If anyone reading has turned on the news just lately, then may be aware of the XR Action that broke out in five of the UK’s major cities (London, Bristol, Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow) on July 15th.
I was, which is why first thing Monday I was on the bus down to Cardiff. Since I stumbled upon the first protest in London back in April I’ve been treating this thing as a continuing photo project, for two main reasons. Firstly that it’s visually interesting – the protests are big, loud, colourful and often feature boats in front of major landmarks, which isn’t something you get to see every day. Secondly, this is one of those occasions when you can actually go and see history being made right in front of you. Whatever the eventual result of all of this, whether it forces a change in climate policy or a mass crackdown on the right to protest, these protests will be spoken of for years to come, and to be able to go and photograph that is frankly mind blowing.
Cardiff was its usual self, and I was heading toward the City Museum (advertised as the base for the protest) when I noticed a yacht, painted green and parked in front of the Castle Street entrance to Cardiff Castle. There were only so many reasons it was likely to be there, so I strolled over and broke out the camera.
Often when I write these things I’m trying to give an impression of the unfolding event, of how it all sprang into action. On this occasion, by the time I got there at a little after one in the afternoon, all of that had already happened. The boat was in place, the people were locked onto it, the banners were up. The road was empty of traffic. There were small groups of police (I’d say around a dozen in all) standing about, talking with passers by. Things seemed to be pretty well in hand from a protesting point of view, and would be for the two days I’d spend there. I’d spend most of my time talking with the event stewards, taking pictures and listening to the music from the procession of live bands around the boat.
I was told, in conversation with the stewards, that it hadn’t been quite this calm when they first blockaded the road. From what he told me, there’d been some pretty unhappy motorists at around nine am, and without the police there things had gotten a little tense. He particularly remembered one irate taxi driver who had, quote “gone fucking apeshit”, complete with yelling, oathing and grabbing people’s banners until the police had arrived to calm things down. That might be so – it wouldn’t surprise me, but I can’t speak to what I didn’t see. By the time I got there the passing parade consisted mainly of pedestrians who were making use of both pavements and the road, and by and large were pretty relaxed about it, and cyclists. And I’ve yet to see or meet the cyclist who didn’t think that removing cars from the city centre was a truly brilliant idea. The sun was out. The air was clear – the only emissions now were what the police horses were leaving on the road. The only vehicles were the ambulances. Every so often (I think I saw five or six) sirens would be heard, the banners blocking the road would be lowered, people would step to the pavements and through they went.
I took a stroll around after a few hours, and after I’d taken a break to check in to my hotel, to see how far the knock-on effects were being felt. Going south into the shopping district you’d never know there was any disruption – things were going on as normal, other than the hordes of graduates in gowns and mortar boards. Going north, well that was another story. The roads were empty and stayed that way until North Road joined the A4161 where a diversion was in place. There was a similar diversion at Castle Street and Westgate (as best I recall). Any way you sliced it, there was a lot of empty tarmac.
It was shortly after I got back to the castle gate that the marching drum band arrived. Which gave me the idea to stroll off and have a look at the other camp, which the lady on megaphone duty informed us was over at city hall. I went over – it was maybe a ten minute walk.
What I found was more of a bedroom community. Tents were pitched on the green outside the city hall (the grass was sun baked to a yellow-brown, but you get the idea) there were two more yachts. There were tents for information, there was a food court. And as I was there someone yelled that dinner was on. I left them to it.
Back at the castle gates things were carrying on. There were poetry readings. People were chalking messages on the road, and drawing the outlines of each other. I headed off around then to find dinner.
I ate a mixed grill with a couple of beers, flicked back through the pictures I’d gathered so far. I got back to the castle a bit after eight, chugged a Red Bull, spoke to a few people. I got talking with one of the event stewards when I asked what his sash represented. Turned out that he was part of the wellbeing team. However it might look, XR events are highly organised, and part of that is with the deployment of its manpower. There’s first aiders, there are people working shifts through the night, there were people standing sentry around the banners to make sure they can be removed if ambulances need to get through. The wellbeing team are there to support the “barnacles” – the people who are locked to the boat to prevent the police moving it. Feed them, water them. “Can’t go to the bathroom for them though,” said the older man I was talking to. I asked whether he thought this would last the scheduled three days. He said he thought they’d know by tomorrow morning. Cutting people loose from one of these, it turns out, is a pretty specialised job – the locks used at these are events are made specifically so that this is the case. He asked if I’d been around these events before. I filled him in on the project – how I’d come across the protest in London, how I’d documented them since. After which came a question I’d heard before, and would again :”Have you thought about joining?”
No – I covered that in the last post. I decided back in April that if I was going to cover this it would be as an independent. Partly that’s for objectivity. Partly because I’m not much of a joiner. A large part of it though, is because if I were a member, then everything I did would be to further their aims. XR need and want publicity, they court it through events like this. But my concern would be that the day might come when I was asked not to use this or that picture because it wasn’t best for the movement. And there would be a moral dilemma. I’d had a similar conversation some time earlier when a steward asked if I covered the events “positively”. I replied that I covered them honestly.
A little after that a band started playing. Two guitars, vocalist, drum machine, and the whole thing was in the middle of the tarmac at the end of a power cable run from a local vegan restaurant. I watched, I photographed. By this time it was after nine pm, the light was beginning to go. The music played. People watched, danced. The set ended. XR actions are officially drug and and alcohol free, and that’s generally respected. I saw a very few people drinking – whether they were XR members of not I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t see anyone drunk that I know of, and there were still police in attendance. There was certainly nothing on the scale of the local night clubs, the sound effects of which were increasingly audible now the live set had ended.
I wandered back over to the other camp to see what might be happening. Not much, and I didn’t stay long. It was quiet, the dew was falling, and it felt as though I was walking past someones bedroom. I called in at the castle, went back to the hotel. I’d walk one more round a little after midnight. All quiet. Folks were settling in for the night. I headed for home base.
Early start – I wanted to get down to the boat early in case the police were delivering a morning wakeup call. My first picture is time stamped a little before eight am, and it’s of people doing their morning yoga / tai chi / meditation / whatever.
I spoke to a few of the stewards – everyone’s got their own reasons for being there, and it’s often down to the legacy they’re leaving to their children or grandchildren. One of the guys said that it was generational- that if you were a grandparent here today then you’d probably lived a pretty comfortable life, mostly enabled by the pollution and emissions which will impact the next generations. There’s always the image of eco-protestors of being alternative hippy freaks with dreads and tattoos. Like many images it’s one with a basis in truth. That said of the people I’ve spoken to at these events, a huge proportion of them look, speak and dress like my parents. And given as they seemed under control, I headed off to get breakfast. I watched the morning news for any mention of environmental protest, but I can’t say I saw any.
As with the day before, the sun was out, although day two was marginally cooler (it clouded over some in the afternoon). There were shades being rigged over the locked on protestors. Graduates from the days ceremony were strolling past, and a reasonable number were having their pictures taken in front of the boat – I was told that some of the ceremony was happening over at City Hall, where the encampment was probably giving their graduation pictures a certain something.
Out in the sun at the castle gates things were ongoing. There was some music – live stuff with vocals and acoustic guitars (and I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t a folk music fan before I went to this, and I’m not now). I noticed again the cross-generational nature of all of this, as a lady walked past – I’d say she was in her early sixties, wore a summer wardrobe and carried a cloth shopping bag on her elbow and an XR flag over her shoulder.
I’m always struck by the atmosphere at these events – there didn’t seem to be anyone who was upset or angry about any of this, leaving aside the muttering from passers by (something the hypocrisy of eating ice-cream while protesting consumer driven climate change in one case). I think some of that’s down to being in the bubble – the people most likely to be inconvenienced here were motorists, and they weren’t there to register their displeasure, because the roads were closed. The only people going through were pedestrians (no issue there, and happily making use of the extra room) and cyclists (who thought it was great). All of this was helped by the police, who were unsparingly praised by every protestor who mentioned them, and spent most of their time taking pictures with passers by.
I saw a flash of temper later when a large man treated a steward to a loud rant about the two hours he’d spent stuck in traffic because “you idiots think you can run everything on wind power”. He followed this up with some numbers about how much energy is actually generated through renewables. I couldn’t tell you if they’re accurate but it’s a valid enough point. It’s too bad that his point was rather undercut, because he was delivering it with a volume and demeanor that had uninvolved bystanders asking him to tone it down a bit. He loudly declared that he was right when the steward declined to keep talking to him, and then he left. Whether he saw the policeman who’d been drawn to the noise I couldn’t tell you. He was angry, and I doubt he was only one. It was one of the topics of conversation that kept coming up, that people were obviously being inconvenienced by what was happening. Was it helping? Would it draw sympathy, or would it alienate people? Nobody was debating the attention it was drawing to the issue.
By this time, my major concern was that I’d have to leave to catch my train before too much longer. I didn’t want to do that, and find out later that the police had moved in five minutes later – it’d be like turning off the film just before it got good. At around noon the people’s assembly got under way. I’d seen one of these before, in London in April. Basically everyone breaks down into small groups, figures out the most important issue for them, and then presents it to the assembly as a whole. Other than that, things seemed as if they could go on all day. I’d said earlier to a steward that “Someone, somewhere, is figuring out whether it’s more disruptive to make arrests, or just let it run its course”. He’d agreed – said it came down to whether the council demanded their road back, what tack the home office decided to take nationally.
A little later a football match was played to its conclusion on the closed roads. Police were still patrolling – I tried to figure out if they were massing to take action, but the numbers seemed about the same as ever – a dozen give or take, including two mounted officers (does anyone know if a police horse is an officer, or a civilian employee or what? Technically I guess it’s a police vehicle, but that doesn’t seem right somehow….).
And things were still in that relaxed mode when I headed off to catch the train. I’d have stayed if I could.
The above is a factual account of two days spent photographing Extinction Rebellion’s protest in Cardiff between 15/7/2019 and 16/7/2019. 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 intentions of speech are left unchanged. Chronology is based on timestamped digital pictures, although for reasons of brevity I have not made mention of every twist and turn. Photographs are used to illustrate the text, and no direct link should be drawn between the two unless otherwise stated.
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.
At time of writing the Extinction Rebellion protest is still ongoing.
All of the pictures used in this article are my own work, and I retain full copyright to them.