I’ve been experiencing Extinction Rebellion in London this month (since 7 October) with my body and my instincts rather than my thoughts and political beliefs. The opposite was true a month before when legal observing an XR protest where several young people were arrested at Lambeth Bridge. That day there wasn’t much headspace for enjoying the aesthetics, spirit and occasional wit of the action. The first two arrests were of Asian kids - a boy and a girl. The blatant institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police Force would have sobered me up at this point even if I had gotten caught up in the energy of the activists. The police, as they generally do in my experience, refused to say which station the kids were being taken to. I tried to feel hopeful they’d not experience police brutality, then ran southwards to the next arrest.
During International Rebellion, the event taking place 7-21 October 2019, I didn’t have any responsibilities, but could just go along as a punter if I wanted to. Fortunately, one of the main sites was across the road from my place of work, so on some days I stopped by three times.
The Quaker presence included a large banner that briefly was hung on the base of Nelson’s Column, and daily meetings for worship at 2pm. The original plan had been to meet on Lambeth Bridge, which was designated ‘The Faith Bridge’ and, as I understand it, was meant to be held for the whole two weeks by faith groups. As I’d seen the month before though, the Met were not keen on Lambeth Bridge being occupied and the eviction was swift. So the faith groups moved to Trafalgar Square, which was the ‘Burning Earth’ themed site and included kitchens, a camp, info tents, workshop tents, a stage with a sound system and a dazzling array of events throughout each day.
Another feature of XR, as at many other types of actions, is drumming and samba bands. All different sorts of people with different types of drums would stand in a circle that often grew the longer it was there, with one drummer in the centre who had a whistle they would use to direct changes of rhythm. Outside of this circle, all sort of people drifted along and stopped to dance, cheer and clap. I thought for the first couple of days that these were the best samba bands I’d ever heard, but now I wonder if it sounded so awesome because I was caught up in the spirit of communal joy that seems to be the base of street activist events I’ve been to including XR.
Conscious awareness of communal joy only came to me a few years ago from reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing In the Streets. The book is about what she calls ‘collective joy and ecstatic ritual’, which has been a common human experience and has been directly under siege for centuries by various types of both Christianity (eg Puritanism) and Islam (eg Wahhabism) as well as capitalism. This is all of course a crude simplification of the book and Ehrenreich’s thesis. It’s excellent and I’ve read it twice and strongly recommend it.
Anyway, the point is that we humans love to get together to sing and dance, often with rhythm, often in a big circle, and the sharedness of the experience is key to the ecstatic joy of it. Mass activism can also bring these feelings. I remember a video from the 1999 Seattle WTO protests of a young woman who got caught up in the spirit of collective resistance, climbed onto some street furniture and shouted to passing activists that she loved them all. It would really help our movements if we found more ways of expressing these feelings more often.
Some types of activist events provide more opportunities for this than others - XR, like Reclaim the Streets, are events that depend on a large proportion of active participants bringing their energy, ideas and labour as well as sometimes putting themselves at the mercy of the state. We Quakers are good at recognising that love is behind this movement-building work.
I’m a sucker for the XR aesthetic. It’s the first movement I’ve actually liked that had branding, but I think the branding is excellent. A couple of months back I did a workshop at Blackheath’s Children’s Meeting about peace movement logos and we ended up talking about the XR logo too - that genius use of an hourglass in particular. The entry points to XR sites this month have tended to have people - often women aged 60 plus - handing out XR stickers. Once inside the sites, there are opportunities for either screenprinting your own clothes, fabric etc. or buying a range of patch designs. Consequently, for the past weeks throughout central London and various transport lines one can see people sporting XR logos etc. There has to an extent been a media blackout of the actions, so this will have helped raise the profile in a way I’d expect to contribute to building the movement. It also made me smile and feel warm whenever I saw folks who were clearly on their way to or from an action.
I made it to just a few of the daily meetings for worship. The last one I got to was on the rainy afternoon of Thursday 17 October. On arrival in Trafalgar Square I saw a large number of people walking slowly in a line doing a walking meditation. I think that may have also been happening daily as I tended to see that around 1.30 in the afternoon. A small number of Quakers were there at the beginning, and two Community Liaison officers looking alarmingly robocop in the non-light blue gear they had on were also standing just by us. One joined the circle apparently to harvest our personal details during the name go-around, though he also stayed for the beginning of the meeting.
The circle grew constantly. Increasingly, it seemed to be non-Quakers. The walking meditation ended and folks from that drifted over to join us. Other passers-by watched with interest and essentially formed an outer circle around us. I noticed my feet felt comfortably rooted to the spot from the very beginning of the worship. I’d never been so centred down while standing up.
I was a bit surprised that the two police officers were as unaffected by / disrespectful of the silent worship as they were - they chatted throughout as did one of the XR white tabard police liaison people who stopped by to offer his services to them.
I expect if the police had arrested any of us, we’d have “won the police lottery” as the phrase goes, for having our rights denied us. It was a possibility, as they have been frequently overstepping the law recently both at XR events and during the recent DSEi actions. Consequently, we would have been aware of the vulnerability of our bodies to arrest even during the meeting for worship. We also would have felt somewhat shielded by our class, age and race privilege of course. I know I’m aware of being a white middle class woman when at demos.
One saw in the Extinction Rebellion Quakers group online that there was an awareness of the shield of privilege. There’s been plenty of good comment elsewhere about privilege and state violence, particularly in the XR context so I’ll leave this link here -
So I neither was nor intended to be arrested during the October rebellion. I’ve got some of the same critiques of the XR mass arrest tactics that many on the radical left have written about over the past months. However I do have an open mind about the possibility that the tactic may contribute toward outcomes we want.
There’s a possible outcome that occurred to me from being on the streets and seeing the people of all ages, but particularly older people, surrounded by both masses and small groups of cops; squaring up to protesters with the power of the state behind them. That power lost some of its threat. Seeing it constantly, every day, it was diminished and seemed commonplace. The police are arresting people, as they do, we’ll carry on and move around occasionally to avoid arrest, but there are more of us and more places to go and other actions to take when this space is evicted.
This view of state power may be necessary in the coming years as political movements keep having to change their tactics and increasingly come up against a state that uses more force against us. Maybe we should be afraid of losing our freedom/lives to the state, but if we can avoid being paralysed by fear, we’ll achieve more.
I wonder if Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has considered that the future before us is significantly scarier than a row of police officers.
I expect the future will be fucking horrible. Dancing to a samba band in Parliament Square on the fourth day of XR in October, something like a soul memory came to me. This band was almost ridiculously diverse in types of people and even instruments, and it was some of the best music I’ve ever heard. There were children there dancing too. It was a scene that could have taken place at a Reclaim the Streets event in the ‘90s, and I realised that scenes like this will be taking place 25 years in the future. The state and capital and fascists will devastate our lives, but occasionally, we can reconnect with other people in our humanity in moments like this. We still have each other.