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‘If Greta can do it, so can I’: Extinction Rebellion activists on why they’re on the streets

As Extinction Rebellion take to the streets and attempt to “grind London to a halt”, we spoke to activists about why they do it

Extinction Rebellion’s supporters have massed in London to take part in the “April rebellion”. The climate change protesters have been back in the headlines with promises to cause the “most roadblocks ever”, blocking bridges in the capital and setting up shop in Hyde Park, where The Big Issue finds them.

At first, there’s little to distinguish the group from the many others on the sunny Spring morning: the crowd may as well be gearing up for a game of football. Then the placards and tabards come into focus. The costumes, flags and protest props are pulled out. They mean business.

The protest comes days after scientists warned the world faces a “now or never” chance to avert catastrophic climate change. The latest IPCC report, warning the Earth may become unliveable, briefly dominated headlines, until the chancellor’s wife’s tax affairs became more prominent. The news moves on but the problems remain, to XR’s growing exasperation.

Worse, this week has found Labour criticising a Conservative politician for praising Extinction Rebellion, and calling for the government to act more harshly on environmental protesters.

The group is well aware of its PR problems, and spoke of the need to “get serious” ahead of the rebellion. Alongside the roadblocks and protests, there’s a shift in tactics. Dotted around the park are well-meaning, approachable activists wearing purple tabards.

A drum circle gets warmed up underneath the glittering Albert Memorial

They’re the outreach workers – think charity muggers but here to guilt you into saving the planet instead of signing up for a direct debit.

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But it’s been four years since XR started, after all, and as anybody in a purple vest will tell you, things haven’t gotten any better. So why are they here? What keeps them showing up?

‘I really believe it’s the most sensible thing for me to be doing in my life’

A decade after he won a gold medal at the London Olympics, Etienne Stott is stood outside the Science Museum in a bucket hat.

Etienne Stott, Olympic champion turned voice of XR

“I really believe it’s the most sensible thing for me to be doing in my life,” the whitewater slalom champion tells The Big Issue.

“When I retired I realised that my ambition was to speak to young people and share all the knowledge that I’d learned in sports. I realised the next generation were in big trouble.

“It didn’t make any sense to me to be talking to young people about the future when our future is being burned up by the greed and stupidity of our government and the corporations they’re in bed with.”

Stott has been involved with XR for four years, and now acts as a spokesman.

“The thing with Extinction Rebellion is it’s absolutely full of super dedicated passionate people who are refusing to give up. Our message is too important. The mail has got to get through – we’ve got to find a way of communicating this crisis,” he says.

“Nowadays it’s quite a rebellious thing to do – to just believe people are good.”

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‘If Greta Thunberg can get on the streets, I can do it’

As a GCSE student in 2019, Olive Fitzgerald was inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school strikes.

“I thought, right, if she can get on the streets, I can do it,” she said.

Now studying at the University of Bristol, Fitzgerald travelled down to London to make the start of the rebellion. She was at “a few” roadblocks over the weekend, including one at Vauxhall Bridge. She describes it as “stressful.”

She too is well aware of XR’s critics: “I can see it does aggravate people quite a bit, but at the end of the day it’s about disruption because that’s the only way we bring about awareness, and from awareness we can mobilise people.”

But clad in her purple tabard and holding a reel of stickers, Fitzgerald is determined to change people’s perceptions. “We’re just trying to help people understand that this is everyone’s fight. It’s not just some sort of exclusive movement,” she says.

Protesters included a group of ‘doctors’ in scrubs

“We are majority white middle aged at the minute, but it’s only because of the system we’re in that these people know about the climate crisis.”

She adds: “There seems to be a high level of inaction at the minute.”

‘I thought we could stop it, but now it’s about reducing it’

Retired science teacher Sue Bolton joined XR at the beginning, after growing frustrated with a lack of action.

‘I thought we could stop it, but now it’s about reducing it’, retired school teacher Sue Bolton said

“I was a science teacher, so I followed what’s happening in the news about the climate for the last 20 years. I’ve gone on demonstrations, I’ve written to my MP, I’ve joined things on the internet, and none of it seemed to have any effect,” she says. “And then my sister told me about Extinction Rebellion.

“We’ve got to act now, that’s why I’m here.”

Her efforts to spread the word of XR are going unexpectedly well. “What surprises me is how many people are positive and saying well done,” she says. “I live in East Grinstead where we have the Scientologists and the Mormons. Nobody wants to talk to you.”

This April marks the third rebellion Bolton has joined. Has being part of the movement made her more hopeful? The question makes her tear up.

“My hope changes. To start off with, I genuinely hoped that the government would understand and see that there’s a real groundswell of support in the country for adequate policies,” Bolton says.

“But now my hope has changed. I feel that it’s about rebelling, it’s about doing the right thing for the future. We have to stand up to what’s needed. I thought we could stop it, but now it’s about reducing it.”

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‘I feel like a nutter half the time’

Bill Perryhas been travelling from Hastings up to London every day of the rebellion.

“I’m here because I’m terrified. I think it is going to be in our lifetimes,” he says.

“I feel like a nutter half the time. I want to scream. All the stuff I have read about is happening.”

XR supporters carried a pink octopus to the Science Museum

He talks of having to ration his reading of climate change books – ten pages a day or he becomes despondent. But he says: “It is not inevitable.

“Extinction Rebellion came and people felt they can do something about it.”

He adds: “This is a serious movement. People prepared to put themselves on the line. I am an old lefty. I have been doing marches for years. But we need a serious climate movement.

“Hopefully in the process of fighting change we build a better world.

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