On 15th April 2019 I was part of a group of campaigners from Totnes and surrounding area who helped to block Waterloo Bridge in London to protest about the lack of government action to mitigate against climate change and destruction of eco-systems. I have never been an activist previously, but this cause is so urgent, so crucial and affects us all. We have a climate and ecological emergency, with surface temperatures of the earth rising year on year, arctic ice melting, glaciers retreating, horrendous storms, fires, deforestation, water shortages, crop failures, and starvation in many parts of the world. We are insulated from the worst effects in the UK by the Gulf Stream and our island status, and by advertising and media reassuring us that we can continue to consume whatever we want and that it won’t have an impact: it does.
Groups from different parts of the country were given different tasks: groups from the SW were to take and re-wild Waterloo Bridge as the ‘Garden Bridge’. Lorries arrived with a performance stage and trees in large containers which were distributed along the centre of the road. We brought plants and flowers. There was a field kitchen , a yurt for rest and recuperation, a first aid tent, and a skate board ramp for the kids. Tensions were high on the front line with much chanting, singing and waving of flags. We handed out leaflets and spoke to drivers who were inconvenienced by our actions, apologising for the disruption to their journey and explaining why we were taking this action. Most people were sympathetic to our cause as soon as they discovered that we were there to highlight the climate and ecological crisis. The Bridge remained open to cyclists and pedestrians, commuters, locals and tourists.
Behind the front lines during the day there was an incredibly relaxed, optimistic atmosphere with families enjoying picnics, music and poetry, flowers and shrubs everywhere, and Felicity Jones (blacksmith, top right) with her incredible heart sculpture made from an old water cylinder and reclaimed car parts. Someone commented that it was like a mini-Glastonbury…
As the light faded, the temperature dropped, the crowds left, and the atmosphere became more tense. The police began to congregate in larger numbers with vans lined upon the south side of the Bridge to accept the arrestees. Part of the remit of Extinction Rebellion is non-violent protest including illegal acts such as obstructing roads which is obviously an offense under the Highways Act, and invites arrest. The aim is to create disruption of the normal functioning of the city, the economic hub of the nation. to have maximum impact on the capitalist system that is sending us headlong into disaster.
The arrestees were not going to make things easy for the police, so many lay down and entwined their limbs, and others went limp and were dragged down the road, with a policeman on each arm. Many of the group from Totnes were over 70, and one poor man collapsed whilst being dragged down the road, requiring medical assistance. Another man had bleeding feet. The next day each arrestee was carried out by at least 4 police who could carry the arrestee to the police vans.
The next day was a bit warmer and more families came to have picnics. I met a wonderful Mum who was breastfeeding a baby and managing to supervise a toddler too. A enterprising woman had set up a stall with wooden blocks and inks to print the XR logo, various slogans and symbols onto anything you wanted. Others produced individual protests and performances such as the chap in his gas mask, and the plastic globe requiring resuscitation.
I was part of the Wellbeing Team, instructed to ensure that the rest of my team were warm, comfortable, and well fed, as well as dolling out hugs and reassurance as required. I also handed out leaflets and chatted to passers-by.
Waterloo Bridge was just one of the sites of protest across London, and I managed to find time on the second day to walk from Oxford Circus, via Piccadilly Circus to Parliament Square, all blocked to traffic. Oxford Circus was the location for the Pink Boat inscribed with ‘Tell the Truth’ and forming a focus for performers, music and speeches.
The second night the police became more aggressive in their tactics, swooping in larger numbers and arresting a great many people. They also arrested Legal Observers and people on the pavements. I was formally warned that if I didn’t leave the area and go to Hyde Park (another hub for the protestors) that I would be arrested. Spirits were high and more supporters were arriving. The Bridge held for a second night.
I felt exhausted. Reinforcements were arriving and my partner was planning a birthday trip away, so I reluctantly headed home. But my heart was still on Waterloo Bridge with those determined rebels who were set on making their voices heard and turn the tide of complacent consumerism.
During that week the Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg spoke at Extinction Rebellion in London and met with various Members of Parliament including Jeremy Corbin, Caroline Lucas and Michael Gove. She created quite a stir. In addition David Attenborough’s hard-hitting documentary: ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ was aired on the BBC. Parliament Square and Oxford Circus fell at the end of the week, but the Bridge was held for an entire week, creating considerable media attention and informing debate.
Over the course of the week over 1000 arrests were made. Most were released pending further investigations.
The climate and environmental crisis is on the political agenda, despite Brexit. Declarations of ‘Climate Emergency’ have been made, but this needs to be translated into meaningful actions, and at present plans for the expansion of Heathrow Airport are going ahead, provoking further protest. Significant change requires government legislation and this will not be popular. There are tough times ahead whatever happens, but I don’t want to sit back and see the beautiful world that I grew up in disappear without doing something to try and lessen the impact, for the sake of future generations across the world.
Find out more about this International Rebellion : https://xrebellion.org/ or search for your local XR group on Facebook.