Millions of tourists flock annually to London’s Trafalgar Square for its impressive statues and fountains, but on Oct. 14, there was a new center of attention: a protest by Extinction Rebellion. 

The international environmental group stages public protests to force governments to take significant action on climate change. For more than a week, Extinction Rebellion occupied Trafalgar Square in conjunction with the group’s “International Rebellion” occupations in more than 60 cities around the world. Protesters affiliated with the London branch of Extinction Rebellion did not block tourists from entering the square, but rather engaged with the public to explain the organization’s mission. 

Two British environmental activists, Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, founded Extinction Rebellion in October of 2018, and with support from academics, celebrities and environmental activists like school climate strike leader Greta Thunberg. According to its website, Extinction Rebellion has expanded its movement to 56 countries, including Australia, Brazil and the United States.

The British government has opposed Extinction Rebellion. Attending a book launch, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a public speech calling protesters “uncooperative crusties” who live in “hemp-smelling bivouacs.” The same day as the occupation, Oct. 14, the Metropolitan Police announced a ban on Extinction Rebellion protests in the capital, and arresting those who disregarded the ban. Despite police encounters and arrests, Extinction Rebellion claims it will continue demonstrations in London and other major cities around the world.

Dozens of tents and pop up stalls covered Trafalgar Square. Activists were identifiable by “the extinction symbol,” an hourglass in a circle, which they claim represents the lack of time left for many species due to destructive human activity. Aside from tourists, who attempted to photograph Nelson’s Column without including the tents in the shot, the only other witnesses of the occupation were policemen and paramedics. These officials stood to the side of the occupation area, occasionally engaging in brief conversations with the activists.

Some tourists congregated around a tri-fold cardboard poster, where one protester gave a “pop-up classroom” lesson on climate change. The instructor, named Ayliean, was a math teacher from Dundee, Scotland. She took a train to London the day before, joining the occupation of Trafalgar to educate passersby who wanted to understand climate change on a mathematical basis.

“People are receptive to maths,” Ayliean explained during an interview. “Those who I interacted with understand climate change, but they do not have the scientific literacy to articulate it. I’m trying to provide the tools. This is not from a political or emotional standpoint, but a purely scientific one.”

Ayliean also explained that a majority of interactions with the public had been positive, including some university graduates with science degrees who added to her poster and complimented its organization and clarity. Later that day, Ayliean was asked to leave by police on threat of arrest, according to her Twitter account. She returned to Scotland.

Because some activists occupied Trafalgar Square for more than a week, they needed more than just a tent. A “washing up station” allowed protesters to wash their dishes and throw out any garbage into sorted bins for food waste, recyclables and general trash. David, a former lighting technician, helped a fellow protester scrape his lunch into the food waste bin before handing the plate to the washing up crew.

“Some Londoners offered their homes and rooms to house the protesters,” David said. “The nearby church also accepted some.” He described 12 other occupations that occurred that week in London, with several receiving more severe police reactions. Still, David expressed a need for Extinction Rebellion members not to show hostility to the police, even when being removed from their occupation areas.

“There’s been an overall positive public reaction. We want to show that we’re peaceful,” David said. He also explained that the police have maintained a generally “professional” relationship with the protesters, saying that some were open to discussions and debates. Only once did he see a policeman physically handle a protester.

David said his main concern is not the police, but rather how Extinction Rebellion is presented in the media. As David explained, some Extinction Rebellion members are homeless, having joined the group as a means to have temporary lodging and to support the cause. These members are tasked with picking up litter and are asked to drink alcohol in a separate location to the occupation site using recyclable cups.

“They want to find the worst examples of protestors,” David said about media coverage. “Like when someone is drinking a can of beer and wearing the XR [Extinction Rebellion] logo. That makes the media.”

He also explained that Extinction Rebellion had to pressure the BBC to ensure coverage. “If we didn’t lock ourselves to the BBC headquarters, then the BBC wouldn’t broadcast us. Otherwise there’s a total media blackout.”

Extinction Rebellion has several smaller subgroups as well, including Animal Rebellion, which is concerned with meat consumption and the treatment of animals, and XR Grandparents. One member of XR Grandparents, Hazel, is a retired actress from Barnet, a borough of London. Hazel launched XR Grandparents’ Facebook page and expressed a particular calling for grandparents to join climate action protests based on their emotional instincts to protect children.

“There’s so much about grandparents that is helpful to XR,” Hazel said. “They’re often retired, so bluntly that means they got the time to help out. They’re prepared to be arrested as it does not impact their job or applications.”

Hazel also argued for the media to recognize the importance of Extinction Rebellion’s message. She said she was disappointed with the BBC’s coverage of the protests, claiming that British newspapers had better coverage. A lack of public interest, she explained, was the most significant threat to the group’s success.

Hazel acknowledged that her generation leans toward the Conservative Party and largely chooses not to act on climate change, having believed that it was not an issue when they were younger. “We lived in a time of consumerism and the greatest damage to the planet. We didn’t know what we were doing, everything seemed to be prospering.”

Hazel said that friends her age choose not to discuss her participation with Extinction Rebellion. “It’s like an elephant in the room. They are aware of climate change, but it’s too frightening for them to face up to.”

Two weeks after the occupation, there are no more tents in Trafalgar Square. Due to the public ban against Extinction Rebellion’s protests, despite legal challenges, the police gave the group the same ultimatum given to Ayliean: leave or be arrested.

—Editor's Note: Justice Editor Gilda Geist participated in the Boston Climate Strike.