What it's really like to be a part of one of the most controversial groups in the UK...
I’ve always been conscientious. I’m 26, so I’ve definitely known about climate change for my entire life. I’ve changed my diet, the way I travel and the clothes I wear, but they probably haven’t made much of an impact. I strongly believe in the culture of change, and making my immediate community a healthier, safe one. However, two years ago I realised that I must do more to prevent this crisis and to alert the authorities of the danger we face globally. That’s when I took civil disobedience seriously. That’s when I took action.
It was frustration that led me to joining Extinction Rebellion. Seeing the science and the contrasting inaction of the government brought me to the realisation that this will lead to civil conflict within the next few decades. That news scared me into rebelling; I needed to act on my fear.
The healthiest way to deal with that fear and anger is to take to the streets. A typical day for me involves handling a lot of our social media, as well as both attending and organising meetings. But the things that get me most excited are actions. Creating well-organised, well-executed civil disobedience is such an energising and hopeful act in the face of devastating science. Marching, drumming, making placards, dancing, chanting. All of these things are the cure for the fear and lack of control I feel when I’m sitting at home researching the latest climate science.
Being self-employed, I do a lot of other work as an artist, but the activism informs my practice and it’s all connected up. I have a loud voice but I am a woman and gay. I am supported by other activists to be creative, to be vocal, to be radical, to be emotionally articulate, to be myself. This is such a happy thing. XR is so big, I think we make our own little networks depending on friends we make through the activism and where we live. For example, I work on global justice and so have a lot of friends in Nottingham who are focusing on decolonising and decarbonising as one issue. Having said that, I meet a whole range of people at the gatherings, people I wouldn’t have met in other contexts like doctors, lawyers, teachers, builders, athletes, pub landlords, therapists and mechanics.
The first night I camped on the street during the October rebellion was pretty memorable. We had a blockade on the intersection of Horse Guards Road and Birdcage Walk in London and there were several moments in the night when we thought the structures we had in place to obstruct the roads would be taken by police. In the end we moved tents into the road too. Remaining alert that night was both exciting and exhausting.
It was during the October rebellion that I was arrested. It was about 7am and I was lying in the street in Bank, Central London. We were blocking the roundabout and the five intersecting roads that lead to it, sending a clear message to the banks about their dangerous investment in fossil fuels. I had been down at the rebellion – putting my body in the way of the law – for eight days and was surprised I hadn’t been arrested already. I had two legal observers and friends from Nottingham with me. The police gave me three warnings before pulling me up and putting me in the back of a van. The XR legal observers notating my arrest stayed close to me which was reassuring. The van journey felt very long but once I was in a cell in Brixton Police Station and the adrenaline wore off, I began to calm down and actually managed to lie still on the bed.
I was in the cell for about six hours. When I was released I was met by a group of arrestee support rebels, who’d been waiting to give me food, drink and money for the tube back into Central London. I was never really alone.
It was not a relaxing experience, as some rebels will tell you. It was scary. What kept me going was the thought of Freya, the little girl of a close friend. I thought of baby Freya’s future on a sick planet. I thought of her being forced to migrate, struggling to breathe, struggling to find healthy food, to get fulfilling (or any) work. Thinking of people younger than me, and the challenges they face, gives me all the strength I need to go through arrest. Another friend has had baby Finuala since then, so the next time I’m in a cell, fighting for climate justice, I’ll be thinking of my gorgeous girls Freya and Finuala and the future they deserve. I was in the cell for about six hours. When I was released I was met by a group of arrestee support rebels, who’d been waiting to give me food, drink and money for the tube back into Central London. I was never really alone.
I think people get hung-up on the arrests. There are a lot of people in XR who are not arrestable (because of risks linked to health, work, age or ethnicity) who do masses of incredible work and are kept safe in action. The arrests are a small tactical element of civil disobedience that gets us a lot of attention.
Most rebels have not been arrested. I think the creativity and ingenuity of XR is sometimes taken for granted. The actions we design are often very complex. I love the power in visuals and XR are great at pulling together some striking, captivating art works in order to portray an urgent message.
Climate deniers are the source of great amusement. In the UK I think deniers are pretty rare, so we don’t get masses of abuse. I’ve had my share of being shouted at from lorry drivers or Saturday morning shoppers in the city centre, but generally the public are passive or supportive. Personally, I find it incredibly strange that people (the general public, authorities, other campaigners) don’t link class, gender and race to climate collapse. There is absolutely no denying that the breakdown of our world as we know it will affect most disadvantaged peoples first, in fact, it already is. Making the connection between these things and finding ways to fight injustice dispels the strange myth that the world can keep expanding. It’s the Government’s screaming silence that I find most challenging. There’s a general passivity from those in power towards the rapid collapse of the climate and subsequent loss of land, shelter and food for us all.
Extinction Rebellion is always evolving. We are constantly learning and shifting and adapting. The science is horrifyingly consistent, but the way in which we respond, reflect, communicate and pursue justice shifts every few months. I know for sure that it’s grown massively since I became a rebel. And with this growth comes new energy, new knowledge and, I hope, new ways of subverting expectations of XR’s capacity to effect change.
We have three demands: Act Now, Tell the Truth and People’s Assemblies. If those are achieved I truly believe the world could still be a reasonably habitable place in a century's time. The fact that climate activism must exist is a shame, but the alternative is we have no future. The science can be devastating and overwhelming. I truly feel grief for the planet.
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