FROM THE FRONT LINES OF LONDON'S NON-VIOLENT CLIMATE ACTIVISM

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19 april 2019

On Waterloo Bridge

Anna Aslanyan, London Review of Books, April 19, 2019

‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’ A van was parked across the bridge, blocking the traffic. Dozens of people were sitting on the ground or walking among potted trees. Similar scenes unfolded at other sites around London yesterday afternoon: Parliament Square, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch have also been occupied by Extinction Rebellion (XR) since Monday. The international movement hopes to persuade governments to declare a climate and ecological emergency; its demands in the UK include the reduction of carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and the creation of a citizens’ assembly to advise policymakers on environmental issues. ‘They’ve failed on every promise,’ a speaker on Waterloo Bridge said. ‘We’ve had no government for nearly two years now,’ someone replied.

‘We’ve got the message,’ the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said on Wednesday. ‘We understand that action needs to be taken.’ He ignored XR’s invitation to hold a discussion. Four protesters glued themselves together outside Jeremy Corbyn’s house. He refused to talk to them, but has now agreed to meet with XR next week.

A recent report by the Committee on Climate Change had four messages for the government: ‘support the simple, low-cost options’; ‘commit to effective regulation and strict enforcement’; ‘act now to keep long-term options open’; and ‘end the chopping and changing of policy’. The zero carbon strategy, introduced in 2016, has been replaced by a plan to have no gas in new homes from 2025. Subsidies for onshore wind farms and small solar plants have been removed, while airport expansions and fracking projects are still going ahead.

In Parliament Square, people danced around the skeleton of an extinct animal, surrounded by posters: ‘Bash plastic trash’; ‘Don’t be a fossil fool.’ At Oxford Circus, there was a pink boat with musicians playing on the deck and human ‘barnacles’ stuck to the hull. Some of them had travelled from Scotland, Cornwall, the Midlands and Wales. ‘We are not going to stop global warming,’ an engineer told me, ‘but we can prepare ourselves for a different world.’

Back at Waterloo Bridge, the organisers called on ‘arrestables’ to make their way to Parliament Square, where reinforcements were needed. I asked a policeman how he would go about arresting someone glued to a stationary object. He said he’d use a skin-friendly solvent, and praised the protesters’ peaceful behaviour. A man who had spent a night in custody before rejoining the protest told me he had to queue outside a police station for two hours before they could book him, but other than that everything was fine. I asked his companion if she had been arrested too. ‘Unfortunately, I can’t afford it,’ she said. ‘I work with children.’

More than 500 activists have been arrested this week, most of them released without charge. The Met have been telling the protesters to restrict their activities to Marble Arch. This morning, a dozen teenage activists held a demonstration outside Heathrow. ‘Are we the last generation?’ their banner asked. Meanwhile, civil disobedience continues in Central London, with thousands of people taking part and more expected to join them.


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