Extinction Rebellion

Who are Extinction Rebellion, the anti-climate change movement that brought London to a standstill and led to hundreds of arrests? Roger Ratcliffe talks to one of the founders, Gail Bradbrook

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A long way from the traffic mayhem she helped to create in London, Gail Bradbrook is back home on the Cotswolds town of Stroud’s peaceful outskirts, planning the environmental group Extinction Rebellion’s next phase of non-violent civil disobedience.

“A big fuel of this rebellion is grief. We’re traumatised, we’re grieving the loss of life on earth.”

Now 48, she has been involved in direct action protests since her early teens, when she lived in a Yorkshire mining village and joined Sheffield Hunt Saboteurs to try to save foxes from the hounds of the Badsworth hunt near Pontefract. These days, though, it’s humans Bradbrook is trying to save after co-founding the Extinction Rebellion movement against climate breakdown and ecological collapse.

“Some scientists have said it’s too late; others say we still have a chance to save ourselves,” she says. “I think we have to give it our best shot and do what we can.”

Her best shot to date began on April Fool’s Day when 12 protesters were arrested for stripping off and glueing themselves to the House of Commons public gallery. A fortnight later the movement brought the capital to a standstill with occupations involving an estimated 10,000 people in Oxford Circus, Parliament Square and on Waterloo Bridge, glueing themselves to a pink boat, setting up gazebos and trees, eating a vegan meal and holding hands and singing while the police looked on.

The arrests tally eventually exceeded 300, however, and the Daily Mail described them as an “Eco Mob”. The Times dismissed the protesters as “all a bit middle class” – an accusation Bradbrook doesn’t deny, although she questions whether class is relevant. After all, she argues, Emmeline Pankhurst came from the upper classes and Nelson Mandela was a tribal chief. She herself steadfastly refuses to be labelled as middle class, a point that’s emphasised by living in a council house.

She was raised in the West Yorkshire village of South Elmsall, her mum a nurse and dad a miner. The DNA that made her radical, she says, certainly didn’t come from her dad. “During the pits strike he just put his feet up, to be honest, and my mum still had to do all the cleaning.”

Outside her home, though, the revolutionary atmosphere that pervaded the Yorkshire coalfield at that time did affect her. It was not socialism that stoked her sense of indignation, however, but animal rights and the environment. After tasting direct action with the hunt saboteurs, at the age of 14 she joined the newly formed Green Party, putting herself forward as a candidate for the local council and then protesting about the electoral system when she was barred from standing through being too young.

She laughs about it now. “There’s a picture of me looking like a young middle-aged Tory, a young Mrs Thatcher.” But her green politics didn’t go down well at school, where she says she was heavily bullied.

When the Green Party established a students section she attended the inaugural meeting at Essex University and says: “I was the only sixth former in the room, and also the only obviously working class person there.”

She later felt slightly out of place at Manchester University where she studied chemistry, took a PhD in molecular science and joined green and animal rights student groups. “I ended up being just with the animal rights crowd because they were a little bit angrier. I felt more comfortable with them rather than the gentle hippie middle-class people.”

Her personal journey, which led eventually to the formation of Extinction Rebellion, began in 2010 when she read Heat: How To Stop The Planet Burning, by environmental campaigner and Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Living in Stroud with two young sons, the focus of her early direct action campaigns was a local incinerator. She had an early lesson in how to cause traffic chaos by setting up a roadblock in the town centre, and led a protest against the local branch of Barclays Bank for its involvement with fracking companies.

In 2015 she set up the group Compassionate Revolution with George Barda, an activist who was taken to court over the occupation of St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011, and her partner Simon Bramwell, a former builder. This sought to establish a network of people who pledged to get involved in civil disobedience to protest against “eco-cidal” governments and corporations.

“Really, what I was doing was groping about in the dark, trying to invent something, and I realised I didn’t know how to go about it.”

Some of those she tried to involve at the time were dismissive, “though not for any bad reason”, she adds, but now they say they want to talk about what Extinction Rebellion is doing.

Compassionate Rebellion briefly morphed into Rising Up! and from that emerged Extinction Rebellion 12 months ago, its approach inspired by the grassroots movement Occupy, which used the tactic of descending on buildings and thoroughfares to highlight how large corporations undermined democracy whilst benefiting only a rich minority.

Being arrested is an occupational hazard, Bradbrook believes, something to be embraced. She has been arrested many times, the first occasion at a protest at a fur farm, then at the incinerator near Stroud. Last November she wound up in another cell after climbing onto the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy offices in London and spray-painting “Frack Off”. A charge of criminal damage was later dropped.

“I know getting arrested is a big deal for a lot of people, a boundary they don’t want to step over, but I see it as an initiation. If you believe the system is killing us all then why be so worried about going against it and breaking the law? We know from history books that that’s how things change.

“My experience of getting arrested is that it’s really good fun. I don’t mind it. I’ve had some downtime in a cell without a phone, without messages coming at me. I’ve done some yoga, I’ve been able to meditate. I’m not making light of something that can be a horrendous experience for some people, but if you’ve actually chosen it and feel at peace with it, then it can be very initiatory. I’ve heard of people having a lot of tears in a cell but also feeling a lot of freedom, like an awakening or part of a spiritual journey.”

Following the London protests the stick that newspapers used to beat Extinction Rebellion was the actor Emma Thompson’s participation after flying in from LA in a “gas-guzzling jumbo”, then later being seen drinking champagne on a “carbon-spewing” flight to New York.

Bradbrook responds by quoting the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg that there aren’t enough celebrities supporting environmental causes. “It’s because they’ve got high carbon lifestyles and don’t want to look like hypocrites. But we’re all hypocrites actually. Very few people really live the green life. The press are always looking for champagne-swilling hypocritical lefties so I’m not annoyed about it. I just hope Emma took it on the chin and encourages others to stick their necks out.”

So where does Extinction Rebellion go now?

“Every time we’ve done something it’s gone way better than expected and in London there was a shift in human consciousness, a feeling of togetherness, so we have to keep that moving. In social change theory there’s this thing called the moment of the whirlwind, when all eyes are on you – which is what has happened – and afterwards there’s a bit of a slump.

“The idea is not to fight against that slump but to let it happen. We need to make sense of what we’ve been through, let things lie for awhile, then come back for the next wave.”

More protests are being planned, new supporters are being put through civil disobedience induction courses, and Extinction Rebellion will take its message round festivals this summer.

She believes there has been a psychological breakthrough for many activists. “A big fuel of this rebellion is grief. We’re traumatised, we’re grieving the loss of life on earth, but so far we have been doing it alone. Now Extinction Rebellion has come along to help us to face up to how we feel about it.”

The green movement had been “fannying about”, she says. “People thought, you know, don’t be too frightening, don’t worry people too much about this stuff. Well, it turns out it’s really useful to be frightening, to have an apocalyptic message. You have to tell people it’s an emergency.”

Young movement’s teething troubles

Despite hitting snags, Extinction Rebellion has had an unexpected funding boost, says Roger Ratcliffe

Since Gail Bradbrook’s interview with Big Issue North, Extinction Rebellion has had mixed fortunes and lost its Eastertime momentum.

The long-established legal support organisation for activists, Green and Black Cross (GBC), part of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), announced it was withdrawing support from XR, citing “serious concerns” about how the group’s senior organisers were dealing with the need to observe police behaviour at protests.

GBC said its role is to support demonstrators whose protests put them at risk of “police and state violence”, and had been working with XR for several months to teach activists legal rights at demos, the legally correct way to monitor policing, and legally watertight wording of press releases and messages exchanged via social media.

But, said GBC, the training of legal observers by XR was “inadequate and inconsistent” and it could be worse than having no legal observers present at demos. Furthermore, XR’s communications through WhatsApp, Facebook messenger groups, public Facebook events and email lists were “likely to be accessed by police” and some social media messages could be used by police to mount successful prosecutions.

XR responded by saying it was a young movement and admitting to differences in understanding the essential role and nature of legal observing, the rights to protest and communications. It conceded that mistakes were made and said it remained open to dialogue with GBC.

XR has also been less visible since April. It had threatened to disrupt flights at Heathrow by flying drones last Tuesday and for up to 10 further days in July, unless the government cancelled the airport’s planned third runway expansion. But after police warned that those involved could face life sentences if convicted, since the action could endanger lives, XR called off its protest, although it said Heathrow still remained a strategic target for action.

On the plus side, following two weeks of co-ordinated action in London over Easter the group claimed that its number of financial backers and volunteers had grown by 30,000 in just nine days. And last week it mounted a surprise campaign of climate change action in Edinburgh. Activists glued themselves to the entrance to the Scottish Parliament’s car park and to the surface of Lothian Road, one of the city’s main commuter routes. At least 15 arrests were made.

A potentially huge financial windfall for XR came when the band Radiohead announced it was donating the proceeds of selling unreleased tracks after a computer hacker downloaded the 1.8 gigabyte cache totalling 18 hours of music and demanded a $150,000 ransom for its return. Rather than paying the hacker, the band decided to sell the tracks to the public and help fund XR’s campaign.

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