“It’s not free, love.”
I looked up from my third slice of sunwarmed, spongy Hovis, and into the narrowed eyes of a middle-aged white woman with dreadlocks. “Sorry?”
She nodded pointedly at my plate, streaked with evidence of my crime. “The hummus. It’s not free.”
“Oh. I‒ uh… sorry.”
The woman gazed sourly down at me for a moment, her wooden Venus symbol earrings swaying gently in the April breeze. The 5-piece brass band and line of policemen behind us seemed to melt away, and suddenly I was in Year 4 again, being apprehended by a lunch lady mid-theft of my fifth serving of Arctic roll. The air between us was thick with tension, as well as a pungent blend of patchouli oil and BO wafting sepulchrally from the meditation circle a few feet distant.
A scuffle behind the daal stand caught my accuser’s attention, and with a parting glare she strode off to investigate. This would not be the last time I was admonished about the ‘donation hummus’, but it was, fortunately, the closest I came to an actual confrontation during my time with the Extinction Rebellion.
I say “with”. Like many who participated in the demonstrations, I was motivated partly by conscience, and partly by a desire to get a picture of the big pink boat plonked in the middle of Oxford Circus. But many more were motivated by something else. XR protestors have been variously criticised as selfish, egotistical, and out of touch, but as the number of people arrested passed the 1,000 mark on Monday, it became clear that the movement is driven by a large core of people who are genuinely, urgently concerned with the state of our environment. The variety and persistence of the people who turned out at various locations over the week of ‘occupations’ proved that the public is aware of climate issues and striving to address them. Heartening as this attitude is, whether it will result in actual change is another question. And whether they’re the majority is yet another.
When I reached Waterloo Bridge on April 20th, the protest was in its sixth day, and still buzzing despite the alternative diversions on offer in Hyde Park. The cloudless skies and 20-degree heat (thanks, climate change?) added to the festival atmosphere: warm cans of Red Stripe, the faint scent of frying onions, thin, blonde, septum-pierced girls napping in the shade with French braids pillowed atop their Herschels… Wait. Did she go to my primary school? Let’s not stick around to find out.
I whipped around to survey the rest of the packed bridge, best described as a street party with patches of “I’m missing Boomtown this year because mummy wants us to go to the villa in Skiathos”. Not a philosophy David Attenborough, patron saint of ecology, would approve of I’m sure. At the north end, a large banner and a cluster of sweaty, pained-looking police officers were collectively glistening in the afternoon sun, soundtracked by the irregular scrape of wheels against wood as a preteen boy swung up and down a small skate ramp. A white-stubbled man proffered stickers and leaflets to passersby, unfazed by the drum and bass thudding from a speaker behind him. Several times I stumbled into the path of a woman in her sixties doing tai chi, moving gently around the bridge with the unhurried, random trajectory of the DVD logo bouncing around a noughties computer screen.
My pleasure at seeing the older generation participating so actively was dampened by the realisation that a lot of these people were actually just middle aged, white, and sun-damaged. (I tried to make a joke to my friend about Caucasians’ lack of rhythm as we passed the drum circle, but had to begrudgingly admit that they were pretty good). The concentration of tribal tattoos, bare feet, and crusty dreads increased as I pressed into the centre, where a thick cloud of incense was doing its best to disguise the smell of dozens of shirtless, hairy men. There were a handful of black and southeast Asian faces, but the majority were tanned at best and sunburnt at worst. Meanwhile, the only other East Asian person I saw was my mum, anxiously stalking me from the other side of the bridge to ensure I didn’t get arrested. (This in itself may help explain why there weren’t more Asians present).
The Extinction Rebellion protests weren’t a totally white affair, especially since there were a range of sites with varying atmospheres. The protest zone designated by police at Marble Arch and addressed by Greta Thunberg was more formal ‒ crucially, it didn’t pose the risk of arrest for attendees, as at Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus. And the drama of civil disobedience, from ‘die-ins’ to gluing one’s peachy cheeks to the House of Commons, has been vital in energising less hardline members of the public to join the movement. But the occupations were fun. Not necessarily for the people who got arrested, but for the many who, like me, came down, enjoyed the atmosphere, and rinsed the snack bar. It’s easy to put on some glitter, paint a sign, and spend the day listening to psytrance and blaming Big Oil for wrecking the ice caps. It’s also easy to forget that Big Oil does this to enable individual lifestyle choices that we may not even be aware of making as I’m sure many of my fellow protestors are indeed in willful ignorance of, just like the rest of us.
The single-use plastic hummus tubs were a necessary sacrifice to fuel White Guy With Cornrows No. 7 and his slam-poetry ode to Gaia (“let’s plant a new seed to breed a generation who can breathe in harmony with the sea”). The nonbiodegradable glitter on the face of the Camberwell students discussing how “it’s a size too small but I only bought it to get into Berghain” was, surely, equally necessary. There was a woman with a plasticboxed Waitrose superfood salad strapped to her Kanken backpack like a protective talisman. I wish I was making this up.
One of the activists that day acknowledged these issues, but voiced frustration at focus on XR’s perceived flaws being used to detract from its mission. “This movement is about everyone’s lives, all over the world, regardless of class or gender. Of course the organisation as a whole will have its flaws, nothing’s perfect, but to try to write off the whole thing as ‘middle class’. The whole point is it’s bigger than everyone involved”. And I suppose this is a bit more forgiving than my cynicism.
Even if a lot of it is for that ever self-indulgent gram, Extinction Rebellion’s protests have reengaged us with the climate emergency and allowed the British public to make its feelings clear to politicians. Now, it’s time for the more be-glittered, M&S shopping, casual environmentalists to examine what they can do themselves to address the situation. The thousand people prepared to get arrested are already doing so- for the many thousands of others who participated and went back to business as usual, the protests should serve as a reminder of our individual responsibilities, not just on the picket line but also while on Depop, at Starbucks or even in the Waitrose hummus aisle.