Newsletter 30: A roadblock on Memory Lane
October 27, 2019 by Extinction Rebellion
(Sign up to the International Newsletter here)
This rebellion is by no means over: the past week has seen continued actions in Austria, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Berlin, Sydney… as ever, more than we can count!
But for many of those reading, this week was the beginning of some well-earned rest, and the start of a reflection process.
In this first of several retrospective issues, we begin to look back together on the October Rebellion. We bring you exclusive accounts that could only be articulated once the heat of action had cooled a little.
Undeniably, this Rebellion has seen XR step up across the world – in terms of numbers, intensity, creativity, visibility, and more. We saw a leap in the profile of those declaring their support for the movement, with royalty, actors, journalists, and politicians using their platforms to support XR, and some even facing arrest.
Rebels in many countries have developed their civil disobedience superpowers, deploying new and creative tactics – in this issue, we see how cross-national solidarity between rebels has been used to the advantage of protests in Central Europe (Slovakia, Czech Republic).
At the same time, we have seen the police step up its response to XR in sometimes shocking and brutal ways. More than during the April Rebellion, it is as if brute force has been mobilised in the service of shoring up the denial of climate and ecological breakdown. Rebels seem undeterred however, even where they are facing a public still largely unaware of the emergency (e.g. Czech Republic, Italy).
The crucial process of holding to account those involved in the Rebellion has begun – and we don’t mean only the courageous arrestees: as we detail below, investigations into police excesses have started in Belgium and in the UK. (In the UK an investigation is being conducted by Netpol into excessive or discriminatory policing – they need eye-witness statements to make their case please see here to help. If you’re not in the UK, but have had similar experiences, we can only encourage you to contact legal networks to begin a similar process!)
Taking responsibility is not something we merely ask of others: the time is also for apologies where these are felt to be necessary, for example, the heartfelt letter from XR Belgium to members of the public and rebels caught up in the police response.
This retrospective newsletter features longer pieces that allow rebels to share their experience of Rebellion more intimately. We are struck by the raw humanity of rebel hunger strikers in Italy; the pain of the 14-year-old rebel from Slovakia, brutally unglued by the police. The often touching photos lay bare a whole spectrum of emotions – cheekiness, anger, puzzlement, determination, playfulness. A reminder of our complex but ultimately common humanity.
As these reflections begin to paint a fuller picture of the whirlwind that was Rebellion, it seems clear that what we have lost in innocence, we have gained in numbers, in determination, in skill and in solidarity.
Whatever the future may hold, this at least is clear: we are now a community of truly international scale, and we will not stop until we see the change we need.
If you’d like to see previous newsletter issues, you can find them here.
As we enter this crucial phase in human history, our Rebellion will need money to make sure our message is heard. Anything you can give is appreciated.
This City Never Sleeps…
OCT 20 – 25 | London, UK
October was massive for UK rebels. And for many who strained heart and sinew, the time has come for some well deserved rest.
But some push on, with inventive and powerful protests.
On Sunday, a small group of rebels stripped off on the floor of the National Portrait Gallery, while others poured fake oil over their naked bodies. The gallery is the home of the BP Portrait Award, an exhibition funded by oil and gas company ‘Beyond Petroleum’. The action highlighted the tragic destruction of life caused by the drills and spills of oil and gas companies like BP.
The following day, XR families and educators called on the Department for Education to ‘tell the truth’ and bring the climate emergency into the school curriculum.
“Climate and ecological breakdown will define the life of every child alive today,” said one rebel, “but it’s hard for them to take the issue seriously, when it plays almost no part in the content of their education.”
Little rebels brought a first ever love-in to the Maritime Museum. United in song, they stood in solidarity with families across the world already impacted by climate change, especially those in the global south. They also visited the new home of our Polly Higgins boat and honoured Polly’s fight to make ecocide a crime.
Coming up this week in London, we have a Rebellion-inspired piano concert ‘Music From Our Times’ on Wed 30 and a Rebel Rave on Fri 1st to raise money for legal aid for our brave arrestees (buy tickets here).
If you can’t make these but feel like tying up some loose ends, a debrief might be the thing you need – and the good news is, setting them up just got a whole lot easier with this guide.
We’d also like to encourage any rebels who were present in London to take a look at this request from Netpol – your statement could make a crucial difference in holding the Met to account for their actions earlier this month.
More happened in October than we could possibly report on. Each country’s rebellion has its own joys and tribulations, its own unique flavour. Read on to be seriously inspired!
Shocks to Political Culture in France
OCT 5-13 | Paris, France
The October Rebellion enabled XR to introduce itself to the French media and political world, and to a large part of the population. This spectacular introduction, intended to draw more rebels in, laid the foundations for even more disruptive and dramatic actions in the future.
There is little doubt that this week of massive non-violent civil disobedience created a shock wave in the country of ‘La Grande Révolution.’ XR’s political aims and methods have struck many other protest movements in France as culturally strange, especially those on the radical left.
The sun sets after a fifth day of occupation in the centre of Paris
The difference between XR and more ‘traditional’ methods of protest in the country, as well as its political message, drew critiques and commendations from social and anti-authoritarian movements, public commentators and intellectuals alike. These certainly deserve to be heard and thought through, even if they indicate a certain reactionary attitude within the French left itself.
These criticisms could prove to help XR France mature, and provide a fruitful disruption and inspiration for other social movements in the country.
In effect, the October Rebellion has offered an opportunity for both XR France and movements such as the Yellow Vests to grow more impactful, both in strategy and in their political aims and messaging.
Having begun to form alliances in the first days of the rebellion, now is the time to reflect on how to collaborate more successfully with one another moving forward.
On October 5th, XR co-occupied a Parisian Shopping Centre with the Yellow Vests and other groups
In the face of the task ahead of us, we might together concede that we will need a full spectrum of tactics to reach our shared goal: that is, to dismantle the toxic structures which are the source of this generation’s emergency.
Read a full analysis and response to criticisms of the French Rebellion here.
The Czech Rebellion: Battered, Bruised, but Never Knocked Out
OCT 7-12 | Prague, Czech Republic
Potential new recruits at ‘Fragile Hope’, an XR Prague Parents event
Saturday 12th marked the final day of a week-long rebellion for XR Czechia, and the day was to hold two of their most audacious actions.
Rebels took over Wenceslas Square, one of Prague’s busiest, to hold a ‘Saturday Festival’ full of live music, theatre, and workshops about the climate and ecological crisis. Meanwhile, on an adjacent highway, around 200 rebels formed a blockade to stop the capital’s afternoon traffic. At least eight rebels glued themselves to the road.
Police managed to clear the blockade in under 15 minutes, but they did so brutally. It resulted in one woman being scalded with hot water (which police believed would dissolve the glue), another woman suffering significant bruising as she was hauled away.
And a 14-year-old girl having skin ripped away from her hand. She was glued to another rebel and the police, who appeared unprepared and seemingly unaware of the practice, simply tore them apart.
The 14 year old girl whose glued hand was torn free (Photo: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)
As she cried, a rebel medic tried to help her but the police had already formed a cordon around the road and wouldn’t let anyone through. ‘We have our own medics,’ was the police response.
The police medics did eventually arrive and were seriously alarmed, mistakenly believing the girl’s hand was dissolving from chemicals in the glue. She was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, her mother by her side.
On the journey, the girl was given a misdemeanour citation and was released a few hours later.
Police held the blockade rebels for five and a half hours
Most rebels were kept for far longer. There were 130 arrests in all, and the police seemed totally at a loss with how to deal with so many. They decided to process all of them, including the minors and the injured, in an impromptu holding area by the road.
Those rebels whose ID cards had already been registered by the police after previous actions were arrested and bussed to the local police station. Whilst they were ultimately released later that night, they are likely to face substantial fines.
Those rebels whose IDs showed no previous XR activity were cautioned and eventually released after a five-and-a-half-hour wait on the roadside. They sang and chanted throughout the night to keep their spirits high.
A road swarm meets with anger on the streets of Prague
XR Czech Republic is spearheaded by a loving group of around 400 dedicated activists. Generally speaking, though, public opinion is not with them — in part because of a hostile corporate media that misreports actions and sidelines the climate crisis entirely.
Through their Saturday Festival and other events across the week, Czech rebels have sought to recruit a new wave of rebels; but they also know that to change this nation’s mindset, they have a lot of work ahead.
Slovakia’s Rebellion: History Quietly in the Making
OCT 7-12 | Bratislava, Slovakia, and Prague, Czech Republic
The first ‘swarm’ in the history of Slovakia
It is the morning of Monday 7th October, the first day of rebellion for so many across the world. Twenty Slovak rebels walked in single file across a zebra crossing on a street outside the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Bratislava.
But rather than cross the street, they blocked it. Two big hand-painted XR banners were unfurled to face the waiting traffic.
People in their cars looked bemused, unsure about what was going on. A bus driver started to get angry, inching his large vehicle closer to the rebels, gesturing and shouting from behind the glass. Thankfully the agreed seven-minute wait was up before things could get violent, and the rebels part like waves.
The traffic returns to its normal flow, and no police arrived. It is as if nothing had happened. But the beaming rebels know differently.
This was their first-ever direct action. It was Slovakia’s first-ever swarm. This was seven minutes of history.
Later that day, the rebels notified Slovakia’s national media about this milestone. They also hosted a seminar about how to turn kitchen and bathroom household waste into garden compost. The press interest was muted however: the next morning, only one newspaper ran the story.
XR Slovakia is only a few months old and its membership is still modest in size. In spite of this, actions came thick and fast during Rebellion Week. On Wednesday 9th a group of seventy cyclists rode through Bratislava, passing various Ministries and gridlocking traffic. Again the police did not impose, and no one was arrested.
Three Slovak women on the front line of the rebel blockade in Prague
The next day, Thursday 10th, twelve rebels took a trip to Prague to join their Czech sisters and brothers. All were part of the Saturday blockade that saw the Czech police kettle nearly 200 rebels, injuring two women and a teenage girl in the process.
The Slovaks’ foreign status actually helped them in this instance. The added bureaucracy involved in processing their foreign ID cards meant that the overstretched Czech police were never going to arrest them. Instead, the visitors spent their last night on the roadside, chanting with their Czech comrades for the five and a half hours it took for the police to release them.
XR Slovakia performed a funeral march during the global strike called for by ‘Fridays for Future’
The Rome Rebellion: Bikes, Lies, and Videotape
OCT 7-13 | Rome, Italy
Critical Mass passes through Piazza Venezia
Asked for her favourite action of the week, a rebel from the Rome media team smiles and answers quickly: ‘The Critical Mass. A hundred and fifty of us riding bikes through the centre of the city, blocking traffic for three hours’.
Italian police knew the starting point of the action and followed the swarm of bicycles in two big trucks as the riders cut through red lights and brought the city streets to a standstill. But there were no arrests. In fact, there have never been any arrests of rebels in Italy.
‘The police just video-record our faces,’ says the rebel from Rome. ‘Throughout the week, over the course of seven major actions, the police have just watched and waited and filmed everyone.’
Italian rebel on day six of his hunger strike
A public endorsement from Michael Stipe, lead singer of REM, visiting Rome for an art convention, gained press coverage but it was the rebel hunger strikers who sat in a square outside the Italian Parliament which drew the most media attention.
Of the fifteen who started, ten hunger strikers made it through the whole week. Three were forced to end their strike because of health fears. But thanks to a couple of supportive MEPs, the hunger strikers were visited by Italy’s Environment Minister, Sergio Costa.
The senior politician listened to the hunger strikers, but only for a minute or so. He had a more important agenda for this meeting: turning to the assembled press and lauding his ‘emergency bill about the climate’, a bill that had passed into Italian law only the day before.
Rebel hunger strikers outside Montecitorio Palace, the Italian parliament
Like so many similar bills which have been lauded by governments around the world, the substance did not match the title. While the bill introduces measures to tackle plastic use and offers financial incentives for drivers of older model cars to upgrade it remains silent on the issues of carbon emissions, fossil fuel usage and air travel. The phrase ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ has rarely been more apt.
Environment Minister Sergio Costa meets the hunger strikers
It was a real achievement that the hunger strikers got any press coverage at all. Mostly, the Italian media has ignored the climate and ecological crisis, and totally ignored Extinction Rebellion’s efforts to highlight it.
The vast majority of people in Italy don’t know that there is a climate problem, let alone its true scale. During the actions in the capital, the most supportive passers-by were tourists.
XR Italy is comprised of only a couple of hundred dedicated rebel hearts, but the week of actions has done wonders, both in terms of the skills and systems that have been passed on through workshops, and the bonds that have been created through direct actions. Trust and camaraderie has grown strong between these rebellious Romans, and new chapters are now springing up daily around the country.
One thing is for sure. The Italian police will be needing to record more videos.
OCT 12-13 | Brussels, Belgium
Many of us were shocked by the events in Belgium on Saturday 12th, when over 400 peaceful rebels were savagely beaten, soaked, pepper-sprayed, and arrested on their first day of protest.
Authorities in Brussels have since opened up an inquiry exploring the unlawful conduct of the police. A total of four separate disciplinary investigations have been launched to address the potential use of excessive force and unacceptable violence.
Meanwhile, we spoke to a rebel on the ground about his experience of the night: ‘It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be hit in the face by pepper-spray. The best comparison I can think of, is hell. Everything burns and you feel completely disoriented. Out of this world. You can’t see, or smell, or even breathe.’
‘It’s like someone has poured a cocktail of tabasco and bleach down your throat. And there’s nothing you can do. Water makes it worse. You just have to wait it out.’
Rest assured, Extinction Rebellion will be paying very close attention to the results of the police enquiry. On Tuesday 15th, XR spokesperson Linde Polfliet appeared on national television channel VRTto discuss our peaceful values and denounce the criminal actions of the police.
XR Belgium have also released a heartfelt statement addressing ‘the negligent and stupid brutality of the illegal police action that ruined a truly beautiful and inspiring afternoon of citizen cooperation’.
The statement generously apologises to all XR members and members of the public who were caught up in ‘the nightmare that we all experienced.’ It celebrates the indomitable spirit of those who made the stand and ends with a reminder that: ‘the system, of which we are part of, is afraid. It does not know what to do (…) It needs our help to go forward. It needs us.’
You can read the statement in full here.
Deeds not Words
An overview of police response to the October Rebellion, in London and around the world.
Our October Rebellion received many different responses: energy and excitement from new rebels across the world, love and community with returning rebels, curiosity from passersby, some grumbles from grumpy commuters in a rush, but also a new level of intimidation and aggression from the police.
In London, police swooped in before the rebellion even began, raiding a storage space, confiscating equipment, including dangerous pink pillows and making arrests. Over the following days, police continued with arrests and confiscated all manner of items from rebels, including food and tents.
In true rebellious spirit, pink pillows popped up all over London and the Rebellion was on again. Rebels continued to defy police aggression, even when it hit an all time low with police targeting more vulnerable rebels by confiscating wheelchairs and equipment supporting disabled rebels to protest.
But as the rebel spirit couldn’t be knocked down, the police responded with increasingly draconian measures curtailing the right to protest; initially by restricting protest to Trafalgar Square and then banning all XR protests from London.
Greta tweeted: ‘If standing up against the climate and ecological breakdown and for humanity is against the rules then the rules must be broken’.
The disproportionate London-wide ban on XR protests backfired. Galvanising support from those who recognised how dangerous a development this was, including Amnesty International who called the banchilling and unlawful’. Green Party Co-Leader Jonathan Bartley and journalist George Monbiot were amongst those arrested the following day for deliberately defying it. The legality of the ban is now being challenged in the High Court, while Netpol is launching a parliamentary report which you can help with by offering a statement.
Unfortunately the UK hasn’t been the only place where, instead of acting on the climate and ecological emergency, politicians have instead turned on peaceful protest.
In Australia, the Queensland parliament criminalised locking devices and extended police powers, shortly after Australian police faced criticism for their use of strip searches and imposition of extreme bail conditions.
Use of pain compliance techniques against peaceful earth protectors was reported in Germany and Spain, while non-violent protest in Brussels was met with police violence far beyond anything experienced before.
These extreme responses to peaceful action show that those in power are running scared and panicking. Attempts to ignore and ridicule XR have failed and they recognise the force of change we now represent.
The way forward doesn’t require further draconian steps on a path towards a police state with no civil liberties; all that is needed, is taking action on the climate and ecological emergency.
- Need ideas on how to debrief with your group, after the Rebellion? Check out this guide.
- The editor of the medical journal The Lancet calls on all health professionals to participate in non-violent protest as part of their duty to protect people.
- Get to know the NY rebels that brought a busy Times Square to a halt.
- See this stirring speech from Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, a 22-year-old Ugandan college student, at the C40 Mayors Summit in Copenhagen.
‘I don’t think enough is being done. This feels like a huge joke or something, a nightmare, but it’s not. It’s the reality. I just wanted to try anything I can to change this horrible reality. I think I’d regret not doing anything.
I think here (the City of London) is the right place to do it. I study Economics and I feel so strongly that something has to change. The banks should be diverting resources to renewable projects which will create jobs. They’re just not doing that, they’re stuck in their short-termism and their quarterly reports and shareholder values and things.
It’s always been really hard for me because I’m an overseas student and I used to fly a lot. I think that if I believe that it is such a catastrophe then why am I still flying? So I’ve stopped flying and I’m looking at alternatives such as trains back to Hong Kong.
I’m consuming so much less now and I’ve realised that makes me a happier person. I grew up in a concrete jungle and I’ve always been taught that shopping is fun, but I never really took a moment to consider where my happiness comes from. I think that would be true for a lot of people, it’s just the culture that we grew up in.’
We are receiving amazing human stories and we want to know yours. To read more – or to write your own – join our Facebook group.
Thank you for reading!
If you have any questions or queries, please get in touch at email@example.com.
As we enter this crucial phase in human history, our
Rebellion will need money to make sure our message is heard. Anything
you can give is appreciated.