August 2021 – Extinction Rebellion’s “Impossible Rebellion”.

Extinction Rebellion, August 22-25 2021

Intro –

Here we go again. Extinction Rebellion came to London again this week, and so yet again it was time to book a Travelodge, catch a train, and start photographing the latest chapter in what’s become something of a project. I was in London in June, photographing their “Free The Press” march, but this was different – this was to be a rebellion on the scale of the ones I’d photographed in April and October of 2019. Mass protests. Marches. Lock ons, blockades – all the fun and games that’s made their name a household word in the last two years. The first such that I’d seen since lockdown broke out.

Things were billed to get underway on Monday 23rd. I travelled up on Sunday, which is why I was getting settled into my hotel room when Twitter broke the news to me that things had already begun – pictures came across my screen of smoke bombs being waved from the balcony on the front of the Guild Hall. And with this being a literal ten minute walk down the City Road from where I was, I grabbed the camera bag and headed out of the door.

It was easy enough to find – even if I hadn’t known it was there the police vans would have provided me with a useful hint. The flares had burned out by the time I got there, but the blood red stains of the smoke were smeared across the frontage above the protestors and their banner. Below them, in the Guild Hall courtyard, a fair size crowd had collected. With them were a decent number of police arranged around the front of the building – I hadn’t been there too long before I saw a policeman in the combination of civilian outdoor kit, Metropolitan Police baseball cap and climbing shoes that I’d seen on the Met’s climbing teams in Trafalgar Square in October ‘19 – apparently they weren’t going to be leaving people up there all that long.

I’d been there maybe half an hour when one of the stewards passed on the police request that everyone move to one side of the yard so that the police could move their equipment in, and shortly after that a cherry picker arrived. A group of police in climbing gear began the process of getting the three protestors back to ground level, where they were arrested and taken off to the van to cheers from their colleagues and wellwishers.

Once that had been dealt with, things died away and people drifted off, promising to meet each other in the mrning. Interesting introduction.

Monday.

XR’s website stated that the Rebellion would begin in Trafalgar Square at 10am on Monday, and I was there a little after nine. As had been my previous experience, there weren’t many around that early. Over the next hour the square filled, a few people at a time. Small groups. Flags. Signs. Banners. People gathered around the steps leading up to the front of the National Gallery. Then groups, marching up the roads to the square, with police following them. Bands of drummers. Groups in costumes. Slowly the square filled.

There were some speeches. I have to be honest, they lost me quite early on – I was busy taking pictures. I seem to recall an awful lot of it being about belief and spirituality and related topics. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their beliefs. It’s just that I happen to believe that if humanity manages to lever itself out of the hole it is digging then it will done using science and technology. There were also a few things I hadn’t noticed before – social justice as well as environmentalism. I either hadn’t noticed it up to now, or else it’s become a new or a more prominent part of the XR manifesto. In any case, I was quickly distracted by the sound of drums. When in doubt follow that sound, has been one of my basic rules while photographing these protests – wherever you hear that noise, something interesting is liable to be happening. So it proved.

They hammered out rhythms, and I photographed. More people. More noise. More police. Groups of people, groups of drummers in different colours, different costumes. And then, soon enough, things moved out into the road and traffic came to a halt.

Stewards in tabards moved around the edges of the crowd. At the head of the queue of traffic a black cab had come to rest, with a lady in a tabard reading “Nonviolence and Deescalation”. I got a picture – it seemed to sum things up well.

A moment later, the lady in the tabard came over, and said that the cabbie wanted me to delete the picture, as he didn’t want to be photographed. I replied that he was in a public place.

“For my benefit,” she replied, “could you pretend to delete it?”

I raised the camera, and stabbed my finger toward the screen a few times.

“How’s that?”

Apparently it looked convincing enough. Meanwhile, there was a parade breaking out.

Into the road, and off toward Leicester Square. Drums pounding, flags flying, people marching behind their banners. On it continued, until it reached Shaftesbury Avenue, and there it paused for a second at the intersection facing the Palace Theatre.

Slight confusion. Was the parade moving on? Was it going to step out and block the road? There were some interruptions to the traffic, but the parade wasn’t trying to prevent all of it. Police and stewards were talking. Next to me a group of stewards conversed, with one saying that he didn’t know what was happening.

Then some movement. The parade moved onto the avenue proper. Traffic halted. The parade went right, and then right again, winding its eventual way into the six way intersection where St Martin’s Lane, Garrick Street and Long Acre run together. And there, in the middle of where the roads met, was a ten foot tall pink table.

I have no idea how they got it assembled before the police managed to intervene – presumably they’d done so while the police were following the parade, and who knows perhaps that was what caused the hesitation on Shaftesbury Avenue. But here it was – the symbol that would for today fill the role that the pink boat had two years ago. A symbol, a blockade, a wooden structure with people locked to the base of it, and others on top.

I wandered, and took pictures. The police had formed themselves up across the roads leading into the intersection, some of which also featured vans with deflated tyres and people chained to the wheels as a further blockade. Bodies of police were forming up, and at the same time those who’d been marching were getting settled in.

All ages, all people. There’s a constant narrative of XR being wild and woolly – “uncooperative crusties” as the PM once put it – but as anyone who’s spent ten minutes on one of these protests will tell you, it’s not an accurate picture. Those people are there sure, but you’re far more likely to meet a retired teacher or civil servant, or three generations of a family.

I walked past one of the police lines to get a photograph of a van blocking the road. I then discovered that the police had adopted a policy of letting people out, but not back in. First time I’d seen that at one of these protests. I moved around the edge of the area the police were blockading. Spoke to some people. Took some pictures. I spoke to a lady from Exeter, who mentioned her own interest in the social justice element, and how it came from her childhood overseas. Eventually I found myself on Long Acre, to the East of where the action was taking place.

The police were turning people back. Not just the XR types, of whom a small number had gathered, presumably caught out in the same way I’d been. Shoppers, tourists, passers by. It wasn’t long before I heard one of them tell the police that they (the police) were causing more disruption than the protest. He had a point. I’ve seen these blockades before, and while all of them blocked (non emergency) traffic I’d never seen one that would present an obstacle to a pedestrian or a cyclist.

Meanwhile, one of the drum bands had moved up. The noise had been a constant, never entirely going away, but now they moved up to within six feet of the police line and hammered away at a volume that would wake the dead. It’s impossible to fully convey the impact of the noise and the pulse of it all, but when I tell you that I heard it in my sleep that night I am in no way exaggerating – it was a simple, and non violent way of making their opinions of the police tactic abundantly clear. Two of the drummers had found themselves on my side of the line, and joined in enthusiastically, until the police eventually let just the two of them through.

It was at around that time that a line of robed figures in crimson emerged from a side street. I’ve seen them before of course, and welcome the sight because they make for a highly effective picture. Red Rebels, I’ve heard them called (I’ve no idea if that’s official) and now at a slow pace, and with deliberate movements, they formed up facing the police line, mirroring each officer, crimson red facing florescent yellow. I snapped pictures for all I was worth.

They moved off after a while, the figures in red, and I circulated around the edge again wondering what I was going to do next – from the inside looking in was no way to cover this. Was it all I’d get done that day?

The decision was made for me as I stood on the outside of the police line. I wasn’t the only one – there was a large group of XR there, and presumably the police decided to expand their perimeter to bring those people inside the line. Without moving I went from being on the outside of their line to the inside, and that was it.

Back inside, I moved around, through the crowds. Mask on or not? A question for the modern age. At points the crowd was packed tight, at others it wasn’t. More signs, more flags. By this time it was getting on for three in the afternoon. I ate a subway sandwich for lunch – some of the shops may have lost trade, but I can assure you that the places selling food were doing just fine (the ones with vegetarian and vegan options perhaps more so…).

Things tailed off there – the time stamps on my photographs get further apart – as I ran out of things to photograph. I recall the crowd beginning to thin – presumably some had to leave, and there was no option for them to return or for XR reinforcements to get there. The drumming never went away. I think there’d been some speeches earlier, but I’d missed them, not heard them or been on the outside of the line. Dozens of pink chairs – some occupied, some not – were gathered around the table. And the drums kept going. They never stopped, gathered behind the police lines, and I wasn’t even a little surprised when I saw the boxes of ear plugs beginning to be handed out to the police.

From memory it was at seven pm or thereabouts that a white van, its roof festooned with loudspeakers and cameras, began to broadcast a recorded message. I don’t have it word for word, but here it is as best I recall:

“This is a police message. Restrictions have been placed on this protest under section fourteen of the public order act. This protest cannot continue after nineteen hundred hours on the twenty third of August 2021. Anyone involved in this protest must disperse immediately, or they may be arrested.”

That’s the gist. I would hear variations on it repeatedly over the next few days, and I may have transposed a little, but in essence that’s what it was saying. It left me with a question. Did it mean me?

I’m not an XR member. I don’t wear their insignia, I wasn’t carrying a banner or marching as part of their formation. On the other hand I’d been here for several hours with the option to leave but not doing so, and I’m not a credentialed member of the press. Whether I was open to arrest as a participant, basically lay in the gift of the police. On the basis that they had plenty of more likely candidates to be starting with, I stayed put.

Police began moving, forming groups. Protestors gathered around the table, more of them taking up position on the ranks of chairs. Police moved in and grabbed chairs. Where they stacked them, XR members grabbed them back – frankly the whole thing was verging on the ridiculous. Ridiculous for the police, and XR trade on ridiculous – I still remember their glee back in June when the police were filmed arresting wheelbarrows full of manure. Police circulated, talking to people. Some began to drift away – those not willing or not able to risk arrest. Others lay on the ground, and waited to be arrested. Some were carried off, others were led. A police sergeant saw me photographing and waved me forward. Either he took me for press, or he didn’t think I was worth bothering with.

The crowd thinned. The solid core gathered around the table, under it. Police carried on making their arrests. I took my last photograph, of the group standing underneath the table, at eight thirty. Two minutes after that, I saw a cameraman showing his press cards to the police, and decided to call it there. As I broke down my kit, I saw two people leaving. They were definitely leaving as they’d been asked, with a police officer walking beside them, slow deliberate steps that advanced them a millimetre at a time. Leaving, and obeying the law, but at the same time….

I passed through the police cordon next to Leicester Square tube station. A lady with one of XR’s wellbeing sashes asked me if I was alright. Maybe I looked as exhausted as I felt, although with the cameras in my bag I probably looked like another XR member who’d just been bounced.

End of day one.

Tuesday.

Choice of events advertised on the XR site – I plumbed for the XR Wales action meeting in St James park. I got off the tube at Leicester Square, curious as to whether there was anything left of the Covent Garden protest. The police lines were still in place. Viewed through a long lens, the table was still in place, covered by scaffolding, surrounded by police and with figures in blue swarming over it.

Depending how quickly they got it down, that meant it had lasted less than twenty four hours. In 2019 the pink yacht that was beached in Oxford Circus had lasted the best part of a week. This was a development I gave some thought to as I strolled down to the park.

More flags, more banners, a drum band with some faces I recognised. By five past ten the whole group was marching down the middle of Great George Street toward the Houses of Parliament. It came to rest there, on the lawn of Parliament Square under the shadow of Big Ben. There were some speeches, delivered through a small megaphone. There was a short talk with a policeman in the blue “Police Liaison Officer” tabard, followed by an announcement that the police were threatening to take away the megaphone, so if anyone wanted to come up and speak now was the time.

A few did. At one point a man started to speak, and was interrupted by a request from a lady who’d spoken previously that they “hear from more ordinary women”. He asked if he could briefly talk about the policing. But before we could hear much more from anyone there were sounds of action from the direction of Whitehall, and whoever had the megaphone at that point (I think it was the former civil servant, but I could be wrong) said something along the lines of “to be continued” and everyone present – XR and Police – charged off in that direction.

When I got there I found a large number of people outside the treasury who were locked on to oil barrels. The barrels had each had a circular hole cut in either side, with a steel tube inserted through it. One person then puts an arm in at either end of the tube, and somewhere in the centre of it I presume their hands are locked, chained, glued or otherwise fastened together. Further up, toward the Cenotaph, other couples were joined by the familiar steel tubes. Again this was a tactic I’d seen before, and it’s easy to see why. They’re reasonably quick and simple to deploy, but two people plus the lock on device can’t be moved without risking injury to the protestor, and the process of getting them out of it is both specialist and time consuming.

And here it was. Locked to boxes, oil barrels, steel tubes, people covered the breadth of Whitehall. And, of course, mixed in with it all were the flags and banners and costumes that ensure that nobody misses what it’s all about.

People spoke or were interviewed. I caught the scent of sunblock on the air. The police van broadcast a new recorded message, with much the same intent as the night before. Arrests were made.

My first picture of someone locked to a barrel is timestamped 10:48 and my last one of an arrestee being cut out (after the top of the barrel had been removed with reciprocating saw) is stamped 14:40. Don’t take that as definitive – I can’t pretend that I was able to be everywhere, and the police had cleared everyone back to the pavements by that time. Still. On the road leading past the Prime Minister’s official resident, nothing moved for roughly four hours. You can’t ignore that. And I’d noticed the night before that the Covent Garden table had made the BBC site. I’ve written before about protests that hadn’t made the news, but apparently XR’s policy of being too loud and disruptive to ignore was bearing fruit.

I headed off to find coffee, and wound up back at my digs. A little later, Twitter informed me that XR had blockaded Shaftesbury Avenue.

I made it down for the tail end – I’d barely arrived when the police van started its message. But the message this time was different – simply that restrictions had been put in place, citing the section and act. Hang on, I thought, that’s a bit off. Yesterday it was giving the date, time, the actual information. Not today. No dates or times mentioned. Just “restrictions”. So what are the restrictions? Do I get to find out? Am I liable to be arrested if I’m not wearing a purple wig or carrying a mango? I was still wondering about this when I was told to start walking.

On my way back to the tube I queried this business of restrictions with one of the XR stewards. It developed into an interesting discussion regarding some of XR’s current legal goings on, and how a recent supreme court ruling regarding the limits of protest as it regards blocking a road. It’s become known as the Ziegler ruling, And its implications for XR are hard to overstate.

Wednesday.

A slightly later start, and down to Piccadilly Circus where another action was getting under way. I wasn’t too sure what shape this one might take (then again I could say the same thing about the morning before) just that it was being run as a female and female identifying led day of action. So I moved around the statues and took pictures and watched the crowds gather, and when a drum band and a small group moved off I tagged along – most of those gathered stayed in place, and I couldn’t tell you what they got up to.

The march, replete with drums and signs, would wind its way through Leicester Square, around the sides of Trafalgar Square and down Northumberland Avenue to the banks of the Themes. There it turned right, and moved along the embankment to Westminster Bridge, where after a brief pause it turned right again and finished in Parliament Square.

Loud. Colourful. Blocked the roads all the way. Largest flag I’d yet seen. But it didn’t stop moving. No massive disruption. No arrests. It was, from my point of view, a thoroughly pleasant stroll along the riverbank in August, with no traffic and no exhaust fumes. All very civilised. After pausing in the shade at Parliament Square, I headed off to find lunch.

But the day wasn’t over. Again, it was Twitter which informed me of this, and this time it was another table. In Oxford Circus.

Well I couldn’t miss this. It’s over two years since I stood in Oxford Circus next to that pink yacht which became such an iconic image. So, not long after, I was climbing the steps out of Oxford Circus tube station.

No blockade from the police now. They were blocking off one street if I recall right, probably so that they could get their own vehicles through, and as with every protest of the last few days there were police vans parked everywhere. But pedestrian and cycle traffic was moving through freely enough, around the cordon of police who were standing around the table. It was a smaller structure than Monday’s had been, but there it was with two people on top of it. It’s possible there was an announcement being made for people to disperse (I think I heard something that sounded like a loudspeaker announcement) but it was almost wholly drowned out by the ongoing hammering of the roving drum bands. The lines of police had their ear plugs in. If I’d been there another day I’d have found someplace that sold them.

That was where it all finished for me. More signs and faces to photograph, and a few people to talk to – I was far from the only person who’d stood next to the pink boat. Soon enough the cherry picker and removal team were getting to work, and I jockeyed a place in the crowd to photograph the process. And there it was, and once they’d pulled down the structure the police fanned out along the streets moving people back, telling them to leave, disperse, stay on the pavements, etc. They moved quickly enough that I didn’t have time to finish breaking down my gear before being invited to get moving. But I’m guessing XR has more in store, and this little incident perfectly illustrates how it works – it took maybe a dozen people five minutes to get the structure in place, and it took the police hours and hundreds of officers to get it back down.

To Sum Up.

So, analysis. Well at time of writing this particular protests or group of protests is still going on. Hard to say what will come of it. On a personal level, I think the issues have come more to the forefront since I began photographing XR a little over two years ago. Certainly most people have now heard of the group, and have an idea what it’s about, whether they like it or not.

Opinions vary of course. When you’re at a protest most of the people there will tend to agree with its aims, so it can be tricky to take the temperature more generally. Over the last few years people in person and online, from passers by to senior politicians, have had a great deal to say about XR and its members. They’ve been called a lot of things – accusations of being out of touch, middle-class, elitists, crusties, marxists, the list goes on. Frankly they’re such a broad church that trying to say that XR itself “is” anything is problematic at best. And of course the well of seething bile that is social media is always there to serve up any real or perceived mistake, misstep or over-reaction. And the new policing bill contains powers that many see as specifically tailored to prevent XR style protests (XR certainly sees it that way – the “Priti Patel Wants My Body” T-shirt gave me a laugh when I saw it). I’ve written about this before, and I’ve a few new conversations from these three days which I’ll share in a future post – this one’s plenty long enough already.

What I haven’t heard is anyone saying “They’re wrong. Global warming isn’t happening, nothing they’re saying is true, and here are three peer-reviewed and published papers that prove it.” People seem to be arguing about what to do, rather than whether they should. And walking through London I saw changes. Charging points. Electric black cabs. Electric post vans. Bicycles. Electric scooters. And more and more electric cars. The kind of solutions that people can accept, which won’t compromise the lifestyle they’re accustomed to but which just might make the difference.

It may all be too little too late. Time will tell. But the point I’m trying to make is that the idea of climate change and what to do about it is only getting more mainstream.

You might even conclude that when politicians stop ignoring you and start legislating against you then you must be making progress.

As to what the results of this may be, only the future will tell.

Author’s note.

The above is a factual description of events that I witnessed between the 22nd and the 25th of October 2021. 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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