Extinction Rebellion protester removed from Big Ben's tower

Damien Gayle, Peter Walker and Jessica Murray

An Extinction Rebellion activist who scaled Big Ben’s tower and unfurled banners calling for action on the climate emergency on Friday was brought to the ground by police three hours after his ascent.

Ben Atkinson, a 43-year-old tree surgeon from Rydal in Cumbria, climbed scaffolding surrounding the clock tower without ropes in a protest that marked the culmination of the group’s fortnight-long “October rebellion”.

Wearing a jacket and tie, and what appeared to be a Boris Johnson-type wig, he hung two large banners, reading: “No pride on a dead planet” and “Citizens Assembly”.

An XR spokesperson said Atkinson wanted to “highlight government inaction on the climate and ecological emergency”.

Police used a lift attached to the scaffolding to bring Atkinson to the ground just before 7pm. At least six people were seen accompanying his descent.

Extinction Rebellion activist Ben Atkinson is watched by police officers after climbing scaffolding on Big Ben. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

As the lift reached the ground, a group of supporters cheered from behind the fence surrounding the Palace of Westminster. Atkinson was led into a van by two police officers while still wearing his wig.

The Metropolitan police said: “At approximately 6.45pm the man, aged in his 40s, was arrested under Section 128 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 – trespass on a protected site. He has been taken into custody.”

Pedestrian and cycle access to the road near Elizabeth Tower was then reopened after the protest.

Police escort XR protesters on Whitehall in London. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Earlier, XR supporters who had been on a protest march around Westminster gave a roar of celebration as they entered Parliament Square and spotted Atkinson’s stunt. They then moved towards Trafalgar Square for a ceremony marking the end of their fortnight of protest.

Speaking to the Guardian from the tower, Atkinson said he had gained access to the scaffolding from the street level near the bridge.

“There was a bit of shouting going on, but no one wanted to come up the scaffolding after me,” he said. “It’s pretty much my bread and butter. I’ve been climbing trees since I was a kid. It was a pretty easy climb, to be honest.”

Asked how long he planned to remain on the tower, he said: “It would be nice to make the 6 o’clock news. I’m really hoping that Extinction Rebellion get some positive coverage on the news.”

By just after 2pm on Friday, the Met said there had been 1,768 arrests in connection with XR’s actions over the past two weeks. Atkinson’s protest came on XR’s final day of action, which began with a blockade of Oxford Circus in central London.

At 9.30am, activists blocked the roads leading into the junction, one of London’s busiest, which was the scene of days of lively protests by the group in April, and erected a tall tipi-like structure.

Greg Frey, 23, from London, who was secured to the base of the structure with a bicycle lock around his neck, said: “We would love to go home. I would love to have not spent the last 13 days on the streets, but we have no choice. We’re trapped.”

Shortly after the blockade at Oxford Circus, five activists locked themselves together outside the door of the Kenyan high commission on Portland Place to highlight the plight of indigenous Sengwer people, who have been displaced in the name of conservation by the country’s government.

“Any climate change solution should respect and take into consideration the rights of indigenous peoples around the world,” said Laurance Tidy, 26, from Wales, who had a lock around his neck connected to another activist blocking the door of the high commission.

Steve Coogan and a dog joined the XR protests in London on Friday. Photograph: Extinction Rebellion/PA

At noon several thousand gathered in Whitehall Gardens, by the Thames, to begin a “red handed” march through Westminster, in a nod to the section 14 order that remains in place effectively criminalising anyone taking part in XR protests across London.

Steve Coogan, the comedian, joined protesters. He said: “I’m here today because Extinction Rebellion is a spontaneous global movement and I support it – anything I can do to counter the negative caricatures about it.

“Boris Johnson described it as a bunch of ‘uncooperative crusties’, which shows how out of touch he is. If you look around, there are people from all different backgrounds here. This is not a fringe issue, it’s an issue about the future.”

Police arrested several activists who circulated the crowd and used red spray chalk to paint handprints on the floor, while those taking part held red-stained hands above their heads.

Matt Phelps, 36, from Sussex, said: “Before Extinction Rebellion I hadn’t done anything like this. I feel like having seen what happened in April when we made some impact when parliament passed a climate emergency motion, it feels like this time there’s been a lot more support.”

After a long fortnight, the mood among many of XR’s supporters was reflective. “It’s had its highs and lows, I think,” said one XR organiser who preferred not to be named. “In April we had this upwards trajectory – glorious sunshine, we met Sadiq Khan and the government – what could be seen in old campaigning terms as wins.

“Yesterday was a bad day, the day before was a great day. Today feels strong and for sure there’s much we have to learn. One thing I love about XR is our principle … which is we will keep learning. We are not a static movement that thinks it’s got the answer, we are just trying to do something.”