Blog | An Island of Protest and Porridge
August 25, 2020
In the final few days of preparation for the upcoming rebellion, James, a Bristol rebel and blogger, reflects on what we can learn from the highs and lows of our 2019 Summer Uprising.
Photo credit: Posidiva
Things move quickly within XR. Eight weeks ago I was sat in the early planning meetings for the coming Rebellion. Those weeks have passed in the blink of an eye. To counter this frightening torrent of time, I decided to cast my mind back over a year to recall the last time we brought Rebellion to Bristol.
My first memory of the July Uprising is of Centrespace gallery, where we used to have our meetings. For eight weeks we piled into the small space to plan and organise, and, just as now, things only became more frantic as time went on. I suppose some things never change!
Our plans culminated on the morning of Monday 15th July with a group of Rebels from Bristol and the South West standing slightly awkwardly at the side of the road near Bristol bridge. We had arrived early in the morning with a well-hatched plan to block the incoming roads and occupy the bridge, yet what we were apparently watching was Avon and Somerset Police doing our job for us.
Once we had overcome our surprise, and established firmly that they were in fact helping us and not trying to block us out, we began to move our makeshift world onto the bridge and into nearby Castle Park.
Within a few short hours, we had stages, food tents, toilets, a campsite, and a big pink boat. The July Uprising had begun!
Monday and Tuesday saw us properly establish ourselves and settle into our temporary home. On Monday, Gail Bradbrook and local green hero Carla Denyer inspired us with stories of protest and of Bristol’s climate emergency declaration. On Tuesday a small affinity group caused a stir at City Hall with a naked protest, encouraging councillors to “Act Now”.
At the midpoint of the week we escalated the disruption by blocking the M32. The day began well with a large crowd of Rebels swarming and holding banners, with others speaking to drivers.
The centrepiece of this action was a pink bathtub, courtesy of XR Bath, to which were locked half a dozen people. This was one of the few points during the week when the police felt it necessary to intervene, eventually arresting those attached to the bathtub.
Despite this, and despite some aggression from motorists, the mood remained positive. Those of us sitting in the road bore the heat of the sun with songs and laughter. And as a late afternoon people’s assembly determined that the time had come for us to leave, we were able to do so happily, content with what we had achieved.
Our happiness soon turned sour, however, as news broke of a tragedy. In the traffic jam we had caused was a man on his way to the hospital to see his dying father. Due to the delay, he arrived too late and was unable to say goodbye. XR Bristol apologised at the time, but the sadness of the event has stayed with us.
Whilst we often take a light-hearted approach to our actions, we must not forget the severity of our situation: on the one hand, a status quo which is heading for extinction, and on the other acts of disruption that will have serious consequences for ordinary people.
Following a day of reflection and pause, Friday was the last day on our little island of protest and porridge. The highlight event of the day had to be the people’s assembly. Although assemblies had been held every day throughout the occupation, this one was special as representatives from A&S Police were in attendance.
At the nearby Quaker Meeting House, in an overcrowded room increasingly smelling of wet dog, dozens of Rebels packed in to discuss Bristol’s response to the climate emergency. The result was inconclusive, but this wasn’t the point. The point was that we had had a chance to share our ideas and our methods with a major institution, and, hopefully, the police representatives will have gone away with a different view of the world.
An afternoon of packing down and litter picking saw our occupation draw to an end. But determined to go out with a bang, we had a closing ceremony, kindly hosted by St Stephen’s church. Packed onto pews, people of all backgrounds listened to each other speak, of grief and of love, of fear and of hope. We held hands, we sang, we cried.
An orchestra played for us: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is a small tidbit of music trivia that Mendelssohn originally titled the piece To the Lonely Island, a name which was strangely appropriate for the moment. It is perhaps not immediately obvious what pink boats, compost toilets and camping in the street have to do with the climate crisis, with rising sea levels, fires, droughts. But the crisis is not merely the incidence of such disasters: rather, it is the fact that, despite our knowledge that such awful things are happening, we continue to live our lives as if everything is fine.
The forces of daily life compel us with an irrefutable momentum to consume, to pollute, leaving no chance to pause and reflect on the impacts of our lives on the wider planet. By occupying spaces like Bristol bridge, XR disrupts the chaos of everyday life and creates islands of calm reflection from which we can see the disasters looming on the horizon, and we can build ourselves to resist them as best we can.
As we approach the next Rebellion period, it is worth pausing to reflect on why we do what we do.
After the struggle of the October Rebellion, the dog days of having fun swarming and flying banners are behind us. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy what we do, but rather that we need to properly frame it in our minds.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and economic ruin, our Rebellion will likely be fraught with difficulty. But we must find the strength to continue. We must find the rage to resist a political, economic and racist system that is driving extinction and ecological collapse. We must find the determination to seek better worlds in which we can live. And we must find the love to practise radical inclusivity so as to share our world with everyone we meet.
The island may be lonely, but its inhabitants are loved beyond measure.