Extinction Rebellion Birmingham – 13/7/2019

Well I’ve shot pictures of XR London back in April. I was in Bristol with XR52 in June. Saw a little protest in my own hometown clinging to the West coast of Wales. Now, there’s a new city getting a protest, and a new place for me to take my cameras. 

Which is why, at 8:30 on a Saturday, when any sane man would be in bed, I was on a train to Birmingham. Like the Bristol protest this one (according to the Facebook event created by XR Birmingham) was one with the specific mission of protesting the environmental impact of “fast fashion”. My understanding of the term, is that it covers any item of clothing designed to be worn a handful of times and then packed off to landfiill. We’ll come back to that. 

So, the Facebook group billed the event as taking off at two pm. I got into town a little before noon and took a scout around the area it was meant to be happening. In Bristol the protest organisers had chosen the centre of the shopping district at Cabot Circus. Same deal here. The road leading from the Bullring Rotunda toward Marks and Spender was going to be hosting. It was while I was at the Bullring that I saw my first XR flags. 

Following the flags I saw them enter the Church at Carr’s Lane, which was presumably being used as a staging area. I headed off to continue my reconnoissance. 

So, at around twenty to two I’m standing on the street, not far from the Birmingham High Street branch of Marks and Spencer, waiting for things to get started, when I hear what sounds remarkably like a drum band. And on the basis that there’s only so many reasons you’re going to have one of those in the middle of Birmingham on a Saturday afternoon, I followed the noise and it led me right back to the Church. Apparently my suspicions were correct. 

People in costume were getting themselves organised, banners were being unfurled. I talked to a couple of the other guys with cameras who were replete with XR hourglass insignia. I got myself rigged up – Nikon D600 with 70-210mm F4, and Nikon F65, loaded with Ilford HP5+ at 400ISO and mounting my 85mm F1.8. I took some pictures. One of the ladies holding up the longest banner asked if I’d get a picture of them with her phone. That always happens if you’re wearing a camera – people probably assume you can take a decent picture as you obviously do it a lot, although my loathing for touch screens means that’s not necessarily true, although I did my best.

Then everyone got themselves organised, the folks with the big pink “FIGHT FAST FASHION” banner took the lead, and I was back to the familiar sensation of trying to walk backward while taking pictures. It hasn’t gotten any easier since the last time. 

Up the street, in the middle of the road, and the drums were pounding, and then the procession turned left into the pedestrianised High Street. Flags high, placards waving, they came to halt outside of the Primark. Then the folks with the flags spread out to clear some space and the ones carrying the big rolls of pink carpet unrolled them, one crossing the other to form an X.

They put up some decent sized speakers. A soapbox podium. People stood forming a loose box around the X, banners facing outward to show to the passers by. The folks in the costumes started getting themselves lined up. One of the folks at the centre of a knot of men and women with XR insignia, flourescent tabards and etc picked up the megaphone and gave a speech.

And then the music started blasting out of the speakers and the fashion parade started. 

I quickly discovered that the lenses I had mounted were too long for the close in work I was now in the middle of, and it was too late to switch without missing something – I made do. First chance I got I took a knee and dug the 50mm out my backpack to go on the D600. 70-210 went onto the D65.

Meanwhile the parade was ongoing, and it was something. All the outfits were one-off creations that had thrifted, upcycled, modified, whatever you want to call it – old cloth made into new clothes. I’d guess most of them had been created by the same folks who were wearing it, and with the soundtrack pounding the models were selling it for all they were worth. There was a line of models at one end of each of the carpets, and the lines alternated with the models crossing each other at the centre of the X.

Once everyone had walked, they paraded, carrying flags with the black hourglass on pink. The models stood in formation and posed for pictures. Then the drummers started up again and dancing broke out. 

If the fashion parade was event one, event two followed closely behind it. The music died away, the lady with the megaphone counted down from ten. And then everyone who was grouped together in the hollow square sank to the ground, and lay there. 

The die-in is always interesting to see at close quarters. It’s a complete break from the noise and activity that precedes it. People lie there, their flags and placards and instruments around them. Flags wave in the breeze. Photographers try to find the best angles.

And then, after a while, there’s a signal to end it, and the spell is broken as people get back to their feet. 

There was slight break then. I took a few pictures of people in situ, asked one young lady who obligingly struck a pose.

Then came another parade, and I positioned myself on the other side of the X as they ran through it again. Other people were becoming involved. Three girls (mid-teens at a guess) carrying pink shopping bags (with black lettering which echoed the banners around them) had found themselves in the middle of all this, and were now clutching an XR flag and joining in. That was happening a lot – people were finding themselves drawn to the sound and the colour of the event, which is pretty much what happened to me when I ran across XR in London back in April. 

There was a lull – the band was back on, people were dancing. I had my action shots for the day, and I was moving around looking for more reflective stuff. I found myself standing near the knot of organisers. I spoke to one who’d been also been at London and Bristol. He asked if I was having fun. Sure, I said. If this was a festival I’d have paid to get in. Then one of the other organisers asked me to hold up his end of the REBEL FOR LIFE banner for two minutes, and headed off to consult with the other honchos. When he got back I asked if this was the first big event in Birmingham, and he filled me in on a few other things they’d done – swarming and so on.

But things were moving now. People got together, and the banner that hold been holding down the North edge of the box was moved down the street to clear a little space, and the two carpets were re-laid to form one long runway.

I took a few shots while that was getting into place, and expected another parade, but then something else happened. 

The protest was happening where it was for a number of fairly obvious reasons. It’s a big public space, with a lot of people and a lot of the businesses that the protest is targeting, the folks selling the fast-fashion. And one of those businesses is Primark, and it so happened that all of this was happening right outside what I’m told is the largest Primark branch in the country. Last time I photographed an XR fashion protest they strolled into another of their branches and staged a mass die-in. It’s as a result of that, that there was a line of security outside the doors of the Birmingham branch.

The second die-in took place directly in front of the security, and between the two groups there was some serious congestion of shoppers going in and out. There were long narrow lines funneling out, and children picking their way amongst the recumbent protestors. 

After that people drifted back to their newly created runway. There were some more speeches. An older guy took the megaphone, and spoke with some heat about the HS2 rail link. We’d earlier heard from a man disguised a tree on the same subject.

The man with the megaphone was talking about a protest march on Moor Street Station. I’m not sure if he was proposing it happen then (I’m pretty sure he was, but you can’t shoot pictures and still get every word) or happen some time in the future. 

Then another fashion parade broke out. I took a knee at the edge of the carpet (and it’s easier on the knees than paving slabs believe me) and shot the last fashion pictures of the day as the costumed models strutted past.

Things broke up at around four thirty, with a last parade back the way it’d come. Back down the street, with the band and the banners and the rolls of carpet, and it ended as it began on the grass outside the church. 

I broke down my kit. Talked to some of the other photogs. One of them, who was co-ordinating, asked if I’d be interested in submitting some of my shots to the central Extinction Rebellion pool. I said I’d think about it, and I did. I also spoke to one of the Legal Observers. She told me a little about the training – knowing the limits of what arrestees need to tell the police, things like that. It sounded interesting. 

Anyway, that was me for the day. 

I thought about the photography request on the way home. When I was first asked I said I’d think, that some of this stuff was part of my college course. That’s true enough, but it’s not what made me hesitate. The issue for me is twofold. Firstly, the old issue of editorial control. Once a picture’s out of my hands, and I’ve given permission for its use, I loose control of how it gets used. And at this point, I’m not willing to do that. That’s my practical reason.

The second reason is purely moral. Back when I started this project of photographing XR protests, I made an early and conscious decision that I was going to be a neutral observer. I like XR, I agree with their aims and methods. But I’m not a member of any of their groups, I don’t wear their insignia, and I’m not one of them. I wanted to be dispassionate, I wanted to be neutral, and I feel I’d loose that if I joined them, or provided images for their use. My images are up online, and anyone who wants can look at them, link to them. But I’m using them, to tell the story my way. 

Author’s note. 

The above is a factual account of the Extinction Rebellion Protest in Birmingham on July 13th 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.

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. 

AJG 

14/7/2019

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