eXtinction Rebellion: Planet A against the State.

LONDON- Sat 17th Nov 2018.

It is a crisp Saturday morning on London’s iconic Westminster bridge. The bridge road, a key artery usually filled with the chaotic life-blood of the capital, is now cordoned off by oversized street cones and detour signs pointing to alternative vehicular routes. Yellow and blue-liveried vans constellate its proximities with their air of foreboding. The street is an eerie, empty strip before a stand-off, waiting for High Noon in a Western movie of old. 

On the bridge edges and walkways, the atmosphere is abuzz. Tense crowds are gathered against lines of yellow-clad, stern-faced officers. A two years old girl, sat on a concrete bollard, sports on her right arm a purple armband saying “Rebel For Life” while on the other side a young, long-haired man is instructing a small group of flag-bearers through an oversized megaphone. 

“I think in a few minutes we’ll get a move on,” he says, “the volunteers are able to go out onto the road. We’ll move in from the left. OK?” His instructions are met with a joyful cheer by the eager activists. 

Swathes of colourful banners and placards now paint the pavements with fluorescent tones, all awaiting for the final signal from somewhere to enact their masterplan. Big Ben, looming over the bank from Parliament square, finally strikes a resounding 10. 

The protestors hop past the guard-rails and onto the bridge. A deep-green larger than life banner begins to slowly unfurl, eventually taking up the whole span of the bridge. In bold block capitals the words EXTINCTION REBELLION now encompass the street, and from the walkways crowds of people pour onto the tarmac and gather onto the middle of the bridge where organisers have set up speakers and a makeshift soapbox. 

The November ’18 Extinction Rebellion demo in Central London.

“I salute you, the Extinction Rebellion! You have come here to save life on Earth! Congratulations to you!” The cheering crowd is welcomed by the rousing words of South West Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato, one of the official spokespersons of the event, who continues on: “We have to follow what was done by Gandhi, what was done by the civil rights movement. We have to have thousands and thousands in prison, we have to fill those jails.”  

As upbeat tunes play from the roadside tannoy and the atmosphere on Westminster Bridge turns to a happy, carnivalesque festival of colours, the situation onto nearby Lambeth Bridge, another key artery of metropolitan traffic who is under the same direct action, is starkly different. 

The crowds there, sat-in in peaceful disobedience, are already under a slow and methodic push from the authorities who are, as prophesied by Cato, attempting to make good on the promise to “fill those jails”.

Lines of agents slither through the sitting crowd like a high-vis Conga train while unequivocally warning the protesters. “Move along or you’ll be arrested, move along.”  Their modus operandi becomes suddenly clear. It’s a symbolic ‘pick-them-off’.  A show of force. One of such units finally encircle a random sitter while the highest ranked officer leans down to talk. “You are causing obstruction to the highway, Sir,” he states, “if you don’t move off the road I will have to arrest you.” The warning is heeded stoically by the silent protestor who doesn’t as much as acknowledge the threat. 

“OK sir, this is your last warning. Move on or you’ll be arrested.” 

The man continues his silent sit-in, and as the officer looks up and nods at his colleagues, they storm in, lift him off the ground and hoist him away, arms flailing, his stomach on show after the brief struggle. The crowd around him, in sign of respect, affords him a cheer and a hero’s farewell. 

This incident, and all such others, are being observed by individuals wearing orange vests calling themselves ‘Legal Observers’. This is an increasingly common practice being employed at protests sites all over the country as a response to what is perceived as overzealous, handsy policing. The LOs observe and record all the interactions between a protester and the arresting agent from first contact all the way to the arrest, and offer the protesters immediate on-site legal advice.  

“A Legal Observer is someone who is independent from the protest but not impartial, and we’re here to monitor the police to make sure that they’re also obeying the law, and to advise the protesters on what their rights are.” Shereen spent a whole weekend training to become a LO, and she now has a wealth of applied legal knowledge to help protesters not to fall foul of the strong arm of the law. “You’re allowed to say ‘no comment’,’’ she suggests, “you don’t have to give your I.D., do not accept a duty solicitor and do not accept a caution – which will stay on your record even if not guilty.” 

What is a Legal Observer?

Extinction Rebellion and many other movements – like the Preston New Road anti-fracking protest or the ‘Stansted 15’ airport disruption action with its surrounding legal controversy, are the UK frontline of civil disobedience activism, the space where police containment practices and disruptive mass action have been facing off like a giant game of chess, redefining free speech and increasing pressure, in a tug-of-war with important repercussions for the democratic process and the right of peaceful protest. 

When asked for an insight into the Police Force’s intransigence towards their opposing side, Dr Daniel Newman, who teaches Criminal Law at Cardiff University, suggests that “The police generally operates with a sense of mission, a strong belief in their worthwhile purpose and they are inevitably suspicious of those who challenge their mandate to maintain order.” He further adds that the Police as institution is historically prone to making an un-nuanced black-or-white distinction between what is legal, hence acceptable, or illegal and deserving of punishment – even when the subject of the uproar is a well-worthy cause like the protection of the environment. Dr Newman concludes, rather fatalistically, that “the practice of policing is the idea of separating society into groups, good and bad.” 

Back on Lambeth bridge, however, not all activists have an axe to grind with the police force. Some choose to see the man behind the uniform and understand that society is, beyond idealisms, run along deeply entrenched power dynamics; that the policeman is “just a man doing his job”. So “why risk your freedom and allow yourselves to be arrested and charged?” I ask. “I want the government to take notice,” replies Karen, whose daughter has, seconds before, been lifted up off the floor and taken away into custody, “I don’t want to be here, I really do not want to be here. But there isn’t any choice. If my daughter is going to have a world worth living in, we have to change it now. Not tomorrow, actually bloody yesterday.”