Westminster, in the heart of London, was transformed into a carnival of resistance last week by thousands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists.
Rebels camped out in central London—including areas that are normally reserved for the rich and powerful—to demand government and corporations “act now” on the climate emergency.
It’s been an explosion of creativity, cooperation and courage. And, despite heavy-handed police tactics, protesters are resilient.
Four days into the International Rebellion, all but two of the planned 12 occupations in London had been shut down by the cops.
They seized kitchens, toilets and other makeshift facilities that activists call “infrastructure”—all in an bid to make it too uncomfortable for those trying to maintain the protests, day and night.
Nevertheless, rebels built wooden structures from plywood boxes and locked themselves to it, while others were chained to bathtubs. Some simply managed to climb on top of statues or vans.
Hundreds of other people sat in the road, as waves of cops moved through the crowd intermittently arresting people.
What we need is a systemic changeXR activist
As rebels are carted off—usually by four cops, one holding each limp limb—hundreds of people cheer and chant their thanks. But among the action, there was also the surreal. As the sit-in was entertained by a Punch and Judy show, a giant giraffe puppet meandered through the crowd.
Many activists are on the streets because the political conclusions they’ve drawn.
One rebel told Socialist Worker that XR’s tactics are distinct from those who look to lifestyle choices as a way to stop climate change.
“I saw a live broadcast from Noam Chomsky, who’s this old school activist and a really smart dude,” she said. “He said that unfortunately we’re too far gone for any individual changes to make a difference—going vegan, deciding not to fly and so on.
“Doing those things is great but it won’t make a difference. What we need is a systemic change, and he mentioned some activist groups, and he mentioned XR.”
She said that joining the group had given her a “sense of community”.
Everyone comes to XR with their own take on the climate crisis.
The activists in white coats demand we “teach the truth” and call on politicians to listen to climate scientists. Others focus on the spiritual aspect of environmental and ecological breakdown.
Some rebels use elaborate costumes or street theatre pieces to get across their point, while others focus on the need for renewable energy and a sustainable world.
Despite the differences of emphasis, all find a way of working together.
Meanwhile, at the art stations, some activists are printing the famous XR stencil on to anything that will stand still for long enough.
Others are painting “no alcohol, no drugs” banners to be hung in the occupation.
XR Muslims hold a people’s assembly a short distance from someone conducting yoga sessions while others grind vegan spice mixtures and run a clown school.
Rebels are building a movement which has managed to face down repeated pressure from the state—and are having fun while doing it
Thousands of rebels gathered at St James’s Park, having previously been at other road blocks that were moved on by police.
As they become aware that the cops intend to evict them, two rebels on bikes powering the generator conduct an impromptu “temperature check” to see what the group want to do.
Of the options suggested by the crowd, they collectively decide to hold the space, rather than join rebels at the other camp, or attempt to kettle the police.
To prevent cops from taking their kitchen, activists prepare to link arms and surround important infrastructure.
XR has faced a host of attacks this week—from the media, the police and right wing politicians.
Despite this, rebels are building a movement which has managed to face down repeated pressure from the state—and are having fun while doing it.
They are raising demands for a radical transformation of society, and creating a space to fight for that.
‘I have been to UN climate conferences since 2005’
Rachel, ex-NGO worker
For coming up to twenty years I’ve worked on climate change and the impact on developing countries.
Since 2005, I’ve gone to UN climate conferences to plead their case.
There was nothing happening! No money to support them and no agreement on cutting emissions.
I’ve been on the climate marches, sedately walking from Hyde Park Corner, to wherever but they were usually on the weekend.
And the route chosen, or the route agreed with the police, we just didn’t see anybody, and we didn’t get any media coverage either.
XR feels different—all the protests I went on were non-violent but this has a different flavour.
After this I suppose we just need another rebellion, it will just go on until there’s action, and of course that will mean a change of government.
Labour’s got some good policies, I don’t generally vote Labour, I vote Green. But I think if there was a hung parliament and the right coalition was formed, action could come.
‘This is about realising we’re not on our own’
I’m here for my son Theo—having him has just really brought the climate change emergency to a whole other level.
I feel responsible and emotional, and I feel like I don’t have any choice but to be here.
I’m worried about what conditions he’ll have to live in, and how it will affect future generations.
I think it’s down to us parents to educate children, to really drill into them perhaps what wasn’t drilled into us.
‘I don’t want to stand on the sidelines’
I’m joining the sit-in because I want to make as much impact as possible.
If there’s requests to have people in the road I’m joining in, I don’t want to just stand on the sidelines.
I feel like I’ve sat on the sidelines for too long.
It’s all very well talking about how you want change, you can talk until you’re blue in the face but you have to absolutely do something to make a difference—I can’t expect other people to make it happen for me.
I’ve never been to a protest before, so I don’t know if the cop’s behaviour is normal or whether they’re just being dickheads.
‘There can be change from the ground up’
It’s both heartwarming to see so many people come together, but it’s also deeply distressing because it shows the absolute need for action.
It shows how messed up we’ve let our planet become, that so many people are saying ‘we need to do something, and we need to do it now.’
There can be change, and it’s always from the ground up.
‘I’m waving octopus tentacles around’
When I was a student in the 1980s I remember going to Greenham Common peace camp but I haven’t done this kind of protesting for a long time.
I’m just here for two days, I’m going to spend them waving octopus tentacles around and washing up in the kitchen.
‘I’ve been locked on to this steel and concrete structure for a few hours now.’
Tim, former teacher
I’m here because for a long, long time people have been demonstrating and asking for change and nothing, or very little, has happened.
We feel now that the only thing we can do is to break the rules and to do something different.
And that’s partly to get more attention, it’s partly to cause disruption so the state listens to us. It’s also to send a message to other people that we feel that a radical change is needed on all levels and we are willing to make a sacrifice.
This a relatively small sacrifice compare to what a lot of other people are doing in other places in far more oppressive regimes.
We need to remember that in lots of countries there are people doing similar things but they’re being killed or tortured and so this is the least I can do to try make a difference.
I feel OK about getting arrested.
I was a teacher until recently, and having a criminal record could affect my career, but to be honest I feel that if everybody just thinks about their own future and their own security then we’re all in real trouble.
So I think we have to start stepping outside of that comfort zone and giving up something, making a sacrifice, and to me it just seems obvious that that’s the right thing to do.