This time, the police made the first move. On Saturday 5 October, officers took a battering ram to the doors of an Extinction Rebellion warehouse in south London. In the police’s seizure was some of the basic infrastructure needed for a serious occupation: toilets, gazebos, kitchen equipment, waterproofs – and fuchsia-pink pillows. The police pre-emptively arrested 10 activists on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance. They meant business.
Why this story?
Extinction Rebellion is a fast-growing protest movement bringing urgency to the climate emergency. But its commitment to forcing change through disruption means that there is an inevitable tension between the need to win people over and the risk of alienating them.
Tom Goulding and Xavier Greenwood have been charting XR’s progress, demonstrating the broad-based support the movement has attracted and disclosing the scale of the logjam they have created in the justice system.
October’s protest was a damp affair and the pre-emptive raids by the Metropolitan Police had a subduing effect. But like the issue they are determined to push up the agenda, the rebels are not going away. Here we take stock of the latest action. David Taylor, editor
Extinction Rebellion – XR – aims to be the largest campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in British history, and in April it left the Metropolitan Police red-faced with its shutdown of London. The police’s pre-emptive move before XR’s much-hyped October “rebellion” of the last two weeks was a sign of things to come. XR’s second sustained mass action brought a fortnight of frantic, fraught but non-violent confrontation, often in torrential rain, and it won’t be the last of its kind. But it came at a cost to both sides.
XR set up 12 sites around Westminster on Monday 7 October, but this was reduced to six by Wednesday, and then, by the end of the first week, one. Only the Trafalgar Square site, the beating heart of the protests, turreted and flamboyant, hung on as a truly disruptive site. The police’s seizure of infrastructure before the action and on its first day was crucial in preventing XR from gaining a foothold as an occupation.
Longevity is everything to XR’s strategy. It believes that a couple of days of disruption can easily be ignored and that the message only starts to cut through to the public after a week or so. But resisting police lines for days without shelter and portaloos proved too difficult for most. More than 1,700 arrests were made in the two weeks, around 600 more than in April.
Both sides were treading fine lines throughout an action played out in the public eye: XR had to balance disruption of business as usual with the aggravation of Londoners, while the police had to balance aggression with leniency. And both sides arguably scored avoidable own goals well after the protests had reached their heights in week one.
With the last site of Trafalgar Square cleared on the Monday of the second week and no sizeable base from which XR could launch further large-scale disruptions, the police issued a new, blanket ban on all XR protest in London. The ban mobilised many previously silent politicians and civil rights groups to come out in support of the movement’s right to protest; a challenge to the ban will be heard in the High Court this week.
But then on Thursday, a group within XR stood on top of and glued themselves to tube trains in east London stations at 7am. The group’s targets included Canning Town Station, a transport hub in an ethnically diverse, working-class area. Condemnation of XR’s tube action came from all sides, particularly given longstanding criticism that the movement is too middle class. XR spokesperson Rupert Read described the fallout from the action as XR’s “most difficult moment”.
XR has moved towards decentralisation since April to bring greater autonomy to the movement and aid its rapid growth across cities and countries. An XR sub-group can operate as long as it adheres to the movement’s core principles. But in Canning Town Station, a serious flaw in this strategy played out: under the XR banner, a small group of activists was able to perform an action opposed, according to an internal poll, by 72 per cent of the movement.
Sympathy seemed to ebb away, amid criticism from the left that ordinary workers were being unreasonably targeted and that mass-transit systems are part of the solution not the problem.
Day by day, how the cat and mouse game between police and protestors unfolded.
Monday (Day 1)
XR groups from across the UK take 12 sites in Westminster, including Lambeth Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Trafalgar Square. Activists glue, lock and cement themselves to vehicles and roads. Police issue Section 14 order designating Trafalgar Square as the only legitimate, non-arrestable site for protest.
Tuesday (Day 2)
Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Bridge cleared by the morning. Trafalgar Square taken as headquarters, replete with mini wooden towers, a hearse and over 100 tents. Activists glue themselves to various government buildings around Westminster. Six sites survive until the end of the day. 541 arrests made in just two days.
Wednesday (Day 3)
Dozens of women and babies hold a mass demonstration on Whitehall. Boris Johnson’s father gives his support to XR in a speech at Trafalgar Square. Police ramp up force to clear tents blocking the Strand, the Mall and Whitehall. At the end of the day just four sites remain.
Thursday (Day 4)
Paralympian James Brown sits on top of a British Airways flight at London City Airport; others climb on the airport’s roof. Police clear all but Trafalgar Square and St James’s Park in Westminster. Activists move in their hundreds to a new campsite in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Friday (Day 5)
Police spend several hours using a JCB to remove tall wooden towers in Trafalgar Square. A sit-in outside the BBC’s headquarters demands more urgent coverage of the climate crisis.
Saturday (Day 6)
Largest single event of the week brings thousands together for a “grief march” from Marble Arch to Russell Square. Traffic through Trafalgar Square resumes as tents are all moved off the roads. Arrests hit 1307 by the end of the day.
Sunday (Day 7)
Disabled activists protest outside New Scotland Yard alleging that equipment including ramps, hot water bottles, and accessible toilets had been seized and impounded by the police.
Monday (Day 8)
XR target the City of London, with over a hundred occupying the roads outside the Bank of England and holding a mock trial for the corporations which fund or trade in fossil fuels. That evening police issue a blanket ban on all XR protest across London, with the remaining Trafalgar Square camp of gazebos and over fifty tents cleared on short notice.
Tuesday (Day 9)
XR grandparents descend on Buckingham Palace, as other activists protest outside MI5. The St James’s Park site is finally removed by police.
Wednesday (Day 10)
Hundreds gather for an “emergency people’s assembly” in Trafalgar Square in defiance of the police ban. XR’s youth wing demonstrates outside of YouTube’s London office over their platforming of climate denial videos.
Thursday (Day 11)
XR activists disrupt the tube in the morning rush hour, which culminates in a violent brawl at Canning Town Station. XR publicly apologises for the action. More than 1,700 arrested by the end of the day.
Perhaps XR’s problem with decentralisation runs deeper. XR expected four or five times more activists to take to the streets in October than in April. But it is hard to tell whether XR got the numbers it wanted when its action was so diffuse. There were well over 30 individual “actions” across the fortnight, but many were one-off, poorly communicated events in disparate places. This meant that actions such as the creation of 24 roadblocks across London died on their feet. What’s more, giving autonomy to XR sub-groups allowed them to choose not to support sites being cleared by police, contrary to XR’s original strategy. Sites were lost quickly.
But the police’s assertiveness belied their own fragility. On the afternoon of the first day, the police made phone calls to police forces as far as North Wales and Northumbria asking for officers to be sent down in a matter of hours, according to a source familiar with the operation.
Traffic police were drafted in to help make arrests, while detectives in Scotland Yard normally working on murder cases conducted routine station interviews with activists arrested for non-imprisonable offences. “The Met struggles to deliver policing on a routine daily basis,” said Peter Kirkham, an ex-detective chief inspector in the Met Police. “So you add anything to it, it’s a massive problem.”
There are 670 custody cells in London for arrestees of all types, and XR’s arrest count passed that on day four. “I was arrested on Millbank,” said Will, 26, from XR Leeds, “and I was driven around in the van for five hours, trying to look for a police station that had available cells.”
Queues of XR activists lined the corridors of stations outside of the capital, as far afield as Sussex and Surrey, spawning arguments between officers about finding cells for arrestees against keeping some free for “real police work”.
Officers were commonly doing 16 or 18 hour shifts, back on duty just a few hours later. Complaints about the lack of hot food provided for officers or the lack of drinks breaks for the marathon shifts flooded police circles on Twitter.
“It’s really difficult to police,” said Kirkham. “There are no significant criminal offences at all. In huge numbers [XR] very politely and pleasantly refuse to cooperate when they’re told to go. We haven’t seen it on this scale before.”
The loudest debate spawned by the April and October actions has been whether the methods of disruption are legitimate, but often that public debate now begins with the admission that, yes, the problem is legitimate, and, yes, governments must solve it.
This is a significant first step in shifting public opinion and government policy. XR says that it will continue to launch a mass action every six months until the policies necessary to arrest climate change come. The urgency of the science has brought a new era of perpetual disruption.
The police may hope for XR to die down, hoping it is scared away by court proceedings. A minor sentence doesn’t mean much to grandparents, parents and young people who believe that starvation and a sixth mass extinction beckons.
All photographs Getty Images