Parliament Square, early afternoon, and a lady cyclist was appalled: “They’re protesting about Brexit, they’re protesting about women, they’re protesting about…whatever that is,” she said flapping a hand at an unfurled flag nearby. “And then you’ve got Extinction Rebellion.” She wore a sensible cagoule. She was waiting at a red light just past the turning up to Whitehall, leading a cycle tour of fellow females. The closed roads and diversions were vexing her.
This was a day or so before the Metropolitan Police imposed their ban on the guerrilla environmentalists, who at that point were mustered in Trafalgar Square. On Westminster Bridge, a Met officer had earlier explained to some curious tourists why the whole area around the House of Parliament had become a moving maze of bollards and hi viz. “Extinction Rebellion are over there,” he’d said, pointing in Nelson’s general direction. “They keep doing silly things, so we have to be ready for the next one.”
Their chat had taken place beside the barriers installed since the Westminster Bridge terror attack. Stark, dark and grave, no effort has been made to prettify these tombstone terror attack tributes. Soaring skywards, the Big Ben tower is still encased in scaffolding, a crumbling limb held together by splints. There was a hint of autumn drizzle in the air and dead leaves scuttled into heaps. Only the cheap lights of the pedicab rank at the Embankment junction brightened the scene.
It felt bleakly symbolic that DIY tourist ride decor outshone the grandeur of UK democracy’s prime site, which looked cowed and in danger of collapse. Soon, the special Saturday Commons sitting would take place, underlining the sense of bleak, unending farce being played out in the capital’s suffering heart.
A few minutes walk away, drum rhythms resounded down Northumberland Avenue to where the rebels and the cops were playing out their right-to-protest ritual: the Extinction Rebellion percussion band playing fast, then soft, then loud, then slow; the men and women of the Met forming a yellow cordon, ushering wanderers on and off the highway, a public performance of firmness with fairness under the law.
The mood was mixed. There was gentleness and humour. Was that woman with a dog collar handing out XR flyers really a vicar or just a prankster? There was nervous vigilance, with police officers looking often over their shoulders. Onlookers filmed and instagrammed. So this is London?
A mix of messages too could be taken from those Westminster and Trafalgar Square scenes. The freedom to demonstrate felt very far from being constrained. You could barely move for protests in London’s central public gathering spaces, as the lady on the bicycle despairingly observed. For all the inconvenience and heavy call on police time, a proper trade-off between liberty and order was being honoured by the majority on all sides.
More troubling was the vastness of the issues in dispute – climate catastrophe, populist politics, the fragility and credibility of of democracy -and the simmer of a potentially explosive impatience with the failure to resolve them. London has been described as the world in one city. The biggest worries about that world were on stark display here too.
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