I emerge from the cramped dark of Marble Arch Underground station into the hard spring sunlight of London. Across the road is Speaker’s Corner, a storied parcel of Hyde Park iconic for its history of public discussion. Walking beside me is a much older man in fatigues, carrying a furled up flag in his half-open backpack, heading like a pilgrim into the park where already the hourglass logo of Extinction Rebellion is flying on banners of all colours.
Climate action group Extinction Rebellion, or XR, have a short but full history of controversies and clashes with the British public. They launched in 2018, and in three and a half years of civil disobedience, have absorbed as much praise as they have criticism. Three fundamental demands govern XR; for governments to “tell the truth” about climate change, for the world to “act now” about it, and for citizens to “be the change” through small-scale “citizens assemblies”, a type of council to create climate policy. All of this is to “halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.” Every word in the XR doctrine is amplified to a global scale, leaving the atmosphere in Hyde Park thick with the tension of duty.
It is just past 10 a.m. on the 9th of April, and the protesters are mobilising. A few cryptic blog posts on the group’s new campaign led me here, vague promises of a new, more powerful “rebellion” across an entire week. Today is the launch. Some details were likely hidden to deter police and counterprotesters, but both make themselves known. Face-to-face with the crowd, it’s hard to not feel overwhelmed; far from my expectation of a totally decentralised mass, things are run with surprising professionalism. Stewards and wellbeing staff and police correspondents walk with purpose in coloured vests, leaders hand out signs pre-stamped with green ideology, a circus of cameras and note-takers like myself lock on to anyone with information and continue XR’s long relationship with media coverage.
It’s no secret that the world might actually burn by the time I pay off my student loans, but from afar Extinction Rebellion never struck a chord with me. Their tactics are undeniably effective and come from generally the correct intention — to stop us all from dying — but their tactics always seemed unnecessarily punitive to everyday people doing everyday things. XR block city-centre roads and business doorways with human beings, glue their hands to the ground or sides of tube trains, and routinely get themselves arrested en masse. Their tactics are visually striking but emotionally blunt; they’re just as happy to block the cars of bankers and oil barons as they are to stand in the way of ambulances.
In person, such coordination isn’t enough to convince me to join them, but it sure is impressive. Most of the faces here have a friendliness to them that can’t be faked. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that today might be yet another blow to the lives of normal people.
Walking around the park in a mass of maybe a couple thousand people, I get the sense that these protesters are deeply, maybe desperately, committed. There are banners in the dozens, representing different factions and local chapters in a way that feels half like summer camp and half like Mad Max. Though the bike-mounted soundsystem blasting The Abyssinians’ “Declaration of Rights” doesn’t match Fury Road’s flamethrower guitars in scale, the spirit is there.
I’ve come here for a uni project, but also to ask about music. You can tell a whole lot about someone from the music they listen to; the traits they value are often evident in the songs they hold closest. I’m also hoping to start more organic and less heated conversations through the music itself, bringing guards down to really understand the people within Britain’s most famous protest collective.
Drummers wield anything from tambourines to parade drums, carrying their instruments like rocket launchers into spheres led by ringleaders with possessed faces. Sharp resonance and seismic rumbling multiplies into base and inspiring patterns. Buddhists meet on the ground and meditate. Communists preach the joined evils of racism and imperialism and filter out with stacks of the newspapers they hope will cure them, waving the flag of Cuba with confusing commitment. The police are overbearing and constant, mounted, infiltrating in blue vests as a young woman holds high a sign that labels them as spies. Everyone is everywhere under flags that range from hand-held ensigns to an enveloping sheet of bleached cloth labelled “ammonia.”
There’s electricity in the air as the protest winds up. I start talking to people: a doctor at the helm of a team of medical professionals dressed in scrubs, one of the aforementioned communists who looks me up and down with suspicion before saying much, protest tourists who watch from afar with mothlike curiosity.
I find a guy named Jamie dressed as a wind turbine. He’s the first person here I ask about music.
Jamie, despite the elaborate get up, is casual. He tells me that he likes Radiohead and Sia, but that his kids’ screaming is his life’s new soundtrack. Other protesters, especially the older ones, bring reminders of the next generation too – people show up with pictures of daughters and grandsons stapled to them, clearly unsure of what’s going to remain for today’s youth. Someday the world is going to run out of oil. At the current rate of warming we might just run out of livable space. It is no doubt a scary time to be a parent, grandparent, to care for the ones who come next. It’s actually heartening to see some of the people who lived through the century-long pollution spree from 1900-2000 want to do something about it.
The youth in question manifest in pockets in the conspicuously mature crowd. A pair, Neve and Charlie, tell me about their love for drum and bass before two older gents, Nejdet and Yuksel, come over and tell me with grave seriousness about the classic nature of Pink Floyd and The Doors. Generations are well defined here; young people move in close clusters while the older folks wander with quiet confidence. Neve and Charlie have the calm voice and posture that only ravers present.
I ask this motley and cheerful troop for their current favourite songs. “‘Balling,’ this drum and bass tune with Traumatik and Devilman,” says Neve. Smiling, Charlie adds the sunny “Morning Sex 2016 Remix” by Zero T and Conrad, a seriously breezy tune that fits the windswept and sunsoaked park. Zoe, another woman, stands with them: “old music — Grateful Dead, Echo and the Bunnymen,” she chimes. As the group pose up under the XR Enfield flag, the generational gap feels smaller than it visibly is. “You should come join us, come sit in the road,” Zoe says to me. The offer feels remarkably genuine.
I find my way to a group of journalistic types towards the centre. They’re eager to talk about music but struggle to land on specifics. “I could be listening to Folk from the 70s one minute and drill the next,” says the shyest of the bunch, who after covering his face for the photo shoot, eventually tells me his name is Craig. Next to him are Bobby, who talks quietly about ambient music, and Metty, a photographer. Craig, whose career with the camera includes a late night shoot with George Clinton at NTS Radio “when they had the hut,” says that he and the others here have been to 350 marches and demos in the last two years. “We’ve been on this since the first one… When you’re listening, there’s so much you can learn.”
Metty lists Nat King Cole, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and the entire genre of bossa nova, before commenting, “as [the protests] went on, the age went up really quickly.” Bobby catches me off guard with Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day,” an ambient track originally commissioned for the 1989 movie For All Mankind. The film compiled footage from NASA’s Apollo missions with Eno’s ambient sounds to look down on Earth from above. It’s refreshing to be reminded of this perspective in a place so focused on politics and individual minds.
All the drumming and chanting seems to lead some of the protesters to a soil-bound tunnel vision. One of the drummers I speak to later, Sylva, tells me with a pure niceness and absolute conviction that samba, the standard issue for XR’s assembly of drummers and noisemakers, “raises the spirit of the Earth, and moves the sky.” From over my shoulder, the photography group calls someone new, Hesther, to come talk to me. She’s just come back from Ukraine.
“It’s not a great situation up there, it’s a massive training ground; it’s a mess,” Hesther tells me. She talks with a sweetness that masks the weight of her experiences — she’s a hospital pharmacist of 5 years who, in her spare time, travels to the world’s divided lands as a photojournalist. “The PTSD is for everyone, [there’s] too many [people] not knowing what they’re heading into. This is a warzone, the mindset is not right.” Hesther warns against what she calls “photographic romanticism,” talking with a kick of fury about journalists putting locals in the line of fire. “300 journalists out around Kyiv — how are you gonna get that shot?” she remarks.
“Ukraine, they love a political song. Something to bring people together,” Hesther adds. She continues onto stories of artists and singers behind the Euromaidan frontlines, and the pianist at Lviv station as Russia invaded. “Art holds the very polarised spectrum together… Some of the songs from the protests I can sing as well. You feel like you’re part of it.”
For the most part, Extinction Rebellion feels like a big artwork that everyone’s automatically part of, with no clear hand leading the paintbrush across the canvas. As ideal as this sounds, there are fractures at the painting’s edge. I meet a group that seem mostly disinterested with the whole thing. But they perk up when the noise kicks back in, one of them in sunglasses giving the impression that he’s mainly here for excitement, not an instigator but maybe a tourist.
One of the older protesters I meet is in a camouflage coat and full face covering, representing the offshoot Animal Rebellion. She tells me that she loves grime music, Stormzy, Burna Boy, for it brings together “kids of all colours and cultures, unified in this song,” but says the artists should “direct it to the real problem.” Her words feel a touch myopic, far from aggressive but not born from the most careful listening, as if the bars on Stormzy’s pained “21 Gun Salute,” or Dave’s withering dissection of generational inequality “Three Rivers,” or Skepta’s searingly intimate “Bullet from a Gun,” don’t tackle very real problems themselves (and that’s just scratching the genre’s surface). She recommends Lily Allen as a “powerful, white female voice” in “combination” with the mentioned grime artists, which catches me off guard. Our conversation reminds me that XR is an organisation long accused of thinking about diversity in simplistic terms – these are people zoned in on fighting very specific things, so much so that they might forget to look past themselves.
By midday all flags are unfurled and flying in the first warm wind of spring. A speaker, presumably a leader and separated artificially by protest stewards, finishes her sermon decrying the evils of fossil fuels and oil-soaked politicians. The drums start again, and then they start again again, growing louder and louder in increments of chaos, summoning, preaching almost. The march begins on the edge of the park and heads down Oxford Street, London’s shopping district, to the bemusement of onlookers and mild disdain of bus drivers. I hop on top of road barriers and benches to get a better look – to my eye it’s around 2,000 people, but it’s hard to tell. Faces and vibrant colours blur in the drumming, which grows more piercing by the minute. I chat to a quiet freelance journalist absolutely pacing it down the pavement, who I just about hear over the noise. Roads get blocked. Cars protest the protesters.
Oxford Circus is crawling with police and the faint sound of approaching drums. I ask to take a picture of an older protester who pushes my hand away when I offer to shake his; he agrees to the photo but seems confused. Things are getting tangled and busy and the Met Police helicopter hangs overhead like a flying hyena. There’s too much difference among the people here to define them in the sweeping terms of change. The drums are impending. XR seems to have made sound a core part of their attack. Everywhere, there are lips moving, and yet I can hardly hear chatter. Leafletters peel off from the march like rogue ions, handing out sheets that preach hope and apocalypse. Things move slow. I look around and reckon I’ve seen all I need to, and as far as music goes I’m sure things aren’t changing anytime soon. Sure enough, in the cooling dark of Oxford Circus station, all I can hear is the low and rising rumble of Extinction Rebellion.
A United States XR branch is in the works: https://extinctionrebellion.us/