‘We break the law with open heart and honesty’: On the front line with London’s Extinction Rebellion protesters

Activists and those arrested vow to keep disrupting city until government takes climate change threat seriously

Colin Drury
Saturday 12 October 2019 14:07 BST
Two women from Extinction Rebellion are dragged out of London City airport by police

Matt Larsen-Daw arrived at London City airport, like thousands of business passengers every day, dressed in a suit and tie and pulling his suitcase along.

It was Thursday morning. Some 200 Extinction Rebellion protesters were outside the building attempting to disrupt the day’s flights. Police were on all doors blocking access to anyone who could not prove they were there to catch a plane.

As Mr Larsen-Daw headed for the entrance, visibly shaking his head at the demonstrators, one such officer asked to see his passport. The 38-year-old replied that he was on a domestic flight. So, he was asked to open his suitcase.

“I did it straight away, very confident and officious, thinking he’d just see the clothes I’d packed on top,” the 38-year-old tells The Independent two hours later. “But the false bottom I’d made had come loose. I opened the suitcase up and my climate change placard was right there poking through some pants and socks.”

He muses on this. “It was a bit of a giveaway.”

Thus, the charity manager’s attempts to infiltrate the London airport as part of a planned Hong Kong-style shut down ended prematurely. Instead of occupying the departure lounge, he spent the day with crowds barricading the building from outside.

Yet his creativity in attempting to gently circumnavigate authorities to cause maximum disruption is perhaps somehow symptomatic of this week’s protests in London.

Time and again, police appear to have been wrong-footed – or at least kept occupied – by the sheer peaceful ingenuity of the estimated 30,000 self-proclaimed rebels who have descended on the capital to demand action on climate change.

In the first week of a planned fortnight of direct action – being repeated in 60 cities across the globe – protesters have eschewed formulaic rallies and marches, and gone with tactics altogether more unorthodox.

Roads have been blockaded by mass breastfeeds; weddings held on occupied bridges (“in love and in rage”, ran the vows); and Westminster brought to a virtual standstill with the sudden coordinated placing of almost 1,000 pot plants outside parliament.

Extinction Rebellion protests at London City airport last week

Statues across the capital have been scaled and given eco-warrior flags, while sprawling tent cities have sprung up in Trafalgar Square, St James’s Park and Vauxhall Gardens – complete with morning yoga sessions, vegan lunch stations and stalls organising volunteers into jobs. Wanted, says a sign outside the latter: waste management supporters, leafleteers, arrestables.

Any luck on the latter, I wonder? “Lots of interest,” comes the reply. “And growing every day.”

Protesters have glued themselves to government buildings, and taken to the roofs of the BBC and the aforementioned London City airport. A Paralympian, in a feat frankly worthy of a gold medal, climbed on an aeroplane in a bid to keep it grounded. Especially impressive after he revealed he was scared of heights.

The day before that, a 74-year-old was arrested for sounding a fire alarm at an oil and money conference at Park Lane Hotel. Not that he’s the oldest person detained. A 91-year-old was taken into custody on Thursday for refusing to move from outside the Cabinet Office in Whitehall. “Teenagers nowadays,” said John Lynes as he was escorted into a police van. “What future have they got?”

Such has been the originality of these protests, journalists have arrived from across Europe to report on them. Although this may be a somewhat pyrrhic victory. “I flew in,” a reporter from Germany’s Das Spiegel newspaper tells me at the London City airport protest. “Not ideal, I admit.”

Writing on Monday, the commentator Brendan O’Neill called all this a “death cult”. It takes some skill to squeeze two inaccuracies into two words but this just about achieves it.

Firstly, any objective observer spending time in London this week could not mistake this for a cult. It is, demonstrably, a mass movement.

The people here are of all ages, all professions and from all parts of the UK. They range on a spectrum from self-identifying “uncooperative crusties” to a former Met Police detective, John Curran, caught on camera explaining to officers arresting him that, strictly speaking, they had put his handcuffs on wrong. “I break the law with an open heart and honesty,” he says.

Secondly, this is not a movement preoccupied by death. It appears, rather, to be absolutely in love with life.

Protesters on the building at City airport as police form a line 

The three stated aims of its disruption – for the government to declare a climate emergency, reduce carbon emissions to zero, and create a people’s assembly – are, participants reckon, all about preserving humanity.

“We are doing this because we care so much for the planet and for the future of people on it,” says Victoria Valentine, a property company CEO from Lincolnshire. “We are doing it from a place of love and goodness.

“I’ve spent years trying to effect change through the ways we’re told to – writing to MPs, supporting Greenpeace, signing petitions – and all of it has been ignored. So, what else is left but direct action?”

Her daughter, Phoebe, 23, a maths student, was arrested for gluing herself to the floor of London City airport’s Docklands Light Railway station. “I’m a parent, so of course I don’t want to see her taken by police – I worry about that impacting her future,” the mother-of-four says. “But I’m also very proud of her for standing up for what she believes in.”

Phoebe herself emerges from the police station at midnight with bail conditions, which order her not to catch the Tube or trains within the M25. “At least I’ve still got my bike,” she says a little ruefully.

Was it worth it? “Absolutely.”

This was a view oft-repeated by those arrested.

“What does having a criminal record matter if there’s no future for the planet anyway?” asks one protester, Dylan Jones, a 28-year-old trainee accountant from Bristol. “I’d rather not have a record. I’m not the kind of person to generally make a fuss about things. But climate change is real and it’s urgent. We’re on the brink of events – weather pattern changes, flooding, major extinctions – that we cannot comprehend and we can’t reverse. Coming back positive on a DBS check pales into significance against that.”

By Friday afternoon, he was among more than 1,200 people who had been detained by police. Yet the problem for the Met was that, once released, many of those were simply returning to the campsites and front lines where they’d vowed to spend the fortnight.

Something similar applied to seized equipment. As officers confiscated tents and generators, more arrived in other locations, funded by crowdsourcing and an increasing number of donors.

“We’ve got all sorts in here,” says Abdi Sherif, manning a free equipment gazebo in Trafalgar Square. “Sleeping bags, mats, tents, flasks, toothpaste. Very important, toothpaste.”

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The 32-year-old himself had been there four nights when we spoke. He’d taken two weeks off work at McDonald’s to take part. “I’m running on adrenalin and coffee now but I can’t think of a more important cause.”

As the first week passed into the weekend, this was a view shared by Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder Gail Bradbrook. “I think the most important thing,” she tells reporters, “is that we are alerting the British people to the crisis that we’re in.”

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