Back in the day when Extinction Rebellion actions were possible in London without the degree of oppression that the police have been compelled to enforce this September, I got to see at least one team of Red Rebels making their slow promenade in front of the law enforcement lines. I was impressed. Their absolute silence and slowness of movement contrasted intensely with the surrounding hubbub. They conveyed something of the deep seriousness with which we regard impending climate breakdown in a way that complemented the conventional chanting, singing and shouting of the protestors, along with the banners, the slogans, the music and the impassioned speakers at their microphones.
It didn’t occur to me then that I might one day find myself rebelling in red. Here’s how it happened.
Our local group of activists, like so many, has been hit hard by lockdown. Unable to hold public meetings or, until recently, gatherings of any sort, we’ve tried to keep things ticking over with regular Zoom meetings. Unsurprisingly, this has whittled us down to a core group and to actions involving few people, carefully socially distancing and reliant on social media for extended impact (see https://www.planetshaftesbury.org/xrshaftesbury for one of these).
By early July this year we were starting to think about how we could contribute to the forthcoming wave of XR activity. Sheltering as most of us are, our offering would have to be for the Bank Holiday weekend of local action, proposed as a prelude to the events in London, Manchester and Cardiff. We planned and took part in fuel station and roadside banner actions, but aimed our most elaborate shot at banks on the Monday. Unusually, Shaftesbury’s main thoroughfare still contains the majority of its high street banks. And so it was that one of our number proposed that they should receive a visit from a small, as-yet non-existent group of Red Rebels.
Four volunteers were available and willing to take on this task, one of them me. A few more took on the support roles: carrying banners, distributing leaflets and explaining our silent protest to passers-by. Our proponent ordered the needed materials: twenty metres of crushed velvet stretch, five of chiffon and ten artificial roses. The remaining items – gloves, leggings, face-paint – were up to each of us to find. By then we were into August, time already getting short. The suggestion was to fit in a workshop session for making the headdresses and two rehearsal sessions, at least one of which in full costume. All this to be done outdoors, under the then-current rules, and maintaining that ever-required distancing.
Links were found and distributed to the Red Rebels website and to videos provided on how to make the costumes – the intricate headdresses in particular – then how to do the make-up and form the roughly standardised postures – both when moving and when static in the silent ‘tableaux’. These videos were mainly presented, with insouciant charm, by RR founder (and creative director of the Invisible Circus performance group) Doug Francisco – to whom, our thanks.
In the meantime, I drafted a leaflet to be distributed on the day. Though some information later came through from XR, my main source for assembling this was ‘Banking on Climate Change – Fossil Fuel Finance Report 2020’ produced by the Rainforest Action Network in association with a number of other environmental organisations. The figures are shocking. Since the 2016 Paris Climate Conference, which was supposed to herald a full on international attempt to deal with the threat we are all facing, the established international banks have continued to invest billions and billions into shoring up the fossil fuel industry. Many of the worst offenders are US banks, but this side of the Atlantic, Barclays and HSBC rank highly. RAN’s report (downloadable at https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2020/) is an eye-opener. I edited down relevant information on UK banks to one side of A5, and added a few notes on who we were and why we were protesting on the other.
Our first setback. The headdress workshop scheduled for the 19th had to be cancelled, it was raining all day. At our weekly Zoom meetings, meanwhile, it was decided once again to make a video of the event, intercutting footage of the protest and its preparation with documentary material. Our camera person wanted shots of the Reds against the sunset on Shaftesbury’s scenic Castle Green and this was to be part of our final rehearsal, in full costume, on the 30th. But all we still had, with just ten days to go, was a package of the material and no one available with the expertise to cut it out into the relevant pieces, or indeed the space in which to do it. Someone had earlier volunteered this service but had had to withdraw due to work pressure. Would we be able to get the costumes made in time? Would there be a rain-free day on which we could all meet and get the rehearsals started?
An attempt was made and fortunately favoured with better weather on the afternoon of Sunday 23rd. Still no costumes, we just had to try and get into the spirit of it with our red gloves on and improvise what we would do in the garden where we met. Once again, social distancing proved a limitation. Take a look on the website at some of the Reds’ tableaux and you’ll see that they cluster together. We’d have to try for a similar effect, yet remain each at least one metre apart. We had a go, imagining we were moving from bank building to bank building as we crossed the lawn and posed by the flower beds – photographed by two of the helpers so we could consider what worked and what didn’t later. Next, we walked to the point where we’d agreed to start, and did our slow walk up Shaftesbury’s cobbled Gold Hill (the one in the Hovis ad), timing it so we could schedule our arrival at the Town Hall on the Bank Holiday Monday as the nearby church bell chimed midday (another ‘that would make a cool shot’ type request from our camera person). Finally we did the circuit of the five high street banks, trying out the tableaux in front of them. More than one bewildered passer-by watched us for a while, scratched their heads and moved swiftly on. That gave us some idea of what we were letting ourselves in for.
There was for me another anxiety. Without thinking it through, I’d ordered a cheap pallet of kids’ Hallowe’en face-paint for £2.99 online. It had arrived in the post and the day before the rehearsal I’d tried it out. I’ve never attempted to do this kind of theatrical face-paint thing before and my inexperience combined with the apparent inadequacy of the stuff in the pallet resulted in the appearance of a ghastly apparition, the Joker on a bad day. I quickly washed it off, realising I had just five working days left to get hold of some pricier but proper face-paint. Ordered on the Monday, but would it turn up in time?
That day brought some good news though. Someone had been found with both the equipment and the skill to do the cutting out. All we needed was somewhere to do it. We managed to locate some community resource space in the town and get access to it the next day. Two of us helped out and by the end of the Tuesday morning we had the various pieces cut from the velvet: the skirts, togas, scarves, belts and headdress pieces. Our benevolent seamstress took the chiffon with her to cut out the veils and streamers for us later. Over the next two days I made my own headdress, while the others were made up by various volunteers elsewhere.
By the last of our Zoom meetings, immediately prior to the Bank Holiday weekend, the leaflets were printed and one of our number – fluent in front of a microphone – had done an interview to herald our actions on the local daily podcast. We’d looked at the photos of our rehearsal and it was clear that we needed to simplify the tableaux, sort out the order in which we’d move from one spot to another and generally find a sense of consistency to what we were doing. We studied photos of the Reds in action, and limited our choice to a small range of gestures. Given more time, we could probably have broadened it, but that was time we didn’t have.
In the early evening, on Sunday 30th, following a more focused rehearsal in yet another garden, we finally got our costumes on. The face-paint I’d ordered had turned up just in time and proved easy and effective to apply. We helped one another with the fiddly bits of the Red rig and ended up in a slight race against time in order to catch the hoped for sunset, so the relevant film and stills could be shot. Veils down, in single file, we exited the garden and began our slow walk across the street to Castle Green.
It was our first, limited taste of what was to come next day. To be within the guise I had observed from without, the previous year in London, was like nothing I’d ever felt before. To be observed by those whose eyes are naturally drawn by the striking, blood-red costume, and yet to be not quite oneself, beneath white face-paint, the velvet and the chiffon proved a strange experience – a kind of peaceful alienation. I’ll delve a little further into those feelings below, suffice to say of this venture that the sunset was suitably spectacular and our camera man – filming us walking and posing – sounded quite ecstatic. In amongst the exclamations of ‘cool’ and ‘great’ I heard him say at one point: ‘biblical!’ I guess it was. Sort of.
The next day we met at 10.30, in the garden of another sympathetic household at the bottom of Gold Hill and transformed ourselves once again. Here is some of what I wrote in my journal, later that day:
…Walking in slow procession up Gold Hill was first challenge. Though the togas were relatively okay for flat walking, going uphill they tended to catch underfoot quite easily. The slow steps required poise and balance, but on the rough cobbles it was quite easy to totter. Under the veil, the sense of being at a remove from everything was strong. We could hear snatches of conversation – our ‘minders’ talking to people who wanted to know what we were doing. Someone asking one of them: “Where did they come from?”…
…Keeping steady, stopping and starting, required concentration – which made one’s perceptions of what was happening around us even more fragmentary. At the top of the hill there was a gathering of people, many taking pictures…
…The sense of being stared at was strong and the stipulation not to respond to it was strange. It was dream-like – walking in this all-red, androgynous and mysterious costume and being seen thus. It wasn’t difficult to maintain the sense of solemnity, though by the time we were in front of the Town Hall, we were hearing snatches of conversations around us to which we might have responded or been distracted by…
…As we headed for HSBC, an elderly couple passed us by. “Can’t you find anything useful to do?” said one. “Go home,” said the other…
…Doing the tableaux was tricky. As we were not close together it was hard at times to even see the other three, once we were in position. Thus hard to know when they changed their pose or moved, without breaking one’s own posture. But we managed somehow, even if not always according to plan…
…One felt other-worldly. Outside the human activity there – people shopping, having outside coffees/drinks, sightseeing etc. But there were times when less dream-like sensations prevailed: twinges in my lower back as I changed position; tiredness towards the end (the whole thing took best part of two hours); itches on my nose and elsewhere; occasional boredom; occasional ‘what the fuck are we doing?’ kinds of feelings – but mostly it had its own weird momentum…
Since that day, quite a few people have kindly said to me that they thought it an effective form of protest. Our role in Shaftesbury was somewhat different to that of the Reds who appear during major XR actions forming just a part of an ever-interweaving mass of events. Here, we and our helpers with the banners and leaflets, were the event. I think by our unusual appearance and silent walking we might have been saying: ‘climate breakdown affects everyone everywhere – even here on a quiet Bank Holiday Monday in a country town’. I hope so. Someone told me it was provocative of thought, more so than a noisy protest would have been. That’s good, that’s what we’re trying to do here in Shaftesbury where there’s little point in the big city tactic of disruption. Amongst those in the street who conversed with the leafletters, the majority looked on favourably – though of course one has to remember that ‘bankers’ have generally fallen out of favour over the last decade or so, so we may have been pandering to prejudice in some cases. I’d like to think that at least some of the people who saw us that day and who read our leaflets might give some thought to contacting their bank and questioning its investment policies. Perhaps even consider moving an account to an ethical bank like Triodus. Chances are there won’t be many. But some seeds were sewn and some of them may grow.
Amongst those voices we heard, fragmentarily, as we posed and walked, was that of our local podcaster, interviewing people on the street or those of our number who were not committed to silence. By the evening he’d put together a quite supportive piece on his podcast, for which we are grateful. Inevitably there was also stuff on the associated Facebook page, and even more inevitably there were comments. Someone claimed they had seen us, at one point, call in at the local Costa and drink coffee from non-returnable cups. This provoked a short thread concerning our hypocrisy, until it was pointed out that it did not actually happen. A woman who thought our costumes scary reckoned we might have frightened small children. In my, and some of the others’ experience that day, children tended to react with curiosity and wonder. I replied, hoping to reassure her to this effect. Another accused us of spreading ‘propaganda and lies’. I replied with a link to the RAN 2020 report. Compared to the hideousness of some online trolls, it was mild stuff really. But still, one tends to think of those who read the negative posts, form conclusions and don’t return to read the balancing comments.
Since then, particularly in London, XR protestors have had to face some disappointingly Draconian repression. Under difficult circumstances, I think they’ve done the best they can to draw attention both to the issue and the inactivity of those with the power to instigate the necessary changes. Our own action seems mild by comparison – we didn’t even see any police that Monday, let alone face arrest. But maybe there’s something of the ‘butterfly effect’ about what we did. Or it could be seen as a small but integral part of something bigger. Such thoughts at least give me comfort.
My costume now sits in a box in the attic. One thing has occurred to me. I can’t just let it stay there. When called upon, this Red will have to rise again. But hopefully, not up a cobbled hill.
The video mentioned in this piece is now complete and can be found at: https://www.planetshaftesbury.org/xrshaftesbury – if this video seems worthwhile to you, feel free to share it.