London, United Kingdom – Outside the gates of Buckingham Palace on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon Steve Russell, 66, stood among a crowd singing: “I would rather be a crusty than be extinct!”
The retired physicist was protesting with Extinction Rebellion.
Russell, grandfather of two, is part of a collective of older people or “rebels” who have joined the environmental group’s protests aimed at drawing attention to the global climate crisis.
Mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion have, at times, brought London’s busy streets to a standstill.
Retired and mortgage-free, Russell said he was willing to sacrifice his freedom to make his point. Since Extinction Rebellion began its two-week lockdown of the London city centre on October 7, more than 1,600 people have been arrested, many in their 60s, some in their 90s.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed the group as “uncooperative crusties” who should stop blocking the streets of the British capital.
On Monday, London’s Metropolitan Police issued a city-wide ban on Extinction Rebellion protests, citing “serious disruption” to the community.
“They’re missing the bigger picture,” said Russell. “Arresting people like me is stupid. Zero damage. I’m no threat to anyone. I’m here to draw attention to the bad decisions made by my MPs.”
He said he has been lobbying his local legislator for the past 10 years on the issue of climate change. “MPs don’t understand the gravity of the situation. Civil disobedience is the only way,” he added.
Some of the protesters had travelled into the capital to make their voices heard, unfazed by the very real threat of being arrested.
Liz Lydon, 75, came to London from Brighton. The former artist and nurse has been attending environmental awareness marches for years.
She said her eight-year-old grandchildren were already learning about climate change at school and were anxious about the situation, making these marches all the more poignant for her.
“My hope is we will mitigate the worst extremes of climate change. We need to change our way of life,” she said, defending the group’s tactics. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience but the costs and disturbance of not taking action will be felt in the future.”
Like Liz, many of those attending Tuesday’s protests have a background in activism – some as far back as the 1960s during the civil rights movement, anti-nuclear protests and the women’s movement.
Christopher Rootes, a professor of environmental politics and political sociology at the University of Kent, has monitored climate activism for decades.
He said many older people have cut their teeth in earlier protests and were fearless of the consequences.
“People who are not employed are less constrained than those who are. It’s not unusual for older people to be very concerned about life and death, peace and war.”
Many of the activists outside Buckingham Palace were adamant that they will continue to take part in the demonstrations, no matter the cost. The crowd moved onto another chant: “In the voice of my great-granddaughter, climate justice now!”