Keen followers of this blog will know that back in April I stumbled across the Extinction Rebellion protests while in London on unrelated business. I spent four days there. I photographed, I talked to people, and then when I got home I wrote a blog post about it. And I thought that would be that.
Yesterday I got home from shooting pictures of my seventh XR protest, this October’s rising in London. In between that I’ve photographed XR in Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham and a couple of smaller events in mid-Wales.
This week a huge protest broke out in our nation’s capital. You wouldn’t know it from the BBC news, but it happened. Here is my three days of it.
Normally when I’m photographing these protests it’s an early start and an early train, that still didn’t quite get me there in time for things to begin. Not this time. This time I travelled to London on Sunday, and so it was a 7am hotel breakfast and a tube ride for me. I got to Trafalgar Square early – the first picture is time stamped 08:39 – and things were slated to get started at 10. I broke out the kit. Spoke to one of the policemen who were there with the gathering crowd, which consisted at that time of around a dozen. He reckoned it’d be a long day. He also thought that a lot of the size of the protest would come down to the weather. Few people choose to protest in the rain. While I got my gear straightened out one of the other photographers came over, and we compared notes. Then I walked down Whitehall toward Parliament Square. I’d taken a look over the protest sites XR had publicised, and suspected that Westminster Bridge would be a good first port of call when the protest began. I chose it because it’s specific – the bridge is long, but it’s narrow, so if I were there then whatever happened I’d be able to see and react to quickly. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that.
As I got to the square I started noticing the number of vans with police livery that were parked along the side of the road. I wondered if the protest here was simply going to be shut down – I’d heard about the seizures and pre-emptive arrests made in the days prior – but it also struck me that whatever happened now, the simple threat of protest had caused a reasonable amount of disruption already.
It was at that point that I beheld a familiar sight. I was definitely in the right place.
Some time later, the sound of drums made itself audible as I stood at the edge of the green, and I followed it toward Westminster Abbey until I saw this.
The group was getting itself warmed up, whistles were being blown, and after marching about a little they were off toward Parliament Square. I did the familiar walk-backwards-while-shooting-pictures routine, followed them across the square and then saw the crowds, signs and police clustered where Parliament Square meets Whitehall.
It was a few minutes before 10, and things were very much under way. I got some pictures – people locked together and lying in the road, screened by the police – then headed to the bridge where a fairly similar picture was emerging.
It was maybe five past ten, and the bridge was empty of traffic, with the exception of two vans around which much activity was centered. If I was to guess then I’d say the contents had been intended for the same kind of structures I saw on Waterloo Bridge back in April, while others I later saw used for protestors to lock onto.
The XR members were fairly keen to get into action. The Police were keen that they did not. It wasn’t tense – I saw one XR member’s repeated attempts to grab some of the material coming out of the second van met with an open-handed shove and a final warning. Photos were being taken, XR members were live streaming while providing colour commentary. The rain came down intermittently. From the time stamps on the pictures I was there for about an hour, or a little more.
When I headed back to Parliament Square I saw the colour of XR signs down Birdcage Walk, and I met this sign at the corner of Birdcage Walk and Horseguards at the edge of St James’ Park.
I followed the edge of the park, which was filling with tents, signs and flags, until I arrived at Horse Guards Parade.
I retraced my steps, crossing Westminster Bridge:
And arriving at Lambeth Bridge, identified as another protest site, this one for the more religiously minded of the movement. It was an interfaith gathering – I think XR Buddhists had the floor when I arrived, and XR Muslims took over while I was there (although one of the Christian’s did offer a prayer for the police, which I thought was a nice gesture). The whole thing was gathered between the A3036 and the bridge itself where a line of police were preventing further access.
I headed back across Westminster Bridge, and along Whitehall where this morning’s protest had expanded into a full sized site and the tents were going up. A little after one I arrived back at Trafalgar Square where some major redecoration had taken place.
I’m sorry I missed the morning in the Square. I’d have liked to have seen how XR got some of this stuff in place and assembled.
The scaffolding tower.
The trailer with the guy camped out on the roof.
The XR hearse.
And everywhere you looked, signs, banners, symbols. And people. Lots and lots of people. Smiling, embracing each other, all there for the same purpose.
I’m not sure if it was then or later that two guys from Holland asked me for my opinion on all this. I gave it honestly – that I feel climate change is a threat, and that the protest is colourful and harmless. One asked for specifics, about the effects of climate change. I have to admit that I was stuck for statistics. I mentioned the usual causes for concern – warming temperatures, shrinking ice-sheets, rising sea levels, melting permafrost etc. One said he’d seen another view on TV lately. Don’t judge me for replying that I’d seen a man on TV who said he had a plan for Brexit and hadn’t believed him either. We all wished each other well and parted. It was only later that the odd note struck me – if there’s a nation in Europe you’d expect to be pretty concerned about rising sea levels, Holland would be it.
I’d think about what they’d said later. Had I personally seen climate change? Is it something you can see? Was I basing all my concerns on things fed to me by the media? I concluded that I didn’t really care. Even if this whole thing was sailing under a false flag (which I don’t for a moment think it is) then frankly I think it’s still worth exercising your right to a peaceful protest every so often. Use it or loose it.
Anyway, at about half three in the afternoon I joined the crowd around the base of the scaffolding tower, while the Met began the process of removing its occupants. This took a while, because while the folks in the tower were no way violent, they weren’t going to offer the police any assistance. So to be removed the police team had to climb onto the tower from the roof of a police van, strap each protestor into a climbing harness, manually transfer them to the van roof, put them into a rescue litter and then lower them to the ground. The police were good at what they did, and the protestors couldn’t have been safer in their mothers arms. But it’s a time consuming process. And that’s the clever part. Without anyone getting hurt, a barrier had been put in place that would take time to remove.
Back down Whitehall:
And onto Westminster Bridge, and at just after five the rain starting coming down in earnest.
It was while I standing at the South end of the bridge next to St Thomas’ Hospital, digging extra layers out of my bag and wondering how long it could keep this up, when a man wearing a vicar’s collar and an NHS ID badge approached and asked if I was with the protest. I gave the same “interested bystander” response that I’d been giving all day, and indicated the event stewards in the pink tabards. He then asked if I knew how many people had missed their hospital appointments today as a result of the protest.
Generally when you hear questions like this at these protests, it means you’re about to hear an opposing point of view. I’m genuinely interested to hear them – when I’m actually at these things I feel as though I’m inside a bubble, and that the people inside it are generally thinking along the same lines. But this gent was really thinking out loud, trying to find his own personal balance between the right to protest (and he indicated that they could protest outside there – indicating the Palace of Westminster at the other end of the bridge – as long and as loud as they wanted) and the needs of other people. It’s a very valid point. I mentioned that many of his ecclesiastical colleagues had been on Lambeth Bridge earlier. After a pleasant conversation (as pleasant as the rain allowed anyway) he headed off to find a friend of his who was protesting.
XR began to leave their site at the South end of the bridge at around that point. I left at around the same time, and took my final pictures of the day in Trafalgar Square a little after 7.
The tents were up in Trafalgar Square the next morning, but the camp on Westminster Bridge was gone. Presumably the police had cleared it at some point the night before. The camp on Whitehall was still in full swing, with signs and banners in evidence.
I took a few pictures:
then left at around two to find lunch. While I was on the Underground the heavens opened. This I discovered shortly after 4, as I clambered out of the Trafalgar Square entrance of Charing Cross tube station, looked around at the rain lashing down on the camp and said to myself:
“Well it can’t keep this up for long”
It couldn’t, as it turned out, but other things were happening as well. At the camp on Whitehall the police had moved in, and the road was closed between the Cenotaph and the Women of World War Two Memorial. I wasn’t there more than a few minutes before the police line moved forward, ordering everyone back.
Police were also gathered around the locked on protestors, the folks joined together, each with one arm inside a metal tube designed to make it harder to cut them loose. Removing them’s a specialised job, but the police teams were working on it, and every so often I’d hear the cheering as another XR member was hauled off to a police van.
While the police were preventing people heading south along Whitehall, I don’t want to give an impression of battle lines being drawn. That wasn’t the atmosphere at all. There’d been loud orders to move back, but that was it. Police teams worked on the lock-ons, with their colleagues circled around them. Police in the blue Police Liaison Officer tabards were circulating, and I spoke to one. He said he was enjoying it – “nobody was throwing bricks at him”. He mentioned the relaxed atmosphere, but said that what had struck him most was the broad church that XR was. The protests he normally policed, whether far left or far right, apparently have no room for dissension in the ranks. Here he’d seen people raise points, other protestor disagree, debate had ensued. He also mention that it was new ground for him. He’d been deployed here from Hertfordshire.
I’d see that more and more as the evening went on. The day before it had been mostly officers from the Met, with a sprinkling of uniforms from City Of London Police. Now there was the officer from Hertfordshire. Later I’d see badges from Thames Valley, vans in Sussex and Kent Police livery and talk to officers sent down from Nottingham. They’d all been deployed to the capital as mutual aid. Again, a sense of how big this was getting. And still, every so often, the order came for everyone to move back, as the police moved forward another six feet. I was told later that they were enforcing an order that all protestors camp in Trafalgar Square.
At 8pm, with night long fallen, we heard drums approaching from Trafalgar Square. XR apparently had reinforcements on the way. The drum band moved up, and I went down to meet it.
There’s something in the beat of those drums that gets people on an unconscious level, and here came more people from the Trafalgar Square camp, signing, chanting, dancing, smiling, waving fresh signs. Chants were chanted, signs were waved, everything was revitalised.
By that time, at around a quarter to nine, the police line had moved North along Whitehall to just South of the Women’s memorial where portable fencing blocked the road. On the East side of the street people were allowed a little further toward the square, a matter of a few yards. The only exception was just beyond the police line, where a group of locked on protestors had been marooned as the police line moved them back. Presumably the police were waiting for a specialist unlocking team, so there they lay under the foil blankets as the night got colder.
In the space of a few seconds at around quarter to nine the whole dynamic shifted, and the crowd on the west side of the street tried to breach the fences.
Extra police rushed in to brace against them, and then on the east side of the Women’s Memorial a young guy jumped the fence.
Most of the police were trying to hold the line, and there were few enough near him that he dodged around them and made it further than I’d have thought before he got grabbed.
The tension dissipated quickly – I’ve no idea what happened, whether people planned to breach the fence or if it just happened. But when I walked over to the west side of the street a half hour later it was practically empty, and woman a little older than me was asking an Inspector whether those arrested earlier would be in custody yet. Her mother, it transpired, had been one of them. He said they’d be in custody somewhere by now.
“Great,” she said. “Safe and warm. Thank you.”
Which for me rather summed up the day. Last picture was in Trafalgar Square a little before ten.
When I got to Whitehall at eleven the next morning, the encampment had been pushed back a little further. I stood behind the crowd-fence opposite the Women’s Memorial, and watched a team of police from one of the Welsh forces cut loose two of the lock-ons.
Turns out there’s a lot to the process, most of it intended to prevent damage to the protestors – heat proof blankets, shields, eye-protection, ear defenders, the list goes on. It took a while but they got the two people separated.
The crowd watched and cheered their support as the arrestees were carted off to the vans.
Meanwhile at the St James’ Park site, a new piece of protest furniture had appeared.
I’m not sure what I’d call it, but it was pretty ingenious and yet again XR had gotten it in place and assembled then gotten people on top of it before the police could react. The police were now gathered around it, presumably waiting for a removal team, a speciality where demand had outstripped supply, mutual aid notwithstanding. Then came more drumming, and the next thing I knew there was a mass dance-party in process. If the idea was to keep everyone’s energy flowing and morale high then I’d say it was working.
More arrests were taking place in Whitehall as I made my way back to Trafalgar Square. People were being carried around the low wall that separates the road from the pavement outside No.70 Whitehall, and laid out there while they were searched. Legal Observers in orange vests, who’d been following the process since first thing on Monday were on hand.
The last pictures of the trip were taken just before 14:00 in Trafalgar Square. If anything, the square was busier than ever. Citizen’s Assemblies, the group decision making process which lies at the centre of the XR demands, were taking place. Celebrity guests were being introduced. More tents were going up. In front of the National Gallery a congregation of men and women wearing dog collars read from what I vaguely recognised as the Book of Revelations.
And then I’m afraid, there was a train to catch.
When, a long while later, I made it back to home base, the first thing that I did was turn on my computer. I’m probably the last person in the Western world who doesn’t carry a smart phone, and I’d barely seen a TV in days. I headed over to the BBC website to see what they had to say about it all. I wanted to see how they covered it. I was curious as to how Westminster Bridge had been cleared. And, quite frankly, I wondered if I was in any of the pictures.
The front page of the BBC News website gave not one solitary indication that any protest had taken place. It was there, but you had to dig down to the local regions. That, for me, goes a long way to explaining why I keep writing these things. It’s not a solution, but it’s a start (as of time of writing there is now an article detailing the protest at London City Airport).
I don’t know what happens now. I don’t know where any of this is going. The protest will continue for as long as it can.
I am not an XR member. While I believe in their aims and tactics, I feel that membership would make it difficult for me to observe from a neutral standpoint, and I’m fond of making my own decisions for better or worse. I sympathise with both protestors and police: both groups spent hours outside in all weathers doing what they had to do.
Despite our Prime Minister dismissing them as hemp smelling crusties, or words to that effect, I find XR to be a pretty fair representation of society at large. Yes, there were plenty of dreadlocks and tattoos. There were a lot of parents with children as well. Doctors, teachers, vicars, pensioners, students. The list goes on. The ones I spoke to I got on fine with. The same goes for the police.
There will always, after these events, be a long wrangle about what who should have done. That the police didn’t react properly or didn’t react enough, that the protestors selfishly disrupted peoples lives, and so on and so forth. My personal feeling is this.
Large parts of the centre of our capital were closed to vehicular traffic. Disruption was caused. Peoples lives were impacted. But it happened peacefully. In three days I saw two occasions when police pushed demonstrators open-handed. In one event it was after repeated verbal warnings. In the other I didn’t see what led to the event. I also saw one occasion when crowd control barriers were pushed back toward the police as detailed above. For violence, that was it. Given the sheer numbers of people in close proximity and under stress, I feel that speaks of determined restraint on both sides. Batons were not drawn. Missiles were not thrown. The only riot helmets were worn by police horses and their riders. Other people may have witnessed other things, in other places or from other perspectives. I can speak only from my own. But people have been able to protest peacefully, and from that I take comfort.
The above is a factual description of events that I witnessed between the 7th and the 9th of October 2019. Where I am quoting others or relying on other sources I have said so. Conversations are based on my memory, which is of course fallible. To the best of my knowledge, the details I have provided are accurate.
The description is based on and supported by time stamped digital photographs, which I have used to establish chronology and timings. Correlation between text and events should not necessarily be inferred unless specifically stated.
All images used in this article are my own work, and I retain full copyright to them.