Diary of a rebel

Charlotte Greene* shares a powerful and personal account of 24-hours with Extinction Rebellion’s October uprising in London.

A protestor on Blackfriars Bridge, London. Credit: Julia Hawkins/Flickr

‘Honey…. [long pause, deep breath] …I’ve booked the kids into breakfast club tomorrow. I’m going to London.’ From the look on my husband’s face, I know he knows what this means and that he’s not happy about it. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘but I have no choice. I have to go.’

The alarm goes off at 4.30 and I feel my way in the darkness to the front door, where my packed bags are waiting. I grope for a pen and scrawl the lawyer’s number on my arm. I am not ‘an arrestable’, but we’ve been warned that there are no guarantees. My phone pings a message from the rebellion broadcast: ‘Rebels. Today we light up.’

Driving in the dark towards the train station, I keep thinking: ‘I can just turn round and go home now. Most people are asleep in their beds. Anyone vaguely normal is about to go to work’. But somehow my hands stay gripped on the steering wheel and then my legs walk me on to the train.

The moment I step off the pavement and onto the road is the first time in my life that I have broken the law

As we roll into London, dawn is breaking and the sky is glowing red. ‘It’s a shepherd’s warning,’ I think, and I wonder who the warning is for today. At Waterloo station, I lock eyes with someone else carrying a suspicious amount of luggage, and he gives me a nod. I have a flash of an unnerving sense that I am playing a minor character in an unfolding dystopian drama.

My phone pings again: ‘Police will be doing Stop and Search at Westminster Tube. Try to look like a tourist.’ This is not too hard for me: I am middle-aged, bespectacled, nondescript. I climb the tube steps and no one questions me.  

For a moment, as I come out into the cool air of the embankment along the Thames river it feels briefly like a normal day when I travel into London for meetings. Then a dozen police vans streak past me towards a car that is sprawled across two lanes. It looks like a road accident, but the sound of singing tells a different story: this is a vanguard action and the people spilling from the car doors are not injured, but glued in.

As I approach Parliament Square, the dystopian feeling builds as the pavements start to throng with people and the police swirl around. And then another phone message: ‘Whitehall! NOW! We are going in’.

The moment I step off the pavement and onto the road is the first time in my life that I have broken the law. I wish I could tell you that in this moment I feel brave and courageous. Truthfully, I am terrified. It is completely outside my comfort zone to do anything like this. But looking around the crowd reassures me. These people are nice. This is OK. And then I remember: this is the heart of government; the cradle of power. And I feel frightened again.

We sit in the road all morning. There’s a heavy police presence but they make no moves. When they do, I’m ready to run. But the people around me say they are here to get arrested – they will cling on to the bitter end. They are mild-mannered, completely normal and utterly steely.

Later in the afternoon, I take a break to walk around the ten other occupied sites dotted around Westminster. I see roads blocked with vehicles, statues bedecked with banners, people glued to the pavement and more police than I have ever seen. At times it feels overwhelming – the full machinery of the state is out in force. But everywhere people are singing, banging drums, rebelling. It is not perfect or comfortable. To me, a badge-wearer of respectability, it feels uncontrolled, dangerous even.

I watch people get arrested and it is horrifying and hopeful, all at once. Their dignity and vulnerability in that moment makes me catch my breath and I find I am frequently fighting back tears. The crowd chants ‘We love you’ at the arrestees, and I am caught between joy at the humanity of it all and soaring anxiety that this may all be in vain.  

All day, I swing between these highs and lows: from happiness to despair, cowardice to courage, pride to shame. The Rebellion feels absolutely huge and also very small – like it is too much but also not nearly enough. And underneath it all,  the knowledge that we are all here – ordinary people doing extraordinary things – because this is what the times demand of us.

I stay the night camped out on the pavement outside Number 10. It is not the best night’s sleep. Inside the tent on the damp tarmac with a woman I’ve only just met, under the watchful eyes of the police and the occasional roar of their helicopters. I shiver and I don’t know if it’s from cold or fear.

In the early hours I emerge to do a shift on the barricade and look out on to the dark, empty vista of Whitehall, where the glow from the streetlamps streaks the wet pavements, and I feel something else: relief. .

For years I have felt desperate and despondent at inertia and inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change. There were times when I wanted to just sit down in the road and stop the traffic by myself. And now here I am, doing just that, right outside Downing Street, in the middle of the night.

And now I am not alone. I am surrounded by other people who feel it too, by people who are braver, and fiercer and more rebellious than me. And it feels powerful and fragile and necessary. The streetlamps on Whitehall flicker, and I feel hope flicker briefly in my heart.

This is what I learned at the October Rebellion: I am not as brave as I thought I might be. But I am braver than I knew. There are many thousands of people who are a lot braver than I am. They are young. They are old. They are ordinary. They are extraordinary. You might be one of them.

*Charlotte Greene is a pseudonym