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No words: Cambridge Red Rebels thank Silent Rebellion

The Red Rebels Cambridge near Heffers on Trinity Street
The Red Rebels Cambridge near Heffers on Trinity Street

The sociological and performative experiment that is the Red Rebel Brigade continued its mission to amaze and challenge with a walk through the centre of Cambridge today, incorporating a thanking ceremony to Silent Rebellion who have meditated every Saturday in the city centre for the past 16 months (except during lockdown).

The Red Rebels are an off-shoot of Extinction Rebellion which emerged in April 2019. Unlike their colleagues, no Red Rebel has been arrested, they have committed no offences, never been involved in any overt political activity, do not use megaphones, carry no placards or banners, wear no badges and have never been known to speak during one of their marches.

Their peculiar power lies is the evocative nature of their presence, and their ability to juxtapose visual imagery, which the Red Rebel Cambridge group achieved from the off today by emerging from the cricket pavilion on Parker’s Piece, looking for all the world as though they were going out to bat for the Priesthood XI in the Atlantis premier league, playing away to the ferocious Babylon XI on the world-famous Cambridge stage.

The Red Rebels Cambridge team at the Pavilion on Parker’s Piece
The Red Rebels Cambridge team at the Pavilion on Parker’s Piece

So off they go, round and round the town, wordlessly inviting people to slow down and hear the silence that precedes an audience with something Other. And this Other alarms some people.

“Are they protesting something?” one shopper on St Andrew’s Street asks her companion, who seems not to know – but the Red Rebel paradox is that they both are and yet are not protesting something. How would we know?

More worrying was a couple in their 30s near the market, where the man turned to the woman and said: “I think it’s basically witchcraft, that’s what they do.”

Now to accuse someone of witchcraft is a serious charge, bringing as it does an evocation of witches practising bad magic on innocent people. This is a centuries-old trope now accepted as unfounded – we now know that the women burned or drowned in the Middle Ages after being found guilty of witchcraft were usually herbalists or adherents to a pre-Christian way of life. And if there are examples of people practising bad magic in the world today, they tend to be men: Jose Bolsanaro, with his murderous campaign against the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people residing there; or Donald Trump, who has taken to pulling the levers of the state to get people killed as a sign-off to his wrecking-ball presidency. The defence team for Vladimir Putin would have its work cut out too. But the Red Rebels? I’ve yet to see a Red Rebel stopping off to pick up a flower and selling it to the nearest passer-by in a potion while stirring a cauldron on a broomstick.

Outside Heffers on Trinity Street a clearly-irritated man watches the cortège pass in front of the Newton Lawn.

“Those are the idiots that dug up the lawn, look,” he says to the woman he’s with, following by remarks that can’t be printed here – but what can be said is that the Red Rebels were not involved in the Extinction Rebellion action in February.

But it’s not all hostile.

“What are they doing?” asks a teenager of a policewoman near Fair Street.

“It’s Extinction Rebellion, the climate change group,” replies the policewoman.

“Ah, bless,” replies the girl.

Further towards the Grafton, there’s a group from the nearby Eden Chapel Baptist church singing carols – their regular services are live-streamed – and a well-dressed gentleman says loudly to no one in particular: “Ah yes Extinction Rebellion they do like to shock and confuse people, but sometimes they pick the wrong targets.”

During its 90-minute rain-swept walk the group passes shoppers, a Salvation Army band, a preacher on a soapbox, the market traders, the BBC trucks outside King’s College Chapel where the Christmas service is being filmed today... But there are tender moments: honouring the Silent Rebellion meditators on Christ’s Pieces was dignified and generous, the super-gracious balletic bowing to the seated activists – perhaps ‘deactivists’ is more appropriate – was clearly heartfelt, as befits a group which has been meditating every Saturday morning in the same place by the side of the path since its inception 16 months ago. Except during lockdown, explained one of the group’s originators, Jeremy Peters.

“The ordinary people that come along to Silent Rebellion do so because they’ve found a way to express their concerns about the suffering caused by consumerism,” he said after the event. “The responses we get from passers-by are very kind and engaging.

“To be honoured by the Red Rebels – who symbolise the many species who have died because of human demand for more and more products – is a beautiful experience.”

A Red Rebel at The Grafton
A Red Rebel at The Grafton

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