. And that while he supported the same goals as the protest, these methods were unconscionable, alienating many people who would otherwise have been on their side. With that point made he was quickly on his way. I sympathised with the man – he was obviously having the sort of bad day which, if you’re lucky, you won’t see too many of in one lifetime. Presumably there were plenty of people who the protests were effecting in the same way.
The speaker said that she was sorry – there was nothing else that she could say. The entire protest was founded on peaceful non-confrontation, and to argue the point under those circumstances would have been idiotic on any level.
I left the Oxford Circus camp a little after that. I called in briefly at the Waterloo Bridge camp and took my final pictures. And there, I’m afraid to say, my time in the city ended.
Interesting way to spend a few days. Let’s do it again some time Extinction Rebellion.
The above is a factual account of four days spent photographing Extinction Rebellion’s protest in London between 15/4/2019 and 18/4/2019. All of the events described took place, and were witnessed by me. Where I am drawing on second hand sources I have said so.
Conversations and events are based on my memory which is, of course, fallible. In places I have paraphrased conversations, but the intention of speech are left unchanged. Chronology is based on timestamped digital pictures, although for reasons of brevity I have not made mention of every visit to every camp.
The author believes wholeheartedly that climate change is both a real and immediate threat to this planet and everything on it. I make no attempt to conceal this fact, although I have attempted to be even handed in the way I have written this account. This was made easier by the non-confrontational stance taken by both Extinction Rebellion and the Metropolitan Police.
At time of writing the Extinction Rebellion protest is still ongoing – I have therefore refrained from making any guesses as to what course it will take, or effect it will have.
All of the pictures used in this article are my own work, and I retain full copyright to them. They are used to illustrate the the text, and are not ordered chronologically – no direct inference should be drawn between the text and specific pictures except where explicitly stated.