From Portsmouth to Mass Protest: a Personal Account of XR’s ‘The Big One’

Image shows large group of people gathered in Parliament Square.
Image credit, Rachel Claire Birchley.

Local resident Rachel Claire Birchley gives a personal and passionate account of her experience of attending the Extinction Rebellion (XR) mass protest in London in April 2023, part of XR’s ‘Unite to Survive’ campaign, centring on a 4 day action called ‘The Big One’ that aimed to bring together a range of groups and movements to fight the climate emergency.

It’s Friday, 21st April 2023. Just past 4 o’clock pm and I’m sitting on the concrete ground of a cordoned-off traffic island at the Westminster Abbey entrance of Parliament Square in central London. I’m alone, but all around me thousands of people are gathered. None of whom I’ve ever seen or met before but in some way I feel in this moment that I know all of them. They are young and old, athletic and wheelchair-bound. They are families and couples, colleagues and friends and lone people like me. They are from a commonwealth of nations, based in different parts of the U.K, belonging to different factions and fringe groups. They are doctors and nurses, teachers and taxi drivers, carers and conservationists, scientists and students, artists and animal lovers. They are kitted out in an acid rainbow of mindful protest – they wear headdresses and costumes depicting the wildlife species they are campaigning for, they carry placards displaying personal narratives of the same, urgent message, carry hand-crafted art and posters, flags of pink and green and orange and yellow displaying the now instantly-recognisable XR hourglass logo. Their jackets and bags are adorned with badges, ribbons, patches and stickers. They are ordinary people but they are extraordinary and steadfast in their mission and purpose – that climate action and system change is needed now. They represent our collective conscience. They are you and me. They – we – are Extinction Rebellion.

It’s the first day of the prophetically termed The Big One. From the embers of previous gatherings and protests against the climate emergency and our government’s ineffective, negligent dealings – and denial – of it, which ended in numerous arrests and negative press, this one feels different.

There is a cognizant purpose about this peaceful protest which is taking place across four full days. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly one of calm but also of passion and pride. There is acceptance rather than resignation. Of peace rather than panic. Assertiveness as opposed to aggression. In the words of XR’s email signatures love and rage: as if to say we know this is a climate emergency but collectively we will fight and fight to save our Earth. There are various picket points in separate locations in addition to the hub of the activity in Parliament Square. Meticulous planning has taken place, implemented with precision by a collaboration of activist groups and organisations. There is a programme of events, workshops, talks and performances for each day. There are distinct stages, stalls, displays and platforms across a number of close locations. The mass march for biodiversity will be tomorrow, so today was more multifarious, with different factions peppered liberally across the various picket points of the Westminster government offices. Police presence was to be expected of course, but it’s far from the heavy-handed mob I was half-expecting: they’ve not monopolised events and I’m pleasantly surprised their presence is marginal, existing on the fringes, giving space to the masses. And as yet, I’ve seen no evidence of aggression or provocation on either side. Perhaps it’s just as well that I’m not planning on staying long into the evening…

Image shows large welcome banner hanging across a crowd of protesters.
Image credit, Rachel Claire Birchley.

For me, as a late newcomer to mass protests (being in crowds with restricted personal space triggers my anxiety to the point of avoidance, unless it’s at a gig of a band I love), I feel a sense of being a non-participant observer, when I watch the tribal drumming, the face-painted dancers, the speakers, the stewards and stallholders, the little groups huddled in clusters talking and gesturing animatedly. But moreover the feeling of both being humbled and inspired is overwhelming. I see all these people here today, doing so much, so committed to this cause and it both shames and awes me. I feel I’ve done so little in comparison, thinking of the developments and news I’ve ignored, the times I’ve put convenience and affordability of goods and services over sustainability.  It makes me want to do more, be more.

It makes me want to write. To write as I have never done before. When I watched and listened to the writers today speaking out at the Writers Rebel gathering outside 55 Tufton Street, a placard mounted outside the empty offices reading ‘the most dangerous street in Britain’, my heart lifted from the weighted place in my chest where it had long settled; a Pandora’s Box of all the ‘bad things’ that I keep shut away clicked open and butterflies fluttered out. I listened to the rousing speech by poet Ben Okri and the devastatingly brilliant truths spoken by novelist Zadie Smith; the passionate, ardent readings from I Belong Here memoirist Anita Sethi and the beautifully damnatory poems by Jacqueline Saphra and Leslie Tate, all bound together by the brilliantly brutal concluding speech by Tom Bullough. There were many, many others. When I get home I know I’ll replay the videos I took, their words etching into my memory, to listen to, to read when I am back in my city home and feeling weathered and tethered once again.

Image shows writer Ben Okri speaking into a microphone at the protest.
Image credit, Rachel Claire Birchley.

After the readings, I took a wander round the surrounding, non-picketed streets to let the sense of momentum and occasion sink in, to gather my thoughts and seek out the nature that is quietly flourishing around the activity and activism. I find a small churchyard garden; a narrow, winding track heralded by the white flags of lily-of-the-valley and the giant, gentle unfolding petals of peonies. A purple shower of aquilegia vulgaris spilling over the mottled, green leaves of giant echium. Ivy clings to the rustic stone walls and for a moment there is an almost-silence where the distant drums and chants fade into the background and it is just me and the little coal tit who emerges from one of the bushes of this tiny walled garden, peering at me before flitting away. This moment is cherished as it is much needed. It is the very reason why we are all here today. Small pockets of wildlife like these are sewn into the fabric of our being and we cannot lose them.

Image shows a path through a churchyard garden with the Houses of Parliamen in the background.
Image credit, Rachel Claire Birchley.

All who attended the Writers Rebel gathering were encouraged to bring our own words into a unanimous collage of poetry to be emblazoned onto the resplendent pillars of number 55’s front entrance. To consummate the occasion, I chose a poem called Work Consume Die that I’d written with a writer friend Rupert Mueller, the inspiration for it being the XR graffiti art being embellished on the wall of a derelict department store, once the epicentre of Southsea’s affluent consumer market. At 55 Tufton Street, we also left our marks on the walls, our voices and our hearts inked onto A4 and stuck up with Blu-Tac and Sellotape. They may not be heard or read again and they will undoubtedly be torn down and thrown into a non-recycling bin. But I hang onto the hope that these words we spoke and wrote and shouted and sang as individuals forming a collective conscience will permeate the solid concrete of the building, seep into the tiny crevices in the brickwork and infiltrate the malevolence that reigns in the offices here. Bringing with it a frisson of foreboding. And a whisper of hope.


You can find more of Rachel’s writing at Portsmouth’s Pens of the Earth project website and you can find out more about Extinction Rebellion and their campaigns at their website.