Activism

Will Extinction Rebellion’s ‘The Big One’ work? Here’s what we saw on the ground

From Tufton Street to Home Office and the Houses of Parliament, Extinction Rebellion is targeting those it sees responsible for the UK's climate failures

Extinction Rebellion, The Big One

Extinction Rebellion has predicted 50,000 people will come to London for The Big One. On Friday, crowds were still gathering. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

In the past few days, you’ve seen Just Stop Oil protesters throw orange powder over snooker tables and Animal Rising activists storm the track at the Grand National. For “The Big One”, Extinction Rebellion are trying to do things differently.

Setting up camp around a rainy Westminster, the four-day protest was kicking into gear on Friday morning. Outside Parliament, a row of tents and leaflet-givers gave way to speeches in Abingdon Street gardens, as a crowd of a few hundred gathered. A series of “people’s pickets” had been set up outside government departments.

A sensational declaration that they had “quit” disruptive protest in January was the precursor to this – a mass-participation gathering, preceded by a campaign of bridge-building. Extinction Rebellion have joined forces with trade unions and campaign groups in an attempt to build a wider, more inclusive, and more coherent climate movement.

But has it paid off? The Big Issue headed down on Friday morning to find out.

If you’re one of those who thinks, well, the protesters have a point, but they should really target the powerful, then it might be a weekend for you.

Making clear their plans do not involve roadblocks or glue, instead focusing on “attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”, Extinction Rebellion have even promised to help protect this weekend’s London Marathon from protests.

It started rainy, but slowly the weather cleared and the crowds grew by the hundred. The group expects 50,000 activists to turn up on Sunday – but that scale was yet to be realised on Friday.

Arriving early from Cambridge were retired couple Sue Kenwrick and Mark Paterson, holding a banner reading: “Our planet needs us now. 2050 is too late”.

Extinction Rebellion, The Big One
Kenwrick and Paterson, who had come down from Cambridge for the day. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Disappointed at a lack of substantial climate action from the government, they had been to some of the bigger Extinction Rebellion protests before the pandemic. For Kenwrick and Paterson, the less disruptive action – at the forefront for The Big One – was more appealing.

 “We are a bit more wimpy”, Kenwrick admits.

More used to disruptive action was Peter Blencowe, a cancer research scientist who also came down from Cambridge. He had done roadblocks with Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain, but said there was a place for calmer tactics.

“We’ve got to try everything, you know. All tactics are applicable. It’s not a case of saying ‘you’re doing right and you’re doing wrong’. We can spend all day arguing about that.”

Instead of disrupting the many, there was a renewed focus on the few. Today was about the people making themselves heard by the elites, whether politicians in the palaces of Westminster, civil servants in government departments, or think tanks and corporations. 

Standing on the back of a lorry, wedged in the middle of the road outside the House of Lords, speakers rallied against an elite. “Decisions about our economy are being made by the few for the few,” said one.

Into the backstreets of Westminster, there was a taste of the tactics of targeting the powerful. A silent roadblock spread across Tufton Street, the controversial home of a number of lobby groups and think tanks linked to climate change denial.

Extinction Rebellion, The Big One
Extinction Rebellion blocked Tufton Street, which they branded ‘the most dangerous street in Britain’. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

A sign branded it “the most dangerous street in Britain”, while bestselling author Zadie Smith gave a speech.

“Do they think of themselves as climate deniers? I don’t think so,” Smith told a packed crowd, standing outside 55 Tufton Street.

“Nobody really thinks of themselves as a bad guy.”

Extinction Rebellion, The Big One
Protesters sit in the middle of Tufton Street, ahead of a speech by Zadie Smith. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

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At a “people’s picket” outside the Home Office was Susanna Fanshawe, who works for an animal charity. She’d been to Extinction Rebellion protests before, but was more aligned with Animal Rising.

The “people’s pickets” were a way to urge government departments to change tack. Would that work?

“It’s difficult to say. Does any protest ever help? I think it’s important to make a stand, to show you don’t agree with what’s happening,” said Fanshawe.

“This is one thing I can do today, here, outside the government buildings, to show my position. I think it’s important to stand up to what governments do to their citizens.”

Extinction Rebellion, The Big One
Police and protesters outside DEFRA. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Wearing a homemade papier mache ant hat, Nicky Saunter bumped into The Big Issue outside DEFRA, the department in charge of the UK’s environmental policies.

Extinction Rebellion said over 200 groups had come together for The Big One. As a trustee and co-founder of the Beaver Trust, Saunter was representing one of those groups.

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“I think it’s really good the way it has brought other organisations together,” she said.

With her was James Wallace, chief executive of River Action. While speakers laid out the extent of river pollution in the UK, he had a clear idea of the policy changes he wanted.

Saunter and Wallace with their costumes. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Criminal charges for those polluting waterways would make a difference, he said, adding: “the fines should be levied.”

Initial estimates of 100,000 attendees – perhaps more targets set in the weeks before the protest – had been revised down. But by lunchtime, crowds had grown.

Will the calm, gentle protesting continue? Extinction Rebellion has laid down two demands to go with The Big One. It wants the government to promise to end new oil, gas and coal projects, and to launch emergency “Citizens Assemblies” to bring an end to fossil fuels.

If these aren’t met, the roadblocks could be back on the cards.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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