Tobi Thomas reports on the climax to last week’s wave of mass action led by the now global Extinction Rebellion movement.
Saturday 17 November saw the culmination of non-violent demonstrations that have been cropping up in London this month. Rebellion Day – a coordinated event planned by Extinction Rebellion – was an occupation and shutdown of five major bridges in the heart at the city.
According to the group, the civil disobedience campaign is a response to a ‘global ecological emergency’. Six thousand protestors were thought to have taken part in order to draw attention to what they feel is the government’s inadequate response to the ongoing climate crisis. The protest made an impact by disrupting the usual flow of traffic, with The Met complaining that emergency service vehicles had been ‘hampered’ from getting across London.
The day of action is not to be viewed in isolation. On 15 November, the group co-ordinated with Brazilian Women against Fascism UK, and shut down the Brazilian Embassy as a way of ‘showing solidarity with minority groups in Brazil and protesting Bolsonaro’s reckless plans for the Amazon’.
Voices from the Global South were at the forefront of the fight for climate justice, according the to the group – and on Rebellion Day it showed.
Raki AP, from the campaign Free West Papua campaign, addressed the crowd on Blackfriars bridge: ‘I lost my own father due to the colonialism still in my home, West Papua. It is the home of fossil fuel industries, such as BP, which continue to destroy my homeland. The urgency with which we must fight climate change is felt by West Papuans everyday.’
Speakers’ assemblies packed occupied bridges and campaigners from Mongolia, West Papua, Bangladesh and Ghana spoke about how climate change has impacted their day-to-day lives.
Developing countries in the Global South will be hit hardest by global warming. According to the IPCC’s latest report, the impact of a 1.5 degrees celsius temperature rise will exacerbate drought, heat-waves, and floods, to which countries in the Global South are most susceptible.
Kofi, from Ghana said: ‘When we occupy bridges like this , we’re symbolically transforming them into bridges for people power to bring about change.’
For this new movement, that people power means championing young people and centering the movement around the needs of the next generation. The protest demographic reflected this, with a number of families, young children and pensioners blocking bridges alongside one another.
Amy, a 17-year-old from Southampton, travelled with her grandparents to attend.
‘It’s our future, and I really wanted to do something. I found out about Extinction Rebellion online, and knew that it was the right way to show the government how much we care about our planet, and how we won’t let them ruin it for our descendants,’ she said.
‘I probably should be revising for my mock exams at school, but I really don’t see the point. Climate change is much more important.’
What’s notable about the activists is their willingness to be arrested for the cause. Over 80 arrests were reportedly made on Saturday. One instance on Southwark bridge saw a young woman protestor carried away by half a dozen police officers.
Claire, a core member of Extinction Rebellion explained why the risk of arrest pales in comparison to the coming climate breakdown.
‘I’ve been arrested four times this year as part of an air pollution campaign called Stop Killing Londoners. This time I haven’t been on the front line, but I am perfectly willing to get arrested and go to prison for this cause, because it overshadows all of life on earth.’
A sense of solidarity and hope was evident among the activists. Legal observers were on hand to offer support to those like Claire who are willing to be arrested.
Such energy was exemplified by George Monbiot speaking on Blackfriars Bridge: ‘There’s a fantastic sense of strength, warmth, and solidarity here. It’s a really exciting moment. What happens now is anyone’s guess. Just that fact we’ve managed to do this and hold it for so long is a step forward to addressing such crucial, existential issues in the front of people’s minds.’
Although Rebellion Day was geared towards the UK government’s negligence, the day consistently focused on how the fight for climate justice must be viewed as a global, collective struggle – one fought in conjunction with combatting neoliberalism and the legacy of colonialism.
But it still isn’t clear how exactly civil disobedience will force the government into action. Vague demands unanchored from climate policy run the risk of eroding the movement’s momentum.
Extinction Rebellion have three core demands. That the government tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, that policy is introduced to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and that a national Citizen’s Assembly is established to oversee such changes.
Nils Agger, who handles Extinction Rebellion’s media, said: ‘I wouldn’t say they [the campaign demands] are ambiguous. We have details on the demands, it’s just [when] communicating them widely we use short sentences to make them easier to communicate. But we do have them thoroughly written down.
‘We have got feedback [that our second demand] could be possible in the political realm. Above all we are saying this is what is necessary, not whether it is politically realizable.’
The group are planning for a second day of rebellion – due to take place on 24 November. Regardless of whether one views their demands as feasible, the momentum and sense of urgency displayed by the activists indicate that this intergenerational movement is growing with each passing day.