My conversion road to Extinction Rebellion began at Waterloo Bridge, during its April 2019 occupation by rebels. I was literally stopped in my tracks by the bold way Extinction Rebellion had claimed the bridge, by the carnival atmosphere and the potted plants hauled in to create an impromptu garden. But above all by the audaciousness of the sudden halt put to London traffic and business: the leafy, peaceful but forceful ‘no’ to everything we’d been programmed to think of as unstoppable.
My partner and I kept being drawn back to the bridge on long spring days, tickled and moved by a brilliantly scathing speech from a twelve-year-old boy, our minds opening to hopes that we had subconsciously boxed away over the years. The rebirth of hope is a little like the realisation that you love someone. Sometimes it feels that avoiding it, and taking refuge in hope-less inaction, is the better option. Because love is always weighted with the possibility of loss.
A few days later I hovered at the edges of an XR event in Berkeley Square, which focussed on the lush song of endangered nightingales. Via speakers in the trees and our mobile phones, bird song surrounded us, though we were circled by a wider band of angry traffic. I filmed violins and accordions duetting, choirs singing, a young man with long dark hair reciting the Ode to a Nightingale against the evening sky. Someone asked if I was filming for XR. I wasn’t. ‘Would you like to?’ And so, with the thrill of joining a somewhat clandestine group, I became a member of the XR photography team.
I covered a protest at an International Maritime Organization conference, where protestors in Titanic garb greeted delegates by rearranging deck chairs; I followed a sad procession up Whitehall as the names of people who have died world-wide protecting the environment were read out; I photographed a musical march to oppose Luton Airport expansion; and I took trial portraits of some of the 1000-plus April Rebellion arrestees, from twenty-somethings to octogenarians.
When XR put out a call to photographers to cover the protest Bradley open-cast coalmine expansion in February 2020 I said no at first, as it fell on my 50th birthday. But I followed the smaller protests which preceded it, including the fantastically cheeky action where protestors in city suits whipped out spades and began digging up the grass outside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government shouting ‘If you’re in a hole, stop digging!’ These rebels had clearly crossed a line, and they were dancing on the other side. It was thanks to them that I realised that instead of watching in awe from the sidelines, I should cover the Bradley mine action because it was my fiftieth birthday.
Having decided we were definitely not up for arrest (anxiety apart, it would take me out of the action as a photographer, and my Black American partner didn’t want to be far from home and on the wrong side of the law), we headed north to County Durham in startlingly cold but bright February weather.
We had ducked out of staying in a communal unheated former church, and instead went for a room in a comfier and warmer monastery, where we made friends with two Manchester protestors. In their former lives they had run businesses – but after reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, they had decided to become full- time activists, embracing arrest and disruption with humorous energy.
Each morning we crammed into a tiny car and drove up and down the rollercoaster hills of historic mining country to meet around 150 other protesters at the Bradley mine. But as the possibility of arrest (about which we were fully and alarmingly briefed on the first evening) and the cold exposure of the fell-top site became more apparent, the doubts set in. Secretly, I began wishing I’d held a family birthday, or opted for a comforting if environmentally-unfriendly weekend away instead. TV images of the 1980s miners’ strike replayed themselves in my head. What on earth was I doing telling local people not to dig for coal in an area which, despite its raw upland beauty, was clearly deprived?
But a briefing from a local protestor put me back on track. The history of the Bradley mine was dispiriting. Local people had opposed the open-cast mine for thirty years due to environmental and medical concerns, and because mechanization meant there were relatively few employment opportunities in any case. But Durham County Council was under pressure, and after it had squeezed some small advantages from the powerful Banks Group, the expansion was now set to go ahead, with the company green-lit to extract thousands of tons of coal from the hills for two years, despite the UK government’s pledge to phase out coal by 2025. The Banks Group argued that coal was needed for the UK steel industry (although most of the coal extracted is too low-grade for steel), and to fuel the country’s remaining coal-fired power stations until the gates are finally closed. Campaigners countered that Britain’s existing coal stockpiles contain enough to fill these requirements three times over.
As we arrive at the road-side mine entrance early on the first day, the protest is already in full loud and colourful swing. Rebels dressed as Dead Canaries sit in huge wire cages, with yellow banners reading ‘open cast = ecocide,’ and samba drummers play. XR’s art-work soon grabs the attention of passing drivers, the star exhibit being a huge tissue canary, hanging dead from his perch. For the next three days, our canary-clad friends from Manchester make it their job to wave at the passing cars in the bitter cold, their smiles and feathery waves greeted by fists raised in solidarity, grins, cheers, bafflement, photos, and the odd two-fingered salute and call of ‘get a job!’
A young PR fires out information to the press; a diligent anti-coal campaigner tracks the movement of the coal, suspecting it is being stockpiled; the band of drummers lifts our hearts; and legal observers stand by to witness and document arrests. Effective action, I realise, is an energising synthesis of skills, research, bravado and conviction. The days, punctuated by warming visits to the nearby pub, pass in a frosty but communal haze, my camera lens lit up by canary yellow shapes against bright blue skies. Above us on a grassy bank inside the mine, black-clad and capped security staff stand guard with their dogs.
On the second day, there’s to be a mass trespass inside the gates. Still not ready for arrest, my partner and I stay at the mine entrance with around fifty other protestors, under a yellow XR yacht emblazoned with ‘Planet Before Profit.’ Our reduced group is joined by the Red Rebels, silent scarlet-cloaked protesters who move in slow synch along the roadside while the mass trespassers send us a feed of their march through the black lunar landscape of the mine. Just then, we get news that the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport has been blocked – a major victory for climate change campaigners. We cheer and hug, and wait for our friends to return from the mine. I film them through tears as they emerge through the main entrance jogging and singing in unison, backed by rising percusive waves of samba drumming. Spontaneous joy lifts us off our feet. I have joined the dance.
On our last evening we visit the former church where most of our fellow-protestors had slept on crammed camping mats, their breath visible in the cold. A warm fug hangs over the kitchen, with its vats of hot food. The vibe is celebratory: the protest’s main organiser is practising her handstands against a wall. It’s a vision of a non-dystopian future, where we might cook and eat and plan and play together.
After we leave County Durham, a break-away group makes the final and most daring protest of the week, scaling the fences of the mine’s supposedly non-existent stockpile. Tiny against the dark peaks, they clamber up the coal-heaps and plant canary-yellow XR flags at the summit.
Months later, in July, a triumph: local councillors vote to reject the expansion of the coal mine. The vast scar of land the XR trespassers crossed will be repurposed as a nature reserve.
But the story isn’t over. This September, a deep coal mine in Whitehaven was approved by Cumbria County Council. The fight for life goes on, and the joyful essence of non-violent direct action endures.
At all XR protests the question rings out: ‘Extinction?’
And the answer from the crowd comes back: ‘REBELLION!’
Helena Smith is a writer and photographer who was lucky enough to be brought up in central Scotland looking out at the Trossach Mountains, and under Zomba Plateau in Malawi. She spent most of her career as a travel writer, but is making the shift to write about, photograph and create eco urban gardens. Helena is part of XR’s core photography team, and is also a coordinator of Southwark XR Rebel Gardeners. The Rebel Gardeners do community gardening, planter making, seed bombing and other fun stuff, as well as protesting the use of pesticides and campaigning to protect precious urban green spaces from development. For more information, see helenasmith.co.uk, Twitter @helstravels and Instagram @helenasmithpix.
Act Now: Seed bombing. Gather your own seed from wild flowers in the autumn, or buy a packet of wildflower seed. Use 2 cups of powdered clay (from craft shops) and 4–5 cups of peat-free compost, and mix up with 1.5 cups of seeds and enough water to form balls. Let the balls/bombs dry, then throw them around and watch the flowers grow!