I am not a natural ‘protester’, although I do have a chunky sheaf of correspondence spanning the last ten years in which I have sought to raise various issues with my local Member of Parliament, so perhaps I have been in a form of low-level training for something rather more ‘activist’. I have also campaigned in fairly quiet ways on issues related to climate change and sustainability both locally and nationally and a few years ago I did join a number of colleagues on a climate march, but I have watched the growing activities of Extinction Rebellion (XR), Christian Climate Action, and the young school strikers from the sidelines, supporting them theoretically but not physically.
However, a month ago we held a Climate Sunday service at my church and as part of an interactive activity everyone was invited to make a pledge of a single new action they would take, write it on a paper leaf and attach it to a ‘tree’. This potted branch, in our church garden for the outdoor Communion at that Sunday service, is now standing at the front of church Sunday by Sunday and although it will probably disappear at some point in the coming weeks it is currently still reminding us of the pledges we each made. Mine was to ‘step outside my comfort zone’ in support of creation care, although I only had a vague suspicion at that point of what that might involve.
During the last two weeks there has been a whole series of actions taking place in London, and elsewhere, with XR seeking to raise awareness about the climate crisis facing the planet if rapid and dramatic action is not taken very soon to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and avert the very real threat of runaway global warming. Although very many members of the public are supportive of these actions, even when they themselves are inconvenienced by them, there has been greater controversy than in the April ‘rebellion’ about some of the disruptive actions that have been taken – and also about the sometimes draconian response of the authorities. Midway through the October ‘Autumn Uprising’, on Monday 14 October, the Metropolitan Police banned all XR gatherings in London and used a revision of Section 14 powers to threaten protesters with arrest. That evening, I was on my way home from a completely unrelated event in London when I picked up news via the facebook feed of our local XR group that on Tuesday there would be an inaugural gathering of ‘XR Grandparents’ at the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. Apparently the police had been made aware that this would take place but anyone intending to be there in support of XR was warned not to wear XR badges or be otherwise easily identifiable, just in case. Tuesday 15 October was exactly a week before the date on which my first grandchild was due to be born and I was already planning to be in London that evening to attend an event at which Naomi Klein – social activist and author, most recently on climate change – was speaking. This, then, was the challenge I needed to step out of my comfort zone.
I arrived at the Victoria Memorial at 4.15pm on the Tuesday, fifteen minutes before the official start of the gathering, and slipped into a back row among those already assembled on the steps. Most, but by no means all, of the people there did resemble older-generation ‘hippie types’ and I could well imagine that these same individuals had been at CND marches or had camped out at Greenham Common in days gone by. They also all seemed to be fairly seasoned XR protesters and initially I felt rather out of place. But the atmosphere was completely peaceful, and conversations were being had quite calmly with the police officers who were reading out Section 14 statements but only when a couple of people climbed too high up the memorial – to take pictures – was anyone asked to move. For just under an hour the crowd sang protest songs, chanted that they would – in a direct response to a comment made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – ‘rather be a crusty than extinct’, and handed out stickers and fabric ‘XR Grandparent’ badges. Group photographs were taken – some of which appeared in the next day’s newspapers – and then we all moved down to the railings of the palace. The police were patient and for quite a while they left the two protesters who had got round behind them and were lying down immediately in front of the railings alone; they were later arrested, I believe. I spent just over an hour at this XR protest and was struck by how good-natured it was, by the huge flag proclaiming that ‘Our Rebellion is an Act of Love’ and by the very obvious and genuine fear that these grandparents – a number of them accompanied by their young grandchildren – have for the future.
My week on the streets of London did not end there, as I had already signed up to attend the People’s Vote March on Saturday 19 October. In common with so many others I have found the last three years of uncertainty, anxiety and lack of real information in the wake of the EU referendum pretty unsettling. I recognise that there are genuine concerns about the way in which the EU is being run and the direction in which it seemed to be heading but nevertheless firmly believe that it was better to stay involved and help to effect reform from within, rather than to opt out. I am saddened at the divisions that the close vote has caused within communities and even within families and at the sometimes vitriolic and abusive exchanges that have marked the ongoing debates around what should happen now. I also understand that after such a protracted process there are many people – whichever way they voted back in 2016 – who just want to see an end to it all and would now support our exit at almost any cost because they want to get it over with; however, I suspect they may not fully realise that this will not be ‘over with’ for many years to come, as the repercussions ripple on down into the future for individuals, businesses and communities. Nevertheless, what the People’s Vote campaign has shown in a wonderfully reassuring and encouraging way, is the ability of people to set aside party politics and champion democracy together.
This was reinforced for me as I joined an estimated one million people to march through London and call for the British people to be allowed to vote on whether or not a majority do still want to quit the European Union, now that some of the implications of such a move have become more apparent. This is democracy at its best and it was really good to stand and walk alongside people from all over the country, from every political persuasion, of all ages and abilities. There were drums, whistles, flags, banners, stickers and placards galore – heartfelt sentiments sometimes expressed very cleverly, with wit and humour, and occasionally rather more rudely in the style of political cartoonists. There were families, wheelchairs, dogs and the odd cyclist and despite the crush in places everyone was patient and good-tempered.
I had travelled to London on my own and, unlike many marchers, was not wearing an EU beret or flag, and was not sporting a badge or carrying a placard but there was an instant camaraderie with people on the train who were clearly heading in the same direction. On Park Lane I fell into step with another lady on her own, who had travelled down from Rugby, and for the next five hours we chatted, got to know each other a little and kept together through the crowds. We had both been given and had carried ‘Yes to Europe. No to Climate Chaos’ placards early in the day and we laughed together later in the crowded Tube train as I lent mine for use as a temporary fan to an overheated young lady desperately trying to cool down. Only as we were making our way back towards Euston Station, weary and thirsty, had we realised that we had not introduced ourselves, but as we exchanged names we each thanked the other for their company during our day on the street.
Am I now a ‘protester’? I don’t think there is any specific type of person who falls into that category and perhaps there is a capacity for protest of one sort or another in each of us; it just depends on what matters to you most. There will be many people for whom taking to the streets will never be an option, but if you are able to do it and you feel strongly about an issue then I recommend it: it is a good way to be reminded that there are lots of people out there who feel just the same.