It was with a certain amount of surprise that I noticed it had been a year since I had photographed an XR demonstration. That seems a little off, if only because between April and September of 2019 I photographed seven of these demonstrations in five cities. Then came Covid, and even as things have recovered there seem to have been fewer to cover.
Of course, events have conspired against it all. Covid we’ve mentioned. And the demonstrations that were to have taken place in September of 2022 were derailed by the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. All the same, it’s been a while. So, has anything changed?
A few things certainly. In January XR announced a change in tactics, moving away from the disruption and lock-ons and road closures that they’re known for. The plan for this occasion, at least according to their social-media was to simply have enough people arrive outside parliament that their sheer weight of numbers would be impossible to ignore. Well, plenty of people arrived. And plenty of organisations were represented as well. Unfortunately I could only be there for day one, but here’s a brief insight.
Friday the 21st of April, 2023. I arrived at Westminster a little after nine, and took my first picture at twenty to ten. Small knots of people under XR banners stood around the gates and fences of the palace of Westminster, or gathered around the Abbey. Others were around the doors of various departments along Whitehall.
And all the time, more people under more banners were arriving to join the fun and games, and along the pavement that borders the western edge of the Palace of Westminster, portable gazebos were under construction.
The weather could have been worse. That’s all I could say for it at that point. But after a couple of circuits, and without things seeming to evolve at any great pace, I took myself off out of the rain to run one of the other errands that had me in London.
By the time I got back, around half past twelve, quite a lot of people had arrived. Banners were up, crowds were gathered, speeches underway and songs being sung – even the weather had cheered up a bit. And despite a lack of anyone chained to anything, the road from the bottom right corner of parliament square was closed off, and I’d later discover that it was closed to traffic as far south as Lambeth Bridge.
The numbers continued to grow – signs and people along the pavements and roads, and stages and speakers in a few places along the route. Food carts, and roving groups of stewards and police. Speeches being made.
And then, a little before half past two, the sound and sight of a parade. A parade, I would discover, lead by vicars, and backed by a brass band.
And following them, a familiar sight.
I forget how many of these figures in red I’ve seen over the four years that I’ve followed these protests, but it’s more than a few, in many places and in all weathers, and still it’s a sight worth seeing. A mass of crimson draped figures, movements synchronised, slow and deliberate move as a body along the road. And following them – well following them we have the group who I’d be following for the next hour or so.
Air travel has always been something of concern to the environmentalist, and it therefore stands to reason that so will the expansion of airports – the combination of greater air travel with the habitat destruction that comes with the construction will put it fairly in their cross-hairs.
And that’s what was behind this protest here. And so away we went. Rather like old times. Along the roads and out of Parliament Square, and after a few twists and turns we wound up outside the HQ of the Department for Transport.
There things rested for a few more speeches, while the traffic reversed and turned and traffic police tried to keep things moving – this might not have been a “disruptive” protest, but a body of people walking along a major road will have a knock-on effect.
I paused a while there, then asked my phone precisely where I was (I’m not Londoner, and we’d been around a few corners) and strolled down to Lambeth Bridge, turned left and headed back in the direction of Westminster where the speeches were still in full swing. It was around a quarter to five when I got there,and with things seeming to be settled I took a break to find sustenance. And when I got back around an hour later, something unusual was happening.
People were packing up. Banners and gazebos were coming down. Drummers were packing up their instruments, and saying to each other that they’d see them tomorrow. Which doesn’t sound unusual I’ll grant you, except that on previous occasions people have literally chained themselves to heavy objects so that they can’t be made to leave, and set up tents so that they don’t have to. This was something different. And so, in the absence of anything further to photograph, I headed off as well.
As days of protest go, a pretty low-key one. Which I suppose was the point. I did wonder when I read the announcement of this protest whether it signalled a larger shift – whether the shift away from the disruptive tactics that have characterised the movement so far might mean that XR as I’ve known it wouldn’t be around much longer – either changing a great deal, or perhaps dividing along some other set of lines. But as I write this on Tuesday the 25th, the four days of protest over and everyone home, that’s a question that remains to be answered. XR’s press release indicates that there may yet be more to come (https://extinctionrebellion.uk/2023/04/24/the-big-ones-message-to-the-government-you-had-your-chance-now-were-stepping-it-up/ ), and while I won’t read the whole thing back to you it would seem that the future use of disruptive tactics isn’t off the menu just yet. And with XR claiming attendance of 60,000 people (which from the numbers I saw on one day does not seem unreasonable)
So, we shall yet see. With luck, I’ll be there with the camera to do my own seeing.
The above is a factual description of events that I witnessed on April 21st 2023. 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.