I went on the Extinction Rebellion training day and then to London for the day of action on Wednesday 14th November 2018 for these reasons:
1: since watching the Battle of the Newbury Bypass documentary, direct action has intrigued me, and I wanted to experience it for myself. I felt curiosity.
2: I. tells me that there is a moment that happens when people do something ‘naughty’ that they wouldn’t normally do, when they enter another world beyond the current system. A moment of liberation. I wondered if I would experience that, or witness someone else experience it.
3: Extinction rebellion are there to remind the government of promises made at the 2015 Paris Agreement about cutting carbon emissions due to increasing concern about climate change, and encouraging them to move the date forward, declaring a Climate Emergency, after the UN IPCC report stating ‘we’ve got 12 years to turn this around’. I could not look my child in the eye in years to come and say ‘I knew this was coming, and did nothing’. I made a conscious decision to follow XR because they are a hugely visible group in this country doing something about it, getting the attention of public and government by being arrested for non-violent direct action.
I decided to follow their lead in whatever they were doing on this day, not to question out loud, but to feel how I reacted to everything. My experiment had intriguing consequences: I loved the day, but became ill afterwards, and went through an intense grieving process.
On the Tuesday I. and I arrived at the London Activists Resource Centre to see some of the people, including A., whom I met previously in Glastonbury. A beautiful, wise sacred activist storyteller elder. She and the others were sat in a circle talking as we arrived, and I felt very awkward and out of place, disorientated in London after being in Glastonbury, uncertain and fearful. For I., the atmosphere we walked into is ‘home’, and she was in her element. After some discussion we took a break and then had a guided meditation upstairs, during which we sent love to the various people in our lives- ourselves, someone we love, someone we have difficulty with, a stranger, and everyone in the room/ world. It was lovely and I actually fell asleep during the ‘stranger’ bit, which I expressed was apt because everyone in the room at that moment was a stranger (I. and A. were downstairs), and I was glad I felt comfortable enough to fall asleep! I felt much more grounded after this.
We then went to ‘the offices’ with I.(2), which were in a different part of London. Quite posh and expensive (apparently Teresa May’s cronies were there using the offices at one point)- 2 office rooms were occupied by a load of XR activists with laptops, beavering away in an orgy of organisation, in rooms with the central heating up way too high, and everyone with tense looks on their faces! Wow, it was quite a sight. Downstairs they were phoning every person who said they would come to the following days’ action, confirming their attendance and checking they had an affinity group sorted. The affinity groups should all contain: ‘arrestables’; ‘well-being’- who look after the arrestables during the action and afterwards in police custody; and ‘legal observers’ who write down everything , particularly all interaction with police.
I am very impressed with the level of organisation and dedication from everyone involved, I’ve never seen an operation like it. Someone had created a huge 70ft banner that we were to hang on Westminster Bridge the following day. I.(2) and I spent some time taping 2 pence pieces onto the bottom edge of the banner in order to weight it down for the unveiling next morning. We had to fold it in the correct order that it would be unfolded on the bridge.
Then I. and I went to dinner with her friend and kipped in her hotel room, which was also sweltering hot so we barely slept. I felt like the whole trip I didn’t breathe properly: closed air in the coach (though I can’t complain about Berry’s- great service and so cheap!); stuffy central heating in office and hotel room; and air pollution when outside! That’s probably why I ended up with a stinking cold upon return to glorious Glastonbury!
Next morning we were up and out early, we arrived at the office to the news that Bristol City Council had declared a Climate Emergency and will be carbon-free by 2030. Celebration! Now we need London to do the same… so we headed to the London Eye to meet the group. As I.(2) and I folded the banners last night, we were in charge of unfolding and organising the groups of 16 who would hold it up. Upon discovery that the 2 banners’ message was ‘Climate Change’ and ‘We’re Fucked’ one of the ladies came to me and said she no longer felt comfortable holding a banner that said that, because this is a non-violent direct action group, but the word included on it was a violent one. I totally understood her discomfort and she said she’d rather stand nearby it with her lovely placard that read ‘what will we say to our children?’ (I mused that presumably the answer to that question is not ‘we’re fucked’!) I actually did understand her because the thought went through my mind and heart, when I found out what the banner read, but having already decided to follow whatever the group had decided (someone has to make a decision after all)- I chose to stand by the banners’ message. It was meant for shock factor, to get attention, and in that goal it certainly delivered.
We hung that message on Westminster Bridge, Houses of Parliament behind it, with pride! And the press got some great photos! The police arrived just as we had taken the banners down, folded them up, and started to move away. We then split the groups up: I was with the ‘unarrestables’, as were several others, for most of whom, like me, it was their first ever action, and A. We were to go to Downing Street round the corner from Westminster, with empty food cartons, which when we stood in the correct order spelled out ‘food shortages coming’. As we arrived a commotion was happening; police had already arrested some people outside Downing St and we watched as 3 more ran through the barrier in high-vis jackets and started spraying on the floor (chalk paint- no damage to property as it comes off in the rain!) they immediately had the police there arresting them. They’d only sprayed one little line of the XR symbol. It was an exciting and slightly frightening moment- these people are so brave to put themselves there like that.
A surreal moment for me was when A. (apparently ‘unarrestable’ that day) gave her empty food carton to someone near me, and the next thing I know she’d sprayed the XR symbol on the back of a police car, and was promptly arrested! We then got to stand there with our food cartons, chanting and singing, then we went over the road for more chanting and dancing. Someone had a drum and it was quite a jovial moment.
Next stop was the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) building. I. had called me earlier saying she had managed to get inside the building without detection while they were all on lunch- and flyered the place with XR leaflets! By the time we arrived she was outside and the walls of the building had been sprayed with chalk paint.
A lovely man named D. stood there, his hands raised, covered in purple chalk. He was explaining to a camera crew that he’d known about climate change for years but didn’t know what to do about it, always wondering why no one seemed to care, until he discovered this group and thought ‘’if anything will work, that will’- and it just might work!’ He threw in his lot with XR and was arrested on the Monday, again on the Wednesday. The police had to watch CCTV footage before they could arrest the spray-painters, and everyone else cheered and thanked the arrested as they were marched into the police vans ‘’thank you protector!’’ There was a group of ladies, including myself, who started singing songs at this point; it was lovely harmonies led by a Glastonbury lady called C.
This was the end of the day; we were done by 1.30pm. I. and I went to the office to get our stuff, and then went to see E. at the Love Shack for some medicine food. We went to catch the bus and had to run for it because we were late- we caught it by the skin of our teeth! On the way home I had a phone call from K., from my first Ecology and Spirituality module, asking me about the XR action. She mentioned how uncomfortable it seems to be spraying and getting arrested, when a better way would be to sing songs and motivate people that way. I answered that I think songs are for the people: they rouse and keep people strong. But songs can be ignored by the government; by those in power we are trying to reach. They pay attention to the arrests of non-violent activists: as the Suffragette and Civil Rights movements attest to.
The next day I had a very bad cold, and on the Friday too- I had 2 days off work. On the Friday night I had a physical experience of grief. Listening to a particular song with the lyric ‘’mama, don’t go’’- I suddenly felt a sharp wrench in my womb, as if a baby had been yanked out (no real baby- don’t worry)- but I was on the floor sobbing my heart out. I realised in that moment what ‘extinction’ really means: it’s the killing of babies that are not yet conceived. I felt the pain of the Earth- because of her extinct species- and yes, species are becoming extinct every single day due to human activity- the despair that they will never exist again. I wept tears for the Earth, and for all the never-to-be-born creatures.
A. is a sacred activist and she speaks about the power of grief; one of her main roles in XR is to facilitate the grieving of the activists in the group. Tomorrow XR are doing a Remembrance Day for extinct species. My friend Bruce is also exploring what grief means for activists, and says what Earth really needs is our tears. She certainly received my tears that Friday night, in my little Glastonbury flat, I screamed the place down; it was agony.
My exploration into sacred activism has been pushed forward by these experiences, though I do not think it is by any means finished (it never will be). I see a juxtaposition in this world, like we are living in two worlds. One is truth, and the other is not truth. An image that sticks in my mind to illustrate this is the image of A. spraying the back of a police van. In one world, this is A.: sacred, storyteller, beautiful elder. That world is truth. In another world, this is A.: sprayer of police vans. She does that action because she knows that in the world of untruth, the only way to get anyone to listen to truth is to break the law. My words are far from a criticism of her: in that moment she was living her truth in the world of truth, while attempting to affect change in the world of untruth. The act in itself however, was not an act she would ever had performed had we all been living in the world of truth; and this is the place I fall down. To affect change in the world of untruth, it seems we have to invite opposition. But direct opposition could be seen as untruth, and so inviting it into our lives, in whatever form, invites a movement away from truth.
Charles Eisenstein describes these two worlds as ‘the Story of Separation’ and the ‘Story of Interbeing’. We hope, we are moving from the former to the latter- and that we arrive before we kill ourselves and the planet. Separation, to me, is untruth, and so in the act of spraying a police van, or hanging ‘we’re fucked’ outside the Houses of Parliament, we invite separation, and opposition, and untruth (even in the message- for the truth is we are not ‘fucked’, not if we live in the Story of Interbeing, and the truth is we don’t want to spray a police van and a wall- there is no feel good factor in there, other than a dopamine hit perhaps, or a ego-inflation, but I’m not sure it comes from a deeper sense of satisfaction, more a momentary thrill that what has been done has caught the attention of someone. All else has failed in this case- all attempts to get those in power to hear the truth have failed, and so as a last resort, we spray the back of a police van). But then I. suggests that in the act itself, we move away from the world of separation, because we catch a glimpse of a world beyond the blinkers that our current system puts upon us. In breaking the law, we realise that laws are not always there to protect us. The illusion falls away.
Still, I find it difficult to feel the sacredness in chalk spray, or in a banner reading ‘we’re fucked’. I feel a deep sadness when I think of these people, and I felt the same when I visited Kirby Misperton fracking site in Yorkshire. Look at all these incredible people… I see A. as an elder, not something I would say about many people in this country, I mean a true, tribal elder… just think of what she could do, what she is capable of, all the people she could help and share with, if she were living in a world of truth, a world that listened to her: a world in which she didn’t have to spray the back of a police van to get those in power to listen to truth. Direct Action would not exist in the world of truth, in a Story of Interbeing. There would be no need for all those wonderful, creative, intelligent and driven people to be beavering away in a sweltering London office. Imagine what they could achieve if they didn’t have to shout so loudly for anyone to pay attention to truth.
The closest definition I have come to Sacred Activism comes in the form of a question: ‘how do we affect change in the world of untruth, while living in the world of truth?’ We know that world exists, we can feel that world calling us. How do we reach it?