Blog | XR has sticking power

This blog is part of a series celebrating the anniversary of our first International Rebellion in April 2019 – sharing memories from the two weeks that steered the ship of system change and raised the flag of Rebellion. In this blog, Emma tells her story of rebellion, glue and a muesli spoon.

Photography credit: Vladimir Morozov/akxmedia

It is a sunny afternoon in April and I am lying in Oxford Circus trying to unglue myself from the road. The energy of the crowd is the sort that could tip into hysteria or elation. A man, naked save for a bedazzled thong, is dancing on a second-storey window-ledge. CNN is filming. Not for the first time, I wonder how I ended up in this situation.

Back-track several days and I am handing out leaflets in a margarine yellow gazebo next to the pink boat that is blockading the round-about. It is XR’s first International Rebellion and my site is seeding chaos on Oxford Street to demand that the Government ‘Tell The Truth’ about climate and ecological breakdown. I am coordinating stewards and have parcel-taped a sign to the gazebo that reads ‘Information’. Though this is arguably an abuse of ‘Tell The Truth’ since, half the time, I haven’t a clue what’s going on.

Thankfully most people who approach only want to show appreciation. They take my hand with such bright-eyed sincerity you’d think I’d offered to donate a kidney. I’m just handing out leaflets. When a man tells me that our protest is losing his takeaway business I flinch, but before I can apologize he shoves several curries at me and says to keep going.

I sleep at the back of the gazebo and dine on donations – doughnuts, bananas, gyoza. I’m so tired that when I use the underground walkways pop in and out of existence. This is life downed as espresso shots. I am addicted to the taffy-like hours – longer than many months. I adore the bright, almost Parisian, streets that London reveals free of cars. I am in love with the community that has flourished in the round-about. Having arrived with only a handful of acquaintances, everyone I sit with becomes a friend for the next hour. When the police try to remove us the spirit holds strong. 

‘Yes,’ I tell the public, ‘we can hold out two weeks.’ And believe it.

Day five. The police kettle the boat during my break. I am finding water to sneak through the police-line when I am asked if I can be arrested. The ‘maybe’ that I had inputted on forms reveals itself as a ‘yes’. I am ready to make my stand.

I am directed to a Welsh group who are supergluing themselves to the road to block the police crane that approaches. Everyone is determined to protect the pink boat, though I am more concerned for my yellow information tent.

I am glued down next to a man and a heavily pregnant mother. I’d introduce myself, but my voice is gone after so many hours at the information tent. Instead I pull my bobble hat over my eyes and listen to a children’s book about dinosaurs being read farcically to the man. 

There’s no one to read to or sit with me, but I’m not afraid. Or not as much as I should be. I am mainly grateful that I can, at last, do something.

Ask most people who they are rebelling for and they will say their children, but I am acting for my mother. The mother who loved animals. Who was always feeding them and us. Who collected hippo knick-knacks because of a good-humored sense of kinship. The mother who I spent my childhood watching be eroded by multiple sclerosis.

The disease took her mind and body in microscope slide slices, cellular-thin. You had to look back through photos to appreciate how the woman who had the tenacity and intelligence to become a working-class doctor had faded to someone unable to feed herself or hold a rational conversation. And there was nothing I could do, save stand witness to a death of fifteen years.

Sustained, incremental loss cannot be grieved. Deprived of action, or even feeling, I took the sorrow into my being. Now the climate and ecological crisis is sapping the richness and wonder of the world with an uncannily similar creep.

The crisis is the hedgehogs I used to see outside my house, but haven’t in over a decade. It is the daily horror-show of the Global news – famine, drought, war, bird-boned children with swollen bellies. It is the flowers that bloom too early then wilt in heat or die in frost. It is the sinister silence in hedgerows where birdsong once reigned. I am so small in comparison and so powerless.

The crisis threatens me with not only the loss of those I love but everything I ever could.

I am so very weary of death.

Yet at Oxford Circus the word zinging through the crowd is ‘hope’. Not the sticking plaster that family slaps on my anxiety – that clever people will sort it out – but the hope of the small, the unremarkable, the average who understand that we can pivot the world if we act together.

And if the worst is to come and this is civilization’s curtain-call, isn’t this how we should go out – with a pink boat and dance?

I am, however, wondering if this is how gluing-on is supposed to go. After several hours, the crane has reached the boat from another direction. A policeman nearby gives me a wry smile. What is so funny, I wonder? Until the boat is towed away and the police go with it – leaving us glued to the road.

The others free themselves without trouble, but when I pull my arm there is no give. Due to my disability I had to glue down an elbow and it appears that its skin reacts differently to that of hands.

Someone runs to buy acetone. This is dabbed on to dissolve the glue and I pull again, but no joy.

Acetone is poured. Half the bottle. The whole bottle. Nothing.

I’m asked if I want a paramedic. My skin stings, but not as much as my ego at the thought of being carted off by ambulance when a police van wouldn’t take me. I wonder, did Emily Pankhurt ever trip on her sash? Did Gandhi get tangled in his loom?

I try to stay optimistic. Not being arrested is an unconditional good. And I am discovering new things about myself – namely that I am more adhesive than most people.

Someone produces a spoon. It’s this or the paramedic. I set to worrying at the glue with a tool more fit for muesli than a bid for freedom.

Thirty minutes later and my arm wrenches loose. Some skin is missing, but I am otherwise unharmed. The glue remaining is so thick that it leaves a cast of my elbow cemented to the road.

My calling, I decide, is the leaflets.

As the rebellion closes, we revisit Oxford Circus. Traffic streams past. If it weren’t for the signs I wouldn’t believe that this had been my home for five days. What was once a rich community has reverted to dead space for cars.

But there, in front of H&M, remains the super-glue imprint of my elbow. 

You can take the protest out of Oxford Circus, but its mark on the world is indelible.

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