Love and rage in Extinction Rebellion

Recent actions have put the XR movement on a steep learning curve.

Greg Frey
5 November 2019, 7.07pm
Police cordon rebels on Oxford Circus, October 18th 2019.
© Gareth Morris, all rights reserved.

It took less than three hours for the police to cut the bike lock from around my neck and drag me away from the only structure left standing on Westminster Bridge - the base of a 16-meter lighthouse made entirely of bamboo that I and other XR protestors were trying to put up on the 7th of October 2019. It was to be both a warning light and a guide.

After weeks of building, I was more than just physically attached. When the police released me at 5am the next morning, I learnt that they had cleared us from the rest of the bridge just a few hours earlier. Cycling back into Westminster, the heart of Extinction Rebellion’s second International Rebellion, the sadness of our failure was overwhelmed by the sight and sound of ten other roaring occupations.

I couldn’t know then that this was the start of a fortnight of the same emotional journey, repeated many times over: loss, grief, defiance, joy, loss. After April’s rebellion, the UK Parliament had declared a climate and ecological emergency, and suddenly, millions more people across the country cared. This time around we were a much larger movement, organizing in a much more empowering, decentralized way. Expectations were high.

But this October’s rebellion has been an ambiguous success. If nothing else, it has put the movement on a steep learning curve. Two weeks of sitting in the rain, gluing ourselves to cars, frantic meetings and unforeseeable surprises have been a lesson in many things. Now that the dust has settled, it’s occurred to me that we have all learnt something new and vital about the art of letting go.

In a time of rapidly escalating climate and ecological breakdown, when so much depends on winning, the urge to hold desperately tight, to control, to take comforting power is strong. These aren’t urges to take lightly. They remind me of Natasha Lennard’s preferred definition of fascism (following Michel Foucault), which is not authoritarian state fascism but “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” In many ways, the last few weeks of love and rage have been lessons in facing this fascism inside us all.

That first morning showed the police to be far more capable of violence than at any XR protest in the UK before. Unloading the vans on the bridge came close to a physical confrontation, with the police trying to close the doors by force, crushing people in between. As the van drove off, a policeman pulled someone from the moving vehicle and onto the road. Meanwhile, a plain-clothes sergeant screamed assault, and an innocent man was tackled by two other policemen. It was all too easy to feel a violent, defensive anger rising. But in this country, with the current mainstream relationship with the police, non-violence is strategically essential for our movement. And so we all sat down on the cold, wet concrete and let a deep breath out.

Police tactics were changing before we even began. The weekend prior to the 7th of October, they raided one of XR’s storage spaces in south London, arresting a number of drivers for moving things as banal as gazebos and tea urns in their vans. To protect as much of this gear as we could, a group of us quickly decided to barricade the building, and smuggled the most valuable gear out over the rooftops.

Compared to sitting calmly in the road, this set a different tone for the weeks to come. Letting go of gazebos and tea urns was one thing, but we would also need to let go of a paralysing fear. With plans far more likely to be disrupted by the police, the importance of quick, decisive action overtook the need for detailed planning. For rebels on the streets who were learning to deal with much more autonomy over their sites and actions, the sense of urgency reached a new pitch.

By the end of the first week, the lighthouse crew were just one of at least ten groups who lost their occupied territory. We were certainly not the only ones hastily trying to regroup and make new plans. Obstinate after losing the bridge and our bamboo tripod, a team of our builders worked tirelessly to make another one. It would be much smaller, but they had it finished by the first weekend. Watching the police destroy nearly all of our other occupations, seizing tents at random, and displacing thousands of rebels across London, taking another site felt as much an act of care as of defiance. But organizing hundreds of people at the last minute during a rebellion and in secret was tough.

After much deliberation, our group gradually absorbed and trained enough eager people, and by Tuesday evening we were ready to go. We had Waterloo Bridge in our sights, undoubtedly guided by nostalgia for the now mythic community that formed there in April. With the plans perfected and enough people rallied to block the road, things looked set for success. But a justifiably angry taxi skirted around our block and crashed into two tripods, dragging them to the end of the bridge. No one was hurt, but it unnerved everyone. After two failures, I imagined we would leave it at that, but this second failure only seemed to strengthen our resolve.

After expanding our group even more, we made a new plan for the Thursday afternoon, but the now infamous London Underground action when two rebels were dragged off of a tube by an angry mob, overshadowed our plans. There was a tangible fear that angry passers-by would now feel empowered to be violent. There was also a deeply discouraging dent in the certainty of our movement. A different kind of fear presented itself - not a fear of failure as such, or even necessarily of violence, but a new fear that our actions could harm the movement.

Drawing near to the end of the rebellion, Friday morning was our last chance to act, and that required letting go of this new fear. Nerves were frayed. Our numbers had shrunk to a small determined group. Oxford Circus, the heart of the UK’s consumer capital, was our new target. We had our new smaller lighthouse ready in a van, climbers set to go and everyone trained to quickly put it up.

But by Thursday evening we still needed to find another 50 rebels willing to block the Circus. It was going to be a long night of phone calls. Yet for all the difficulties of organising in a decentralised network, there are many redeeming joys. Every now and then the kaleidoscope of seemingly chaotic activities lines up to produce something beautiful. By the end of my first call to a friend from Bristol who I’ll call Bill, we had exactly what we needed.

While cooking up our plans, the Bristol crew had been working on their own. They planned to bring a boat into Oxford Circus on the same morning as us. It would be a throwback to their legendary pink boat in April, intended to show that the blanket ban now imposed by the police on any XR assembly in London would not deter us. But after days of trying to arrange it, the boat was looking unfeasible. Bill had cancelled the action five minutes before I called him, so he had 60 people waiting and ready to block the roads but nothing to put there; we had the opposite. Our two separate and secret plans fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Almost a fortnight after locking myself to the first lighthouse tripod, I found myself doing it again. This time the sun was out. Sitting there alone for a few hours, surrounded by the police, I was struck by how sombre the occasion felt. I knew the police weren’t going to let this last longer than the morning.

I couldn’t help but think of symmetry with the ZAD movement in France, since I’d recently discovered that their lighthouse had inspired ours. One member of the ZAD, JJ, had told me about the astounding resonance of this symbol: lighthouses used to be a life-saving resource, neither public nor private but held in common; they offer both a warning to those on perilous waters and a guide for people to find refuge; they illuminate and empower; and when they work, they allow people to make their own informed choices about where to go next.

There may be people who, dismayed by the perceived chaos of the last few weeks, want to take control and steer the XR movement from the top. But dazzling moments of wild coincidence like ours would be crushed if that happened. More importantly, learning would be restricted to the small group in charge, and everyone else would become accustomed to domination.

The as-yet-unseen victory of this October’s rebellion is the experience of joy that’s to be found in freely acting for others. JJ’s words, written after April’s rebellion, are truer now than ever: “this body, this flesh and bone that is me, can do something magical when it transforms the isolating anger and sadness into a common rebel force.”

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