Extinction Rebellion activists have disrupted London’s public transport network during rush hour, in an action that is likely to polarise opinion on the environmental movement’s tactics.
There were clashes at Canning Town tube station as commuters dragged a protester from the roof of a Jubilee line train and set upon him. He had to be defended by London Underground staff and other passersby.
At Shadwell, five activists blocked the Docklands Light Railway, with two climbing on top of a train and at least one glued to the door.
Phil Kingston, 83, whose hand was glued to the side of a carriage, said he was doing it for the sake of his grandchildren.
“I’m also very concerned about what’s happening in the poorer parts of the world who are being hit the hardest by climate breakdown,” he said. “I’m a Christian and it really upsets me to see God’s creation being wrecked across the world.
“So I’m here on those three counts and I’m longing for the government to take some actions which are in accord with the parliamentary declaration of climate and environmental emergency.”
Police said eight people had been arrested as a result of both incidents.
Ruth Jarman, who sat next to Kingston, said they had targeted the DLR because its destination was London’s financial district.
“It’s heading for the City, which is the God of our time,” she said. “All the scientific reports coming out now about what we should do about the climate breakdown, about the ecological breakdown, we need total transformation of the economy. At the moment we serve economic growth. Humanity, the planet is crucifying itself to economic growth. It cannot go on.”
“I’m a Christian and it really upsets me to see God’s creation being wrecked.”#ExtinctionRebellion @CClimateAction activist Phil Kingston, 83, who has superglued himself to the DLR at Shadwell. This will be his 13th arrest pic.twitter.com/oH57nwAoud— Damien Gayle (@damiengayle) October 17, 2019
Extinction Rebellion said in a statement that it was aware the action at Shadwell was divisive, and that many in its movement were not in favour.
It added that those involved included a grandfather, an ex-Buddhist teacher, a vicar and a former GP, who had planned it autonomously.
“We are aware that one of our activists responded in self defence in a moment of panic when confronted by a threatening situation. He acknowledges his accountability for this action and we offer gratitude for members of the public who helped to protect him,” the group said.
“In light of today’s events, Extinction Rebellion will be looking at ways to bring people together rather than create an unnecessary division.”
It later issued an apology in a statement on its Facebook account.
It said: “Following our previous statement on this morning’s London transport actions, we would also like to apologise to all those whose lives we disrupted this morning. We have spent a lot of time thinking about how best to respond.
“Extinction Rebellion remains fully committed to nonviolence. The climate and ecological emergency is the biggest threat facing us all today, and it is unfortunate that something like this has to happen for this to become ‘newsworthy’.
“That said, we are all incredibly sad at how events unfolded this morning, and are using this as an opportunity to learn and reflect as an organisation.
Although we are pushing for disruption and civil disobedience, we are still learning how to do this in a way that does not result in violence, and that does not discriminate against hard-working individuals, especially those in communities who stand to be most affected by the climate and ecological crisis and are most vulnerable to systems of power.”
The group launched a wave of civil disobedience on 7 October to highlight the risks posed by the climate crisis and the accelerating loss of plant and animal species. At least 1,711 people have been arrested since the protests started.
Most commuters at Shadwell were not impressed. “Is an electric train good or not?” one asked the protesters. “Is this train good for the environment?”
“The way they’re doing it is not right,” said another, who complained that her daughter was now stuck on a DLR train between stations.
XR said in a statement that activists were willing to go to prison “in order to save lives in acts of conscience and necessity”.
The group said: “The actions are intended to bring further economic disruption to the capital as part of the ongoing campaign to convince the government to take meaningful action on the climate and ecological emergency.
“Safety measures are in place to ensure nobody is trapped underground.”
The UK group of Extinction Rebellion has three core demands:
1) Tell the truth
The government must tell the truth about the scale of the ecological crisis by declaring a climate emergency, “working with other groups and institutions to communicate the urgent need for change”.
2) Net zero emissions by 2025
The UK must drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions, hitting net zero by 2025.
3) Citizens’ assembly
The government must create a citizens’ assembly to hear evidence and devise policy to tackle the climate crisis. Citizens’ assemblies bring together ordinary people to investigate, discuss and make recommendations on how to respond, in this case, to the ecological emergency.
In the US activists have added a further demand: “A just transition that prioritises the most vulnerable and indigenous sovereignty [and] establishes reparations and remediation led by and for black people, indigenous people, people of colour and poor communities for years of environmental injustice.”
The results of an internal poll of XR members, shared with the Guardian, showed 72% opposed action on London’s underground network under any circumstances.
It is understood the results of the survey were shared with the groups planning the transport action before it took place. No information on the size of the sample or the methodology of the poll was given.
One activist who protested at Canning Town but was not arrested said she regretted that commuters had been affected. When XR activists previously took action on the DLR, in April, at Canary Wharf station, it was mainly financial workers who were immediately affected.
XR had said that Thursday was to be a day to “pause and focus on training, outreach and our plans for attrition actions nationwide in the coming months”.
But instead it proved to be a day in which a number of affiliated groups acted autonomously in staging their own actions around London. In Southwark, two members of the Animal Rebellion faction were arrested outside the offices of the farm standards organisation Red Tractor Assurance.
Connor Thomas, 23, from Newcastle, said Red Tractor was in hock to the farming industry. “These are farmers regulating farms, they are going to go for whatever the cheapest, most profitable option is – with no care for the animal welfare,” he said.
Protesters from 13 different groups gathered outside the Bangladesh high commission in a protest over a planned coal-fired power plant they said would despoil and destroy the world’s biggest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans.
Dr Akhter Khan, of the Phulbari Solidarity Group UK, said: “It’s a unique ecosystem, home of the Bengal tiger. The Bangladeshi and Indian governments want to set up a coal-based power plant … that will emit huge amounts of carbon and other pollutants that will cause the destruction of the forest.
Also on Thursday morning, protesters from XR Peace staged actions targeting the London offices of the arms makers Leonardo, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. At 11am nine activists from the group glued themselves together outside the supreme court in Westminster.
Sylvia Boyes, 75, a Quaker from Keighly, said: “We are calling on the supreme court to end all arms sales, especially those to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where the weapons are being used in clear violation of international humanitarian law in the war on Yemen.”
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said: “I strongly condemn the Extinction Rebellion protesters who have targeted the London Underground and DLR this morning. This illegal action is extremely dangerous, counterproductive and is causing unacceptable disruption to Londoners who use public transport to get to work.
“It is also an unfair burden on our already overstretched police officers. I urge demonstrators to protest peacefully and within the boundaries of the law.”
A rail union meanwhile urged Extinction Rebellion protesters to think again over attempts to disrupt public transport, describing the actions as dangerous and counterproductive.
Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the TSSA, said: “Earlier this week I signed a letter condemning the Metropolitan police for banning peaceful climate protest.
“I have not changed my mind on this, but protesters should be mindful that what they have done today has simply inconvenienced ordinary working people trying to get on with their lives and trying to work on the most carbon-emission friendly options available to them to date.”
The ban on XR protests in London is due to remain in place until they finish on Saturday, after judges in the high court put off a hearing on a legal challenge by the group until next week.
Lawyers for XR on Wednesday filed an application for a judicial review of the Metropolitan police’s section 14.
Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer working with XR’s legal strategy team, said: “While we are disappointed that the court is not able to hear the application sooner – particularly given the immediate risk of people being unlawfully arrested for peaceful, non-violent protest – we nonetheless look forward to putting forward our arguments next week.”