Extinction Rebellion’s Urgent Environmental Protest Breaks New Ground While Drawing on the Occupy, Anti-Globalisation and Road Protest Movements

18.4.19

Climate emergency: Extinction Rebellion campaigners – mainly featuring an impressive samba band – marching from the camp at Marble Arch to the Oxford Circus occupation today, April 18, 2019. Most of Oxford Street was closed to traffic, like so many roads in central London, including Waterloo Bridge (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Well, this is getting interesting. On Monday, when the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion began its occupation of five sites in central London — Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Marble Arch — I wasn’t sure that the ongoing intention of crashing the system through mass arrests, and waking people up to the need for change by disrupting their lives was going to work. 

I’d taken an interest when Extinction Rebellion started in October — although I was still largely preoccupied by the occupation (and subsequent eviction) of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford — but I’d ended up thinking that, although they had secured significant media coverage, which was very helpful, and their ‘branding’ was extremely striking, this wasn’t going to be enough. 

I was somewhat heartened when, in related actions, school kids — inspired by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — got involved in climate strikes, and I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more on that front, but on Monday I couldn’t see how Extinction Rebellion’s latest coordinated protests were going to work. The police seemed, for the most part, to be trying not to give the protestors what they wanted — mass arrests — and although the crowds I encountered at Parliament Square and Oxford Circus reminded me of aspects of social movements of the past — Reclaim the Streets and the road protest movement from the ’90s, the anti-globalisation movement of the late ’90s and early 2000s, and 2011’s Occupy movement — I couldn’t see how the movement was going to be able to take the next step, and to build the momentum necessary for significant change.

That may still be the case, but I saw something yesterday and today that gave me hope that a genuine disruption to the system is possible. 

It was stunningly hot yesterday, and to get to the Waterloo Bridge occupation, which I wanted to witness, I had cycled through a smog-shrouded London, making my way from my home in Lewisham, in south east London, over Southwark Bridge, through the City with its absurd and endlessly greedy building projects, and passing through Temple, where, with a few noble exceptions, lawyers have spent centuries protecting the wealthy, and no one has given a damn about the environment.

All this changed as I reached Waterloo Bridge, normally hideously choked with heavy traffic, which was empty of all but cyclists and relieved pedestrians. As I approached the Waterloo end, there was a stage, various stalls providing food and information, people happily lounging around, and trees brought to the bridge by campaigners — and it wasn’t lost on anyone that, with no expenditure whatsoever, we now had a garden bridge without the insane amounts of money squandered on the ludicrous garden bridge vanity project that Boris Johnson had thrown his weight behind during his eight execrable years as London’s Mayor.

Waterloo Bridge transformed into a green bridge on Monday April 15, 2019, the first day of Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of four sites in central London. The chalk, by the way, is water soluble, so it isn’t causing any permanent damage (Photo: Andy Worthington).

On Waterloo Bridge, everyone realised how pleasant London would be if there was, suddenly and permanently, signficantly less traffic. And it has been the same elsewhere in London as so many major roads have been shut down: most of Regent Street, much of Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Parliament Square.

I hope you have the time to check out this little video I took, of the amazing vibe on the bridge. I don’t know who these women performers were, but they had great spirit and passion, and the dancers’ joy was indicative of the spirit of resistance that is building up.

Noticeably, the police have been unable to stop the protests. They tried and failed on Monday night, arresting many people, but didn’t manage to clear the bridge, and yesterday afternoon, when I was there, their efforts were noticeably half-hearted, as they arrested no more than around ten people, a token gesture rather than anything more significant. 

Ironies abound. Here is a protest movement whose members want to be arrested, but, in response, find the police refusing to give them what they want, meaning that their protest sites have actually become full-blown occupation sites instead. Then, it transpires, the police, short of resources, can’t deal with the numbers involved in the occupations, and, even if they had the resources, couldn’t really justify mass arrests of people who are pretty scrupulously well-behaved, include a wide cross-section of society, and do not involve alcohol or drug use, historically an easy way for situations involving potential conflict to get out of hand.

Even if the bridge is cleared, however, I can’t see Extinction Rebellion fading away. The demand for an urgent and immediate end to the ruinous status quo of the arrogant, amnesiac and thoroughly self-centred culture of the countries of the West, and their capitals, including, of course, London, remains as pertinent as it was last October, when Extinction Rebellion launched, with three demands: for the government to “tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens”, for the government to “enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels”, and for a “national Citizens’ assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.”

After my skepticism on Monday about the possibility of success for the campaign via its aims of mass arrest and disruption, yesterday, and again today, I felt genuine people power, and change in the air — and I do hope you’ll also consider getting involved.

If you’re in London, or can get to London, I urge you to come on down. The authorities don’t know what to do with such a large and peaceful gathering, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded people from all walks of life, who all share a huge concern for the environment, and with changing the way our broken, greed-driven materialistic society currently operates. This is, as everyone involved keeps explaining, a climate emergency that won’t go away, and that requires as many of us as possible to get involved.

Normal man: in many ways, this man I met on Tuesday April 17 on Waterloo Bridge exemplified what Extinction Rebellion is trying to do, and what the movement needs to do if it is to effect major change: to attract significant numbers of people from outside traditional activist circles, who are prepared to take a stand because doing nothing is no longer tolerable. Many similar people have been taking part – parents fearful for their children’s future, for example, or people who have never engaged in protest before, but see the impending environmental apocalypse as too dire to ignore (Photo: Andy Worthington).

How did we get here?

To put things in perspective, this has been a long time coming. In just four days’ time (on April 22), it will be 49 years since the first Earth Day, which “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favour of environmental reform.” 

By the time I reached adolescence, green activism led to extraordinary protests; primarily, the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire, a permanent camp opposed to proposals to host US-controlled Cruise missiles on UK soil, which also provided an opportunity for a radical women’s movement to begin to be heard.

Another source of dissent was the pro-green, anti-nuclear activities of the free festival movement, a collection of green activists, anarchists and travellers who had taken to the road to escape the grinding poverty and unemployment of Thatcher’s Britain in old coaches and trucks, and who held protests/free festivals at green targets like power stations, and who also set up another permanent protest camp against a second proposed Cruise missile base at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.

Molesworth was evicted on February 6, 1985 by 1,500 troops, the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, symbolically led by the defense secretary Michael Heseltine. The travellers were subsequently harried from site to site across southern England until a final showdown took place on June 1, 1985, at the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,300 police from six counties and the MOD violently decommissioned the convoy, a story explained in detail in my book The Battle of the Beanfield. The convoy was en route to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic jamboree, which, in its later years, became the size of a town, and occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June.

After the Beanfield, Thatcher’s hopes that she had crushed counter-cultural dissent were revealed as unfounded when two new and unexpected developments took place: the Ecstasy-fuelled rave scene, and the road protest movement, a direct response to the clampdown on travellers, which located direct action not through travel and guerrilla-style occupations of land, but through protestors rooting themselves to one spot, defending landscapes threatened by unnecessary road developments.  

The road protest movement, which was extraordinary in its scope, in turn spawned Reclaim the Streets, which was clearly a big influence on Extinction Rebellion, beginning with the occupation of Camden High Street, via two cars symbolically crashing into one another, and spreading around the world, along the way involving other significant occupations like the takeover of the M41 link road by Shepherd’s Bush, which was also another big influence on Extinction Rebellion.

The road protests then fed into the anti-globalisation movement, which started on June 18, 1999, with the Carnival Against Capital (J18) in various locations, including the City of London, and was timed to coincide with the 25th G8 Summit in Cologne. 

Huge anti-globalisation protests continued, but 2001 was a bleak year. In July, in Genoa, Italy, police killed an anti-globalisation protestor, and in September, America was attacked. In the “war on terror” that has followed, Islamophobia has increased, and civil liberties curtailed. In 2003, the largest protests the world has ever seen — against the illegal invasion of Iraq — took place, but millions who objected were brushed aside like a single fly.

Then came the banker-led global economic crash of 2008, followed, particularly in the UK, by a cynical “age of austerity” designed to cut the state provision of all services, with savage outcomes for the poor. Student protests followed, and in September 2011 the Occupy movement began on Wall Street, the financial centre of New York, which spread around the world, and also clearly provided inspiration for Extinction Rebellion.

St. Paul’s Cathedral was the venue in London where a tent city took root, lasting for several months. Occupy set up non-hierarchical decision-making, and took protest into new territory. Because getting together and marching and then going home wasn’t enough (perhaps demonstrated most vividly following the Iraq war protests), the new movement realised that taking root in the landscape, asking questions and refusing to go home was a good start for a new call for radical change.

It’s taken until now for the next stage in this long story to begin, and it has taken an impending catastrophe to bring it about — the already-unfolding environmental collapse of life on earth, the sixth great Extinction in the planet’s history. 

While previous movements have often found their message diluted, both by internal difficulties and by blanket mainstream media antipathy, Extinction Rebellion seems to have great power through being highly focused — on crashing the existing system, because it is incapable of stopping itself, and because we have run out of time. I do hope you can get involved.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    As we reach the end of the fourth day of Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of four sites in central London – Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch – here are my reflections about the timing and significance of the movement, which is a compelling update on protest movements from the protest camps of the ’80s via the road protest movement and the anti-globalisation movement to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street.

    There’s a real energy to Extinction Rebellion’s campaign and ever-increasing numbers of people are getting involved. They have a compelling argument about the need for urgent change to tackle an unprecedented climate emergency that, crucially, has already begun. If you can do, please get involved. The occupations will be continuing throughout the Easter weekend.

  2. Tom says...

    Stay strong.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. I appreciate all those who are staying out overnight, and are prepared to be arrested.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    I think that a lot of people lay awake at night and fear for the future of their children. How can they not? They can’t do much to tackle this fear because they have to work and pay the rent etc, but they are terrified. I also think that, despite what the mainstream media likes to make us believe, many many actually welcome the fact that someone is doing something profound to confront and change this fear into hope and real action. x

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well said, Neil – and also, while many people support what’s happening from a distance, many others are finding a way to take time out of their lives to come along and take part in the occupations. As you know, some of the conversations taking place are inspiring. I’ve been most impressed, actually, by self-defined “ordinary people” joining in, stating that they can’t just pretend that nothing is happening, or that they’re too busy.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Zoe Young wrote:

    so many people I’ve given flyers to are full thumbs up good luck big smile supportive. I’d say 90%

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s an encouraging statistic, Zoe, and one I’d echo from seeing how few people have been really complaining.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Congratulations to David Attenborough for finally realising the scale and severity of man-made environmental destruction and for persuading the BBC to make the imminent environmental collapse of the natural world that he has spent his life championing an urgent broadcasting priority.

    This was devastating, and devastatingly important TV, showing how our planet is burning because of our actions (the 20 hottest years since records began have been in the last 22 years), and how we are depleting resources at an unprecedented rate (the section on the scale of global deforestation is desperately shocking).

    The timing was exactly right, feeding directly into the demands for an end to the ruinous status quo, and for an urgent and immediate change of direction that are taking place on the streets of London, and elsewhere around the world, as part of Extinction Rebellion.

    The greed of banks and corporations, of investors and shareholders, and people’s insatiable materialism and their demand for more of everything has brought us close to irreversible disaster. Business as usual is OVER. We must demand a total transformation of society NOW.

    See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00049b1/climate-change-the-facts

  9. martin gugino says...

    So well written. I am so in solidarity with the people in the streets. How can you not be? Time for a change? Past time.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the support, Martin. Great to hear from you.

  11. Tom says...

    With Attenborough being allowed to speak out, maybe the BBC is finally cleaning up it’s act.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I think it wasn’t until quite recently, Tom, that David Attenborough fully realised how dire the situation is. Just five months ago, the journalist George Monbiot prominently criticised him, via his regular Guardian column, for having “betrayed the living world he loves” by failing to tell the truth about the environmental crisis: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/david-attenborough-world-environment-bbc-films
    It seems Attenborough finally got the message!

  13. Damo says...

    Went on Monday and yesterday had a real fun time really enjoyed was wonderful to see the young people’s passion and energy reminded me of reclaim the streets though watching our repulsive msm on all the news channels these vile reporters trying to twist and demonise.. But your… Hurting.. Ordinary working people.. Sooo twisted.. Soo snide.. Trying to turn the public against.. This will affect everyone it seems of all organisations only the BBC is warning us

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s been amazing and inspiring, hasn’t it, Damo? And I’m very impressed that, finally, the BBC have acknowledged the urgency of the environmental destruction. David Attenborough’s programme was very powerful. I was actually shocked to see such brutal truths being shown on primetime BBC. Perfect timing.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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