Having featured the amazing Scarlett Lee from Extinction Rebellion Nottingham in the latest Doncopolitan (page 18) – who, as one of the thousand people arrested in London last week, has forced UK politicians to debate climate change – we decided to head down to the London for the XR protests to offer our support. Warren Draper tells us about the XR technique of ‘swarming’.
Words: Warren Draper
Photography: Warren Draper
MOMENTS AMONGST THE SWARM
This is how it begins. With a ‘human microphone’.
The human microphone, also known as a people’s microphone, is a way of communicating to large groups without an electric PA or megaphone. The speaker shouts “mic check” and the surrounding crowd shouts “mic check” back to confirm that they’ve heard the speaker. The crowd then repeats everything the speaker says so that everyone can hear the information being relayed. It works pretty well. Mostly. But the technique always raises a smile amongst the crowd as it is quite funny to witness. I’m smiling too. Partly because the call of ‘Mic check’ has put me in mind of Greta Thunberg, who, when addressing UK politicians, said:
Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?
‘You did not act in time’: Greta Thunberg’s full speech to MPs The Guardian 23rd April, 2017
With typical dry wit she was implying that politicians are not normally very good at listening. So it was good to see the MP for North Doncaster, Ed Miliband, in attendance. Time will tell if the government truly listened though.
Greta isn’t your stereotypical muscle-bound, comic-book, action-film hero, but she is exactly the hero the world needs right now. A shy, sixteen-year-old with Asperger’s (a condition on the autistic spectrum), she started a solitary school strike outside the Swedish parliament back in October 2018. This was in response to a landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which stated that urgent and unprecedented changes were needed within the next 12 years if we are to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Greta’s actions inspired children around the world. There are now hundreds of thousands of school kids, from over one hundred countries, striking every Friday (#FridayForFuture) to demand that their governments take action on climate change.
At the same time as Greta was starting her school strike the movement known as Extinction Rebellion (XR), who use the ESP designed extinction symbol and the motto #RebelForLife, published their first open letter of intent, which was signed by over a hundred academics.
Developed by the activist group, Rising Up!, XR uses the tactics of peaceful civil disobedience (inspired by Occupy, Gandhi, the suffragettes and Martin Luther King Jnr) to highlight the truth of both climate change and the less talked about (in the mainstream media at least) sixth mass extinction event. Human activity – burning fossil fuels, habitat loss and deforestation, industrial farming techniques, over consumption, unsustainable building techniques, warfare, excessive greed, neoliberal capitalism, etc. – has warmed our global climate to dangerous levels and increased the background extinction rate. The sixth mass extinction event is proving as deadly to life on Earth as the extinction event which wiped out the dinosaurs– only this time we are the asteroid.
The UK (already one of the most wildlife depleted countries on the planet) has lost 75% of its flying insect mass in the last 25 years. We rightly worry about the decline of bees, but they’re actually quite fussy feeders and pollinate just a tiny percentage of plants; the vast majority are pollinated by flies and other less romantic insects, but the loss of these insects is equally as devastating as the loss of honey bees. These are crucial times for all life on Earth, but until recently you were more likely to hear about Megan Markle’s ability to close a car door than about ecological collapse. Climate Strike and XR are part of a global grassroots movement committed to putting climate change and extinction in the mainstream media and on the political agenda.
But back to the mic check…
The people’s microphone is being used to describe the process of ‘swarming’ to the assembled XR activists. We’re told that under UK law the charge of Obstruction of a Highway (Section 137. of the Highways Act 1980) comes into force after eight minutes. So the tactic is to use pedestrian crossings to block the road for seven minutes. We then wait one minute before blocking that road, or another road, for another seven minutes, hence creating traffic problems (because fair’s fair, traffic is part of the larger climate problem) while keeping within the law.
It is a simple process which uses a few key roles to keep things running smoothly and everybody safe. The coordinator is the person who oversees the swarm, deciding where and when the road-block will take place. The strategy being to find key crossing sites which cause the quickest and longest traffic jams in a given area.
There are banner operatives who hold the banner – the banner leader is the person on the right-hand-facing edge of the banner (in the UK at least, where we drive on the left), they are the first person to walk out once the green light is showing and the person to lead everyone back to safety once the seven minutes are up.
There is an official timer to time the seven minutes (and the minute in between road-blocks if blocking the same crossing more than once) and a time-card holder, so that both drivers and activists can see how long they have to wait.
One of the most vital roles in a swarm is that of ‘de-escalator’. Ideally there are two of these for each lane of traffic. They move amongst the cars to apologise to drivers, hand out leaflets and explain why there is a need for Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA). Many carry gifts of food and our swarm even had an accordion player, which went down a storm with this lorry driver and the school coach trip in front…
As well as the de-escalators making sure than drivers were kept calm, there were also well-being volunteers looking after the mental and emotional well-being of all involved. There were trained legal observers, who are found at most protests and can be recognised by their pink vests, and a police liaison, who’s main job is to get advanced warning from the police so that they can clear the blockade if emergency vehicles need to get through at any time.
My role on the day was that of a pedestrian leafleter, talking to pedestrians (the most sensible way to travel in any city!) at the crossings and pavements as the blockade was going on and generally raising awareness about the crisis we face. It was a role which gave me the opportunity to make myself useful while still be able to take pictures.
Our group, named ‘Group Mike’ after our first elected coordinator (roles can change throughout the day), was deployed to the London Bridge area on the outskirts of the City of London, the plan being to disrupt the financial district which is responsible for investing £billions in the fossil fuels industry (and making £billions more from it). A full report on the day’s actions can be found here.
We did pass the London Mayor’s Office and discussed the possibility of an impromptu ‘die in‘, but decided to go ahead with the initial plan so that we would stay coordinated with the other swarms and have maximum impact on the traffic in the city.
Contrary to some reports, drivers are largely sympathetic to the demands of XR. There were the usual predictable comments from the minority. Things like “Get a job!” or “Get a wash, hippy!” from people who shout such things at anyone carrying a banner. But as a leafleter, I spoke to a lot of people and the vast majority were supportive. We even had one young lady join the protest there and then. The only real problem we faced was when we blocked a third carriageway instead of just two using a much smaller and less visible banner.
As the lights went green for the traffic a coach and a taxi drove straight at the road-block, but the activists, de-escalators and the police were quick to calm things down.
And the TV crew was quick to grab a sound-bite.
But for the most part the apologetic attitude and calming singing of the protesters, along with the fact that the majority of people we spoke to understood the enormity of the problems we face as a species, meant that our NVDA stayed exactly that, non-violent. Although we did learn the hard way that it is advisable to have large, day-glow banners if you want to block a road.
None of the swarmers were here because they wanted to be a nuisance. XR isn’t trying to force its ideas on anybody else. Its just that thirty years of misinformation, inaction and broken promises have brought us to the very brink of a perhaps irreversible crisis which threatens the future of life as we know it. XR and the Climate Strikers are rising simply because nobody else who has so far stepped up to the plate has been successful in their efforts. Because, love it or hate it, nobody can deny the successes that XR and the Climate Strikes have achieved in an incredibly short period of time. And this is just the beginning.
XR has also brought together beautiful, sensitive, funny, committed people who refuse to accept that there no alternative to business as usual… as one banner read: “Business As Usual = Death”.
XR is something new. It is something necessary. And it is something which anyone who has deep concerns regarding climate change and extinction can get involved with. As Antonio Gramsci famously said:
“The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.”
As the sign says, “time is running out”. Let’s use it more wisely than we did when we thought we had all the time in the world x