What it’s like to be at an Extinction Rebellion protest

By Aram Hawa

From the 15th to the 18th of April I can proudly say I was involved in the XR protests which struck London this spring and brought business in the bustling city centre to a hurtling stop. Having not attended a protest since the Iraq war one back in 2003, I was joyously amazed at the turnout. Hordes of XR clad protestors began gravitating around Parliament Square as the sun approached midday, defiantly grasping their banners and thought provoking picket signs. Some were draped in fossilised carcasses, signifying the monstrous destination for humanity if their voices were not listened to, others were dressed casually, if not a little free spirited, but all wore the same expression of an emphatically determined activist who was about to do something a bit out of the ordinary.

I think people have a misperception that environmental activism is for tree hugging hippies who have an aversion to showers and shoes. Whilst undoubtedly there are these elements in the following, the vast majority of members are normal people who have become increasingly aware of the morbid nature of the planets future and have decided to act on it. It was so heart warming to speak to and watch elderly people politely yet defiantly refuse the demands of the police to remove themselves from the roads. What on Earth would drive them to do this and risk incarceration? Well, exactly that, the Earth. These well educated people were equipped with the latest scientific findings on the impending doom and havoc that climate change is threatening us with. Once you understand their behaviour in the global context of a planet warming up irreversibly, transforming lush green forests into barren deserted toxic waste lands and bountiful thriving seas into oscillating graveyards, their behaviour becomes completely rational! More than anything these people care, they care about the miseries we are inflicting upon the planet in our consumption based lives, they care about the thousands of animal and insect species which are being pushed to and falling off from the bridge of extinction, they care about the quality of life their grandchildren will have when the air they breathe is noxious and the water they drink is all but gone. Ultimately they care about the planet, encompassing all the sentient beings who reside here and the intimate and fragile relationship we have with our ecosystem. With this in mind, those elderly protestors amiably quarrelling with the police become the sane ones and the swarms of shoppers, tourists and commuters metres away become the ones deserving of a psychiatric health check up. How are they so comfortable living their lives when everything at stake? How can they contribute to the machinery which is making it so? Do they really not care despite everything being at stake? This is not something which can just be ignored. This is why XR must bring everything to a grinding halt in order for those who lead us to take a painful, unfaltering look at where our priorities lie.

The energy of being there is hard to describe, an infectious buzz pulses through the crowd. Organising the logistics was of course at the heart of the commotion but high faculty, stimulating conversations flourished in abundance. Protestors discussed what it was that brought them there, their fears and trepidations about the changing times, what they intended to achieve in reorganising the political architecture, all the while gregariously greeting and engaging with the bewildered commuters they were blocking. If I had to describe the whole experience in one statement it would probably go along the lines of – one of the most rewarding, emotionally infused, collectively harmonious, surreal experiences of my life.

I distinctly remember being sat on Waterloo Bridge with the thirty or so other protestors who were acting as the front line of defence against the teams of police sternly observing close by. One by one protestors were engaged with by police squadrons, isolated and sullenly informed of their supposed wrong doings. Most looked away at this point, others chose to question the foundations by which the police could instigate the arrest, it was a simple delaying tactic and the end result was always the same. Every time someone was dragged off into the back of a police van a cheer followed them, kind words of love and admiration for their commitment filled the air, a show of appreciation for the unknown price to be paid.

In the midst of this a women began singing at the front, her voice was sweet and her words brought about a stir in the crowd. Suddenly a number of protestors began to weep, it was strange to witness, there didn’t seem to be any single event which should have caused this reaction, but I understood. We, a group of misfits and strangers were all stood together at that moment in time with the sun gently blessing us with its rays and the wind tenderly dancing in our hair, how could such a world punish us with threats of imprisonment when all we wanted was to safeguard that which provides life and blood to us all? We stood peaceful and defiant, we knew what we were doing was right, throughout history small groups of well intentioned people have always been the catalysts for progressive societal change. That however does not lend enough weight to the ominous feeling of impending arrest by a militarised adversary. Personally, I have never felt such a connection to others as I did during that week. It is easy for a virulent disdain for mankind to develop when you are seemingly alone, constantly learning of the newest atrocities committed to a defenceless nature on a daily basis. I have never truly bonded with groups for shared interests in things such as sports teams and leisure pursuits, their deafening chants and pernicious rhymes always appeared superficial to me. It was different this time, for once I had found others who cared for the planet as much as I did, others who were also willing to risk the ridicule and scrutiny of everyone else in defending the rights of the Earth, others who were eager to discuss their ideas on what can be done to protect her from those who would wish to do her harm, it was truly humbling to be in the presence of such people with whom I shared so much. The song being sung reflected this sentiment, it was a truly beautiful spectacle to behold, one I will cherish forever. A moment which resonated with the entire experience of the protests; the chaos surging ravenously around, yet we, pious in our beliefs and determined in our actions, stood firm together, awaiting the smoke to engulf us.

And the arrest itself? By the fourth day of the protest and having witnessed hundreds of my brothers and sisters being taken away I began to feel within myself a mesmerising fire ignite, a shimmering manifestation of duty to the cause, a call to arms. I hadn’t come all this way, shared the highs and lows with my comrades to not take the final plunge.

Seeing photos of the dozens of cohorts of neon coloured police teams descending on Parliament Square to break our blockades, I quickly hastened with two other rebels from Oxford Circus. Upon arriving I quickly realised that the photos had not done the situation justice; hundreds of police officers stood circling the Houses of Parliament, like vultures in frenzy they shot each other glances and nods, ravenously deciding which victim to take next.

Without thinking twice I grabbed my rucksack and ran to the corner of the square, one of two remaining fortified positions that still bore the hallmarks of a committed group of rebels. I pushed through the crowd of intrigued onlookers, bursting through into the centre I threw myself to the ground, joining the fifteen or so other brave souls who in their beliefs and actions, were demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice their freedom for the greater good. It did not take long for my time to come. Two officers paved their way towards me, their heavy duty shoes echoed loudly across the callous street floor. As they squatted over me, their arsenal of weapons dangled cautiously close to my face, a baton, mace spray, handcuffs and others I couldn’t discern. They stared intensely, their expressions bore no emotions, the mask that is used to conceal ones humanity was wrapped tightly around their faces. They read to me the crime that I was committing, detailing the law which had designated obstructing the highway as a crime, they asked me if I understood. As rehearsed, I gave them nothing, not responding in any meaningful way, listening instead to the encouraging songs of the rebels which at the time seemed to take on a defiant childlike innocence.

The sentence was given, “You are now under arrest, you do not have to say anything but…” the words fell out of his mouth like a rapid river over a cliff edge. I was walked off past crowds of civilians and protestors, heading directly towards the den of police vans conglomerated around a patch of grass where the other detainees were being held in anxious anticipation.

To be honest, the next twelve hours were comfortable and at times comical. The officers, slightly bewildered by the mammoth logistical task before them of coordinating the cell spaces across London for the hundreds of arrested protestors, regressed into a relaxed state. The good will and intentions of the protestors rubbed off and laughter and kind words were exchanged. The long queues forced a harmonious engagement between both sides, allowing the officers humanity to seep through the gaps in their armour, cascading into an angelic bubbling of friendly human connection. Things carried on in this vein for the four hours that it took to check me into a cell, after which a thin bed and my book provided the nights entertainment.

Without being formally investigated I was released in the early hours of the morning. Upon being led out of the final security door I was greeted pleasantly with smiles, warming words and a well earned brew by the XR arrestee support group who had been waiting all night for us. How comprehensively XR had thought out this entire operation, the care and devotion which had gone into arranging such a post release reception filled my thoughts as I left the building, my admiration still growing for the organisation as I walked down the miserable and dreary London streets. I was of course heading straight back to the protests.