When I ran across Extinction Rebellion, in Parliament Square at Easter I’d never heard of them. The encounter was pure chance. Then I spent four days taking pictures, came home and wrote it up.
This time I found the event on their website, and was on a train at five thirty in the morning to go down to Bristol and shoot the pictures. Disrupt the centre of consumerism, said the site. Bring attention to the impact of the global fashion industry. The sheer amount of water used to produce cotton. The clothes that fall apart after being washed three times, so you have to go out and buy new ones. The slave labour wages paid by the manufacturers for global brands. The carbon costs of transport. The list goes on.
I got to Bristol around 11 – according to the XR website things were going to get started at 12 at a place called Cabot circus, which I perused on Google Maps. I don’t know Bristol – this was my first visit, and I found my way to Cabot Circus by 11:40.
This will become important later. Cabot Circus in a medium sized shopping centre. It’s built at the centre of a congruence of roads at the centre of Bristol’s urban plan. Shops are at the edges of those roads, and large glass roofs have been added to give a covered atrium at the centre of it all. It’s on at least three levels. The roads – areas of which are now pedestrianised – lead under those glass roofs without going through any doors and then go past the usual group of shops before they reach that central point.
My first picture is timestamped for a few minutes before mid-day. I wandered around the centre for a while, before I walked out onto one of the pedestrian streets and found the protest village getting itself set up. Village is maybe a little grand – there were quite a few stalls selling customised and upcycled clothes. There were boards advertising classes in how to repair clothes. There was a stenciling and printing stand There was an information tent. And a little further down, in the middle of a cross roads of pedestrianised streets, a miniature stage had been lashed together out of shipping pallets. It was literally large enough for one person to stand on, it was backed by an Extinction Rebellion hourglass banner in pink and decorated with strings of XR bunting. And, when the XR Crew got done bolting it all together, a plywood cutout of the pink boat that was at the centre of the Oxford Circus protest was fixed to the front of their stage. I took a few pictures, accepted a few leaflets. I chatted with a few of the activists who’d also been in London over Easter.
At around twenty minutes before one, I saw the first die-in.
There’s a group whom I privately refer to as the Crimson Cassandra’s the androgynous red-clad veiled figures who silently walk through the XR protests. That may be their official name which I’ve overheard somewhere. It might not be. For all I know they don’t have one. You may have seen them in some of the pictures from London. The last time I saw them they were posing in front of that horse statue adjacent to Leicester Square. And now they were here, walking through the crowds, and one of the good folks on the stage in Bristol said we might wish to follow them.
I did. So did a bunch of other folks, with their flags, with their banners. We walked a few hundred yards, heading away from the circus. Up a couple of streets, and in through the doors of a decent sized branch of Primark. There were a few minutes of delay, while the folks who’d been at the back of the cavalcade got caught up. There was some conversation between security and the XR. There were some fairly excited messages over the store PA asking for the supervisor to please contact security And then someone some blew a trumpet, and suddenly the floor was covered by recumbent climate protestors (and one very confused medical alert dog).
While all of this was going on people were still walking in, and trying to figure out why it was so crowded. I was shooting pictures, and trying to find the angles others hadn’t. I wasn’t the only one. And then the dead rose, and there was some waving of signs, and taking of pictures. Some chanting. Store security, from where I was standing, seemed pretty laid back about the whole thing. I took more pictures. The Crimson Cassandras struck poses. I drifted back toward the door in time to get the pictures of them all leaving.
Things headed back toward the Pink-Boat Stage. Then there were speeches. There were explanations of what all this was about, there were speeches about emissions and the air quality of the inner city, there was a talk from a lady launching a new fashion brand designed to minimise waste and not exploit local labour. There was poetry. There would soon, we were told, be a fashion show – a catwalk filled with alternative and recycled fashion. I took a few pictures of the folks on the stage. I’d mounted a 50mm lens on my digital camera (Nikon D600) and now I dug the 70-210mm out of my bag and mounted it on my film camera (Nikon F65).
I decided to take a wander. There were plenty of guys with cameras in front of the stage, and who knew what was lurking in the nearby streets. I found the proof of that theory as I walked past the Primarch where this morning’s little event had taken place, and saw a purposeful looking bunch walking past the Odeon. So of course I followed – there was little enough else to be done. A few hundred yards and I saw another group, standing in the crossing of the traffic lights where the road crossed toward a small park bordering the North side of the river. They were spread across the road, banners unfurled, flags waving. Cars were backed up in both directions.
I started taking pictures. The police on the scene were relaxed – about the protestors anyway. They spent most of their time at the windows of cars talking to the drivers. Then the crossing cleared, the protestors gathered on the park side of the road. They chatted amongst themselves for a few minutes. Then the guy keeping things organised pressed the button, and when the green man came on they walked back out.
There was some chanting from the protestors (“No More Coal, No More Oil, Keep Our Carbon In The Soil”, “Show Me What Democracy Looks Like, THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE”, “Whose Planet? Our Planet!” et al). There was yelling and horn blaring from some of the drivers, and quiet acceptance from others, as activists walked up to their windows with brownies and explanatory leaflets. At some point after the first blockade I noticed more police. There were four or five who’d been keeping an eye on things, talking to drivers and so forth, but these new arrivals were in riot kit – tabards, fixed truncheons, riot helmets hanging from their belts. They seemed unconcerned – there were murmurs among the crowd of some other march taking place, something along right wing lines. It was also around then that a group of police on horseback moved past (Me: “Huh. Carbon neutral policing.” Protestor: “Er…yeah, I guess they’re not ruminants.)
I watched probably a half dozen repeats of the same cycle. Each blockade was timed to the minute, presumably keeping to some prior agreement. There were some fairly irate drivers, but none of them felt moved to get out of their cars and argue the point – they consoled themselves with talking to the police, sounding their horns, yelling out of their windows and unnecessarily revving their engines as they executed three point turns. This was greeted with cheers and yells of “We Love You!” from the Extinction Rebels.
As with every action like this I’ve seen there was also a large number of bemused but happy pedestrians crossing the road as it pleased them, and joyous cyclists zooming past the blockade. I remember one guy yelling that “What do you people want? More ice and snow? Less progress?” or words to that effect. Another strolled up beside me, and mentioned that everyone protesting was white. “Very white, very middle class,” was how he put before he strolled off. I watched a little longer, standing in the shade of the trees. I spoke quickly with one of the protestors who was handing out leaflets. He recognised me from earlier, asked if I’d gotten any good shots. I explained how I’d come across the London protests, how this was becoming a mini-project. He seemed to like the idea.
I headed back to the pink boat stage after a while. There was a good sized crowd now, and as I headed back past the stalls there was a samba drum band playing. I shot with both cameras, all the lenses, and swapped lenses between my camera. It was too warm to wear anything with pockets – I was in jeans and a t-shirt – and the crowd was too thick and the action too rapid to be digging kit and lenses out of my backpack. For the first time ever I wished I was wearing a photojournalists vest – one of those fishing vest, load carrying deals you see worn by people playing photographer’s in war films. I’ve never worn one. I mostly shoot street photography, and in that environment the last thing you want to look like is a photographer. In this moment it would have made sense.
Then there was word of another die in, and I headed over to where the lead group were conversing with the drummers. They’d be going into Cabot Circus. The signal to “die” was the ringing of the bell. Avoid the bottom of the escalators. Pass these instructions on to anyone who needs them. People began to form up. A lady carrying a sign reading “Fast Fashion Is Killing Our Planet” would lead (perhaps not the right term, XR not having leaders per se. Perhaps she wasn’t leading, but she was the one at the front), followed by the band, followed by anyone who wanted to come. And then the band started pounding, and the lead folks stepped out onto the road (one of the vehicular ones, not pedestrianised) and the whole thing started moving.
And I found myself out in front.
It’s a weird situation to be in. I was walking backwards along a road with cars and taxis along both sides, trying to stay ahead of the marching group while simultaneously shooting pictures and being aware of what was behind me. By now I had a 70-210mm lens mounted on my D600, giving a little flexibility, but I needed distance. I’d walk backwards, shoot pictures, check behind me, jog forward a few yards, turn and keep shooting. Repeat. There were three or four other guys shooting video or stills of the front of the column, and the drums kept pounding and the banners kept waving. There were folks wearing clothes which I presumed to have come from the fashion show I’d missed, and more flags, more banners, more signs.
And then the parade swung into the circus itself, and as the band moved in under the glass roof the pounding drums went from loud into sensory overload territory. In amongst that ritual drumming the colours lit up brighter, the intensity of feeling was stronger.
I was still walking backward, aware now of the signs, of the crowds of shoppers, of the benches (I hopped up on one of them to take pictures) and still it’s moving, more people coming in and shoppers trying to figure out what’s going on.
As the central flood began to fill I jumped on an escalator and headed up to the second level for a birds eye view. The scale of the whole thing only started to get obvious at this point. There were a good few hundred people resplendent in XR regalia. Everyone packed in, there was a second of silence, and then the bell rang.
People take up a lot more floor space when they’re lying down. Sounds obvious I know, but you see it for yourself and it invites a second glance. The only people moving were a few folks with placards, a man disguised as the grim reaper, some photographers and a large number of very confused shoppers. Off in the background were a handful of police.
And there things rested for a couple of minutes, as the photographer’s tried to find the right angle to convey the scale of all this.
Then the bell rang, people got back to their feet, and I walked back down the steps to the floor – the down escalator had been halted, presumably by the centre’s staff or security. I recognised one of the police from the roadblock, and was about to ask how it had all finished, but before I could I noticed that people were on the move again, heading up the stairs and escalators. The march re-formed, the drums starting sounding again, and I was back to walking backwards.
More drums, more signs, more colour and pretty soon we found ourselves back in the open air. The lady with the sign was still leading, although if there was any real doubt as to the marcher’s direction it was solved by four mounted police officers, who just as soon as someone’s gotten a selfie with a police horse, gestured as to the marches direction.
The parade kept moving – banners still waving, drums still beating, colours still flying – still quite the eye catching sight.
Which, after a few streets, a few turns, a lot more drumming, and with the mounted police following on behind, found itself back at the Pink Boat Stage, just a few yards from where it had all started.
And then there was a brisk speech, thanking everyone. The speeches were cut a little short, because they’d promised the police they’d be done by five (that’s XR, the nicest revolutionaries you’ll ever meet) and then there was dancing. The band swung back into action.
And then it broke up. Another quick speech, and a reminder that responsibility includes everyone, so let’s leave this place tidier than we found it. The boat began to be dismantled. Flags came down. People began to drift away.
I’ll be back.
The above is a factual account of Extinction Rebellion’s protest in Bristol on Saturday the 1st of June 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 included every twist and turn of my day. For further information regarding Extinction Rebellion’s protest in London over Easter 2019, please see my earlier post – https://languageandpictures.com/2019/04/20/extinction-rebellion-four-days-of-photographing-urban-protest/
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.
All of the pictures used in this article are my own work, and I retain full copyright to them. They are used to illustrate this piece, are not ordered chronologically, and no direct connection between words and images should be inferred except where stated.