April 9 / 10.4.2022 – In London with Extinction Rebellion

Day One – 9.4.2022

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there’s something distinctly tribal about a big XR protest.

Things were advertised to get underway at ten am in Hyde Park. I arrived at nine, to find a few flags, a few police vans and some steward, in the park not far from Speaker’s Corner. When I first arrived there can’t have been more than a few dozen.

But they’d made the announcement, put out the call and raised their standard, and over the next hour different groups began to arrive. People from different areas, or from different processions, marching under their own banners and congregating together until (according to XR) there would be eight thousand people protesting that Saturday (figure from the @XRebellionUK Twitter feed) . I can’t confirm that figure. Whatever the correct number, it will be in the thousands.

XR Doctors arrive in Hyde Park

A few hours went by – speeches started a little after ten, but the march itself didn’t get underway until noon. The time between was filled with training sessions on non-violent direct action (an XR staple), by information for marchers, announcements of provision for the differently able, and in my case by wandering around with one of the several cameras I’d brought in addition to the DSLR. It’s the first time I’d tried medium format film in this type of environment – I’ve used it often enough for portraiture and landscape or architectural work, but never in a mobile situation. When I get around to developing the film, look to see another post…..

Come noon the march began to form up, and with a few thousand people to corral that can take some time. Banners were sorted out, and an order of procession, and the samba band got themselves arranged (never thought I’d say it, but I’d missed that sound). The head of the procession formed up around the coffee stand at Speaker’s Corner, and the rest tailed out behind them.

There was a bit of a pause if I recall, and a couple of other (non XR) activists were drifting around, and then soon enough, we were off. Out of the park in the shadow of the Marble Arch, and the advance parties with their banners blocked off the traffic, and the parade stepped out onto Bond Street heading in the direction of Oxford Circus.

Even taking up the full width of the road, it was a long procession – there were points when I’d stand still, and watch the signs and colours and costumes stroll by me, and it took a good while for the whole thing to pass a fixed point. There are always interesting things to see at these marches, but the prevailing fashion this year was for signs reading “I’m Here For My ____”. Children, Grandchildren, Future, the reasons were many.

And then before I knew what was going on, we’d reached Oxford Circus. And in another thing that would be a fixture of the weekend (and I suspect of the week – the protests are still ongoing at time of writing) everyone sat down.

I was struck by how simple and effective of a tactic that was for XR. It doesn’t rely of locking on to things, it doesn’t need any equipment that the police might seize before you can get it deployed. No free standing bamboo structures, no steel tubes to lock people together, no pink yachts or monolithic tables. But that many people can’t be easily moved – or at least to do so would be a time consuming job requiring a great deal of manpower. Printed across the leaflets that were handed out over the weekend is the slogan “Look Up – Show Up – Sit Down”.

There things rested for a bit – I discovered which of the marchers had brought camping chairs- and then resumed.

Through Leicester Square, and then eventually after a few twists and turns it all ended up in Trafalgar Square. There things rested. The roads were blocked. The flags waved. Around the base of Nelson’s column the loudspeakers which had followed the march aboard a rickshaw were put to use. Those doing outreach fanned out, offering out leaflets and stickers to passers by.

I don’t have a great deal else to report from that day. Some people drifted off. Some stayed in the roads. Police observed in small groups. Occasionally things shifted as an ambulance or a blue light police car needed access. A cricket game broke out.

I waited. If there were arrest pictures to be taken I didn’t want to miss them. But the crowd thinned. The samba band finished playing and packed up. It seemed like the days was over. I headed off sometime between seven thirty and eight. Later I’d discover that those blocking the roads had been arrested later in the evening.

Day Two – 10.4.2022

The same park, the same time. Again I drifted around with the medium format camera. Call it old fashioned, but a twin lens reflex camera makes for a great conversation starter.

And again, at around noon, the stewards began to get the parade into its running order, and the banners unfurled and the band standing by. And off we went – another direction this time, heading south through the park itself until we passed the statue of Achilles, and the march passed through the Wellington Arch not far from Hyde Park Corner.

The march divided there – the front element went I knew not where, and I stuck with the other group, which took over the road along the west side of the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

From there it all kept moving south, passing Victoria station and onto Vauxhall Bridge Road – still chanting, still drumming, still taking up the width of the road – and eventually I saw the Vauxhall Bridge itself. Police leading and bringing up the rear, and small groups with banners blocking off the side streets as the main body of the parade went past.

Out onto the bridge. More police now, and police in different uniforms (not the Metropolitan Police or City of London officers I’d seen so far) lining the bridge parapets – XR had made a banner drop from Tower Bridge a few days prior, and I assumed the police were looking to prevent a repeat performance. The advance group were almost at the south side of the bridge when “Sit Down” again became the order of the day.

Things persisted that way for some little while.

At the south end of the bridge another group of police from another force (somewhere in Wales, judging by the “Heddlu” tabards) observed events. I got the big camera back out of the bag. We were going to be here for a bit.

And then the loudspeaker announced that another group – presumably the other half of the group which had set out from Hyde Park – was occupying Lambeth Bridge.

What broke out next was another thing you’ll hear about from XR – a Citizen’s Assembly. The basic idea is that it’s a form of democracy that gives everyone a say in what should happen – its use to decide the way forward in environmental terms is one of XR’s key demands. On the bridge the marchers formed into groups to debate what should happen next. Should they continue to hold the bridge? Should they move on to somewhere where outreach might be easier? Was there another option to consider?

Debate lasted a while. I took some pictures. The sun was out. The air was clear, and free of exhaust fumes. Walkers and cyclists crossed unimpeded. The small groups finished their debate, and began to feed back. Stay, move on, other.

Then a yell from the north end, and another group came into view, under XR Youth flags. I don’t know how the decision was reached, but a few minutes later the whole march was moving back north, clearing the bridge, and resettling at the four way intersection leading to it – thus blocking not only the bridge, but also Vauxhall Road itself, Grosvenor Road and Millbank.

And the band played on. I dug out my earplugs.

Going from the time stamps on my photographs it was just before five when the marchers moved off the bridge and into the intersection, and my first arrest photograph was at ten past six. The intervening time was busy – cars crossing central reservations in order to turn around, motorbikes being pushed across pavements, and police warning those sitting in the road that they were liable to arrest.

And then it began.

Some were led away. Most were carried. In addition to the police vans (and there’d been convoys of them visible from the bridge earlier in the day) there were plain minibuses lined up along the side of Vauxhall Bridge Road – presumably to haul away as many people as required.

An arrest – a few seconds later the protestor was carried away by four police officers.

The ranks thinned. Those who would not or could not be arrested drifted away. Before seven, traffic was moving across the bridge. That’s a good five hours in which the bridge was blocked. That’s hard to ignore.

That was day two.

Epilogue

This trip marks an almost exact three years that I’ve been photographing and writing about the Extinction Rebellion. Through everything that’s happened between April 2019 and today – pandemic, lockdown, the various ructions of brexit, the war in Ukraine – people are stilling marching, still protesting, blockading, yelling, chanting, drumming.

Can they be ignored? They have been so far. Despite the various climate reports recently released, there seems to be little in the way of political will to make change – certainly not the scale of change that many say is required.

The April 2022 protests are ongoing as I write this. I don’t know how they’ll end. I don’t know what will come next. Much will come down to public perception, and to politics – including what eventually happens with the laws currently before Parliament. And other groups are coming to the fore now as well – “Just Stop Oil” have been making headlines recently.

As always – we shall see.

AJG – 13.4.22

The above is a factual description of events that I witnessed on April 9th and 10th 2022. Where I am quoting others, giving a personal opinion 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 images 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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