Protesters for social justice movements often talk about a moment of awakening when the true weight of the cause you are fighting for hits you. I had always assumed that my existing awareness of political and social justice issues meant that this awakening was something I had already experienced. However, when I was sitting at the foot of a police officer in a crowd of people in Marble Arch roundabout, I realised this was not the case. As I sat in the crowd, the anticipation and stress of potentially being arrested was noticeable between myself and other activists. In these situations, one of our strategies to de-escalate high stress scenarios is to sing a peaceful protest song, in this case people were signing a short repetition that went as follows:
People gunna rise like the water, gunna turn this system down
I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter, singing, climate justice now
As I heard these words sung by near a 100 people sat peacefully in the moonlight united by a shared cause and dedication for change, I truly understood why I do what I do. I became an environmental activist because of a deep connection and care for the planet and every living being on it. I believe in the power of human beings to create positive change and unite against injustice. I believe in the intrinsic value of every living being. This belief makes the weight of the current environmental and ecological crisis sit heavy on my heart and conscience, and forces me to help make change.
To a large degree, my passion and activism for environmental causes came from the same place as my passion for left-wing causes. It comes from a place of love and appreciation for every living being and their right to fulfil their potential in a good and just society. Without the planet that sustains us, nothing else is possible. I see social justice causes so fundamentally linked with environmental activism because they both reflect the compassion and solidarity that I feel towards those around us who are suffering injustice.
To provide some further context it is necessary to understand the severity of the current environmental and ecological crisis we are facing. In a 2018 report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that we only have 12 years to save the planet from irreversible climate breakdown. Already we have seen the extinction of a variety of important species such as insects and air quality rapidly decrease in inner-city areas. This is before even considering the international socio-political effects of climate breakdown we are already experiencing in the forms of natural disasters and mass migration.
I began taking part in environmental activism through Friends of the Earth, sharing petitions, talking to politicians and hosting public events. As time went on, I couldn’t understand how people in power could see climate related issues such as air pollution as anything but an emergency issue that require immediate, strong action. So, as a result, in January I chose to get involved in a different type of environmental movement that focused more on non-violent direct action as I felt that the powers that be will not listen until they are made to listen.
I met Extinction Rebellion activists through one of their legendary introduction talks ‘Heading for extinction and what to do about it’. This outreach talk is available on YouTube and is often retold by activists as part of local group activities. The Heading for X talk is much more realistic about the urgency needed to solve our current crisis and as a result is quite a heavy and emotional experience. This talk really changed my perspective towards Climate breakdown and allowed me to articulate my anxieties towards the ongoing crisis as ones of grief. This style of activism felt extremely productive to me and I knew after this talk that this was an organisation that I could really flourish as an active member.
One of the unique aspects of Extinction Rebellion as an activist movement is the fundamental focus and importance, they place on maintaining a regenerative culture in regard to wellbeing. We are guided by the idea that however severe the ecological or climate crisis is we should always be looking after own wellbeing first. Not only is this obviously beneficial for activists who are often burnt-out and taken advantage of for their free labour, but it really strengthens the movement’s ability to continue the power of our actions. A few examples of this regenerative culture are as follows. We maintain a strong buddy system at all of our actions and conferences so that no-one is left alone to be lost or potentially overwhelmed by high-stress or intense events. Additionally, this focus on wellbeing is seen through our non-hierarchical organisational structure where we are constantly learning, adapting and mitigating for power inherent to the toxic system in which we all exist.
All of the above inspired me to take part in the protest dubbed ‘International Rebellion’ for two weeks over the Easter break.
I arrived in London on the 14th in order to receive some last-minute training from the national team and to pitch camp in Hyde Park so that we could be ready to go early the next morning. That evening I was fed by Hare Krishna and received some last-minute meditation and de-escalation training to prepare for an intense emotional period. I woke up not knowing quite what to expect or exactly how long I would be staying.
Each regional group was assigned to a different sight around London which we intended to occupy for as long as possible. Southampton was grouped with London and other southern groups to be based at the Marble Arch site. We spent the rest of our week coordinating a road block on Edgware road, visiting other sites to provide support in numbers and participating in people’s assemblies. The sight was incredibly well organised and everyone contributed in their own way to help keep the site clean, positive and secure. We had wash tents, compost toilets, family creches, a wellbeing hub for mindfulness and religious practice, sites for training, a tent for freelance workers and journalists and a kitchen all built by volunteers and maintained by people living in the commune. This system was mirrored at all the other sites (Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Parliament Square) and was supported by a carnival atmosphere of music, dance and performance to demonstrate the optimism, creativity and positivity of our cause.
International Rebellion was undeniably the best experience of my life and opened my eyes to the strength and power in community and the love shared between people with a shared vision of change.
Since April we have organised region uprisings in Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and other major UK cities. I participated in the protests in Bristol, camping out in Castle park and coordinating wellbeing for our Southampton group. The protest followed a similar vibe and organisation to that of London but Southampton’s group (having grown to 100+ members since April) decided to organise their own autonomous action to escalate the disruption in Bristol. This involved putting a giant cast-iron bathtub in the middle of the M23 exit junction by Cabot Circus which was adapted so that rebels could attach themselves via padlocks, and further people could glue themselves to the structure. We blocked traffic from around 7am to 3pm and it took near 2 hours to remove the rebels from the bathtub. The aim of actions like these is to cause disruption that requires lots of resources in an attempt to gain attention but also force those in power to take our cause seriously and act. This action was a massive success getting us widescale press coverage, meaningful interactions explaining the disruption and cause to those affected and gaining significant attention from the police and local authorities which lead them to participate in a citizen’s assembly the following day. All in all, the actions in Bristol were a perfect example of why I joined XR, we engaged with the public in a really positive way showing them the severity of the climate crisis through the love and passion for community and change.
Now, the question that rings in my head whenever I think about the very intense past year I have had with XR and especially after International Rebellion is: Where next?
Extinction Rebellion have gained so much publicity and support in the last year and it is undeniable that the environmental cause has been massively bumped up the political agenda thanks to the Youth Strike 4 Climate movement in particular. One of our biggest victories was in achieving our first demand when Jeremy Corbyn put forward a motion to declare a climate emergency in Parliament which was accepted. However, it is clear we still have so far to go to prevent the biggest danger facing our planet, we need serious action and we need seriously quickly. International Rebellion and Summer Uprising were just the start of the coordinated direct action necessary to force change on the powers in government and big business.
This is why we are staging more protests around the world from the 7th of October. To find out more about these protests, XR’s demands and how you can be a part of the movement, visit Rebellion.Earth.
The fight is far from over! We must act now to save this beautiful planet and everyone on it from extinction.
By Bethany Saul