Tony’s Diary from The Big One

Tony had been to other London Rebellions organised by Extinction Rebellion over the years – but not one like this. Not one where Extinction Rebellion would be building bridges with other organisations to draw together a gathering on 100,000 people from across the country. Not one where Extinction Rebellion would announce that it would not be disrupting the public, would not be occupying a space, would not be organising arrestable actions. This would be a legal protest.

Tony expected a large crowd – but probably not as many as 100,000 people. He anticipated eye-catching actions and great speeches, fellowship and meeting rebels from across the country. He was looking forward to introducing some friends from Newcastle to active protest. And if he was being completely honest, he feared that all this would have a limited impact on the UK government.

Tony kept a detailed diary of his days in London at the The Big One. It’s a great insight into one man’s experience. So grab yourself a cuppa, and have a read!

Overview

I attended TBO on Friday, Saturday and Monday and stewarded on the Friday and Sat mornings. I was in the Sea Affinity Group of rebels from Newcastle, and in several Signal and Telegram groups for stewards + Tyneside XR which kept my phone buzzing continuously!

Day 1 highlights

Slow build up, cold and wet though weather improving during the day.

Left Glyn Rd  (Homerton) at 0700 & cycled mostly through very quiet Low Traffic Neighbourhoods all the way to Angel – great example of their value. At Stewards’ Hub from 0830, short session for head stewards, then briefing from Sean of XR Buddhists.

Off to St John’s Park where the march to Tufton St, our site for the morning, was to start. 55 Tufton St is the HQ of an influential climate denial think tank, and other similar outfits are housed in the vicinity. No sign of anyone in the office during our picket.

We were paired up as stewards, me with Pat, an elderly lady from Plymouth. Our job was to get people across the main road from the park to Tufton St and then to keep the picket in order and pavement clear. There was a large crowd almost filling the street by 1130. From 12, there were speeches and poetry reading by Writers Rebel, a really inspiring and creative group of literati.

No real problems and quite fun looking after the crowd with plenty of conversations though no general public in evidence.

Left about 1.30 and had lunch at St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, then back to action to hear the talks at Greenpeace on outreach campaigning and the Climate Assembly hub on PR with Zac Polanski (Green Party), Frances Foley (Compass) and Make Votes Matter. Really excellent, Zac is a likely future Greens leader and a young man to watch – he is a member of the London Assembly (LA) and chairs the environmental group and is working cross party to bring in many new initiatives. Plenty of opportunities for cooperation.

Left about 6 and out for a meal with the family on return.

Day 2 highlights

My day as lead steward in the morning though it wasn’t very arduous! Only six in our stewarding group ’55 Shrimps’ today and Dave (an experienced steward) was my co-leader. Our job today was to monitor the crowd at Broad Sanctuary in front of Westminster Abbey, where the Biodiversity March was to start at 1pm. Lots of tourists of course but by 11, they were becoming outnumbered by activists and we were pleased when the road was closed by police at 12. Lots of queries about where the march would start and when, and many conversations. An interesting query came from a non-XR environmentalist when I asked him if he was going to join. He said he supports XR aims BUT was upset that ‘they don’t tell the truth’. It turned out that this was in relation to the XR demand for net zero by 2025. He said that achieving this aim would lead to thousands of deaths as food lorries wouldn’t be able to run if we stopped using oil that fast!! I said we were simply trying to create a sense of urgency and if the government wanted to do it, it could.. but he wasn’t convinced.

Joined the march which was very big though the route was mostly on unpeopled streets. The back end hadn’t left Parliament Square when the front of the march arrived. I joined the die in at St James Park which was the biggest I have ever seen and very moving.

Later, time to attend another very good talk at the Citizens Assembly Hub on a ‘House of Citizens for the UK Parliament’ – a highly constructive and radical suggestion for reforming the House of Lords. Read it on the Sortition Foundation website here.

Time for chatting after this and met some of the doctors and nurses in Planetary Health Hub which was very well attended and staffed by lots of doctors and nurses and other disciplines. Impressive turnout.

Off home again about 5 after a super day with good weather and a much bigger crowd than Friday – said to be 60,000, but who knows?

Day 4 Highlights

I was visiting family on Day 3 so missed out on the fun.. and rain.

On Day 4, a slightly later start as I was to meet my brother Robin in front of the Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square (see photo below) – a warm and evocative statue which conveys a totally different character to all the stiff military figures surrounding him (Gandhi not far away being another exception).

We joined another excellent talk at the Citizens Assembly hub on the aims and mode of action of a citizen’s assembly. We heard of experience in England with the Parliamentary CA and in Scotland with the government CA, both of which were flawed as there was too much government or civil service influence which meant that truly radical approaches & solutions were not realised. An essential component of the concept is an independent body which would run the Assembly and ensure that its recommendations are not swept under the carpet – something our present government would certainly try to do. We also learned about simpler methods such as the Citizens’ Jury which might be more applicable at local level, since the CA is expensive to run (I had no success in asking my councillors to establish an assembly in Jesmond). Definitely worth a test run in Newcastle.

After this it was on to the People’s Assembly further down the road. This differs from the CA in consisting of likeminded people who discuss and reach a consensus on an issue affecting them all – in this case, the outcome of The Big One. We met in groups of 6-8 to explore which of three ways we wanted XR to move forward on: namely Picketing, Local group activity, and Civil Disobedience (CD). This was useful though time was too short. I’m all for Civil Disobedience as I firmly believe that it is the only tactic that will influence government. The feeling of the group was that all three are needed, since not everyone is up for Civil Disobedience and we need to become a broad movement.

Next, it was time for the final march of the weekend, to end fossil fuels. After reaching Trafalgar Square, Robin and I with another Jesmondite Green, headed off to Parliament once again, this time to enter the august building to lobby our MP. We were met by security pre-warned about XR members and given a thorough going over, after which I had to deposit my puncture repair kit (glue..) and cycle pump (air gun..). What’s more, I was told I had to hand over my XR flyers on citizens’ assemblies!! I objected but they seem to hold anything XRwise as being subversive. I said what about the Virginia Woolf novel I was also carrying (subversive) but that seemed to be OK. I said I would put in a formal complaint which I have now done as this is real censorship, and I consider it totally undemocratic to prevent written material from being taken in (I was going to give it to Nick Brown).

Once inside, we were conducted to the central lobby where we completed a Green Card to request a meeting with our MP, then told to wait in Westminster Hall nearby. Robin was called in by his Lib Dem MP within 15 mins but George and I waited for 2hrs without either hearing that he wasn’t in the House, or that he was too busy and would write, or that he would see us. Other waiting rebels (some with Tory MPs) were in the same position. We’ll nab Nick at a surgery in Newcastle and chide him for his laxness.

So disappointed, we left at 5pm in time for the final picket of Parliament. Then, as the rain was coming down heavily, I jumped on my bike to reach Kings Cross in a decidedly sodden state in time for the train North – with quite a few other rebels, pleased to be in such a supportive and determined group after a tiring but very encouraging few days in London.

After thoughts

  • As always, very good feelings about being at a huge action in London – from the fellowship and engagement
  • Impressed by organisation and the variety of activities & organisations across the site, especially the picketing and hubs
  • Learned a lot about Citizens’ Assemblies and intend to try out one of the models locally
  • Disappointed at not meeting my MP in Parliament
  • Convinced that direct action will be needed to have an impact – but also that reaching out to more people/groups via alliances is essential. This one won’t influence the government and that’s what we have to do, in the lead up to the General Election.