Mark Winter was present at the climate change protests in London on 19 April and reports on the sentiments and strategies of Extinction Rebellion (XR) as the group seeks to keep concerns about climate change at the forefront of public discourse.
I arrived to the sound of bagpipes. The police had turned up en masse on Wednesday evening to clear the square, but today – Good Friday – Parliament Square was still being held by XR and their supporters. The Scottish contingent had arrived midweek, and just when it seemed the square was lost, new supporters had arrived to retake the space.
There is an impressive sense of organisation in Parliament Square. All four corners are blocked by objects or bodies. There is a food tent, a well-being space, a large tent filled with 60-70 activists attending a midday briefing. On a corner within touching distance of Parliament, volunteers stand or sit waiting for the police to move in and arrest them. There are cheers and singing at each arrest. Some have been arrested earlier in the week, and are facing their second cycle in detention. It soon becomes clear why some are sitting – many are glued to the road surface in a bid to slow the police operation. Around them mill a reserve army of supporters, offering legal advice, food and water, and solidarity.
While I sit chatting to some of the core activists, a police commander issues an official Section 14 warning (Public Order Act 1986) and I am told to clear the space. The Met intend to take back control of the square today. The police have now ramped up arrests (there were 400 on Thursday 18 April), and by 1pm, the news had filtered through that Oxford Circus was being cleared. It may be that of the four strategic spaces, only Marble Arch will remain by the close of today.
XR’s strategy has been to occupy strategic spaces in London this week, court mass arrests, and create a storm of publicity. Critics have challenged both their tactics and their objectives. Some of this might best be expressed by John Berger, who wrote back in 1968 that:
the aims of a demonstration … are symbolic. A large number of people assemble together … They present themselves as a target to the forces of repression serving the State authority against whose policies they are protesting. Theoretically demonstrations are meant to reveal the strength of popular opinion or feeling: theoretically they are an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State. But this presupposes a conscience which is very unlikely to exist.
But Berger went on to say: “The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness.”
Who thought when XR first blocked bridges in London that we would see mass civil disobedience return to centre stage? XR’s growth has been phenomenal – in just seven months, they have formed 300 groups in 30 countries. They surely deserve credit and respect for organising in serious numbers, as do the school students across the globe.
This week has been an impressive achievement. That fake folk hero Farage and his snake oil remedies have been squeezed from the headlines, and replaced by David Attenborough and renewed calls for change. Even more remarkable was George Monbiot’s appearance on Frankie Boyle’s ‘New World Order’ on BBC2, where he made a passionate case for revolution: ‘We have to overthrow the system that is eating the planet.’