On Saturday, thousands of environmental protesters occupied five bridges in central London, one of the largest acts of co-ordinated civil disobedience this country has ever seen.
The protest, organised by environmental activists, Extinction Rebellion, saw approximately six thousand of people young and old descend on the Waterloo, Lambeth, Blackfriars, Southwark, and Westminster bridges. It one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the UK in decades, one of the largest of all time. Of the many protesters, eighty-five were arrested.
Protests began amassing on the bridges from as early as 9am on Saturday morning, having travelled from all over the country to take part. The day was brisk but the Sun was shining, perfect conditions for the protest to take place. The scene on Westminster Bridge originally felt a little tense, with police presence seemingly increased. A police officer walks past two women and says jokingly “Good morning ladies, are you here for the protest? Are you gonna be nice?” They laughed. There as a palpable energy to the area, as cars still streaked across the bridge, as the people who gathered on the sides knew what was to come.
While some had been there since 9am, and the roads were meant to be occupied at 10am, it was 11am when the protest began en masse. Police were previously informed this protest would be taking place, so that alternative routes for emergency vehicles could be plotted. Chants of “No more coal, no more oil, keep your carbon in the soil!”, and “What do we want? Climate justice!” can be heard echoing across the bridge. The mood is fun; both spirited and passionate. People have brought musical instruments and perform impromptu songs.
‘Rebellion Day’ as it was named, was put on in an effort to force the governments to treat climate breakdown as a serious issue, influencing them to take more action on the crisis and develop a new set of policies that would change the UK’s environmental stance and emission rate.
“The ‘social contract’ has been broken … [and] it is therefore not only our right but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty and to rebel to defend life itself,” said Gail Bradbrook, one of the organisers.
The vast majority of the crowd were those who had either never protested before, or more likely, never taken part in an act of civil disobedience. Most arrests that happened over the course of the day had been for obstruction under the Highways act.
The protest seemed to go incredibly well on Westminster Bridge, which had the largest numbers, but throughout the day the group at Lambeth Bridge struggled, and by 2pm the blockade of Southwark Bridge had been abandoned, although movement of protesters between all remaining bridges continued, with numbers being supplied where needed.
In the afternoon there was a plethora of speakers that stood on a podium with mic in hand. In their democratic, open framework for the event, anyone who wanted to speak was allowed to speak. Poetry was read, songs were sung (with group participation), and environmentalists from all walks of life got to have their say.
The topics of the day ranged from ‘The law of ecocide’, where environmental advocates would hopefully in future be protected by law if classified as a ‘conscientious protector’. Class politics were also on the table, after a member of a eco-conscious communist group took to the podium. In the speech given by Jack Harries, the environmental activist, filmmaker, and YouTuber, Harries exclaimed “It comes down to power”, and that we should in future value “Planet over profit”.
“Climate change doesn’t care about borders. Climate change doesn’t care about fucking Donald Trump”Jack Harries, in his speech on Saturday.
“Given the scale of the ecological crisis we are facing this is the appropriate scale of expansion,” said Bradbrook. “Occupying the streets to bring about change as our ancestors have done before us. Only this kind of large-scale economic disruption can rapidly bring the government to the table to discuss our demands. We are prepared to risk it all for our futures.”
Later on in the day, the scheduled talks, part of the ‘Extinction Rebellion Assembly’, began, with six environmentalist figures, whose homelands had been disrupted by undemocratic processes through environmental destruction.
The environmentalists were Raki Ap of Free West Papua Campaign, Rumana Hashem of Phulbari Solidarity Group (Bangladesh) as well as representatives from Ecuador, Kenya, Ghana and Mongolia. The final speaker was Tina Louise Rothery from the UK-based Anti-Fracking Lancashire Nanas.
Extinction Rebellion are calling for the government to make sure that the UK’s net carbon emissions are reduced to zero by the year 2025. They also call for a ‘Citizen’s Assembly’ to be established, in an effort to recreate WWII-era mass organisation in an effort to tackle climate breakdown.
The group, in a declaration letter, stated “While our academic perspectives and expertise may differ, we are united on this one point: we will not tolerate the failure of this or any other government to take robust and emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis. The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.”
It has only been a few months since Extinction Rebellion was established, but it has already founded groups that stretch from one end of the UK to the other, and raised £50k in small donations. It is seemingly the first group to draw in environmentalists of all types.
George Monbiot, Guardian Columnist & Writer
“Something I have been waiting for, for a very long time, is happening. People are risking their liberty in defence of the living world in very large numbers. It is only when we are prepared to take such action that people begin to recognise the seriousness of our existential crisis.”
“Rebellion Day will disrupt London. It is not a step we take lightly. If things continue as is, we face an extinction greater than the one that killed the dinosaurs. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a worthy ancestor,” said Tiana Jacout of Extinction Rebellion.
“We represent a huge number of concerned citizens. Scientists, academics, politicians, teachers, lawyers, students, children, parents, and grandparents. But we have no choice. We have tried marching, and lobbying, and signing petitions. Nothing has brought about the change that is needed. And no damage that we incur can compare to the criminal inaction of the UK government in the face of climate and ecological breakdown.”
There is a second Rebellion day, Rebellion Day 2, to be held on Saturday November 24th.
You can find out more about Extinction Rebellion on their website.