Over the past week, governmental officials and police say, protesters have wreaked havoc in London—but it’s all part of an effort to address the sociopolitical factors wreaking havoc on our planet.
In the early afternoon of Monday, April 22, about 100 people entered London’s Natural History Museum and made their way to Hintze Hall. As sunlight streamed in from the skylights and illuminated the Romanesque arches that punctuate the stone walls, the protestors positioned themselves underneath Hope—the enormous blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling—and lay down on the ground. After about half an hour, most concluded their “die-in,” but a few remained; wearing face paint and crimson robes, they gave a classical music performance on the steps beneath the skeleton.
This unusual demonstration was part of a massive mobilization by Extinction Rebellion (abbreviated as XR), a non-partisan movement aiming to revise environmental policy with the goals of slowing climate change and minimizing the possibility of imminent human extinction. The group launched in the United Kingdom in October of 2018—in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report announcing that we have just 12 years to halt catastrophic change—and quickly proliferated worldwide.
Today, the movement boasts about 130 groups across the UK, and is active in countries from the U.S. to South Africa to Australia. Its core demands are threefold: Honesty and transparency from governments regarding the ecological crisis; reduction of carbon emissions to zero by 2025; and the implementation of a participatory democracy to monitor progress towards these goals.
The current actions in London, advertised on XR’s website as “UK Rebellion—Shut Down London!,” are the focal point of a constellation of protests planned in 80 cities across 33 countries. Beginning on April 15, thousands of protestors poured into the heart of London, blocking five major landmarks: Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus, and Piccadilly Circus. From the beginning, group members made it clear that they weren’t going anywhere, filling the bridge with trees and flowers and even setting up a skate park and stage. Live music emanated from Oxford Circus, and a life-sized model of a boat with “Tell the Truth” painted on the side blocked the center of the bustling junction.
Nearby at Piccadilly Circus, younger protestors chalked messages on the pavement, while inside an open-sided truck at Marble Arch, bands entertained hundreds of onlookers. In Parliament Square on April 15, Jamie Kelsey Fry—contributing editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine—encouraged demonstrators from an octagonal stage.
The audience waved flags and banners emblazoned with the symbol of the movement, dubbed by Steve Rose of The Guardian as the ubiquitous logo of 2019. According to Rose, the “X” signifies extinction, and the horizontal lines suggest an hourglass—reminding us once again that time is running out.
A high point for protestors was a visit from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg on Sunday, April 21. The Swedish teenager, who staged a “School Strike for Climate” at Sweden’s Parliament last year and initiated the weekly #FridaysforFuture school walkouts, received chants of “We love you” as she took the stage at Marble Arch.
While the protests have in some ways resembled a modern-day Woodstock, full of music and goodwill, London authorities—who have deployed some 9,000 police officers in response—see a different side of the story. As of April 22, more than 1,000 people had been arrested since the demonstrations began; the youngest to be charged was 19, and the oldest 74.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said that the protest was taking a toll on London’s police forces and businesses, commenting, “I'm extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime.” Protestors, for their part, view the stress on police as unavoidable: “We wish we didn’t have to distract police resources,” their website states. “80 year old grandfathers would rather not be putting themselves in the physically uncomfortable position of being in a police cell and children don’t want to be skipping school – but 30 years of government inaction have left us with no choice.”
As protesters continue to be removed from the scene one by one by the police, with more rushing in to take their place, the question is whether or not the government will be responsive to XR’s message. On the first day of the mobilization, XR wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May outlining its demands, requesting talks, and issuing a stern warning: Failing government action, the group’s disruptive demonstrations would only escalate over the coming weeks. On April 22—the day of the Natural History Museum die-in, and also Earth Day—the group said that they would soon hold a “people’s assembly” to determine next steps. The next day, protesters marched on Parliament in a renewed push to open dialogue with government officials.
London’s Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit has said that XR’s demand for carbon neutrality by 2025 “technically, economically and politically has absolutely no chance of being fulfilled,” but nevertheless supports the message behind the movement and the actions it has engendered. For XR, surmounting the impossible is the only way forward to ensure that human beings can continue to inhabit the earth: Their website reads, “Only a peaceful planet-wide mobilisation of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to avoid the worst case scenarios and restore a safe climate.” Only time will tell whether those in power agree.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.