Extinction Rebellion: Rising Up

Words: Ellie Connor-Phillips | Photography: Kate Shaw kateshaw.me

“…people gonna rise like water, turn this system round…”

It’s 10.45pm on Bank Holiday Monday, and the voices of the hundreds of rebels at Marble Arch play soothingly through the live stream I am watching. I’ve found myself drawn down to the Extinction Rebellion protests regularly at every chance I had this week, even once during my lunch break, and watching the livestreams of each site at almost every point in-between. Right now, the police seem to have blocked off the stage area and are ritualistically taking away speakers and equipment; an ironic symbol of silencing our voice, especially at a place so well known for being home to a Speaker’s Corner.

London has been pretty stunned by these protests; covered on the news regularly over the last seven days, Extinction Rebellion have successfully occupied and held several sites around the capital, turning Waterloo Bridge into a garden, moving into Parliament Square, Marble Arch and even parking a big pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus. In response, London has done very little, except mildly complain about the inconvenience. The police have been largely ineffective at moving protesters on, thanks to loopholes in the law about our right to protest, and the fact that with peaceful protests police must only resort to reasonable force, and although the Capital has been mildly disgruntled with this, it has played out that there hasn’t been much they could do about it.

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With the media mostly only discussing the nuisance the protests have caused, and the Police tackling Oxford Circus first, London’s true agenda has really come to light. The plea of the rebels couldn’t be more clearly heard, and yet the most important thing on the Government or police agenda is to get the city back “in working order,” or, in essence, to get Oxford Circus back to a capitalist hotbed of excess consumption, and get workers back and able to drive through the city centre so they can work harder for longer…and perhaps so they also don’t miss out on those important congestion charges or diesel taxes they may not have to pay if XR protests cause them to drive a different route. It seems that while the rebels have grown in ranks and soared in recognition worldwide, ultimately their fight has fallen on deaf ears, when it comes to those in power in London.

Regardless, Extinction Rebellion have held the majority of sites for the whole 7 days so far: in a city of power and traffic, rebels have simply taken back land as their own, and shown strong defiance and strength no matter how many more police officers pour onto the streets around them. They have made history, and this is just the beginning. The goal to reach the majority of people, until their numbers reach a critical mass is becoming more like reality every day, as more and more rebels join the ranks, and it is exciting to think about how and what could be done with such a powerful army of people, ready to peacefully take back control.

On the livestream I’m watching, encircled by an ever-growing police presence, rebels are forming plans to march tomorrow, perhaps to Parliament Square. A speaker reminds them: “keep the focus, respect the rebellion.” The endless spirit and drive shown by these people continues to warm the core of my being; for the first time in my whole life, I feel they have lit a flame within my soul that will only grow with time until this war is won. And it is a war - people are dying. They have been dying and will continue to die, as the climate continues to sicken and the beautiful cycles and chain reactions within nature begin to die and rot around us. Swaying in unison with rebels on Waterloo Bridge on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the whole world just stopped fighting each other, and instead came together to save our home. I wonder if perhaps other wars and death could also be stopped, if we realised land and money is not worth fighting for, if the very soil we stand on will soon be underwater.

As someone who has been part of the protests, I can’t praise Extinction Rebellion highly enough on their planning and organisation: those who are arrested are thanked and cheered by the crowd, grateful for their sacrifice, while legal observers and several phones filming everything help try and protect rebels from heavy hands or unfair treatment. From the moment I first stepped into the crowd at Oxford Circus on my first day of protesting, I felt more at home than I had in years. A lady shared her sunblock with me to protect me from the sun, while strangers chatted and became friends, joined together in this fight to protect our planet. The mission to remain peaceful and respectful is so strongly felt, and separates XR from a lot of past riots or protests in London. It really does begin to feel like a family: knowing you share the same ideas and passion allows everyone to push any differences aside, and come together to create an army built on much stronger foundations than those built on purely anger and fear. There is so much love in the hearts of those out on the streets: more love than I have seen in this country ever before.

This perspective of XR as being a community, a home, a collective dream of a better future and a willingness to be arrested for it, is a common one amongst rebels or those who have attended the demonstrations. It is however, not the only viewpoint, and it would be wrong to simply ignore the fact that yes, a lot of Extinction Rebellion protestors are privileged to the extent that they are able and willing to engage with the police, and are happy to be arrested. This may seem totally fine and acceptable for someone like myself, who is white and not reliant on a job that may care about criminal records - but the police and criminal justice system have become symbols of injustice and often death for many transgender people and POC. To have being arrested and engaging with police so close to the heart of the movement, you can see how Extinction Rebellion may alienate and push away potential rebels, who cannot face that risk of arrest for literal fear of their life, and rightly so, or simply cannot accept such a close relationship with the police for the reason that the police have been linked so often to brutality and institutional racism, homophobia and transphobia. As explained by Leah Cowan on gal-dem and Minnie Rahman on Huffington Post, it is clear that a lot of Extinction Rebellion’s rebels are white, and middle class. They therefore have to work hard to to ensure they are shouting alongside POC and working class people, rather than shouting over them - and as felt by many, POC are often largely erased from the climate debate, despite many groups such as Black Lives Matter UK taking part in climate protests over the years, often before their white counterparts.

While I don’t think that any rebel has the intention of not being inclusive, I think it is definitely a classic case of us all needing to check our privileges, and remember and focus who and what we are fighting for. A large quantity of pollution and environmental damage is caused by multinational corporations, mostly owned by British, American or European companies, who exploit the land, workforce and often more relaxed regulations that exist in other countries, often those whose inhabitants are PoC, and often with colonial ties or history. People are paid poorly, their land taken, water tables depleted, their environment polluted - all so we, in countries like England, can benefit from products and services we arguably do not need, while others suffer overseas. These people are paying the price for our inaction against this now, and will continue to do so if we do not act - however if it is them we are fighting for, they must be included in the debate. It is vital that XR create a space in which all types of people can protest and be heard; voices are stronger together, and ultimately white voices have been dominating debates for far too long.

In terms of arrest, I do think that arrests are part of protest; to get attention, to make a stand, often some laws have to be broken to make the news. However, more training for rebels specifically focused on those who do not want to engage with police at all may help, or perhaps organising ways people can participate without having to encounter the police force at all. For the most part though, police do unfortunately come as standard with protest; it is just how it works. I’d argue the amount of police deployed over the last week was rather unnecessary for a peaceful protest, considering there was no threat to life, and I can’t help but wonder where all these uniform officers have been during London’s recent surge in knife crime. If the amount of officers I saw at Waterloo Bridge alone on Saturday night were put on the beat around knife crime hotspots, I wonder if they may have helped reduce more serious crime over the course of the weekend than they did in their giant line, watching us dance. The argument that XR wastes police time is a good one - but XR has never asked for that amount of police, or needs them - 10 police could have monitored Waterloo Bridge, while the other 90 or so (it looked like a lot) could have been sent to work on things with a much higher threat to public safety than a group of people peacefully singing for Mother Earth. I don’t want to sound like I am criticising the police force exactly - more just pointing out the difference in response from those in power over this in comparison to knife crime and protecting young boys on our streets.

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Another issue that has arisen from the protests is the effect on the health service, and those who need to access it. Roads closing and transport diversions have impacted the ease with which people have been able to travel to hospitals to receive treatment, and affected ambulance routes in emergencies. While I know this was never Extinction Rebellion’s intention, I do agree that more consultation with hospitals and ambulance drivers could have shown more effort to reduce this impact, or perhaps even changed what spots in London they chose to occupy. I do think this has been considered by XR, but since there is still an impact, more obvious effort to minimise this as much as possible would only do their campaign a favour in terms of public opinion. While it’s a common story that issues like this arise after a movement has begun, it is what Extinction Rebellion do now that will help clarify to us what is important to their cause - and if it is human life we are fighting for, we must work to minimise the impact on human health in the Capital while the protests continue.

It’s now 10.45am on Tuesday, and the 8th day of Extinction Rebellion’s international rebellion. I’m interested to see what changes will occur in their action after the public meeting held yesterday at Marble Arch. The thought that within this movement, they are already preparing to debate and adapt strategy and listen to one another is so exciting for us to see in a country basically run on party politics, where the thought of coming together to achieve a collective goal is essentially unheard of. Yes, XR still have a lot of work to do to ensure they are including the voices of people from all walks of life, and making sure their target is those who deserve it, and not those who just need hospital access, for example - but they are making huge waves in the climate debate and have activated a social movement unlike any I have seen in my lifetime. Things are changing, and while no individual or group is ever perfect, I think Extinction Rebellion have a lot of potential to get the job done, and have shown interest to grow and adapt and perhaps fix their issues as they go. I’m excited to see where this week takes us, and once again I will be joining them on the streets; this planet is ours, and I have never felt so close to being able to reclaim it.

Note: If you have any comments or thoughts to share on the XR protests or ideas I have discussed in this article, please feel free to get in touch via email at info518magazine@gmail.com. I am aware also of the fact that I have written this whilst being white and therefore privileged, and so I do urge you to read these articles on gal-dem and Huffington Post so you can have a full perspective on the protests. I hope I have expressed my thoughts fairly and openly but if you have any issues please do get in touch.

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