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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Bibi van der Zee and Phoebe Weston

Big tent for the Big One: Extinction Rebellion shows softer side in London protest

A demonstrator wears a globe costume as people protest during the Extinction Rebellion's The Big One event in Westminster, London
The Big One demonstrations will continue across the weekend and into Monday. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Thousands of climate protesters picketed government departments and filled the streets of Westminster on the first day of the Big One, a mass demonstration by 200 different groups headed by Extinction Rebellion (XR).

The goal was to build a wide coalition, including bigger groups such as Avaaz, Friends of the Earth and Keep Britain Tidy, plus local and community groups, in order to bring people to a climate crisis protest who may have been less comfortable with the acts of direct action and civil disobedience that attracted public anger.

The demo followed an announcement by XR in the new year that they were stepping back from disruptive action.

Outside the Department for Transport the crowd held “Stop HS2” placards, while a large banner outside the Department of Health read “Time for a climate public health campaign”.

Outside Defra, Great Peter Street had been closed off by prior arrangement with the police to hold a street party. In front of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero a colourful group carried out an act of “discobedience” – dancing to the Bee Gees song Stayin’ Alive.

Some of the nearby protesters seemed to welcome the change of direction. “I only joined eight weeks ago,” said Andrew Magowan, who had taken the train down from the Scottish Borders to join in the weekend. “I’ve followed these issues for a long time but when Extinction Rebellion announced at Christmas they were changing tactics it changed things for me.” He pointed to the energetic, cheerful dancers and said: “That’s why I’ve come – to get inspired and motivated and then go back home and do more about this. We need to bring people with us.”

Climate protesters with placards in Westminster
The protest is intended to attract those who are less comfortable with acts of direct action and civil disobedience. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

A little closer to the Palace of Westminster, on the Scientists for XR stall, was Beth Sawyer, a lecturer in microbiology at the University of Westminster. “Climate change is actually very like an infectious disease, in the sense that the solutions are political not just medical,” she said. “We know what the problem is, and we know the solution. It’s a political decision not to save lives.”

There was some concern and confusion over the announcement during the week by XR that it was issuing two demands to the government – to stop all new fossil fuel projects and to create emergency citizens’ assemblies – and that if there was no response by 5pm next Monday the group would begin “unprecedented” civil disobedience. One protester said she did not understand what this meant in terms of direction; she did not want to go back to the previous disruptive actions.

The demonstrations will continue across the weekend and into Monday. On Saturday – which is Earth Day – protesters are expected to wear animal costumes, with masks, placards and wildlife sounds playing from speakers as part of the Big Biodiversity March. They will spread out and lie down in front of parliament for five minutes in silence as part of a “die-in” to highlight the urgency of ecological collapse.

Speakers at the event include the broadcaster Chris Packham, the actor Juliet Stevenson and author Dave Goulson.

One million species are at risk of extinction, the UN estimates. Charlie Gardner, an Extinction Rebellion activist from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, said: “The traditional conservation movement is losing nature in our country and I think ordinary people want to do more. This event this weekend can provide an opportunity to do that.”

Gardner added: “Tens of thousands of people marching in the streets of London is really significant. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of this day – that the general public would be out defending nature, and not leaving it to conservationists and professionals. This is happening now, and I’m excited to be part of it – I find it so uplifting and hopeful.”

A police spokesperson said: “We are in contact with the Extinction Rebellion organisers in the run-up to their event, and will continue to engage with them throughout the period, in an effort to avoid serious disruption and delays to London’s communities and the other events taking place in London.

“Alongside a significant policing response we will be using specialist officers to respond to any protesters who lock or glue themselves to street furniture or purpose built structures. Where protest crosses the line into criminality, we will respond quickly and remove and arrest activists as appropriate and return things to normal as soon as possible. I urge people not to take matters into their own hands.”

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