I found myself glued to my Twitter feed and Instagram live streams last week, strangely soothed by the events unfolding at the international rebellion in London and across the globe, and reassured by the fact that no one was lying about what is ahead, pretending there is more hope than there is, pretending that action will stop the catastrophe that is ahead of us. It made me feel less crazy to see just how many people ‘get it’ and how many people care enough about what is unfolding to risk getting arrested, charged, even imprisoned. It was a relief to see the outpourings of love and respect for the people rebelling, a relief that so many understood why it had come to this, why action of this kind was needed, why the disruption was regrettable but unavoidable. In my algorithmed social media bubble it was almost as though the whole world had woken up.
I made the decision on Wednesday of last week to travel to London at the weekend to join the South West rebels who were holding Waterloo Bridge. An imminent house move, a twelve year old, and PTSD meant only a day trip was possible this time, and I was unsure whether it would be worth the time and expense, whether my presence was important enough, whether I would feel it had made any difference my being there – just one person. Somehow I just knew I needed to go though, to join with others and have my voice heard, and to take comfort in connecting with others who feel as I do about the climate and ecological crisis we are in. And I am so glad I listened to the whispers of my heart and did in fact go, despite my mind trying to tell me I wouldn’t make any difference. I feel as though my presence was noticed and important and I am so grateful to have been able to play a part, however small, in the transformation in public consciousness that has resulted from the peaceful protests by XR activists over the past 10 days.
I left early on Saturday morning, my bag full of orange Legal Observer bibs that needed to be taken back to Waterloo Bridge from XR rebels who had now returned to Exeter. It felt nice to have a job, a purpose. I wasn’t sure what the day ahead would be like, I had very little expectations at all, and that felt nice. Freeing. The train to London was lovely and quiet at 7.56am and I journalled the whole way, enjoying the peace and space to get my thoughts in order. I emerged from the tube at Waterloo into beautiful sunshine and, as I made my way to the bridge, I felt excited to hear drums and voices and singing, and to see the huge ‘rebel for life’ banner which spanned the width of the bridge. I did an induction with a group of others and was struck by the diversity of the people there as I got chatting to a pastor and his wife, a university student, a theatre artist, and an eclectic mix of others from various places across the UK. I then wandered around the bridge, trying to find some of the rebels from my home city, and eventually found one at the well-being tent who put me on sunscreen duty – basically walking around the site and offering sunscreen to all the clusters of people involved in the occupation of the bridge. This was a beautiful job as it was an eerily hot day for April and many people had not thought to bring sun protection so they were very grateful to be offered sun cream. Everyone was so friendly and warm, really approachable and open. It felt so different from walking around busy streets in the city where I live. There was a real party atmosphere and I walked the length of the bridge several times, admiring the trees and plants installed by rebels, the banners and placards, the paintings on the bridge. There were speeches and performances by poets and musicians. It was like a festival, but with a purpose. I’m not really a festival-person, I find them triggering and difficult, but this was different because relaxing and enjoying myself wasn’t the purpose, being there was the important part, and any joy or fun was just an added bonus.
At about 3pm the police moved in. Hundreds of them forming a circle around the lorry which was blocking the bridge. At first it was disconcerting but I soon got used to their presence. No arrests were made for a really long time and it was unclear why they were there really – protecting our ‘right to peaceful protest’ perhaps? Rebels locked on under the lorry and the police began dismantling the camp – carrying away plants and trees and hay bales, taking down the tents and gazebos. Having heard the story of how the bridge was taken at my local XR group’s meeting the night before it was incredibly moving to be there as the police began taking back the bridge. Things started to get quite hectic – the Revolutionary Socialist Party (I think that was who it was) had a very loud speaker and there were a lot of impassioned and angry speeches and performances taking place whilst the police were starting to arrest the locked on rebels. The atmosphere was getting stressful for the rebels and someone asked if everyone could sit down and try and calm things down a little.
A woman led a meditation asking us to hold compassion for species who are going extinct, people we love, and people who are suffering, and I cried a lot during this. It all felt so raw and real, what is happening, what humanity is doing to our beautiful planet. And then myself and another rebel led some gentle singing to calm those who were locked on under the lorry because they were feeling very tense as they awaited arrest.
People gonna rise like water, change this system round, in the voice of my great-grandaughter, climate justice now.in the voice of my great-grandaughter, climate justice now.
We sang these words over and over again, gently, peacefully, with others joining in and adding harmonies at times too. It was beautiful, soothing, and incredibly powerful to be there, deescalating in the face of such tension as the police slowly released the locked on rebels and carried them away to the waiting police vans. I was filled with such reverence and awe for the arrestees willing to sacrifice their freedom for the future of humankind, for those who were there holding the space, providing well-being support, making food, co-ordinating the speeches, and everything else that was needed to make the arrests possible and ensure that knowledge of the XR demands was spread far and wide. And I was filled with such bittersweet love for the earth we live on and all who depend upon it.
As I walked to get my train it all felt so surreal, the occupied space that was so vibrant and full of love and heart energy suddenly seemed so small and irrelevant, even though when I was there it was so all-consuming. Evening sunshine, tourists filling the streets, stressed out car drivers and bicycles zigzagging through the crowds… all seemed so incongruous after what I had just been part of. It was hard to believe that there were still so many people who knew nothing of the rebellion, of what it was for and why, of the people working so hard to try and give them some sort of a future. There are still so many people who are not yet aware of the climate crisis or what it will mean for them. It has felt like that all week really – normal life seems so surreal and strange. It is like living in two parallel worlds – the truth, and the daily pretense that we can carry on as we are forever.
What has amazed me the most since Saturday is how peaceful and comfortable in my own skin I felt that day. It’s not a feeling I often have anyway, but especially not among crowds of people where I have nowhere safe to retreat to. Normally even on a busy train journey I need to take diazepam because I get triggered, but I didn’t take any at all that day (until I was home and my brain was buzzing from over-stimulation so I took it in order to sleep). I think this is testimony to XR’s focus on non-violence and deescalation, and the regenerative culture and emphasis on resilience and individual well-being that permeates all they do. Looking back, I can really see how present these things were at the site and how different this is from so many other mass mobilisations of people I’ve been involved in in the past. Their vision works. It keeps people calm, it soothes, it comforts, and it helps turn our fear and sense of isolation into love and connection and hope for something better, not a fairytale ending it’s true, but still hope that we will have a more peaceful transition into whatever is coming than the chaos and struggles we are currently headed for.