Look Back in Anger: A Retrospective of the 2019 April Rebellion

Article by A. Howard.
With thanks to Rachel Smith-Lyte, Tina Smith, and Adam Whybray.

April 2019. A time that seems so recent and yet prematurely nostalgic, overlaid as it is with the saturated technicolour freedom of pre-lockdown liberty.

Some of us were part of that early phase of Extinction Rebellion, were there at the initial surge of fear, despair, frustration and optimism that engendered the organised and chaotic Civil Disobedience in London.

Glorious for some, notorious to many, the actions that took place at the April Rebellion were reported frantically by the national press, as Extinction Rebellion soared, sang, and roared its way into the consciousness of the nation.

On the first anniversary of the April Rebellion, some local XR members talk about their experiences, how they felt at that time, and how they now feel about the shape and state of the incipient new world upon which we stand.

What made you want to become involved in Extinction Rebellion?

I have been deeply concerned about the impact of humans on our planet since childhood, when I learned about the annual Canadian seal slaughter and the massive hole in the ozone layer, the rate of destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the steady extinction of species after species.  [I’d] done the usual, written letters and signed petitions, been on marches and spoken to MPs.  Nothing seemed to have any effect.

I had lost heart with the climate change movement as it seemed no organisation was able to have enough impact to make any difference to policy makers, and so turned my focus to animal rights direct activism where at least you could have a tangible effect by saving individual animals.  Hearing about the birth of XR and the awesome day when they closed five bridges in London with mass civil disobedience was life-changing. Wow! That was it, I had to get involved and be one of those people making a difference.

I could see immediately the potential of this bold new movement with its focus on creating a whole new system, not just trying to work within a broken one. The chance to be of service to our planet rather than just be a burden was what I’ve been waiting my whole life for!”

“The chance to be of service to our planet rather than just be a burden”

For me it was the culmination of years of battling away as a Greenpeace and other activist, a wildlife conservation volunteer and staffer – feeling increasingly like I was just putting a plaster on a broken leg in the face of runaway climate change. I am involved with my local XR groups (Suffolk Sunrise and Ipswich XR) and we’ve been really active in our local area also including taking over a petrol station, doing a funeral march and service for the annual deaths attributed to air pollution outside (and inside) Ipswich Borough Council as well as lots of what we call regenerative activities.”

What was your main role during the April Rebellion 2019?

I went to London as part of a group of rebels from East Suffolk and Ipswich.  Our group had been assigned to take shifts holding the barricades on Parliament Square; we ended up doing three night shifts and some of us were able to be reinforcements at other times when the police were trying to clear the roadblocks.”

Barricades held at Parliament Square.

While I didn’t have any specific role during the April Rebellion, I attended for a couple of days, then left for a couple of days to join the Unitarians General Assembly, before returning for the final few days. During this time I took part in road blocks, assisted a documentary filmmaker through interviewing other rebels, danced, offered others’ food, read aloud from Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home over a microphone, and generally had a revelatory, wonderful and purposeful time.”

Where did you spend most of your time?

I spent most of my time around the Waterloo Bridge site, where the air was incredibly fresh, free from air pollution and due to people bringing along and donating pot plants. The whole experience seemed very positive for cyclists.”

I got an organised bus from Ipswich Sunday 14th April 2019 and joined rebels from Norwich and we collected more from Colchester on the way.  I joined some old and new faces that day congregating on Parliament Square that evening to listening to speeches (and songs!) in the early evening sunshine and an amazing atmosphere and I spent the next couple of days intermittently road blocking and ‘swarming’ as well as a slightly incongruous visit to the Royal Courts of Justice for a cup of tea and a wee (bag search notwithstanding)! I had to cut short my visit this time to return to Suffolk to finish my campaign to become the first Green Councillor on the old Suffolk Coastal/new East Suffolk council – which thank goodness was a success as I really resented leaving London at that point, missing the Pink Boat at Oxford Circus and the ‘garden bridge’ too.”

Did anything notable happen to you or did you witness anything that you’d like to mention, or feel it would be useful for people to hear about?

“The shared sense of purpose and common feeling was palpable and I’ve never felt so welcome”

The most notable thing was the absolutely amazing atmosphere. I have honestly never experienced anything like that before.  The love was tangible.  I spent those six days with a permanent smile on my face and a feeling of belonging in my heart.  I found at the Rebellion what I didn’t even realise was missing from my life – a real sense of community.  The shared sense of purpose and common feeling was palpable and I’ve never felt so welcome. I could have a conversation with literally anybody there and feel like I was talking to a  friend.  The thing that sets XR apart are its Principles and Values, and participating in the Rebellion made that crystal clear to me.”

I was trying to do outreach as much as I could, handing out leaflets and having lots of conversations with all sorts of people.  I have never before spoken to so many strangers in such a short space of time!”

I saw a great deal of sincerity and warmth from people who were, like me, using their annual leave from work in order to try to communicate the severity of the ecological situation in which we are currently enmeshed.”

Love and community around the pink boat.

Most of the time, conversations between rebels and members of the public were really productive. Sadly tabloid journalist reporters seemed to only be looking for excitement and trouble. I spoke to one Daily Mail reporter who admitted he was there just because climate change denier Piers Corbyn (Jeremy’s brother) was protesting the protest and was hoping he’d say something embarrassing or ridiculous which could be reported upon.”

I got the impression that the Metropolitan Police were surprised by how peaceful the vast majority of protestors were and did not know quite how to respond to us – something which had shifted by October.”

Did the experience have a lasting effect on you?

The day I had to come home I was really emotional.  It was a wrench to leave! I was so sad not to be able to stay longer and help my fellow rebels, but I was also immensely honoured to have been a part of such a momentous event in UK protest history.”

I was elated when Parliament declared a climate emergency and that the Overton window on acceptable climate change discourse in the media had well and truly shifted for good.The effects of that Rebellion were permanent and we succeeded in putting climate change to the top of the political agenda. It has definitely had a lasting effect on me as I now know another reality is possible because we created it for ourselves in London, and that gives me renewed vigour to keep working towards a future that might just be achievable.”

“[H]umans can do good things when they come together with love and understanding and are empowered rather than subjugated”

It has had a lasting effect on my own world view, it has made me more empathetic to my own species as I saw that humans can do good things when they come together with love and understanding and are empowered rather than subjugated.”

Extinction Rebellion is the environmental movement I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life.  Being part of it has given me such a feeling of communion and camaraderie with my fellow man and woman that is usually absent from my life not least – a connection that’s been largely lost through years of living in an individualistic and consumerist society in a particularly affluent Tory heartland. I dearly hope we can somehow hold onto that, whatever we manage to achieve.”

Opening ceremony of the April Rebellion

Arrestee stories:

I had never willingly put myself forward to be arrested before, but when it came to it there was no question that I would be arrested before I saw our roadblock cleared away! I twice sat in the road in the dark, waiting to be arrested, but both times the police filled their cells before my turn came around.  I will admit to being quietly relieved!”

I was not arrested during the April Rebellion. I spent a night shivering under the pink boat in Piccadilly Circus wholly expecting to be arrested, yet wasn’t. I suspect that I would have found my experience in London more intimidating were I not a white middle-class man.”

I would advise future rebels that being arrested is not a pleasant experience and one should not make the decision to put oneself in a situation where one is likely to be arrested lightly. However, I would also tell them that it is important to do what is right and necessary when doing nothing would lead to great harm – especially harm of one’s children and loved ones. It is important to ask oneself whether looking back at your decisions in the future you will be able to look yourself in the eye. In an increasingly inter-connected world, just going along with a system that is objectively driving millions of species to extinction and endangering our own survival upon this planet, is not a choice I can personally make. In such a situation, personal morality cannot be made to square against the scientific facts.”

Two Suffolk/Ipswich rebels with a banner painted by a third

A year on: what do you think has changed in terms of the action on the climate crisis?

Sadly I do not feel as though action on the climate crisis was significantly shifted a year on, but the discourse had changed a great deal. I feel as though less people are in denial that a climate and ecological crisis are unfolding, but many are still hoping that some great technological development will suddenly come along to save us and allow our lives to continue as normal.”

Unfortunately due to this dreadful virus crisis we are now in, action on the climate crisis is currently much harder to effect.  Also it has understandably been pushed way down the news and political agenda.  However we now have an opportunity like never before to make sure we do NOT go back to business as usual after the lockdown eases – and so the importance of XR is just as great now as it was a year ago. Also, although parliament has declared the CEE (Climate Emergency) and Government has committed to the UK becoming carbon neutral by 2050, many acts of natural destruction are still being sanctioned, such as the horrendous HS2 that will destroy over one hundred irreplaceable ancient woodlands, so while some progress has undoubtedly been made, the need for XR is just as great now.”

There are a lot of political promises and goals and aims, but little in terms of concrete action. It is especially frustrating seeing HS2 continue being constructed in a period in which only essential work (which will necessarily endanger workers) should be taking place.”

How are you adapting in light of this new crisis?

In XR, we have moved our weekly group meeting online and have been trying to engage our group with online actions and activities, but it is hard to keep up the momentum. In my own life, I have had to be in isolation for a fortnight with my partner after the virus took my dad away.  Being isolated at such a difficult time has not been easy but many people are also having to go through this. It is really strange having to rely on others to do basic stuff like shopping for you. I am now back to work as I am a key worker, and my working practices have changed dramatically so that is taking some getting used to. It feels really rude to have to maintain social distancing but I am getting used to it.”

My partner and I self-isolated two weeks before the lock-down was announced due to both of us having several symptoms of the Coronavirus.  It has been over five weeks of isolation now, with me lecturing from home and my partner teaching her children. It feels as though both of us have had more work, but we’ve both been reading and cooking more.”

We need a healthy transition to moving back outside after lock-down, appreciating and living in Ipswich in a way that is sustainable, healthy and safe. My partner and I are hoping to join and work at Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm as soon as lock-down restrictions are lifted.”

“[I]ndividualistic consumerism isn’t the sum total of life and that community […] is really important to us here in Ipswich”

I hope that we will see more people on their allotments, in their gardens, and walking (not driving) into and through town. This situation has also really brought home how essential parks are for those of us who don’t have a garden or allotment. As humans we absolutely depend upon green spaces.”

I think the last few weeks have shown that individualistic consumerism isn’t the sum total of life and that community (and those institutions like the NHS that uphold community) is really important to us here in Ipswich. We need to build upon this and not sleepwalk backwards.”

Are you, or do you plan to become involved in any of the mutual aid efforts?

As soon as it becomes possible to purchase or receive an antibodies test for Corona (and can be confirmed to have had it if this is the case) then I will immediately volunteer to help either upon my local farm or Ipswich hospital.”

The message being sent by the government and media is that one should be engaged in voluntary and aid efforts, while also not leaving the house. As such, I have felt restricted to trying to be helpful online.”

I am an active member of the Ipswich Unitarians. A couple of weeks before the lock-down was put into place, I encouraged the other congregants of the Unitarian Meeting House to take our services online rather than in real life. Since then, I’ve been responsible for bringing the congregation together online, doing all the tech for our weekly Sunday meetings, which are now held via Zoom.”

Are you getting creative doing digital activism?

It’s been harder to do creative digital activism than I had hoped. In fact, it has brought home to me the importance of doing both direct action and community building in person. Still, we have had an Ipswich XR film discussion event, which felt valuable and productive.

A lot of the work has been about thinking about and talking through how Extinction Rebellion’s ideas and messaging needs to shift after Covid-19.”

What else are you, or interesting affinity groups in your area, doing to prepare for future protests during the lockdown?

Anyone who thinks that life in the UK is going to just return to how it was before is, I believe, mistaken. We need to focus on preserving and building upon the good things that have come out of lock-down (checking in on our neighbours; a renewed appreciation for the NHS and its staff; cleaner air due to fewer cars on the road), while not dismissing the huge amount of grief and suffering it has brought to many – if not all – of us.”

Despite everything else I’ve ever been involved with as an activist (Greenpeace and hours of practical wildlife conservation and campaigning) over the last 20 years, XR feels less niche, more ‘en masse’ and more urgent, because it is.

“XR will be needed again and we will rise to the challenge.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where we didn’t need to!?”

We haven’t gone away despite the lock down – many of us would love to think most of the population have now seen the light as a result of last year’s protests and now Covid-19 and our government will follow suit, taking advantage of  ‘The Great Pause’ to take stock and re-emerge from this pandemic in a cleaner and greener way.

Sadly us ‘realist idealists’ know its much more likely there will be a massive push by the marketeers and economists et al to get back to business as usual with a vengeance and the enforced cabin fever will result in thousands heaving a collective “yippee” and boarding the nearest flight etc.  So, XR will be needed again and we will rise to the challenge.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where we didn’t need to!?”

A beautiful banner photographed at the XR April Rebellion 2019.