We went to the radical climate group’s offices to hear their plans for civil disobedience.
A coffin inside XR’s temporary headquarters. Photos: Jake Lewis
On Tuesday, as temperatures in London spiked at 21.2C – the warmest winter day on record – Extinction Rebellion (XR) gathered national media to lay out their next steps.
At the climate activism group’s temporary headquarters near Euston railway station, members spoke to the audience as brilliant February sunshine poured through the windows, as if to serve as a troubling reminder of why radical action is necessary. In XR’s case, that means mass civil disobedience as a way to force the government into actually doing something about our rapidly degrading environment – and if that ends in them being arrested, so be it.
XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook was fresh from an appearance at Westminster Magistrates Court. She and five others had been charged with criminal damage – Bradbrook allegedly spray-painted “frack off” on a government building – and all had pleaded not guilty. It had been an emotional day, not least because the judge was, coincidentally, sending them for trial on the 16th of April, a day after XR begin their full-scale international rebellion with coordinated actions on the 15th.
At times, Bradbrook appeared upset as she delivered an abridged version of XR’s frank and profound talk on the appalling state of the climate. We heard how when it comes to damage control, all we have done to date is “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic”, and were repeatedly reminded of how “fucked” we all are. But Bradbrook offered nuggets of optimism too, and issued a call to arms to help restore our world.
Hope at XR comes in the form of action. “We can’t just leave it to the COP, we can’t just leave it to the Climate Change Committee’s review of the UK’s long-term target to sort it out,” insisted Farhana Yamin, a climate change lawyer and XR activist. “Because the entire system is out of kilter, out of touch, and it is certainly not working fast enough.”
XR is planning a relentless campaign of disruptive yet peaceful civil disobedience ahead of the dawn of the sustained rebellion in April, when it is expected that tens of thousands of people will shut down London indefinitely, until the government takes meaningful action over what XR call the “environment emergency”. Multiple actions over the coming weeks will serve as a means to “normalise” mass uprisings, but are also designed to educate and entertain. Some, however, will perhaps trigger shock and even alarm.
A torrent of symbolic, artificial blood will flood Downing Street to create “a sea of red” on the 9th of March, when hundreds of XR members say they are prepared to be arrested as part of The Blood of our Children protest. The idea is to make the gravity of the climate crisis viscerally clear.
Banners in the temporary XR headquarters
“There will be parents and children, as well as people taking on arrestable roles, like me, who want to make a point about intergenerational injustice,” said Paolo, an XR member. “The idea is to find that sweet spot where the police are obliged to arrest you, but it’s totally non-violent and peaceful. The people who’ve committed criminal damage will sit on the ground and wait to be arrested.”
Young people who have “inherited” the climate crisis are also mobilising among themselves. An XR youth faction was formed just days ago and now has eight members. Robin is 24 and a founding member of XR Youth. He joked that it’s his mum’s 60th birthday soon and that he might not be around for it if he’s arrested.
“We want to represent the youth voice,” he told me outside XR HQ, where he was about to lead a non-violent direct action training session for a group of young people. “If you were born in 1990 or later, you’ve never experienced a normal climate, so we’ve set that as our age range. We are the generation of fucked up climate, and we are the generation that’s going to take it forward.”
The temporary XR headquarters
Training people in peaceful rebellion is key to XR’s mission. Workshops are held most days of the week in local groups across the country, but next month will see the movement stage “mass rebellion training for thousands, with a festival atmosphere” at its Spring Uprising in Bristol.
More than a dozen music acts are confirmed, and there will be an art factory, a regenerative sanctuary and solution-focused talks. Alongside the training, this party element of the weekend event is key, said XR member and festival organiser Tiana Jacout, who was introduced to me as the “brains behind the bridges occupation”, i.e. the action in November of 2018 when thousands of XR members blockaded five bridges in central London.
The temporary XR headquarters
But perhaps the most effective way to seize people’s attention is by going after the very thing that is consuming the nation: Brexit. Although XR does not take a view on leaving the European Union, it is gathering hundreds of people to block the motorway out of Dover as part of its No Brexit on a Dead Planet event on the 30th of March. The action is designed to demonstrate that we could be looking at rioting on the streets if food supplies collapse, not because of Brexit, but climate change.
“It’s phenomenal that while your house is on fire, all the government can do is squabble about getting a slightly shittier trade deal with their closest allies,” said Jacout. “People are squabbling over how food will get to England and not looking at the larger picture of whether there is food available to come to here in the first place.”
Next week thousands of Kiwi students will leave school in a strike for climate change action.
In a suit and tie, retired fund manager Charles Drace is not your typical rebel. California-born, he was once a theatre and film actor, with bit parts in the spaghetti Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ and war movie ‘Patton’.
Now, from his neat town house in central Christchurch, the 74-year-old is plotting how to get arrested.
“For years and years now, we’ve been playing nice. And I think one of the things that has been recognised in the last year or so is that it’s not working. We just can’t be nice anymore.”
Drace is a climate activist, a member of the global movement Extinction Rebellion. It began in November, when thousands of protesters paralysed London by disrupting traffic. Since then, it’s caught fire across the globe, with around a million members in 35 countries carrying out acts of civil disobedience.
They’ve glued themselves to buildings and spray painted “frack off” graffiti, closed five major London bridges, swarmed Fashion Week and gone on hunger strike outside Westminster Palace.
In New Zealand, ‘zombies’ have paraded through Wellington airport, held a funeral for Planet Earth in Nelson, and shut off the water supply to Environment Canterbury’s headquarters. Last week, 35 activists banged on the glass windows of BP’s Auckland office, chanting “liar, liar, pants on fire.”
Next month, they’ll join groups across the world in a week of civil disobedience and attention-grabbing stunts.
It’s bigger than just a march. Extinction Rebellion’s goal is to trigger an enormous political and cultural shift, big enough to save the planet from certain doom. They say they need 3.5 per cent of the population on board to make radical change. Numbers in New Zealand total about 2000, so about 165,000 short.
“We are declaring rebellion against the government for criminal inaction and what Extinction Rebellion sees as a climate and ecological emergency,” Rowan Brooks, 29, says.
“One of the core things which XR is saying is we need to tell truth and start acting like it.
“We need to stop pretending that we will sort some things out, and that we’ve got 50 years. Disruptive protest is a way of motivating politicians and the powerful to do things.”
Athlete and small business owner Gene Beveridge, 26, joined the BP protest, the first time he’s ever got involved with a political movement.
“Personally, I’m not really that interested in marching around but if that is what we need, then I’ll do it … I want policies to be a better reflection of science and public opinion.
“Over the past three or four years, with the Trump phenomenon and Brexit, I’ve just realised that the discourse is quite heated. That’s what woke me up.
“I couldn’t rely on other people, there isn’t enough goodness in the world for things just to work out. I had to get involved myself.”
Until now, climate activism has concentrated on pollution, plastics, the impact on animals and forests or the melting of ice-sheets. Extinction Rebellion goes much further, warning of the collapse of civilisation, famine and the extinction of mankind.
“We have to be dramatic, we have to make the point so strongly that the Government is forced to listen, instead of listening gently and coming back with platitudes,” Drace says.
Their message might be extreme, but you won’t find more polite subversives. They are non-violent, against damage to property and use graffiti paint that washes away.
Brooks, a community garden co-ordinator, frequently interrupts himself to make sure others in the group get a fair say.
Drace likes formal dress for protests, because environmentalists are often stereotyped as “hippies.”
“I have tried to break that mold,” he laughs. “I guess I would be described by most people as being in a fat cat type of occupation. But there are an awful lot of professional people who really care.”
The Christchurch branch, with around 150 members, is planning their first ‘swarming’ road blocks in the city. They’ll last ten minutes each, and volunteers will hand out water, snacks and explanatory pamphlets.
“We are going to be doing really short stints just around the place, to practice and to start little moments of disruption,” Brooks says.
“It’s not about the motorists. It is about saying maybe we need to stop what we are doing for a second and look at the gravity of the situation.
“Once traffic isn’t moving through a city, then that has a flow on effect which is economic. People aren’t managing to do their things as well. And then people start saying [to] council, government: ‘what are you going to do about these people who say there is a climate emergency’?”
A group called Extinction Rebellion turned off water at the ECan offices and chained themselves to the water mains in protest to the way ECan has been dealing with Canterbury’s water.
Aren’t they worried about frustrating people?
Brooks says Kiwi cities won’t suddenly grind to a halt, largely because the movement is in its infancy.
“In New Zealand, with the two degrees of separation, once you have people who are willing to put their bodies on the line, then everyone who knows them, trusts them, maybe starts to believe that action is actually legitimate.”
Brooks was one of five protesters arrested after the group turned off the taps at ECan. They were all released with a warning.
“We opened the thing on the street and turned the tap off,” Brooks says. “Some people sat on the cover … a plumber came and turned on another tap. We went and borrowed some tools from some workers down the road, turned that off and sat on top of that one.
“We are deliberately doing things which we are not supposed to do, because we are saying the government is not doing what it is supposed to do,” Brooks says.
He and Drace are fully prepared to go to prison for their actions.
“We are talking about a dying planet … we face mass extinction, including human extinction. If, tactically, me being in prison is going to help [prevent] that, then lock me up.”
Drace agrees it is “his duty.”
“It is the only honorable thing to do. To get out and fight.
“I don’t believe there is any chance we can stop global warming, but I think there is a big chance that we can delay it and let the next couple of generations at least have some kind of decent life.”
In England, members have described meditating and performing yoga in holding cells after protests. Co-founder Roger Hallam said: “The action itself is not as important as going to prison, which has cultural resonance, you might say.”
Not everyone in the movement feels that way. Marine scientist Sea Rotmann runs a consultancy and her work involves international travel.
“It would be career limiting if I was … arrested or convicted because all of my work is with international governments … for the work I do – which I think has a lot of benefit in terms of finding solutions – I need to be able to travel.”
New Zealand police say there is no ‘national operation order’ for Extinction Rebellion.
But a spokeswoman added: “Our role is to ensure the lawful right to protest while allowing members of the public to go about their daily business safely, and we will respond appropriately to any issues regarding disorder or public safety that may arise.
“We urge anyone planning or undertaking protest activity to keep the safety of themselves and others at the forefront of their minds.”
Rotmann says joining Extinction Rebellion’s Wellington branch has been empowering.
But she says it’s unusual for a scientist to join a direct action campaign.
“Science is a profession which forces us to be overly conservative with how we describe our data and our facts and our modelling. We are not meant to be catastrophising, to be emotional, or show our frustration, anger and grief … I am a research consultant – not an academic. So, I am able to speak out.”
Rotmann says her scientific knowledge has left her distraught.
“I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief for many years. I have what many environmental scientists call pre-traumatic stress disorder which is the same as PTSD except you are having it because you know what is coming and you can’t do anything about it. You feel powerless.”
Like many of Extinction Rebellion’s key players, Rotmann has a background in activism. She is involved in court action over the extension of Wellington airport’s runway. Simon Oosterman, the group’s media liaison, is a seasoned campaigner and trade unionist who organised the first Starbucks pay strike, and was arrested for taking part in a naked bike ride to protest vehicle emissions.
Brooks and Drace campaigned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, with Brooks organising protests.
Rotmann, Drace and his fellow Christchurch team member Torfrida Wainwright, are all Green Party members.
But even though they are pushing the Government to do more, they don’t see a conflict with their party. Especially as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called climate change her generation’s “nuclear free moment.”
“It’s great leverage,” Wainwright, 68, a veteran feminist and climate campaigner says. “It is something we can use. We can say to her: ‘You are saying this and now act on it.’
“You couldn’t say that to John Key because he and Bill English denied there was a problem anyway. All you could do is beat at the walls.”
Rotmann has twice stood as a candidate for the Greens.
“Extinction Rebellion is completely non-partisan and I think it is really important that it stays that way. But, in a lot of ways, the New Zealand Government is not as anti-environment, and is promoting climate change [action], in a way other governments aren’t.
“I mean, it would be different under a National government.”
Despite this affinity with the Government, the protests are demanding carbon neutrality by 2025, not the 2050 timeline proposed.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the rebels aren’t alarmists, and he gets their frustrations.
“They are deeply concerned that we do everything we can to limit global warming to help limit the impacts of climate change,” he says. “I share those concerns … Our aim is to be carbon neutral by 2050. That goal is consistent with the science outlined in last year’s IPCC report about what’s needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
“We may find that solutions and the momentum of change to low emissions options enable us to meet that net zero goal sooner than 2050, in which case I hope future governments will want to move faster.”
He says he is concerned about public safety and property.
“I understand the organisation’s depth of feeling about climate change and their commitment to ensuring the issue of climate change is not ignored. Civil disobedience is a longstanding means of drawing attention to issues of public concern. All I would ask is that they do not put themselves or others at risk of harm through their actions.”
Drace remains frustrated and wants the Government to immediately halt all oil exploration – not just new permits
“The Government will say ‘oh, we are doing all we can’ and yet nothing significant, nothing effective is happening,” he says. “And so there is a widespread feeling that is growing dramatically – and the students’ strike is part of this.”
Next week, school children across the world will go on strike, part of a growing international youth movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Extinction Rebellion Christchurch members have been working closely with local kids.
Drace ran a half-hour workshop for the junior demonstrators, taking them through planning and advertising, dealing with police, avoiding trouble and even which spray paints and stencils to use on their placards.
Twelve-year-old Lucy Gray is organising the March 15 rally in the city’s Cathedral Square. About 1000 students are expected to ‘strike’ in 20 cities – joining millions of children across 51 countries.
“The strike is a campaign for kids to be able to share their voice with the rest of the world because although we can’t vote, we still have a voice, and we need to be able to use that to get the government to realise this is our future, it’s matters to us and we want to stand up for our future,” the Beckenham pupil says.
While Extinction Rebellion’s message is doom-laden, Gray and her friends are much more positive.
“I am worried but I try to convert my anxiety and fear into action because the more action we have, the more we can do.
“I try and stay positive because if we let it drag us down we are not going to have energy to do the things we need to do, we are not going to have that fire inside us that we need to keep burning.”
From small groups of people rallying up to fight against the profitable eviction racket (known as bailiffs) to a full-blown protest in Parliament Square demanding our oil-lobbied politician rethink about their response to climate change, people are rising and demanding change across the UK. On Wednesday the 31st of October, Extinctions Rebellion peacefully took over London’s busiest intersection to purposely disrupt the mindless routine of the city. 24 hours prior to the organised rebellion, scientists stated that since the 1970’s, humanity has made extinct 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. By the time our grandparents will turn 90, that number will have risen to almost 80% unless immediate action is taken.
A pool of different eclectics, faiths, and ages poured into the event projecting a heartfelt and welcoming communal vibe. Like a spell, people would fall silent cradled by the melodic pagan-like hymns sung while their smiles and shining eyes spoke more than a thousand words could. The palpable energy pulsating from the drumming and chanting crowd showed the love for our blue earth, and their cry for action was fierce. Amplified by the microphone, Green MEP Molly Scott Cato stated: “We are not here because we understand the importance that our planet has to our survival, rather because we all feel a deep energetic connection with mother Gaia”.
Out of the many speakers, Greta Thunberg, a 14-year-old who has been school striking for climate change, stood in front of thousands to share her message of action. With the latest UN reports stating that we have no more than 12 years before climate catastrophe, the teenager’s perspective of “climate crisis has never been treated as a crisis” deeply contrasted with the child-like inaptitude of our leaders.
Families shed tears of pain for the conditions in which they were inevitably going to leave the future to their younger loved ones. “It is painful for me to accept that the youth of today will never be able to experience the life that I had growing up because we wiped it out”, expressed one grandparent.
In the two and a half hours of public highway obstruction, police officers mingled and conversed with protestors. One officer paid personal attention to the well-being of certain protestors who had locked their arms and laid down on the road. The mood seemed cheerful and friendly between protestors and law enforcement, giving off the illusion of a festival rather than a protest. A touching moment was briefly captured when Tom, a steward for Extinction Rebellion, approached the yellow-jacketed men and women with “Save Our Children” stickers. The momentary hesitation from their part was replaced by a handful of officers gingerly huddling in with outstretched hands to accept the stickers with prideful smiles. However, the harmonious atmosphere quickly came to an end when a false emergency ambulance was called in by the police to break the crowd apart. Within minutes, new stern faces populated the area shouting, pushing, and intimidating the crowd off the road.
The tug of war between civil disobedience and law enforcement created a divide amongst the activist. With most of the protesters dancing and singing on Parliament Square, the police swarmed the protestors locked to the gates of the Parliament. To create an aversion, a member of “Grandparents for a Safe Earth” decided to lie down with the activists despite having been pushed away by the police several times. The commitment of these individuals being ruthlessly arrested for asking for an emergency response to our polluted laws shocked many bystanders.
But we are not easily intimidated. Extinction Rebellion will take over Parliament Square again from the 12th till the 17th of November to demand carbon neutral strategies from our elected representatives.