15 october 2019

How older people became the heroes of Extinction Rebellion

It is a generation that contains veterans of Greenham, the miners’ strike and the poll tax and anti-Iraq war protests – and, with no need to worry about damaged CVs, they are perfect ‘arrestables

Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, Tue 15 Oct 2019

Protest hits its mark when campaigners look as ordinary as possible, such as the platoons of grandparents swelling the ranks of Extinction Rebellion. Cameras seek out the picturesque – the luminously dreadlocked, tie-dyed stereotype. Although few and far between, they let the rightwing press dismiss the whole huge global uprising as “not people like us”.

But anyone who was on Saturday’s London march or joined this week’s protests has seen how the great majority are unphotogenic “normals” of all ages, with battalions of those well past retirement. Nor are there many of the usual bothersome far-left groupuscules trying to hijack a mighty, mainstream event.

When Boris Johnson called them “uncooperative crusties”, he probably didn’t mean older people. It took his father, Stanley, joining the Rebellion to proudly own the label himself, alongside the stream of pensioners arrested day after day. It was 77-year-old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman kneeling down in Lombard Street opposite the Bank of England, leading a Shacharit service, who stole the limelight. Tuesday’s shocking blanket ban on all protests in London was roundly ignored, no more so than by the old contingents.

The oldies are often the most experienced, with campaign badges to show for it: Aldermaston CND was my first march, aged 14. Later came anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. This generation contains veterans of Greenham, the miners’ strike and the poll tax and anti-Iraq war protests.

Hundreds in their 70s and some in their 90s – a seasoned 1960s generation – have been arrested all over the world in these climate-emergency demonstrations. This is the fittest ever cohort of pensioners, not only able to sit down in the street, but to get up again, too. These are the best “arrestables” – free of children, with pensions. They have no need to worry about damaged CVs and criminal-record checks, and so are model protest material, with the least to lose. Police, mainly easy on arrestees of all ages, are doubly wary of dragging older folks down the street. Besides, it’s a duty for the guilty generation; we who burned the carbon, tipped the plastic into the sea and filthied the air for those who come after.

>>> Back to list