Inside XR: Keeping up morale over a fortnight of protest

Co-chair of Young Green Women Emily Herbert gives a first-hand, on the ground account of Extinction Rebellion’s recent ‘Impossible Rebellion’ protests, which have seen activists come together across several weeks to urge environmental action.

XR protestors
Emily Herbert

Last Monday (23 August) marked the beginning of the ‘Impossible Rebellion’ – a two-week programme of Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in Central London to demonstrate to leaders and the public that the climate emergency is happening now, and that we have no choice but to act on it.

Inside Rebellion though, are the hours and days spent immersed in the atmosphere of protest: the emotional highs and lows, the exhaustion, picnics, and new friends.

The 7am coach ride to London can be gruelling - you’ve packed your hiking rucksack to the brim and you’re trying to get down to the capital from some corner of the country for a 10 o’clock start. 

Perhaps laden with pretty patches, maybe nondescript to avoid being stop-and-searched, you’ve put on your comfiest shoes and stocked up on about a hundred cereal bars, and you’re ready to hit (or sit in) the roads.

Arriving most likely at Victoria Coach Station, you hurriedly put Trafalgar Square into Google Maps, and then attempt to pick out your Affinity Group (supporting protest-friends) from the crowds. After you’ve located the one with the pink bandana or the red Doc Martens, you wait in anticipation of the march, and begin the first occupation of the day, at Long Acre Junction.

Alternatively, you arrive just half an hour later to find that the occupation has been kettled by the police, and no one else, activist or member of the public, is able to access the site.

Unfortunately, whether inside or outside the police line, Rebellion consists mainly of sitting and simply being a body in the road, so many find ways to make the experience more fun.

Alongside the trusty XR Samba band, activists bring instruments, sing, chant, give Non-Violent Direct Action training in the road, play cards, read, cycle on oversized bikes, and even play skipping games.

It’s essential to keep morale up, especially when being continually confronted by the police – many communities within XR feel very anxious around them, whether that’s activists of colour, young people, disabled people, or former arrestees, and building that sense of community is vital to remain a united front.

Chants like ‘The people, united, can never be defeated’, and ‘Show me what democracy looks like… this is what democracy looks like’ are some favourites to show solidarity with the crowd (and block out the sound of police warnings).

The best part is when a Police Liaison Officer walks over to ask probing questions about where you’re going next, or what the action will be, and despite being trained to answer ‘no comment’, no one actually knows what’s happening next anyway. The best kept secrets are the ones you don’t know, after all. 

But it can be very stressful not to know what’s happening, particularly for neurodivergent people, of which there are many, especially in XR Youth. Turning up to London with no idea where to go, or often where you’ll be sleeping that night, is also a nightmare for any activist prone to burnout.

Keeping your energy up into the evening every night can also be an effort, which is why XR tries to implement so many support systems such as the affinity group, but another great part of the strategy is the encouragement of a ‘regenerative culture’. 

This claims that no movement (or society) is sustainable without adequate rest and community building, so usually during and after big protests, organisers will include social events, wellbeing activities, talking circles, debriefs and other things like regenerative camping trips where you can take a small break from activism and come back stronger afterwards. XR Wellbeing states that this is ‘a necessary way to generate meaningful and lasting change in our shared world’.

It’s also wonderful to meet so many new people with such interesting lives and campaigns. In just four days, I met young Kill the Bill campaigners from across the country, people who have lived on StopHS2 camps for over a year, a woman attracting media attention by holding placards topless, a Colombian activist who moved to the UK to protest because he had no right to protest at home, an Indigenous Brazilian activist fighting against the destruction of the Amazon, a Bangladeshi activist protesting coal mining in Phulbari, and many more.

What was most impressive is how all the activists there put aside their differences, and often their personal qualms with XR, to show up for the climate and demonstrate to the government that this is more important. Because like them or not, XR are the biggest climate protest group in the UK and a lot of what they’re doing works.

At the end of the day, you trudge home to your tent in an obscure part of outer London, or perhaps to a kind stranger’s spare room, and try to get your 8 hours, buzzing with the excitement and the nerves of the day but absolutely exhausted in the same breath.

And you wake up, pull on yesterday’s clothes, and do it all over again