I hadn’t previously heard about ‘Swarming’, a system of road-blocking which involves a number of affinity groups blocking road junctions for 7 minutes and then leaving the road for 3 minutes. Police were informed in advance of the days when this would happen and we were committed to do all that we could to ensure the passage of emergency service vehicles. I was involved in speaking to the drivers of the first few stopped vehicles to let them know how long we would remain on the road and why we were doing this. Their responses were a mixture of anger, frustration, understanding and support. We offered drivers a chocolate or cake and told them how long before we opened the road. Then if they were willing, we explained why are doing this and offered a leaflet. I soon found myself responding to the drivers on the inside lane where there were many buses. About three quarters of bus-drivers opened their window and the majority of them accepted a leaflet. If their response was at all positive, I asked if they would be willing to open the door for me to speak with passengers. I warmed particularly to one who opened the door before I could ask and said ‘’Would you like to come in?’’ I explained to passengers that I am a grandfather who has big concerns about climate breakdown and what our descendants are heading for, and asked if anyone would like a leaflet. One put up a hand and others followed suit. The driver smiled and said ‘’You’ve got time to go upstairs!’’
We were joined by many young people and our experienced coordinators asked if anyone would be willing to take that role and be given support in developing it. Two of them stepped forward. The job carries considerable responsibility in ensuring that the group gets on and off the road safely and responds to the unpredictability of motorists and pedestrians. I saw these two take charge like ducks to water, and was later stunned to learn that the younger is 17.
All who wish to take part in Extinction Rebellion actions commit to accepting a ‘binding framework for non-violent direct actions’ (see Extinction Rebellion Action Consensus). This includes a commitment to being ‘strictly non-violent in our actions and communications with members of the public, workers, the authorities and each other at all times’. To get near this ideal is probably a life-long learning process so it should be no surprise when we fail. Being faced with a very angry or distressed person is likely to trigger fear or helplessness. That is sometimes so for me. The big advantage of an affinity group is that the support of others can bring us through. One incident was when two angry motorists grabbed the banner and tried to drag it to the ground. The coordinator saw that the lights were red and quickly told us to leave the road. The motorists, satisfied that they had ‘won’ got into their cars and drove off.
The anger of individual drivers who stayed in their cars was often much easier to respond to than that of pedestrians. Being willing to try to connect with the concerns of both was much more valuable than leaving them fuming or shouting. The encounter which has most stayed with me is of a distraught carer who was weeping about an elderly patient not being able to take medication on time. My colleague asked if she would accept the fare for the underground but she was unconfident about that way of travel, and suddenly set off to try to find the next bus stop. I am reasonably experienced in nonviolent communication but realise that I, and probably most others, need much role-playing of these situations before doing this work again.
Swarming is clearly the most controversial form of action in which we took part. We are seeking to achieve the aims of letting Government and all politicians know that inaction or half-hearted action is at an end; and of alerting citizens to the reality of the deepening crisis. Our request to all who are critical of anything we do is to tell us and, if at all possible, also to suggest alternatives which will still achieve these aims.
(A word about safety for others who become involved in this kind of action. Where there are two or three lanes of traffic it’s essential to take care going into these lanes because cyclists and motor cyclists use them. Always peek into a lane when coming around the corner of a high vehicle. And if the traffic is on a bend, ensure that you and the coordinator can see each other so that the road is only re-opened if you are obviously safe.)
The support system of well-being for CCA and XR met many needs. Whenever we came out of police custody people were there to greet us. One of our group was released at 5a.m. on a cold night and someone was there to ensure safety and care. I wore thermals and plenty of layers for outside lock-ons and took blankets but found that the cold still seeped through. Requests to our well-being people for more blankets were rapidly met and many protesters helped out too. One brought an aluminium foil wrap and a nearby policewoman asked if I was already cold, explaining that this foil only maintains heat and doesn’t build it up: so if I was already cold it would keep me cold. I thanked her and said ‘’My daughter will be very pleased with you because she worries about me’’. It seemed to touch her.
On my final release from a police station, I was met by three support people and one of them offered to walk with me to find Piccadilly Circus Underground. As we walked along Regent Street on a November day, Christmas shopping was in full swing and Black Friday had already passed. This turning of the birthday of Jesus into an enormous money-making venture and gross consumption disturbed me; it’s exactly the opposite of the way of life which he calls his followers to live. I remembered his words ‘’You cannot serve both God and money’’. How many of the people around us are deliberately kept ignorant by mainstream media of the World Wildlife Fund’s research that we in the UK are currently using the Earth as though we have 3 planets. This reckless consumption is at a terrible cost to our children and grandchildren, the poorest peoples, and other-than-human life. I sometimes find it unbearable to stay with that reality because I feel overwhelmed by the extent and mindlessness of the process; but another aspect is because however much simple living I achieve, I remain implicated in the overall system. How can the fetish of more economic growth be justified by any politician or citizen in the materially rich countries? For Christians this is a crucial area and Pope Francis has given a sound lead by calling for de-growth in materially rich countries alongside healthy growth in poor countries. (Laudato si para 193).
Our well-being support people were an essential link in the chain of effectiveness of these actions, bringing food, warmth and human support at times of loneliness and stress.
By Phil Kingston