In birthplace of the U.S. revolution, a climate rebellion takes root

by Shannon Larson | @shannonlarson98 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 18 October 2019 08:15 GMT

Members of Extinction Rebellion, as well as those from immigrant rights and housing rights groups, participate in a four-minute long die-in upon arriving in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of the Honk! Festival march, October 13, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shannon Larson

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As Extinction Rebellion protests expand around the world, Boston activists are taking to the streets - but with their own New England sensibilities

By Shannon Larson

BOSTON, Oct 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gathered in a dark room of a historic Boston church, about a dozen people sat in folding chairs, one with a dog at her feet, talking about the threat of climate change - and how to start a new revolution.

It was in this city that the U.S. war for independence from Britain started more than 200 years ago. Now another group of activists, part of the Extinction Rebellion movement, are plotting how to push action on climate risks up the political agenda.

The movement, which began in Britain and is carrying out a two-week civil disobedience campaign in London, is rapidly expanding around the world, with a range of protests in more than 50 countries this month, organizers said.

In Boston, hundreds of people late last month blocked a bridge in the city's Seaport district to call attention to rising sea levels and to demand local and federal officials act on the "climate and ecological emergency".

The New England rebels have, for the most part, employed less disruptive measures than their counterparts in London, where more than 1,700 people have been arrested over the past two weeks for public disturbances, police say.

Those have included everything from using a decommissioned fire engine bought on eBay to spray artificial "blood" on the national treasury to activists super-gluing themselves to infrastructure at London City Airport, including a plane.

In Boston, as in London, the protests have had their genesis in meetings like the one in the church basement, where people worried about climate threats have a chance to learn more about them - and then potentially get involved in activism.

"A lot of what we're trying to do is be evocative and make an emotional connection" to start a conversation on the impacts of climate change, said John Burkhardt, an outreach coordinator for the Boston branch.

Those impacts can range from increasingly severe droughts to depletion of water resources or record-breaking temperatures, the 53-year-old software engineer told current and prospective members of the movement at the church.

Extinction Rebellion protesters hold a large banner reading "Declare climate and ecological emergency" while marching from Somerville to Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the Honk! Festival, October 13, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shannon Larson

For many - Burkhardt included - the emerging climate crisis has taken a personal toll.

The father of three said he suffers eco-related anxiety. He recalled how, when his 12-year-old son Iain was younger, the boy was completely engrossed with images of wildlife in the family encyclopedias.

"He was just so curious and full of awe and wonder of this planet and this rich abundance of life, and I've had to accept that he's not going to experience that" as species extinctions accelerate in the face of climate change, Burkhardt said.

"It's an experience of loss for me. I'm grieving for a future that I have to imagine for him."

Twyla Wolfe, a psychologist who attended the talk, said she'd come after seeing more people develop depression and stress over their concerns about the environment.

"I would say in the last couple of months people have been talking more about (climate change) when they come in," the 38-year-old said.

"This is an issue that's really important to them, whether it's bringing up feelings of grief that they're kind of working through or helplessness or the anxiety of what's going to happen."

The jump in clients who have brought up climate worries has pushed climate change increasingly to the forefront of her own mind, she said.

So, taking the advice she often gives clients — to become involved in efforts to advocate for climate action, as a way to empower themselves — Wolfe found herself ready to join the frontlines of the emerging movement.


Members of the Massachusetts branch of Extinction Rebellion held their first large-scale protest in April, gathering in the lobby of the Boston Globe to demand the newspaper present climate threats "with the urgency required", Burkhardt said.

Then in June, members disrupted a natural gas forum in Boston, occupying a hotel lobby to protest the development of more fossil fuel infrastructure.

Eleven of the participants were arrested.

"You're trying to make a statement that what is currently happening has to stop - and we're stopping it physically with our bodies, by getting in the way," Burkhardt said.

Other protests in Boston have not led to arrests, in part because the protests are still relatively small and because of local sensibilities, he said.

"I sort of have a theory that it's uncomfortable for New Englanders in particular" to cause disruption, Burkhardt said. "We don't like to upset people, and we don't like people being mad at us."

The group's "Flood the Seaport" action, which temporarily blocked traffic on Boston's Congress Street bridge, focused on that site "partly because it wasn't really that disruptive because it's not the major bridge", Burkhardt said.

Still, "we want to do things like that because they do kind of force a confrontation with the public, because then they can't ignore you", he added.

Within the protest group, the ratio of those willing to be arrested is about one in every 25 or 30, he said.

Police reaction to the Boston protests for the most part has been "very hands off", he said.

"We've tried to establish with them pretty early on that we're committed to nonviolence," Burkhardt said.

Brenda Lau, a 21-year-old college student and Extinction Rebellion protester, holds a sign reading "Climate change = genocide" at the Honk! Festival in Somerville, Massachusetts, October 13, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shannon Larson


Last Sunday the climate activists took part in the Honk! Festival, which includes a parade between Somerville and Cambridge, two cities near Boston.

"One last call for people willing to hold the large red banner!" shouted one organizer into the crowd of participants, including parents with infants strapped to their chests and others wearing Extinction Rebellion badges.

Flags bearing the movement's distinctive hourglass symbol were handed around and some activists brought homemade posters, with slogans such as "Clean water for all."

Brenda Lau, a student from nearby Northeastern University, was dressed all in black - a symbol of mourning - and held a large black sign reading, "Climate change equals genocide."

The 21-year-old said she was marching to help those most vulnerable to climate threats.

"It's not directly affecting us but (instead) people in minority communities, and so we have the privilege right now to act out for them," Lau said.

Nearly 100 Extinction Rebellion marchers joined the 1.7-mile-long parade, as brass bands and other musical groups erupted in a cacophony of beating drums, trumpets and voices.

"When the earth we love is under attack, what do we do?," belted out one singer. "Stand up, fight back!" the activists responded.

At the end of the parade route, the paraders dropped to the ground for a four-minute die-in, lying silent on the pavement.

Wolfe, the psychologist who decided to join the march after the church meeting, said she had been moved by the event, and would "definitely" participate in future protests.

Burkhardt said those are now being planned, potentially in the city's financial district or around government offices.

"We want to focus on the centers of power and shut them down — make it uncomfortable, make it hard to do business as usual," he said.

(Reporting by Shannon Larson ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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