Extinction Rebellion and HS2 – Things to do in Birmingham on a rainy Friday.

If you’ve read my blog before now, you’ll know I’ve had an ongoing photo project of following the Extinction Rebellion protests – it’s something I started when I stumbled across them in Parliament Square in April 2019.

As you can imagine, in these socially distanced times of the Corona Virus, protests to photograph have been a little thing on the ground. And it’s something I’ve missed. There’s a unique challenge to shooting protests – they’re big, colourful, fast moving, and what’s happening can change quickly. It’s very different to a lot of the other photographic work I do. The practical result of which, is that when I discovered a protest was happening in Birmingham (and that I was allowed to use public transport) it had me out of bed and on the early train.

This protest was organised by XR, along with a clutch of other organisations, to protest the building of HS2 – the high speed rail link, the first phase of which will connect London and Birmingham. Protests against this pre-date XR by quite a way, and I have to say one of things about this that interested me was the apparent disconnect – Extinction Rebellion, the low carbon gurus, protesting against public transport. There are reasons for that, which I’ll get to later.

Anyway. Things were scheduled to get under way around eleven am in Eastside City Park – a location where the backdrop is the fencing that surrounds what will become the line’s Birmingham terminus (or not, if the protestors have anything to say about it). I was early, and took a wander down to look at the old Curzon Street Station (it’s grade one listed Victoriana, and it’s lovely) and then when people began to gather, I began taking pictures.

Decent turnout for a weekday in the plague year (a hundred plus – I didn’t get a headcount) and things kicked off with some speeches from the folks leading the protests. They set out pretty quickly what they thought was wrong with HS2 as a project – the main policy positions being –

  • That the proposed cost of using the service will be out of reach of most people.That this isn’t so much “public transport” if it’s priced beyond the means of most of the public.
  • That it’s costing an obscene amount of money that could be spent better elsewhere.
  • That the environmental damage associated with building it (tree felling, damage to communities, habitat destruction etc) isn’t worth whatever carbon benefit might arise in the long term.

I think that’s the gist of it – for the purposes of writing these things I don’t have political views, but a little context can’t hurt.

Anyway, after a few speeches and few false starts, the march part of the day got moving. Stewards unfurled a long banner across James Watt Queensway, neatly stopping the traffic, and the protest took over the road walking at a slow funereal march. And when everyone’s trying to socially distance as much as they can, the body of those marching can stretch a good long way. There’s something childishly exciting about walking down the middle of what’s normally a busy road (I think) and the fact that the first vehicle stuck behind the banner was a pickup truck in Network Rail livery gave it a certain irony. Horns blared behind the protest as it made its sedate way.

The route went along Moor Street Queensway, up Carr’s Lane and along High Street in the direction of the Bullring (the same street where I’d photographed XR’s alternative fashion show a year earlier).

From there it headed toward New Street Station, then turned right onto Corporation Street, where it left the pedestrianised High Street and took over the roads again. All of which gave me ample time to rediscover how to walk backwards at the head of a parade while taking pictures.

The whole thing was headed toward Snow Hill, the location of the HS2 Birmingham Office. We’d turned onto the street when the first rain started, and by the time the parade reached the office the heavens had about opened.

So. Speeches. Chanting (HS2 – SHAME ON YOU!). And then, the die in. These are something you’ll see quite a bit at XR events, and the general idea is that at a signal everyone protesting lies down whereever they were standing, and makes like a corpse, thus symbolising the end result climate change, destruction of the environment and so on. It’s extremely photogenic, and has the side benefit of continuing to block whatever road is being occupied.

And lying down in the rain on a wet street is, I’d say, an indication that you’re taking this cause actually quite seriously.

While everyone was doing that, there was a long speech read through a megaphone for the attention of the folks in the head office. When everyone had gotten back up the chanting continued, calling on those behind HS2 to show themselves. Call me a cynic, but I had to wonder if anyone connected with HS2 was in the building – it seems like the sort of thing that’d be done from home at the moment – but of course it’s not that simple. The parade needed a focal point – here was the one chosen.

And then the samba band struck up, with something a little more lively than the funeral march, and the same route was followed back as far as the High Street.

Where it was announced, in closing remarks (the march wasn’t going to block the roads any further on its way back to the park) that while this had been going on, the HS2 site had been occupied and work brought to a halt. There was much cheering.

After a few more pictures I headed back to the park, where on a nearby set of steps a group was chanting support to their colleagues on the other side of the fence.

I had a quick try at shooting over the fence – it didn’t work out too well, using a camera while holding it above your head isn’t an exact science. So I took a wander around to the site entrance opposite the old Curzon Station building. The entrance, a steel gate with an HS2 pickup truck and a police van parked in front of it, featured a small mixed group of protestors, security and a few scattered policemen, and after waiting my turn to point a camera through the gap between fence and gate, this was the picture.

A little while after I got there (seventeen minutes, by the time stamp on the picture) orange smoke started pouring up from the direction of the earth mover, the door to the left hand side of the gate opened and the occupiers were escorted out, with their flares still emitting smoke.

No arrests. They met their fans, hugged their wellwishers.

I forget if it was before or after that that the Samba band arrived to join in. There was drumming, cheering, flag waving from the top of the HS2 truck, until Police and security edged it out of the entrance and away.

A group, banner toward the road, formed up against the gate. There was music. There was dancing.

Then they started trying to push against the gate. Planned or spontaneous, I don’t know. Inside, the security guards in orange braced themselves against the inside of the gate. Then they used the earth mover to position a decent sized chunk of concrete against the inside of it like the world’s largest doorstop – at least I’m assuming that was the idea. Quite a lot was happening between me and the gate, and my view wasn’t always the clearest.

The mood changed quickly. Interesting how that happens – how quickly the atmosphere gets a little electric.

Two minutes later, and I still don’t know how, the entrance door was open and before the security or police could do much about it protestors were back inside.

As everyone in front of the gate headed toward the entrance, I had an unobstructed view to shoot pictures through the mesh of the gate, and got there just in time to see one of the protestors on the ground.

Around me people were yelling that security had thrown him against the earth mover. I didn’t see how he ended up on the ground, so I’m not speculating (Editorial position is that if I didn’t see it with my own two eyes then it didn’t happen), but he’d caught his head on something on the way down. A few minutes later he was pushed back out of the door – the gate and door now featured a line of police. He was eventually lead off to a police van – I’m assuming for first aid not arrest. A little after that an ambulance arrived.

Shortly after this, one of the guys in the XR tabard made an announcement. I was at the back of the crowd and he was wearing a mask, so I can’t give it to you work for word. The gist of it (and if I get this wrong, then it’s on me) was that the Police liasion had informed him that any more scenes like this would lead to consequences.

As so often happens, after this one flash the tension dissipated. People began to drift away – with the entrance barricaded there wasn’t much else to do, and I guess there were other plans afoot.

I left around quarter past three. I had a train to catch (believe me the irony is not lost on me), which also meant three hours before I could stop wearing the damn surgical mask. It’s bizarre to think that when I photographed my first XR event, I though how out of place the masked anarchists looked in amongst the pink flags and family groups. Now, sixteen months down the line and wearing one is a sign that you’re being a good citizen. It’s a funny old world.

Things to take away from this.

Well, protests are happening again – people are able to go out and exercise their legal rights. Causes aside I’m a fan of that, in a “use it or loose it” kind of way. Further protests are scheduled nationwide for the first week in September. We’ll see if I make it to any of those.

And the atmosphere was different. Somehow it was more personal – the yelling of shame on HS2 was a different thing from the policy of not blaming specific people for environmental issues. Of course, this is a different issue. It’s not a consequence of a past generation’s fossil fuel use, or political inertia – it’s a project proposed and planned through central government, and funded by the dear old taxpayer. If you’re not a fan of it, then the people to blame for it are pretty easy to identify. And as I’ve previously mentioned, protest against HS2 is not a new phenomenon – there’s been some level of opposition to it for as long as it’s been an idea.

And the longer something like this does go on, the more bitter it will get.

Lastly, and a revelation I’ve had while watching XR protests, is that the one demographic you don’t want to see angry is ladies around retirement age. They tend to have spent a lot of their time getting things organised, and they’re now very good at it. They won’t be applying for any jobs in the near future, so the only consequence of legal action will be that their grandchildren think they’re cooler than hell. And, if forced, they can and will organise and protest.

Author’s note. 

The above is a factual description of events that I witnessed on the 28th of August 2020. 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. 

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