Those attending came from all corners of the UK – and the world – united by one demand: that the UK government immediately stop investing in fossil fuels.
Esther Stanford-Xosei, of XR’s Internationalist Solidarity Network, kicked off the protest, called the “Impossible Rebellion”, with a speech expressing unity with nations that are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.
Hundreds gathered at the London landmark before marching on to the intersection of St Martin’s Lane and Great Newport Street, near Leicester Square, where a giant pink table was erected, adorned with the message “Come to the table”.
The 4m-tall construction, which was quickly climbed on and occupied by four XR members, is intended to symbolise the movement’s desire for citizens’ assemblies to be held as part of the response to the climate emergency. It is also an invitation for “anyone to join the crisis talks” that XR will be hosting for “regular people” over the next week and a half.
Speaking to The Independent at the scene of the protest, former Olympian Laura Baldwin, who is now a spokesperson for XR, said the group was only doing what leaders were refusing to.
“The government seems paralysed from making the right decisions – or any decision at all – so this year we are inviting everybody to the table, to tell us what the crisis is for them, how it affects their community, and what we should do to tackle the crisis,” she said.
“Really, the government should be doing this – they should be involving ordinary people in their decision-making so they know how to help them. But they don’t, so we are.”
Asked what she hoped the next 12 days would achieve, Ms Baldwin said simply: “We’ve got to come together to make the ‘politically impossible’ the inevitable.”
Elsewhere, “Rose”, a member of the public who did not wish to share her real name, was one of around six people who had chained themselves to the van that had delivered the giant pink table and were lying underneath it.
“I am here in solidarity with all the people who’ve lost their lives and their homes with the ecosystem that has been destroyed,” she told The Independent, adding: “I feel the only rational response is to do whatever you can to draw attention to what’s happening.”
While Rose, a middle-aged resident of west Worcestershire, admitted she did not know whether her part in today’s protest “makes any difference”, she said it was the only way she could at least be sure she had shown the government that she would “no longer tolerate what’s going on”.
“I don’t know how they [the government] can live with themselves,” she added, before a fellow protester arrived with a raincoat for her to lie on.
As roads closed and drummers marched between the two locations, dozens of Metropolitan and City of London Police officers swarmed to form six separate human barriers – each one to block a connecting road’s entrance to the intersection – and operated a strict no entry or re-entry policy. The Met later said they had arrested 52 people on Monday and 10 people on Sunday.
“It’s like a club – you know when you go for a cigarette and the bouncers won’t let you back in?” an XR organiser said of the police situation from beneath the pink table. “It’s the coolest club in London right now.”
The Met said in a statement that a “significant” operation would be put in place to manage the protests over the busy bank holiday weekend, while acknowledging the activists’ “important cause”.
Demonstrations are scheduled to take place in central locations, including St James’s Park and Piccadilly Circus, in a similar pattern to the protests two years ago, though more are due to take place in both north and south London this time round.
The group says that thousands are expected to attend protests, and that disruption will continue until the government agrees to divest from all fossil fuel companies immediately. The protests come after months of sustained criticism of the government for backing both a new coal mine in Cumbria and plans for Cambo, a new oilfield just off the Shetland Islands.
Campaigners held placards with messages including “Code red for humanity”, “Boris is bulls***” and “Stop the harm”.
Michael, a 19-year-old student from Bolton, said ministers’ inaction was most worrying for people his age and younger.
“It’s us that are going to suffer the most – especially our kids, what will they even have by the time they’re older?” he said near the police barrier. “That’s why it’s comforting to see so many older people out today, fighting for the world and for our futures.”
Zoe Cohen, a 50-year-old mother of one, who acts as one of XR’s spokespeople, echoed Michael’s concerns. “I wouldn’t trust this government with my child’s future,” she said. “Who would?”
Asked if the difference between XR’s last mass action in 2019 and today’s protest was increased desperation, Ms Cohen said that it was, partly, but that it was more about fear. “Not fear of the police,” she clarified, “because we are more scared of the reality of what this system is doing to ending life on earth and ending our future and our children’s future than we are of spending a night in a cell.”
Later, an 11-year-old XR member delivered a speech to those gathered in London’s West End. “The government is leaving all the children that didn’t deserve this [to deal with the climate emergency],” she said. “We ruined the world, so we all need to fix it.”