Monday, August 05, 2019

Reflections on the Extinction Rebellion Summer Uprising in Cardiff

July saw a new wave of action from Extinction Rebellion, after the successful rebellion that happened in London in April. The idea was that the action in London would “mushroom” in four other cities as well as more action happening in London (this time concentrated on the Royal Courts of Justice). So the Summer Uprising broke out in Cardiff, Bristol, Leeds, and Glasgow as well.

I've been involved in Extinction Rebellion since last year, but I've not been heavily involved, and I wasn't there in London in April. Although I've taken part in events, discussions, walks, cycles, political lobbying with Extinction Rebellion, this was the first time I was involved with non-violent direct action, which is the essence of what Extinction Rebellion is about.

I've become more and more convinced of the need for non-violent direct action. We have eleven years to stop catastrophic climate change and the fact is the UK government (along with all the others) is simply not acting. We have tried persuasion, we've tried lobbying, we've tried signing petitions, we've tried protests, we've tried trying to elect politicians who will deal with this. And we will keep on trying these things. But on their own we have to admit they're simply not working.

We have to tell the truth that we're heading towards a climate catastrophe and mass extinction. We're heading towards climate genocide and recycling and buying energy efficient light bulbs is simply not going to do enough. Individual consumer action will not make a difference. What will make a difference is massive government action that will totally transform the energy sector, the agricultural sector, the transport sector, and several other areas of the economy. The government need to do this, and until they do we will keep making a bigger and bigger noise, causing bigger and bigger disruption to highlight the crisis we're in.

The point is all of these actions are aimed at government. I think that's important to get across. We're not attacking fellow citizens, we're not attacking drivers for example. The action is aimed specifically at government.

As such I had some reservations about taking action in Cardiff and not London. The Welsh government do have some levers they can pull on climate change (and well done to them for cancelling the M4 relief road) but most of the power is in the Westminster UK government. Our primary target has to be the UK capital, and I worried these actions in other cities was just going to annoy people but not be aimed specifically enough at government.

Nevertheless I began to see the need for this disruption in Cardiff. Most action will still remain targeted at London, but it's important to get the message out in other places as well. We dominated the front pages of the Welsh newspapers and the fact is no other kind of action would have done that. 

Many people came from across Wales and beyond and descended on the capital. Most camped on a piece of public land and arrived on the Sunday evening. We had decided to hold an Interfaith Vigil as the way we began the Uprising. This idea came from people who had experienced something similar in London and found it to be really valuable. Other people in Extinction Rebellion did most of the organising but I was able as a coordinate it and hold the space for the event. It was a beautiful sunny evening in Alexandra Park behind Cardiff City Hall. About a hundred people gathered into a circle and listened to speakers from different faith traditions. We had Muslim, Pagan, Tibetan Buddhist, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu, Quaker, and Anglican speakers who all spoke with passion and wisdom. We sang “sing and rejoice, sing and rejoice, let all things living now sing and rejoice” and all the faith speakers laid different natural objects (stones, feathers, shells) into one mound in the centre of the circle. We were together as one people concerned about the planet.

Photo by Max Davies

For the Extinction Rebellion activists it seemed to provide a moment of pause and and reflection, as well as encouragement for the action we were about to do. Several people came up to me in the days following to talk to me about it. Even people of no religious faith seemed to value it.

The next morning the action started. I'm not very good at keeping up with these sorts of things so the latest information I had was to be at the museum at 11am. However as I checked Twitter at 8am while eating my breakfast I saw that it had all already happened. That morning they had towed a big green boat to Castle Street and left it in the middle of the road. Setting up banners they now occupied this main street through Cardiff.

Some people were locked into the boat so that it could not be easily removed. If the police decided to arrest people for blocking the road and remove them it would take a long time to extricate people from their positions.

The police never showed any sign of wanting to make arrests, even though this annoyed some politicians. They had a presence there, but they never attempted to move us.

I was not intending to get arrested, so my duties were “action wellbeing” and “arrestee support” which meant really supporting those people who might get arrested. My duties were not onerous and it was mainly just hanging about chatting to people, occasionally making sure people were hydrated or that they had information about solicitors on their person if they did get arrested.

In addition to the occupied road there was also an additional site outside the city hall where there were tents, toilets, and food given out. There were talks and workshops, meditations, and children's activities.

Although inevitably there was criticism on Twitter (especially on the first morning when commuters didn't know it was happening) the overwhelming response from the public was positive. They understood the reason we were doing it and people were interested to talk. It was a positive and warm atmosphere with music, dancing, and conversations. Every time a emergency vehicle came through, we rushed to take down the banners and moved out of the way. To be honest they probably passed through faster than if there had been traffic.

As I left on midnight on the first night I did wonder whether the police were going to move in the the early hours and make arrests when numbers were much lower, but it never happened. It seems there was never any decision on behalf of the police to clear the road and arrest everyone.

A few of us from Christian Climate Action gathered at one point, prayed and sang together. It was good to bring a moment of prayer and worship in the middle of the busyness.

On the second night I sat on the empty road and watched the half-eclipse of the moon, as it shone down on the city. On a usually busy road I sat cross-legged and took it in, reflecting on the beauty all around us.

After three days we decided democratically to end the occupation of the road and the boat moved. No one had been arrested. It was a good experience overall for me. I admit I was a bit nervous but this allowed me to experience what these kinds of things are like, and so now I'd feel much more comfortable doing something like this in London.

The fight continues.


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