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Under police gaze, climate protesters return to Britain's streets

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 1 September 2020 20:54 GMT

With a police officer trying to persuade him to move, an Extinction Rebellion climate activist lies in a street adjoining Parliament Square in London on Sept. 1, 2020, the first day of large-scale protests by the movement since the coronavirus lockdown. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

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Extinction Rebellion activists resume protests - but will they hold onto the numbers and momentum they created last year?

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Sept 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After a pandemic hiatus, more than a thousand mask-wearing Extinction Rebellion climate activists marched back onto London's streets Tuesday, calling for swifter action to halt global warming as a huge contingent of police looked on.

With Britain's parliament returning to work this week after a summer recess, protesters blocked the square in front of the building and called for legislators to take up a proposed climate and ecological emergency bill.

It aims to expand Britain's pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to cover so-far excluded sectors such as international shipping and air travel, and for actions toward the goal to be faster and determined by a citizens' assembly.

"The important thing is having the government admit they're too slow. Right now they're not taking responsibility," said Reece Evans, 24, an Extinction Rebellion activist and actor who held a placard reading, "Back the Bill".

Extinction Rebellion activist Holly Cullen-Davies makes chalk drawings with her children Rosa, 5 and Laurie, 7, during a protest at Parliament Square in London on Sept. 1, 2020, the first day of large-scale protests by the movement since the coronavirus lockdown. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

Holly Cullen-Davies said she wanted parliament "to take climate change to the top of the agenda", while her two young children drew with coloured chalks on the pavement.

Cullen-Davies said she had joined the grassroots movement in March, as the coronavirus lockdown began and planet-warming emissions temporarily crashed with economies on hold worldwide, showing how rapidly change could happen.

"I thought if the world can stop for COVID, it can stop for climate change," she said.

Many activists said they thought the return to street protests, despite the ongoing pandemic, was justified because of fast-growing climate risks and because the movement was taking sufficient precautions to prevent spread of the virus.

Nearly all of the activists at Parliament Square in London on Tuesday wore face masks, while simultaneous demonstrations in Cardiff and Manchester were planned to allow protesters to take part closer to home, organisers said.

"COVID is likely to go on another couple of years and we don't have that much time," said Angie Nicholas, a child psychiatrist in green medical scrubs.

"We're super-aware of COVID - but climate and ecological threats are an emergency too," she added.

Chris Newman, a doctor and spokesman for Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, said the situation was comparable to a medic handling a patient with two serious problems.

"You can't just address one problem," he said in a speech to the crowd in Parliament Square, with many listeners waving coloured flags with Extinction Rebellion's hourglass symbol or carrying homemade placards.

Extinction Rebellion activists block a street near London's Parliament Square, as police look on, on Sept. 1, 2020, the first day of large-scale protests by the movement since the coronavirus lockdown. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

Rows of police in yellow vests flanked the protest, and more than 70 police vans were parked nearby in a show of force as Extinction Rebellion - which last year blocked major roads and bridges, causing widespread disruption - resumed its actions.

Police said 90 climate activists had been arrested in London as protesters blocked streets in violation of a police order.

"The reason we have implemented these conditions is that we know these protests may result in serious disruption to local businesses, commuters and our communities and residents, which I will not tolerate," Metropolitan Police commander Jane Connors said in a statement Monday.

But an Extinction Rebellion spokeswoman said the police had rowed back on restrictions that initially appeared to ban protests anywhere in the city except at Parliament Square, after lawyers for the group filed a letter saying it would dispute them.


Activists said they were glad to be back on the streets after months of waiting for conditions to be safe enough.

"It's wonderful to feel the energy again and try to hold the government to account," said Grace Onions, 52, who took part in the group's large-scale protests in 2019.

Increasingly clear evidence of climate-related disasters, from floods to droughts, made it urgent to keep up pressure on governments, she added.

Extinction Rebellion activist Nathan Nuckhir holds a homemade sign reading, "If not now, when? If not you, who?" during a protect at London's Parliament Square, on Sept. 1, 2020, the first day of large-scale protests by the movement since the coronavirus lockdown. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

Marion Phillips, 73, said she was disappointed the UK government was giving stimulus funds to spark a coronavirus recovery without requiring recipients such as airlines to cut emissions, in line with its net-zero goal.

"It's been very frustrating these few months," she said.

Tuesday's protests were the start of 10 days of action around Britain, organisers said.

"I don't know if it will be effective, but if we're not doing this, then we're guaranteed to lose," said Nathan Nuckhir, 27, a furloughed jobs coach for people with disabilities on his first "non-essential" outing since the lockdown.

"There are fewer of us, but it doesn't change what we have to do," he said. "I hope as a world we'll get hold of this virus and more people can come out to join."

Read more:

As coronavirus limits climate protests, activists go online

More protests, more crackdowns? Climate activists face 'crunch year'

UN rights experts criticize London climate protest 'ban' before hearing

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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