Lesson of the day: it is really frightening to stand in front of blocked traffic.
We heard a lot of verbal abuse on Saturday, from profanities such as “you’re fucking wankers” to scathing remarks such as “you’re all losers on benefits, see you in prison” to “you should all be ashamed of yourselves, you are destroying London.”
Our offense? Blocking traffic for six minutes at a time (otherwise known as swarming).
Six minutes. The time it takes to read an article on your phone.
Six minutes. The time it takes to wait for next train.
Six minutes. Half the the time it takes to hard boil an egg.
Six minutes. The time it takes to dehumanise people and treat them like rubbish.
It is really shaking to receive verbal abuse. Perhaps I have been lucky in my life, but I have never been yelled at by strangers. I have never been called profanities for supporting climate action.
I understand it is frustrating to be stuck in traffic but we had a sign that said this is a temporary blockage and you will be allowed to pass in seven minutes. Yet the yelling continued, from people in buses, people driving cars, and people passing by the street.
Was it justified? Do climate activists deserve verbal abuse?
We are all just people.
We are people who are so concerned about the impacts of climate change that we are willing to put ourselves in really uncomfortable situations to drive change. None of us enjoy feeling uncomfortable. None of us enjoy waking up early on a Saturday morning and standing in the middle of the road in blistering wind, struggling to hold up a banner.
I certainly would rather have had a lazy morning in bed with a cup of coffee and a good book, but I showed up. I showed up because it is more important, because we need to change.
The most frequent question (or statement in many cases) we get is that swarming and our acts of civil disobedience do not help climate change. And it’s true – one swarming action will not make a difference. But that’s true of most things. Nothing changes in one go. The Extinction Rebellion Kensington and Chelsea Borough group doesn’t just block roads – we are working on all levels of society. We are reviewing local policy, lobbying government, working with communities to change behaviour, as well as doing awareness raising through acts of civil disobedience.
What drives change is an increasingly engaged public that pressures government and businesses to change, and that simultaneously changes its own behaviour. That is the scale of change we need: societal. And it starts with self-awareness and change of individual behaviour.
The people who sat in their cars and were inconvenienced for seven minutes of their day will remember that. They will talk about it with their friends and relatives. In truth, many will describe it angrily and think about it with hatred. But it will plant a seed of thought.
Swarming generally doesn’t win you a lot of friends, but the level of anger really surprised me. Six minutes really feels like an eternity when you are standing in front of angry pedestrians and cars. I kept exchanging uncomfortable glances with the policemen who were overlooking the action. We both kept staring at our phones wondering whether the next 60 seconds had passed.
I ended up being really glad the police was there. There were a few individuals who were quite frightening, from getting in our faces yelling profanities to bringing their motorbikes right in front of the activists and revving their engines.
But for every angry person, there was equally a person who said “thank you for doing what you’re doing – keep going.” We went to individual cars to explain what we are doing and to let them know it was a temporary obstruction and they would be able to pass in six minutes, and most people were understanding and responsive. An elderly woman who was standing at a nearby bus stop turned around to us and said “you are brave.” A family passed by us and a little girl asked her father what we were doing. He responded, “they are protecting our planet.”
It’s funny how the negative comments can stick with us more than the positive. I can still hear in my head this elderly woman who kept yelling, “shame on you!” at us.
I have so much respect for every single person who does swarming. It takes a lot of strength to stand there and stay calm in the face of all of these factors.
We are not ashamed for trying to protect our futures, all of our futures. Climate change isn’t going anywhere and if we don’t change business as usual and all of our individual behaviours, we are in serious trouble. We are all in this together – every single person on this planet. Let’s starting acting like it.
Written by Eleni Polychroniadou