High hopes and a hi-vis jacket: My week as an Extinction Rebellion steward

It was bright and warm day on Monday October 7th as I cycled up to to Merrion Square South. The road was already blocked off by barriers and much of the infrastructure for our Extinction Rebellion base camp was already set up. I was impressed by the hard work of the incredibly hard working group of volunteers who had planned and organised everything.

It was the first day of Rebellion Week, a week of non violent civil disobedience and climate change awareness raising run all across the world by Extinction Rebellion.

Within minutes, like many other volunteers who signed up for the role, I was given my hi-vis jacket and went to work as a steward. Lucky to be able to cycle home each evening for a good night’s sleep rather than attempt to sleep in a tent in the park (I don’t know how they did it!), I did one or two stewarding shifts at the base camp every day that week.

Rebellion Week

From Monday 7th until Sunday 13th October so many thoughtful talks and workshops took place at Merrion Square South. There was fantastic music and family and children’s activities. There were opportunities for networking and planning among activists. Joyful, colourful protests started off there and spread out into the city. It was a buzzing, hive of activity and passion and I took part in as much of it as I had the energy and time for.

However my most vivid experiences from the week are from being one of the many stewards at base camp. When not letting crew vehicles in or out or doing whatever menial tasks needed to be done around the place, I gave out leaflets to members of the public, explained about what we were doing and listened to what they had to  say about it.

The people I spoke to often surprised me.  I certainly learnt more from talking to them than they did from me, especially the man who talked to me about sand, but more about him later.

On day one, however, I needed to work out my ground rules.

Ground rules

When working at the main entrance to our camp next to the Pink sail boat, I came up with a quick rule of thumb. If people chose to walk on the far side of the boat by the road then I let them pass un-accosted. I didn’t think I’d make any converts to the cause by forcing myself onto people who were busy making a living or on a hurry or simply just uncomfortable talking with strangers.

However, if they chose to walk on the other side of the boat next to our camp, then they were fair game.

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Delay and denial

The vast majority of people that I spoke to that week were aware of climate change and to a lesser or great degree they accepted the science. They also supported climate action. A good few did think that someone else should do something about it. Maybe the Americans. Or the Chinese. Not poor little Ireland with its fastest growing economy in Europe.

I also met three climate change deniers.

One was gleeful – he  knew something I didn’t. He hustled up to me and told me to go look something up on YouTube and that it would prove everything we believed was wrong. He strutted away feeling proud of himself.

The second was nervous – a man in his late twenties who was awkward and avoided eye contact. He explained that climate change was a marxist conspiracy to destroy capitalism. He said he didn’t want to come into the base camp to chat with people as he was scared of people shouting him down. I listened and didn’t try to reason with him. It seemed like he needed a friend more than an argument.

The third was the saddest – a lady from Alaska here in Ireland on holiday.  She knew global warming firsthand. She’d saw the changes in her local climate and the melting ice and snow, but she wondered out loud how much of this was simply due to natural changes in the climate. I politely suggested there wasn’t much actual debate, tried to guide her towards the science, but she left me unconvinced.

One of many colourful protests that week.

Apologies and inconvenience

I heard lots of apologies. Apologies from tourists for taking flights. Apologies from drivers for driving. Apologies for takeaway coffee cups. No matter how keenly I explained that we in Extinction Rebellion aren’t involved in the blame game, many people’s own connection to climate change appeared linked to guilt – they shouldn’t be doing this, they should be doing that.

I had to give my apologies too.  Our actions were inconveniencing people, especially those who lived or worked on Merrion Square South. One resident sighed, ‘Every week there’s something on here. Today, I get up and find out that you’re going to be here all week. What am I meant to do?’ Again I didn’t try to lecture her on the inconvenience of gobal climate crisis. I apologised and tried to assist her any way I could. That was enough. Seconds later, she said that she supported what we were doing.

It seemed like the least inconvenienced were were sometimes the most irate. A number of people making their way on foot to the National Gallery were visible irritated,  despite the road not being blocked to pedestrians – one side of the footpath was open. She walked way scowling and shaking her head when I told her who we were. I hope art was a comfort to her.

Activists papering the Department of Climate Action with the science opposing an LNG terminal (oh and yes, this was all cleaned up afterwards by ourselves)

Inspiring (trendy?) activists

I met many people with a long term involvement in climate change activism. Certainly longer than a newbie like myself. They had been shouting out about these issues for years. They were encouraging, often dropping over just to say supported us.

Some of these long term activists weren’t without their quirks. One proceeded to lecture me in voluminous, painstaking detail about her garden and how, essentially, Extinction Rebellion needed to do literally what she was doing in her garden. In fact, it seemed like everyone simply needed to do what she was doing and the world would be perfect.

Another lady who’d been involved in climate change activism for years said it was ‘fashionable’ and ‘trendy’ to be against climate change now. I suggested that if she was right then surely it was a good thing? She wasn’t so sure. She implied she preferred it when she had the issue to herself.

Even if that woman was right (and I’m not convinced) then it was my privilege to meet some of the new ‘fashionable’, ‘trendy’ activists as they arrived in to help. Many of them had never been involved with Extinction Rebellion before. Within hours they were part of the gang, giving out flyers at protests, and singing along with chants, like this one:

Doubts

I grew tired later in the week. (Again, I have so much admiration for those who camped there all week. Amazing. ) And I have to admit that I did begin to wonder about the many people walking by without showing any interest. I thought about those people I never approached, the ones who kept their heads down and their headphones on and deliberately steered away from us stewards. I thought about those who looked at us like we had two heads.

Despite the urgency of what we were fighting for, most people were going on with their lives. I wondered could I have gotten this wrong? Could we have this wrong?

On the Friday night, I cycled home listening to a podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, the environmental journalist for the New Yorker. She authoritatively reminded me that this is real:

‘People tend to focus on the here and now. The problem is that, once global warming is something that most people can feel in the course of their daily lives, it will be too late to prevent much larger, potentially catastrophic changes.’

I don’t know why I needed the reminder, especially surrounded by bright, well informed and experienced activists, but I did. Elizabeth Kolbert’s words reminded me that this issue is worth despairing then worth fighting for. It renewed my energy, made every single conversation I had worthwhile, even if it was only a drop in the ocean of what needed to be done.

Moments that stand out

As the week came to an end, some conversations stood out more than others.

I had a delightful chat with two elderly English ladies about their childhood and how nothing was ever wasted. Socks were darned. Chairs were mended. Everything was used and reused. We talked about how we could all return to that now.

Most of all, I loved the curious couple in their early twenties who approached and asked what we were doing. After we’d finished chatting and they were about to go, the young man blurted out, ‘We just visited Hollis Street hosptial. I’m going to be a dad!’ It was hugs all around.

And, finally, there was the man who told me in a conspiratorial tone, that ‘the Americans are running out of sand.’ I waited to hear what this had to do with climate change but it didn’t have anything to do with it. He just wanted to tell me about the Americans running out of sand. Ask me about it some time, I’ll tell you all about it.

All good things…

On Sunday night at around 9pm or so, when our base had been stripped down and everything almost tidied away, I returned my hi-vis jacket. I felt honoured to have had a small role in the week and surprised myself by starting to cry as I drove away from the Merrion Square South. I was tired and emotional, but so proud of what we’d all achieved that week.

I was inspired too – fired up to do stay involved and play my part and keep fighting!

If you’d like to find out more about Extinction Rebellion and get involved, check them them on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or their website extinctionrebellionireland.com – Come along! It’s great!

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