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Red Rebels oversee Extinction Rebellion’s gladiatorial shoe ceremony

Red Rebels and Extinction Rebellion shoe-bearers at Shire Hall. Picture: Mike Scialom
Red Rebels and Extinction Rebellion shoe-bearers at Shire Hall. Picture: Mike Scialom

Today’s Shoe Ceremony at Shire Hall was performance art featuring a post-lockdown appearance by the Red Rebels - unexpectedly accompanied by two gladiators.

Extinction Rebellion activists across the East of England spent the morning symbolically laying out children’s shoes to represent those killed - “both past and future” - by the climate and ecological crisis. In ten different locations across the region - including Bury St Edmunds, Downham Market and King’s Lynn - climate change campaigners laid out 100 pairs of shoes “representing the 100 people in the UK who die every day because of poor air quality”.

The shoe theme has been deployed before by Extinction Rebellion. In May, XR protesters laid out 2,000 pairs of shoes in Trafalgar Square with the message “Covid today, Climate tomorrow: Act Now” - a rerendering of the government messaging “Stay alert, Control the virus, Save lives”. Also in May, activists placed 600 pairs of shoes outside Hackney Town Hall with the same message.

Shoes have symbolic significance in many communities. In the Muslim culture, you throw a shoe at someone as a sign of disrespect. In China, having small feet is such a status symbol that feet binding - which involved breaking the bones to ensure they stayed unformed and therefore small - endured for centuries.

“Shoes have previously been used to represent those killed in the Holocaust, including at the ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial in Budapest, Hungary,” says the climate justice group. Indeed this is the first time in Cambridge that environmental activists have used the symbolism of the Holocaust - which involved the systematic mass murder of 5.8 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews including gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental and/or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Slavic people, black people and resistance fighters - and, formally or informally, compared them to events which are expected to happen if the climate continues to break down.

The morning - or should it be mourning - began with the marking-out of a large section of the lawn in front of Shire Hall. By 11am the Extinction Rebellion shoe-bearers - all dressed in black - were expectantly gathered at the edge of the lawn for the arrival of the Red Rebels.

Say what you like about them, the Red Rebels know how to make an entrance. You hear their arrival by the absence of sound because everyone stops chattering. You look up and there they are, as if having completed the long and arduous journey from another dimension for one final attempt to bring some sanity or at least theatre to the wretched demise we’ve apparently prepared for ourselves.

Have a listen: the birds stop singing and the dog starts wimpering because, intentionally or not, the Rebels are actually a little bit frightening - they’re soaked in mystery and otherness.

Under the hill the speakers gathered, and the music starts up crystal-clear, and louder than you might expect. The songs are interspersed with speakers - or the speakers are interspersed with music if you prefer. Readings include ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry, ‘The Age of the Great Symphonies’ by Rolf Jacobsen, ‘Tropical Rainforest’ by Lou Keshang and ‘The Caged Bird’ by Maya Angelou.

Among the eclectic range of musical selections from Chopin to Annie Lennox is this one, ‘Killing Me’, by Luke Sital-Singh.

Then, the combatants arrive, as if straight off the set of Spartacus or Gladiator, armed with a ferocious range of kicks and punches.

The athletes’ warm-up routine kicks in to the sound of the Hollies’s ‘Air That I Breathe’ and the Red Rebels moving into position for the start of the ceremony at 11.30am.

It is when Red Rebel and Linton-based artist Linda Richardson is reading ‘Lost‘ by David Waggoner that the duo begin their combat training.

The poem concludes:

“No two trees are the same to Raven

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are lost indeed. Nevertheless, stand still.

The forest knows where you are

You must let it find you.”

A Red Rebel at the shoe ceremony. Picture: Martin Bond
A Red Rebel at the shoe ceremony. Picture: Martin Bond

There wasn’t much standing still from the gladiators. Boxing gloves smash into training pads - sort of hand-held punchbags - with a ‘whoosh’ of air. As the speed and heft of the punching increases, the sounds of thwishes, thwonks and hisses becomes louder. After half an hour they start a new routine which involves yelling “hup” when a punch is thrown, so it becomes “hup, hup, hup”.

During the reading of “Prophecy from a Native American Elder”, the contrast between the mourning of life lost to air pollution and the commitment to a baseline of hard physical realities becomes starker. A blizzard of parrying, battering and pummelling offsets the search for even just one moment of sacred calm, but they do share one thing - their existences derive from Greco-Roman history. This is Greek myth meets Roman power politics all over again. These things can happen when you awaken long-dormant archetypes.

“What are you doing?” asks the Hopi elder inn his prophecy. “Boof” comes the answer from the praetorian guard of the fitness movement.

Two men and a Red Rebel, July 18, 2020. Picture: Martin Bond
Two men and a Red Rebel, July 18, 2020. Picture: Martin Bond

“What are your relationships?” “Tsssssss” is the response as fist in boxing glove connects with pad, emitting a sound like a tyre deflating at speed.

By now the children’s shoes are being laid out on the lawn: members of the audience step forward and slowly walk to the allotted place with the next pair. The gladiators move on to the next phase of their training, which seems to involve a lot of grappling, and it all ends up on the grass in a heap of muscle and bone and writhing. My mind was working quite hard to normalise it, and not entirely succeeding.

The Red Rebels pass by, and this time out the Rebels have a man in their midst: usually, Rebels are female, but it is a gender-agnostic troupe. The divergent visual impression of a man dressed as a (female) Greek oracle, and the now-topless wrestlers becomes apparent:

Male Red Rebel passes wrestlers. Picture: Mike Scialom
Male Red Rebel passes wrestlers. Picture: Mike Scialom

Unintentionally - the duo said they had no idea there was to be an XR event and their training was a regular occurrence - a spectrum of possibilities for masculinity becomes manifest. One has chosen a female-centric world, the other is engaged in hyper-physical activity. Somewhere on this spectrum, if you are male, you sit.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”, concludes the speaker reading the Hopi prophecy.

Long before the shoes are all laid out, the gladiators have left.

Linda Richardson after laying down a pair of shoes. Picture: Mike Scialom
Linda Richardson after laying down a pair of shoes. Picture: Mike Scialom

“It might have seemed an unusual departure for Extinction Rebellion to perform an action that was both out of the public eye and was more reflection than revolution but, for many of us, it was our first outing since lockdown began and an opportunity to unite in a ritual act of marking loss,” said organiser Linda Richardson.

“The placing of 100 shoes did not just highlight pollution deaths but allowed us to make visible all the losses that so many people are suffering after covid, and the helplessness we feel in the face of deforestation, species loss and the inadequacy of leaders to tackle the many crises of our times.”

Red Rebels, Shire Hall, shoe ceremony. Picture: Martin Bond
Red Rebels, Shire Hall, shoe ceremony. Picture: Martin Bond

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