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.