Environmental protesters swamp London

Extinction Rebellion coordinated protests over 15 days to bring the British capital to a standstill in an attempt to get government to accede to three climate protection demands.

Regent’s Canal is a wet ribbon of calm in London’s wan spring sunshine. Low-slung narrowboats hug the towpath, motionless and mum. Coots flap after each other, black against the dark water, bleating flatly as they go. Cyclists sail past, silent but for smoothly clicking gears. Runners huff, puff and thud into and out of sight.

It’s as peaceful a scene as could be had in one of the world’s most siren-strewn cities. But, in a particular boat moored near Islington, peace has been paused. The flag of Extinction Rebellion (XR) – a stark, encircled, empty hourglass, or is it an X? – flies from the stern.

A woman and two children emerge from below deck and alight on to dry land. Carrying posters, they are en route to the revolution downtown. This is what they’ve signed up for, as per XR’s website:

“Our leaders have failed us. It’s time to rebel – and have a damn good time doing it.”

That was on Monday 15 April, the first of a planned 15 days of protest at key sites in central London. Demands? Only three. But they were quite something:

– For government to “tell the truth … about how deadly our situation is”;
– To “enact legally binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the United Kingdom to net zero by 2025”; and
– For the establishment of a citizens’ assembly because “these demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war” and because “we do not … trust our government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this”.

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By Tuesday 16 April, more than a thousand sit-in demonstrators had been arrested and 53 charged. Public space had been occupied, and road and rail traffic disrupted, sometimes by people glueing themselves to trains. Others chained themselves to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s garden fence – the unhappiness extended past government.

Farhana Yamin, 54, a prominent climate lawyer and academic who proudly wears a flash of grandmotherly grey hair amid the black, earned her arrest by crashing through a police line to glue herself to the pavement outside oil company Shell’s London office.

Still on the ground, her hands stuck to the concrete, she said, “Everybody in that building is treading on the fate of the world. Shell has spent millions delaying legislation, spent millions confusing people. They have known for a long time what is at stake.”

15 April 2019: Extinction Rebellion environmental campaigners unveil a boat in the centre of Oxford Circus in London, having halted traffic to get government to comply with certain climate protection demands. (Photograph by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

‘Excuses to do nothing’

In his book, Losing Earth: A Recent History, which was published on 9 April, Nathaniel Rich offered corroboration for that view: In 1980, “Exxon didn’t concern itself primarily with how much the world would warm. It wanted to know how much of the warming could be blamed on Exxon … Industry scientists, at the behest of their corporate bosses, reviewed the problem; finding good reasons for alarm and better excuses to do nothing.”

Nigerian writer Ben Okri dared to catch the mood on BBC radio, connecting the dots between the anger on the streets and the fire that ripped through Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, on the same day the protests started: 

The young are either climate-change fighting or are, in quiet despair, perishing
While, on islands, empire nostalgia secretly, or not so secretly, obsesses the old ...
Flames are spreading in our every sleep
Flames of the earth
Flames of the future
Sky flames
Polar flames
Truth flames

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London’s protests were mounted at Parliament Square, Heathrow Airport, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge and Marble Arch. The International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands was also hit, as were New York City Hall in the United States and sites in Berlin, Heidelberg, Rome, Brussels, Madrid, Denver and Melbourne.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 16-year-old in long plaits who last year stopped going to school on Fridays to strike for a better environmental future, inspiring thousands in other countries to follow her lead, told a crowd in Rome on Tuesday: “They lied to us. They gave us false hope. They told us that the future was something to look forward to. And, yes, some of us can have whatever we want. For now. Many of us can buy much more than we will ever need. But the only thing we really need is a future.”

Thunberg, whose Twitter following has grown to more than 475 000 since she first took her stance, brought a similar message to the UK Parliament on Tuesday.

Opposition leaders met her and smiled cheesily for photographs. UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s absence was marked by an empty chair, complete with name tag. Organisers said she had not responded to their invitation. May’s spokesperson said he didn’t know if she had been asked to attend.

26 April 2019: Protesters pack away their tents behind a new piece of street art in London that is said to be by the artist known as Banksy. The child in the artwork is holding a small Extinction Rebellion sign. (Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

‘Beyond politics’

The protesters and the law got along just fine for the first few days. “I think the police are very glad we’re here because they all have their own families,” one activist said. “This is beyond politics. This about the fact that we are a species and we are actually facing extinction. We are in the sixth mass extinction, and that includes the police.”

Another, like many a released arrestee recently returned to the fray, said: “Other than how they took me away, they were absolutely lovely and very sympathetic.”

As he spoke, a man playing a guitar nearby offering a rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody reached the line, “If I’m not back this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on …” Several protesters’ eyes lit up and met those of surrounding uniforms. And a good laugh was had by all.

But by the afternoon of Tuesday 23 April, the 10 000 police deployed to contain and then disperse the demonstrators tightened their grip and threatened a more stringent application of the law.

Enough, they seemed to say. Time to grow up and go home. But everybody knows that, if children like the two who clambered off a narrowboat on a sunny morning a week ago are to live long enough to have their own kids and tell them what they did for the planet, capitalism will have to die.

Regent’s Canal knows this, too. But its water is dark with denial. And dirt.

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