The background to all this is the tolling of the Abbey bell. It’s tolling now, while George Monbiot reads to us from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change report. He’s reading the section about sea level rise: how it will impact small islands and coastal areas, how it will inundate cities, countries, wetlands, deltas, some of the most remote places left on earth and some of the most populated. The discourse of the IPCC report is dispassionate and measured. Behind George the bibliography is spread like a sail, citing scientists from all over the world who contributed to this report. George stops reading and a young woman from Tower Hamlets takes over. Before she starts she tells us how another report has measured the diminished lung capacity of children in inner-city areas like hers, and how this will lead to disease and early death, especially in poor areas. Then reads about the effects of global warming on agriculture. Reader by reader, this will go on all day. After a while the bell stops tolling.

We’re outside Westminster Abbey, blockading the end of Victoria Street. Our barricade is from Scotland, Cumbria and Northumberland; it’s called ‘Power in Truth’ and its focus is on the lethal, unchecked activities of the fossil fuel companies. The site is well-established – after three days we’re beginning to know one another, although last night we were joined by refugees from Millbank, when police cleared their site. This doubles the number of tents crammed on to the street.

A meeting is in progress. People return from small groups with proposals which they put to the full meeting. Everyone sits in the road or stands in a circle round the edges. After each proposal comes the question, “Any objection to that?” If not, “Go and do it then. Anyone who wants to be part of this group, meet in such and such a place.” The groups disperse, to pick up litter, or plan the occupation of City Airport. Meanwhile, a long March of Mothers sets off, buggy wheels rolling, towards Parliament.

The meeting’s nearly over when a cry goes up, “Rebels needed in Marsham Street.” It’s less than five minutes away. We find police cautioning the people in the tents. A young woman in front of me is taking down her tent. “OK,” she says to two policemen, “I’m taking it down. OK?” She’s looking upset. I catch her eye and stay to watch. That’s my role.

A policeman comes over, “I’m obliged to tell you,” he says, “That under Section 61 of the XXX Act you will need to move on immediately or you will be committing an offence.”

“I’m standing on the pavement,” I say. “Surely I’m allowed to do that?”

“You’re part of an assembly which under Section 61 may only legally gather in Trafalgar Square. He points at the XR symbol on my shirt. “It’s illegal for you to be here as part of this assembly.”

I look at him as if he were my grandson. “If you tell me to move on I’ll do so,” I say politely. “But I don’t think it’s right that I can’t stand on a pavement in my own capital city. I’m a citizen of this country, and even if I weren’t, I have the right to protest peacefully if I need to.”

“It’s not your fault,” I add. “You didn’t create Section 61.” He looks rigidly past me. “I know you have to obey orders whatever happens. And it is happening.”

I walk slowly away. In front of me I see another pillar of the establishment: the window display of the Church of England Bookshop. In the centre of it are Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference and XR’s This is Not a Drill. For some reason – to assert some sort of freedom, perhaps – I step inside. I look at the bestseller table which has How Christians Respond to Climate Change as its central title, ask the friendly bookseller about a book I’m looking for, and leave, making sure my XR leaflet, What To Do If You see An Arrest is still safely in my pocket.

There are various oppositions here. They go like this:

Inside – Outside
Rich – Poor
Privilege – Democracy
Conform – Rebel

The brave are all around me. I’m among them taking notes. There are many roles to be played here, in this microcosm of a true democracy. Sometimes there is chanting, call and response:

What does a democracy look like?

This is what democracy looks like!

This is what democracy looks like: a hundred or more people at each barricade, sitting in the road, playing music, holding meetings, meditating, eating, reading, talking, planning. This is what democracy looks like:

A well-organised society in which individuals have complete freedom of movement as long as they keep the rules which make the community work. It’s tough living on the street in all weather under constant threat of arrest, and yet I never see anyone give way to anger, hurl insults, shout abuse. Behind us, the closed windows of Parliament reflect the autumn sun.

When the police impound the portaloos which should have served each site, an ad hoc system is set up – a secluded area with buckets that volunteers take away. A friend of mine says, “I’ve learned to pee in a cup in the middle of the night so I can pour it down the stank.” Her voice breaks. “It’s humiliating. I find it so humiliating.” A clever piece of counter PR that – by withholding sanitation one can always accuse these people of being filthy pariahs, not like us, the privileged.

And what privilege is here! The monuments of empire surround us. The Abbey is hauntingly beautiful, still a place of prayer, but mainly a highly visible income stream, It starts to flow early in the morning. By 11 it’s in full spate, and in the evening it begins to abate. I stand in mid-current handing out leaflets: Sorry for Any Inconvenience; Non-Violent; Power in Truth.

The long lines of Chinese tourists usually take them willingly. A group of American teenagers crowd round, asking for more. A Japanese group refuses them with little bows of acknowledgement. The people keep coming, seemingly from every country in the world. Londoners too, from every culture this city holds and dressed for every kind of possible work. Some take a leaflet, a few stop and speak, some shake their heads and walk faster. Some look away with set faces. Some say “No thanks”. The stony faces look not so much angry as frightened, yet all I’m holding is a piece of paper, and I never invade their space. Most people half smile back, even when they say no. Only one, a young white man in an expensive business suit, striped shirt and immaculate tie, snarls “Fuck off!” I feel a stereotype coming on, and out of sheer bloody-mindedness I target another slick young businessman in identical uniform. “Oh yes please,” he says, taking my leaflet. The stereotype forming inside me curls up and dies.

The next city businessman I encounter is lying against the front wheel of the hearse that’s blocking Trafalgar Square. The placard round his neck reads, “I’m a banker. We’re all in this together.” I go over and say, “I really like your notice.” We chat for a bit. Whenever I think about being handcuffed, restrained, pushed around, locked in, my heart starts to beat faster and it’s hard to breathe. I hate small spaces. This banker, with his perfectly pressed trouser creases, is prepared to be locked in, if that will save other lives from extinction.

A young man stops me in Parliament Square and asks me if I have any idea where he’ll find his LGBT group from Wales. I haven’t a clue, but invite him back to Scotland and the North of England for tea and information. He’s walked here alone from South Wales with his XR banner, having conversations all along the way. We agree that conversations are so important. There’s no time left for Them or Us, Straight or Gay, Right or Left. The earth we wish to save is diverse, colourful, multifarious, paradoxical; it’s too late to dig trenches when the whole planet is about to become No Man’s Land.

I walk around the centre of the city. I’ve never seen it like this before, with people free to walk where they will. The architecture of power comes into its own, viewed from the centre of the road as it was meant to be. I hear the sound of voices, bells, music, drums, and the incessant whirring of the police helicopter that always hovers over us like an equivocal archangel. St James’s Park is an oasis with the tents of the nomads scattered between the lake and Horse Guards Parade. After a meeting there I wander back to Whitehall. Dark crowds shift and gather like figures in a Lowry painting. There are piles of horse dung here and there, and sometimes the clop of hooves as a couple of mounted police ride by. They stop twenty yards from the barricades, wait a while, turn, and go back at the same stately walk.

A German tourist asks haltingly what is going on. We speak in German. He says, slowly so I can understand “It is true. There is a climate emergency. But I do not think this is the best way. It makes people angry that one blocks the road. Don’t you think?”

I say, “If it becomes necessary, one must block the road. Many people have said to our government, “There is a climate emergency. You must act.” They do not change. It is now very urgent, perhaps only eighteen months, two years.”

“I know this. But one can speak. One can write. One can march with banners. One can do many things, but I think this that you do is against the law. People do not like that. Also they cannot get to work. It makes opposition.”

“It is important always to … to make peace. No enemies. But one must … protestieren – is that a word? – when the government does not hear. This is about life and death. For all people. For all animals. For all.”

“And this that you do, will it cause your government to hear?”

“It makes many people hear. Perhaps not this government. But this is democracy, what we do.”

“And in your Parliament, is not that also democracy, what they do?”

A women’s choir starts up just behind us: Dona Nobis Pacem. Others stroll over and take part, including a man who provides a bass note all on his own. I wander back to Trafalgar Square, passing a papier maché Earth, which has Munch’s Scream in the centre of every continent. In Trafalgar Square I meet a green man, fifteen feet tall on stilts, playing the violin. This is the Burning Earth site; huge flame-painted banners catch the wind. The hearse still blocks the road to Pall Mall, and the Strand is blocked by a scaffold about twenty feet high. The police are up on it in full mountaineering gear, strapping protestors one by one into orange Mountain Rescue stretchers, and lowering them to the ground As each is arrested a cheer goes up, “We love you! Thank you!” The last man is still speaking to the crowd until he’s carried away. It occurs to me that the police could have taken this young orator first, instead of letting him be until the very end. When his stretcher is finally lowered we all call out, “We love you, Scaffold Man!” Minutes later police dismantle the scaffold.

Food here is free. Anyone can take what they need, and some leave a donation. XR is funded by donations, in total faith that everyone contributes in whatever way they can. I have seen no sign of greed. These people aren’t out for personal profit, or to borrow wealth from the future. That ideology has to die, before we all do.

Back at Power in Truth, Al is dishing out vegan food from his van. When we met yesterday, he’d just been released from the cells at Kingston-on-Thames. His plan was to bring food, but he was arrested the moment he drove down Victoria Street and did a U-turn into his place on the pavement. The police closed in at once. Al gave his friend Jim a kiss and told him to fuck off fast. So Jim escaped, and Al was arrested. His van was still there when the rebellion began; a young man in a brown trilby had padlocked himself to the rear axle, and was being interviewed by the police when I arrived.

Al sits on the sunny wall beside me, dressed in his bright red oil-rig overalls and tells me his story. He’s a plumber and a chef, and runs a business doing free-lance catering. “What’s more important than that? Food and sanitation, everyone deserves that. In an equal world they’d all get it.” The police here were friendly, said Al, but at the station in Kingston they were “surly and sarcastic”.

P.C Greenlaw, who arrested Al, told him, “You’re the nicest man I’ve ever arrested.” This tribute seems to have given Al enormous pleasure. But I’m haunted by those cells at Kingston. I think he’s brave. “Well,” says Al to that, “It wasn’t part of the plan. We just have to play it by ear.”

I reckon we’re playing it by ear very well. But what is the plan?

We’ve closed down Central London. There’s an edge to it, a danger lurking in the wings, but it hasn’t moved centre stage yet. So far it looks like play, a Festival of all the Arts: music, dance, theatre, song, poetry, mime, clowning, painting, installations, collage, patchwork… you name it, it’s here. It’s Carnival, perfectly choreographed chaos. It’s beautiful, playful and yet deadly serious. This is how we could live, in full colour. Songs of Innocence are enacted everywhere, but in the background are the Institutions of Experience – government, corporate finance, fossil fuel companies, the military. But also bookshops, theatres, the National Gallery, the parks in all their autumn glory. The arts aren’t a distraction: they’re the way forward. Only the arts can shift paradigms. Central London has become a stage, and all the men and women merely players. That’s why there’s a remote chance, even now, that we can change the world.

Up and down Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Parliament Square, Millbank, Victoria Street… everywhere the huge buildings fitted for Empire, and the little people walking between. It was most unlikely that David would slay Goliath, and even more unlikely that Beowulf would kill the monster Grendel, pretty well impossible that Lyra and Will could redeem a world, or Frodo and Sam throw a ring into the Cracks of Doom. Tackling the impossible, at least one knows where one stands.

No one here is in danger. Yet. The police will not open fire on us. If I get arrested I won’t be shot. No one here will disappear, so that their family never hear of them again. No one will be locked away for life. This is London 2019, not Les Miserables. But les Miserables are there, today, now, in other places, on the front line of the same cause. There are people out there laying down their lives to save the earth they love. There are people here in London glueing themselves to the road, to scaffolding and vehicles, to keep our barricades in place.

Every night I check what the media have said about these protests. I’m increasingly frustrated that they’ve picked up on the disruptions, but they won’t say why we’re doing this, why so many people feel they must be here. Our Prime Minister dismisses us as hemp-smelling Crusties (and appears to include his own father in this) but that’s not my experience on the streets. No one wants to be here; they’d rather be at work, at college, with their children, or taking the dog for a walk. We are so diverse; we come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. What we have in common is that we know what’s happening to the earth we live on, and that unless we do something about it very quickly, our children have no future. There are different kinds of knowing. The future is terrifying. It takes emotional as well as intellectual comprehension to realise this truth.

The people out here on the streets are the wise ones. They’re able to face it. They’ve moved beyond denial, and beyond self interest. They act out of love and rage because they’re in touch with reality. There is no future now, if we don’t do something completely different.

No wonder many people can’t take it. It’s terrifying to understand that we’ve destroyed all our resources, and that the life we’ve known as normal is coming to an end more speedily than anyone predicted. It’s even more terrifying to realise that our government isn’t going to serve us in this emergency. It can’t. It’s under the enchantment of its own ideology, sleepwalking into final decline and fall.

I follow the Red Brigade into Parliament Square. I follow them every time I see them; they’re irresistible. What’s happening to our Earth is beyond words, and that’s where they take us. Beyond individuality too, identities hidden behind the red robes and whitened faces. They mime what we all feel: the grief, despair and mourning for a bountiful Earth and its beautiful, multifarious creatures, the pleas to powers that will not act or listen, the pain of helplessness and the longing for redemption.

The Red Brigade draw together in the centre of Parliament Square. They gather round the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. They greet her with much honour. They gather tenderly at her feet, and reach out to the passers-by: see this woman, see what she suffered and what she achieved. We can’t let her down now. They move away like a red tide ebbing, and form again around the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. They look into his face with reverence, and reach out to us: see this man, how he showed the way to make changes without violence, he taught us how killing was not the way to freedom. The red wave draws back; they move on. They gather round the statue of Nelson Mandela. They greet him with respect, and reach out to us to do the same. See this man, they say, who took on the forces of oppression and how he suffered for it, but in the end, against all the odds, he prevailed.

The Red Brigade act out gentleness and understanding, but they’re risking arrest at every turn. They manifest peace, but their robes are the colour of blood. I look back at the three statues. There’s no one there now but a few tourists taking pictures on their phones. Those three achieved so much, but the flow of red around their feet says as much about the history that dogged their footsteps as it does about our own future.

No blood has been spilt here this week. There has been no violence, no torture, no cruelty. Only ridicule, suppression, and denial. So far. But our planet is on fire, and this is just the beginning of where it will end. There is good reason to be afraid.

Comments (14)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    “Only the arts can shift paradigms.” I do not think that is true. I watched the episode of James Burke’s Connections where he talks of a climate change in medieval Europe, from a warm period to a cooler one. Apparently Saxon halls (like the one where Beowulf encounters Grendel) were places where people and animals huddled together for warmth, around open fire pits or suchlike. Then a new technology, chimneys, were installed and kicked off a redesign of halls: split into rooms, upstairs (where the higher ranks moved upwards into the warmth) leaving the rest downstairs.

    In order to save the planet, perhaps we need to pull them down again. In the modern world, out of the sky from their private jets that they plan to escape in to mountain retreats, possibly. From their penthouses and castles, helicopters and ivory towers, to the streets and fields and waters below. An anti-chimney, returning carbon, collapsing class, bring people and animals back to same level.

    1. john learmonth says:

      As you correctly point out there was indeed a warming period in the middle ages (as there was also in the roman era). In between the two we had a cooling period which co-incided with the Dark Ages.
      We then had a cooling period after the middle ages which ended roughly mid C19.
      Between 1940 until 1975 we had another cooling period (despite ever increasing C02 levels) which led to the global cooling scare of the time.
      Since the early 80’s we have had moderate warming ….notice a pattern?

      1. Wul says:

        Aye John,

        It’s a pity we didn’t get scientists all over the globe to look into this phenomenon and tell us what they think is happening…oh…wait!

        1. john learmonth says:

          they have…..500 scientists wrote to the UN in September stating there is no climate emergency. No doubt they will be dismissed as ‘deniers’ and for some strange reason didn’t make the news on our warming obsessed BBC.
          The problem is so many people have staked their careers on frightening the beejesus out of us that when the next cooling period hits there going to look extremely stupid……

          1. “500 scientists wrote to the UN in September…”

            Oh god.

          2. 11,000 scientists say that the ‘climate emergency’ is here

            More than 11,000 scientists declared a climate emergency today in — where else — an article published in a scientific journal.

            “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any great existential threat and to ‘tell it like it is,’” begins the “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” published in BioScience. It continues, “On the basis of this obligation … we declare … clearly and unequivocally, that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

            The declaration was co-written by William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University and the founder of the environmental advocacy group Alliance of World Scientists, and undersigned by more than 11,000 scientists and climate experts.

            These signatories aren’t the first to describe the present state of the climate as a crisis. Hundreds of governments of various sizes around the world, including New York City and the United Kingdom, have passed resolutions saying the same. This summer, some members of Congress proposed a resolution for the U.S. government to join the climate-emergency chorus.

            This particular declaration is a little different, though — for one thing, it’s peer reviewed. It’s also the first time so many scientists have directly told the public that the current state of the climate constitutes a crisis, rather than letting their data speak for itself.

            “Phrases like ‘climate change’ sound a little bit mild, in terms of how severe the problem is,” Ripple told Grist. “So, we wanted to publish language that is consistent with the data and the trends that we’re seeing.”

            Ripple organized a similar initiative back in 2017, when he and 15,000 other scientists issued a “warning to humanity” about climate change (which was itself an homage to a climate warning written by a different group of scientists in 1992). But Ripple decided it was time to upgrade the warning to a declaration of emergency after talking to Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon, who introduced the resolution for Congress to declare a national climate emergency back in July.

            “In my view, declaring a climate emergency should mostly be based on the data,” said Ripple. “These governmental bodies, they’ll look to the science to see if they are on solid ground before they pass these resolutions.”

            Even though outright climate denialism is increasingly illegitimate in mainstream news, the debate over whether to use words like “catastrophe,” “emergency,” or “crisis” continues. So Ripple wanted politicians, activists, and the general public to know that the science supports urgency. He wrote the letter, which details the basic facts of climate change — how human impacts, like CO2 emissions and deforestation, have environmental consequences, like the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global temperature rise — and sent it around to other scientists, who added their names to the message by the thousands.

            But what exactly does it mean to declare a climate emergency? Sure, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, and advocates of climate emergency resolutions point out that acknowledging the severity of the problem posed by our warming planet is a prerequisite for action.

            It’s easy to look skeptically at climate emergency resolutions, though, since they’re largely symbolic measures at a time when there are so many tangible actions that need to be taken — transitioning the energy sector from fossil fuels to renewable sources, say. Resolutions also usually (although not always) call for vague, nonbinding measures without legal mechanisms to hold governments accountable for meeting them.

            Whether or not you think climate emergency resolutions are an effective tactic for inspiring more concrete actions, it’s a pretty big deal that so many scientists have decided it’s necessary to step out of their labs and into the political arena. If you didn’t believe our warming planet is in a state of emergency, just know that several thousand scientists want you to know otherwise.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @john learmonth, thanks for reminding us that scientists can have narrow fields outside of which they are not authorities, can have paymasters and patrons and ideologies, and people can call themselves scientists on quite tenuous grounds, all as they lobby on behalf of obviously vested interests. As far as the data goes, the pattern seems to look like a hockey stick:
        which raises the question of why you would confuse phenomena which lasted centuries with a phenomenon that measures abrupt increases of a greater magnitude in past decades.

        1. john learmonth says:

          Apart from the fact that the earth cooled significantly between 1940-75 hence the ‘global cooling’ scare of the time which todays warming alarmists conveniently forget.
          Anyway science isn’t a democracy its about evidence from which to draw conclusions which can then be proved or not and then new evidence often comes along to disprove the previous theory.
          The problem I have with all the alarmism is that nobody is prepared to state what climate level is best for the world and its many species, a cooling world would present us with many problems (especially in Scotland) and sure a warming world also presents problems but also opportunities as the Irish
          PM has recently found out to his cost.
          All I would ask of my critics is for them to state what the ideal temperature level .Nobody is prepared to do this. WHY? A cooling world presents just as many (if not more) problems than a moderately warming one (which is all we are seeing as the climate forecasting models have been utterly inaccurate)
          Say for instance temperatures went back to what they were in the last cooling period 14-19C (misleadingly referred to as the pre-industrial era). The crop fields of the mid west USA/ Canada would collapse leading to starvation in many parts of the world as the US would keep the food for itself with no surplus for export. Just one of many examples
          As i say what is the ideal temperature, nobody can answer this as nobody knows

          1. Jim Murdoch says:

            The issue is that we are on track for much more than a 2 deg rise – which will cause catastrophic collapse of our food production globally. Which will cause global famine, social collapse following rather quickly. As it is, the US mid west is experiencing extreme flooding and yields are down considerably. Thats climate change for you.
            We have no need to postulate what a return to cooler climates would be like as it is irrelevant at the very least.
            If there is no action to decarbonise quickly, we will lock in runaway global heating with the probable extinction of humanity. That’s what the climate data show. Not just an opinion.

  2. Kathleen Jamie says:

    Bravo, Margaret! Inspiring work. Much to discuss re writers and activism. And much will rest on older folks, older women, elders free from family/ financial responsibility and able to make a stand, or, as you say so well, act as witnesses or calming presences. (Please will you contact me?)

  3. James McCarthy says:

    A most thoughtful and well expressed article -bravo! The question for this elderly conservationist is what (apart from joining local marches, etc) can one do to effect real change now? Perhaps in the forthcoming General Election to vote for the party which is putting climate change nearest the top I their manifesto?

  4. Daniel Raphael says:

    One of your best, utterly moving–I tweeted it to as many as I could tag, with the request that they in turn pass it along.
    Gratitude and honor to all who act and who risk to save our planet.

  5. Alistair Taylor says:

    Thank you, Margaret.
    Fine writing . And even finer participation. (That’s what we really need now. To get off our collective arses, and actually make a change.)

  6. John Docherty says:

    Nice read.
    Great result in the court today regards the illegal policing of the events.

    I prefer to trust the many thousands of Scientists and the UN IPCC report as well as the reality that is being reported around the planet.

    Some will stick to believing the few hundred folk with vested interest in fossil fuel industry that includes more business men than environmental scientists. Some folk eh ! Shame they’re in government, mind.

    Unfortunately I feel burnt earth policy is the literal intention

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