Thousands of climate change protesters blockaded major roads around parliament in London on Monday at the start of what they have billed as a two-week demonstration to “shut down” the heart of the UK capital to force a change in government policy.
The action, organised by activist group Extinction Rebellion, saw banner-waving and drumbeating marchers take to the streets of London as well as more than 60 cities worldwide, in the largest climate protest since thousands joined a demonstration in September.
Citizens blocked thoroughfares in Paris, Berlin and Sydney, among other cities, while protesters in London closed Lambeth bridge, Whitehall, the Mall and other roads near the seat of government. As the day continued, demonstrations began in New York, Los Angeles and Santiago.
At least 217 people were arrested in London, where police showed no sign of making a concerted effort to clear the streets eight hours after the protests began. About 80 demonstrators were arrested in Amsterdam and 40 in Wellington, New Zealand, Extinction Rebellion said.
Business organisations were careful not to be too critical of the demonstrations. The London-based CBI lobby group said climate change required “real solutions from the government and business — as well as changes to the way each of us live — right now”.
“Protesters should now focus their efforts on working constructively with others to implement realistic plans to tackle the climate crisis,” it added.
A spokesperson for London mayor Sadiq Khan said he “totally agrees with the protesters’ view that the government needs to stop ignoring the climate emergency . . . however, he will not support illegal action”.
The group, which has expanded from its British origins a year ago to more than 539 groups in 70 countries, has demanded that the UK government “tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency”, commit to bringing forward the target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions from 2050 to 2025 and establish a “citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice”. Sister groups in other countries have made similar demands of their governments.
Organisers of London’s “October Rebellion” hope to attract 10,000 people to the capital’s streets over the next two weeks, in an escalation of a similar protest in April. The action comes as fears about environmental destruction and climate change rise up the political agenda around the world, inspired in part by Extinction Rebellion and other activists, such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
April’s protest, during which more than 1,100 people were arrested in London, prompted the UK government to declare a climate emergency. Many countries also pledged to reduce their carbon emissions during a UN climate summit in September. But protesters worldwide say this is insufficient.
Over the weekend, London’s Metropolitan Police took pre-emptive action on a scale not seen earlier in the year. Officers used a battering ram to raid an Extinction Rebellion warehouse in Lambeth, south London, from which food and equipment was taken and several people arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit public nuisance. Police also stopped and searched numerous vehicles.
But protesters were not deterred. “The goal is to influence people,” said Steve Hilton, a retired doctor and one of those protesting. “It would be good if the government took [climate change] seriously.” He said he was prepared to be arrested, although that “goes against the grain” of his life until now. “The point is to keep the roads closed. When one person is arrested, another takes their place. The strategy is to overwhelm police.”
Action planned for later this week includes a sit-down protest at London City airport, the “occupation” of Smithfield meat market and blocking entrances to government departments. The budget for the two weeks of action in London is almost £1m, Extinction Rebellion said.
The group’s backers include environment organisation Greenpeace, retailers Patagonia and Lush, and bands Radiohead and The 1975. It has raised around £2.3m since its launch in October last year, more than half of which was crowdfunded — with the majority of donations under £50.
The movement said it would use a “strategy of mass arrest to achieve its goals”, and said more than 4,400 people were prepared to be arrested in London. “We know from previous case studies of social movements that an active population of 3.5 per cent, or 2m people in the UK, is likely to bring about major social change. This is what we are building towards,” a briefing note released last week said.
Speaking to the press ahead of Monday’s protests, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said part of Extinction Rebellion’s strategy was “to overwhelm our ability to respond to protest activity, both in terms of geographic spread and duration”. He said the force had drafted in reinforcements from outside London, and would take “whatever measures are lawful and proportionate” to ensure that “London stays open for business”.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor said on Monday that “while we will do everything in our power to minimise and manage the impact of these protests, they will inevitably cause significant disruption”.
Many protesters camped overnight on Sunday in London’s Hyde Park and St James’s Park. Police warned some of those carrying tents, including Mr Hilton, that if they stayed for a second night they would be arrested.
“The government isn’t doing enough to solve the climate crisis,” said Ewan, a software engineer from Glasgow who was protesting, adding that taking action was “difficult with the current political situation” and the “Brexit distraction”. He said he would try not to get arrested but would remain in his cell rather than post bail if he was: “They can only fill so many cells.”
Additional reporting by Leslie Hook and Robert Wright