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Reflections on The Big One, April 2023

Several people from the Planet Shaftesbury network participated in this action. Here are reflections from three of them: Richard Ecclestone, Robin Walter and Richard Thomas. Thank you all!

Diana Harris holding the Planet Shaftesbury banner (painted by Phyllis Wolff).

Richard Ecclestone wrote: They said it couldn’t be done. Getting 100,000 people to protest in London with Extinction Rebellion (XR) in April 2023. But we did it anyway. So how did XR pull off such a feat?

In October 2022 at the previous ‘rebellion’ in London only about 1,000 rebels attended an ‘occupation’ of Whitehall for an afternoon, and previous rebellions had seen numbers dwindling since the big protests of April and October 2019. Something had to change, otherwise there was a grave danger that XR would lose its relevance. In stepped two rebels from Cornwall who came up with the concept of ‘100 days to get 100,000 people to London’. The plan was to have 2 phases of 100 days, the first 100 days to plan how to do it and pilot some ideas, and the second 100 days to mobilise the numbers and get them to London. Executing this ambitious plan came with a barrow load of challenges, not least of which was convincing the movement itself that it could be done. There were some in the movement still convinced that the only way to force the Government to accede to XR’s demands was to go to London and refuse to leave until the demands had been met. This would require huge courage from a significant number of people being prepared to remain in situ and accept the risk of being arrested, charged, and potentially convicted of new offences contained within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, many of which now carried harsher penalties, including imprisonment. Others were not convinced that this would be achievable, starting from the relatively small core of XR rebels who were prepared to take such personal risks. Additionally, the feedback from the debriefs of previous rebellions indicated that a significant proportion of the movement had become very uncomfortable with disrupting the public as a tactic, and were no longer confident that it was an effective strategy. Besides, these tactics were now being deployed by Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, with rebels who still saw the need for such tactics already migrating to those organisations.

After much soul searching and deliberation, XR issued its ‘we quit’ message on 1 January, undertaking to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic, and prioritise attendance over arrests, and relationships over roadblocks. This reflected the decision that the only way to achieve the 100,000 target was to forge links with other environmental and social justice organisations and encourage their memberships to join with us at what was now being called ‘The Big One’.

What followed was a whirlwind of activity to transform the dream into reality. This was spearheaded by a very small team of committed and motivated people, who worked their socks off to make this happen. As an older rebel, I was personally encouraged and inspired by these mostly younger people, who demonstrated commendable leadership and drive during this period. XR’s small Relationships team reached out to all the like-minded organisations, explaining what we were trying to achieve and encouraging them to stand with us during the 4 days of protest. It is testament to their tenacity that over 200 organisations, large and small (including Planet Shaftesbury!) committed to become ‘supporting organisations’ of The Big One and invited their members to come to London, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Avaaz, Global Justice Now, and many, many more. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for these supporting organisations was the concern over what the policing response would be. This was understandable considering XR’s reputation, so we decided from the outset that we would not be deploying any tactics that would make our removal more difficult, so no glue, no lock-ons, no tripods, nothing that would cause the police to feel they had to take enforcement action. My team’s job was to liaise with the Metropolitan Police, the Parliamentary Estate, Westminster City Council, the Greater London Authority and the Royal Parks, in order to communicate the style of protest to them and seek their cooperation in facilitating our actions. We had 7 meetings with the Met in advance of the protest, 5 of them with the Silver Commander and 2 with the Traffic Police. Dealing with the other agencies was frustrating to say the least, as they continually referred our requests to other organisations or back to the police, in a classic game of passing the buck. Ultimately though, the liaison efforts paid off and we were able to conduct our protests with a low profile police presence, and with road closures facilitated by the Traffic Police. There were no arrests.

Other considerations were how to minimise the impact on the local community in the Westminster area, and to this end a team headed up by who we dubbed ‘The Westminster Rambler’ visited every premises in the area to notify them of what was going to be happening and help them with any concerns they might have. So successful were her outreach efforts that there were zero complaints from the local community about the protest. It didn’t escape the media’s notice that the weekend coincided with the London Marathon, but we had been working with the organisers from the start, and they were more than happy to co-exist with us. That didn’t stop the media from manufacturing a false narrative about XR wanting to disrupt the event, which despite being farcical, did actually mean we got more airtime than we might otherwise have done, so they helped us there!

Another huge piece of organisation was not just getting the numbers to London, but providing activities and actions for attendees to participate in. To that end a comprehensive and varied set of speakers and acts were programmed over the 4 days for the two stages that were set up. Additionally, there were ‘People’s Pickets’ to join at the Government Departments and daily ‘Big DIY Assemblies’ to consider topical questions - particularly what should come next if our immediate demands - to bring an end to the fossil fuel era, and instigate emergency citizen’s assemblies to address the most urgent issues of our time - were not met. The biggest single action was the Earth Day March for Biodiversity on the Saturday. This was a spectacle to behold, not just because of the numbers - 67,000 people joined the march, which was so long that the head arrived at the finish before the end had even left the start point! The creativity that participants brought was breathtaking, with costumes and masks of all manner of creatures, trees and plants on display. It was a powerful reminder of our emotional connection to and love for nature.

I am of the view that The Big One was a huge success. It was probably the biggest demonstration focussing on the climate and nature emergencies that London has ever seen, and showed what a relatively small group of people can achieve when they have the motivation and determination to turn a vision into reality. Of course, we would have liked more media coverage, and it is frustrating that getting 100,000 people to the seat of power to protest about the existential threats that face us is not deemed headline news. By contrast the media are happy to give days of coverage to one person who jumps onto a snooker table and throws some orange powder around! The big question is ‘What Next?’, and XR are now working on what the strategy should be going forwards.


Robin Walter wrote:

How it went: Well it was quite a large gathering and spirits were high, especially on the Saturday, but being intentionally non-disruptive it failed to disrupt the business-as-usual news round and was almost completely ignored by the media and government. XR gave this sober review of the event here

The highlight for me was the Writers Rebel event at 55 Tufton Street, home of climate-sceptic think tanks, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation and Net Zero Watch. Particularly powerful was Zadie Smith’s speech: “Evil is not a word I use often – or lightly – but I believe the kind of pragmatism practised on this street falls within that category. No-one’s in denial on Tufton Street. Quite the opposite. They know the science is real. They know whose money they’re taking. They’re not lying to themselves. They’re lying to us.” Read the full speech here

We also had the opportunity to post our own work on the building, so I posted up ‘rebel’. Read it here

What next? XR are asking people where they want to go from here and offer 3 pathways: Picket (fossil fuels), Organise Locally (eg with Planet Shaftesbury), and Disobey (non-violent civil disobedience, as XR did before).

Richard E, Robin and Richard T at The Big One


Richard Thomas wrote: Disrupt or die, is the lesson of The Big One

A Guardian journalist described April's The Big One event as 'something like a cross between a village fete and Glastonbury'. From my own first-hand experience - admittedly of only the Sunday and Monday - I would agree. The much-hyped jamboree was not only disappointing but largely unimpressive and it should be no surprise to anyone (and clearly it was to the chagrin of many) that it garnered minimal media coverage, especially for the main day on Big Saturday, and had no political impact whatsoever.

That the death of Barry Humphries, the 25th anniversary memorial service for Stephen Lawrence at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, and the resignation of Dominic Raab should eclipse media coverage of the events in and around Parliament Square on the Saturday and the London Marathon the toned-down version of it on the Sunday should bemuse no one. For me it became an inevitability when I got up close and personal with what was actually happening on the ground on the two days I was there.

The Guardian correspondent's view (female, as it happened) echoes mine because for me the Big One was not so much The Big One as a rather underwhelming Weenie One, a rather feeble and at times almost pathetic shadow of what I was delusionally expecting. Instead of a major outpouring of righteous anger and indignation, replete with intelligent and moving argument, what I witnessed was largely an almost embarrassing display of hubris mixed with adolescence.

Instead of the vaunted 100,000 crusaders hoped for by XR, something closer to half that number turned up over the four days and many of those looked as despondent and lacking in enthusiasm as I felt as grey Monday drew to its rainy close. Discordantly beating drums and gleeful whooping is no substitute for the sort of silent power achieved, for example, nearly 90 years ago by the Jarrow Crusade workers in their grim and determined march on London.

What, too, was the point or purpose of picketing the front doors of government departments when most civil servants, who in any case do not make policy but only carry out the bidding of their political masters, as they are bound to by law, could be seen simply going in and out unimpeded by the back door? What was hoped to be achieved, also, by demonstrating outside Parliament on three out of the four days when MPs, let alone government ministers, are nowhere to be seen anywhere near Westminster?

Overall I detected a huge dollop of political naivety about most of those demonstrating over the weekend of 21-24 April. Not that I didn't, and don't, sympathise with what they were hoping, and trying desperately, to achieve. I do, very much. Their cause is right and just but do they really know what they're doing, I'm now asking myself? Does anyone responsible for running events such as The Big One really understand how politics works, how the media works, how the civil service works, how Parliament works, how society at its most basic grassroots level really works?

Based on what I saw and witnessed and experienced on the Sunday and Monday of The Big One the answer appears to be no. And that is tragic. Because it means that at the present rate of decline Big Politics and Big Business is going to kill us all within a few short years without serious let or hindrance.

And please don't blame Big Media for this. Big Media has intelligent and concerned people working in it who care every bit as much as anyone I saw waving banners in Parliament Square and who would cover an event like The Big One given half a chance, and cover it well. But it won't when what they are presented with is a half-baked mix between Glastonbury and a village fete - with the emphasis more on the fete. No one could have predicted the events that weekend that would dominate the news agenda so completely. (Maybe, when it came down to it, The Big One's organisers' credit just wasn't quite good enough with the Great Editor in the Sky.)

So I can do no better than close with a quote from XR's own assessment of The Big One in its newsletter of 12 May. Recognising that the non-disruptive event saw the collaboration of some 200 disparate groups more or less united in a more or less common cause, XR nevertheless acknowledged: 'But this more loving, less rage-filled era also had its problems. After making a lot of fuss about how the rebellion would ruin the neighbouring London Marathon (it didn’t), the British media pretty much ignored The Big One, and so too did the government. Rebels and other activists may have massed at parliament’s doorstep, but clearly the numbers required to get that door to open were not met.'

Quite so. And therein lies the problem. No matter how many people believe in, and therefore want, a peaceful fluffy rebellion that would barely ruffle a feather, the lesson of history is that disrupting the status quo is essential for real and radical change to happen - as it must. Even Jesus, the arch pacifist, realised that near the end.

And so it must be. To change you have to disrupt and there can, and will, be no change without it. We should take our lead from the Jarrow Crusaders. What is needed now is a Climate Crusade. It's the only hope we have left.

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