The dust is settling on the XR October action in London and I think a period of reflection is now required. The numbers taking part in the occupations and the march were certainly higher than in April and on the whole the atmosphere was positive, supportive and determined (some 60,000 people took part in the October events). There was still an impressive range of age and a reassuring gender balance among those both leading and taking part in the protests, although as XR itself acknowledges, black and ethnic minorities are not as well represented and this needs to improve. The movement is very inclusive and recognises the need to support those taking part, encouraging people to help with catering, well-being, outreach and educational workshops (and it even provides composting loos when they’ve not been confiscated by the police!).
Indeed the policing tactics had changed significantly following the April Rebellion and the authorities had decided not to allow the various sites to settle in and become established. The police approach was far more aggressive with many protesters singled out for ‘snatch’ arrests, including young people who had decided not to put themselves in a position to be arrested (I trained for a role as a legal observer and was informed by a senior police inspector, that these people were targeted in order to spread alarm among social media users). Perhaps the crackdown could have been anticipated but it certainly seemed harder to engage with the public and to convey the need for urgent political action by MPs against the backdrop of harassment and widespread use of the 1986 Public Order Act to curtail peaceful protests.
I recognise that a lot of people believe that there is no justification for breaking the law, however I’m sure I’m not alone in reaching a point of exasperation after thirty years of washing yoghurt pots and recycling glass bottles to find that such little progress has been made. Corporations have successfully shifted the onus for tackling climate change onto the consumer and we now need action by government to force significant and rapid changes across the fossil fuel, energy and agricultural sectors (for a start).
Some October actions – such as the ‘1000 trees’ sapling forest, 650 of which had MPs names on and were collected in many cases by the MPs themselves – lead to good conversations and a chance for outreach. Other actions, however, such as climbing on the tube train at Canning Town, prompted a lot of criticism and must surely lead to questions about aims and tactics. XR has grown from an action involving 1000 people in London in October 2018 to a de-centralised global movement with affiliated groups in more than 60 cities around the world and has contributed to pushing the issue much higher up the agenda for the general public. We know that a global response is required but in the UK we can help map out a path for engagement and show solidarity with those people, primarily in the global south, who are already dealing with the impacts of climate change. After a week at Millbank, Victoria Street, City Airport and the BBC I felt pretty drained and emotionally raw but still convinced that it is urgently necessary to add my voice to the escalating chorus to ‘Act Now!’