On the frontline of Extinction Rebellion. One year on from the ten-day protest that shook the capital

By Edmund Magnus
April 30, 2020 14.45

“I just numb up. Suddenly you’re in handcuffs and you’re in a police car and you know you can’t get away. Then you’re in a cell for 12 hours. That’s when you start doubting yourself. That’s when your mind starts to go to dark places.”

Hereward McGillivray, 30, knows what it is like to be arrested.

And so to do fellow Extinction Rebellion protestors Bells Davidson, 32 and Liam Norton, 35.

Prison may temporarily trap them, scare them, and isolate them from one another but, once released, they are willing to do it all over again.

They are passionate about their cause. They believe our planet, its flora and fauna and the human race itself is approaching a critical moment from which it may never recover.

Bells Davidson protesting in London during London Fashion week in February.
Picture: Gareth Morris

Hereward is from Norwich and has been working full time for Extinction Rebellion since October 2018.

He is in the ‘relationships team’ which focuses on collaborating with other environmental and activist organisations around the world.

Liam, an electrician from South London, is part of the ‘actions team.’ He is responsible for planning the specific acts of civil disobedience carried out by XR.

Liam first became involved during the blockade of the five London bridges on 17th November 2018.

Bells is a trainee teacher from Lambeth and is also part of the ‘actions team’.

“I was carrying around so much guilt and a sense of powerlessness about things like air travel or my use of plastic,” she said. “With XR, I feel I’m now involved in something which could bring about real change.”

Liam Norton following arrest after the HM Treasury Action in October 2019.
Picture: The Lightscraper

All three were involved in the London protests in April, July and October last year. All three were arrested and appeared in court. Bells adds: “I was not fearful because I am prepared to be arrested in defence of something that is aligned with my values.”

Supporters have rallied to their cause including actress, Dame Emma Thompson and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Labour endorsed the protests and scores of local authorities have declared a climate emergency across the UK. The government, however, remains reluctant to take action.

Bells, Liam and Hereward remain optimistic their cause will prevail. They are proud of XR’s growth over the past year, which now has 1,115 local groups spread over 67 countries.

“I think there’s been a real shift because of the protests. People have acknowledged there is a climate and ecological crisis. More and more people are willing to engage in civil disobedience and risk being arrested,” explains Bells.

Hereward McGillivray (fifth from right) in February 2019 with Extinction Rebellion occupying the chamber at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Dan Grimmer

Liam will not stop protesting until seismic political and economic changes occur.

He says: “Our ability to sustain ourselves on this planet is becoming more and more damaged by our addiction to the economy. Rebellion is the only thing that’s going to create the kind of change we need.”

However, all three are worried by the increase in pre-emptive strikes and snatch arrests by the police.

Hereward explains: “A few of my friends have been followed or even woken up in the early morning by officers at their front door coming to arrest them.”

Bells recalls how, in October, police raided XR’s warehouse storing supplies for demonstration sites arresting ten members on charges of conspiracy.

During October’s rebellion, Hereward watched the police clear hundreds of activists from Trafalgar Square within four hours. He says: “They were a lot rougher, causing a lot of distress and confiscating people’s belongings.”

Extinction Rebellion continues to operate during the coronavirus lockdown, but has cancelled all protests. They have started a TV channel and have been holding talks and training seminars online. They believe strongly that Covid-19 was caused by humankind’s continuing invasion of the natural world. All three believe the current crisis should serve as a wake up call which can lead to a greener economy.

Polluting industries such as motor and aviation companies across the world are using Covid-19 to gain billion dollar bailouts. Airlines in the US have received $25bn worth of taxpayer funded bailouts and various European Airlines are following suit with Easyjet already obtaining a £600m loan from the UK government.

Hereward explains: “We don’t want to see the bailout of big companies. After the sadness and suffering inflicted by Covid-19, this must be the moment humanity comes together and stops exploiting our mother earth.”

If nothing changes, they all agree that XR cannot continue battling alone. They speak of plans to combine with other pressure groups, putting their differences aside, to fight the climate and ecological emergency.

Hererward, Bells, Liam and their fellow activists plan to resume the climate rebellion once the Covid-19 lockdown measures are relaxed. All three hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. They feel it is a personal battle as well as a global one.

They know the odds are stacked against them but, as Liam says: “It might be a Herculean task but that doesn’t matter. It’s the fact it’s the right thing to do and we’re fighting for it. That’s what matters.”

Headline image: Vladimir Morozov

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