Red Rebels’ silent Sunday sermon through Cambridge
So it’s been a busy week in Cambridge, with Extinction Rebellion’s activities - mainly the rights and wrongs of the policing arrangements, with particular regard to the damage caused to the Trinity College lawn on Monday - the subject of disbelief, admiration, mirth and outrage from pub to street corner to living room across the city.
On Sunday the show was due to wind down but, in true Extinction Rebellion (XR) style, there was no way they were going quietly. The sign-off to a week of mayhem involved the ending of the blockade on Fen Causeway - traffic back to “normal” for Monday morning - plus a Red Rebel walk through the centre of town and a Silent Rebellion sit-down in Lion Yard.
Finding the Red Rebels proved tricky. They do their own thing, bow to no one. The poster seemed to be saying they were starting off at Hobbs Pavilion but by the time I arrived they were gone, so I set off to the Grafton, Grand Arcade and Quayside to find them. After an hour of searching for anyone in red, I had a moment straight out of Schindler’s List when I thought I saw the timeless red coat stepping out from among the black and white crowd, but it was just a shopper’s jacket. Heading back towards the market, I cycled past the famed Trinity College lawn. The damage caused by XR’s activists is plain to behold - perhaps it’s preserved as a crime scene, it certainly looks like the Battle of Bannockburn was fought there. The LBGT flag flies proudly in the wind next to Newton’s tree, an outcome achieved at the price of splitting opinion in the city into two camps and opening a division in public discourse in a way that even Brexit never quite managed - and we all tread more gingerly as a result.
Finally, in market square, I saw some Extinction Rebellion protesters outside Guildhall. I stopped to buy some pies at one of the food stalls and by the time I checked back in the XR contingent was gone. I asked a guy who looked like he was a bit down on his luck whether he’d seen where they’d headed and, in among the many plot twists in 2020 Britain, it transpired he wasn’t homeless, he’s a special school teacher. Meeting Gary Dadd was the first break I’d had all day.
“This is my hobby,” said pen-and-ink artist Gary before pointing the way towards Great St Mary’s church, and sure enough - thanks Gary! - there they are, a murmuration of Red Rebels swirling in the wind, honouring the moment and the players in the greatest drama of this or any other age: climate change, and what we’re going to do to offset it.
They shape themselves into emotions - regret, pity, defiance, despair, compassion - while XR’s speakers talk the talk, then the XR crew gathers itself into a core and heads down King’s Parade. The Rebels gather into a huddle at their passing, a silent communion which ends nearly ten minutes later, after XR’s drummers are beyond earshot.
Then they set off. They walk slowly past the market, along Sidney Street, and into St Andrew’s Street. The streets seem eerily deserted. They encounter no resistance. People stand by to let them pass. One says: “They are so weird!” as they go by, right into their faces, but they are immune, they have special dispensation, they are the harbingers of a new world, and the channels of the angry gods and goddesses who aren’t blindsided by fake news, charlatans and bad actors. They mainly strike confusion, awe and even fear - fear of the unknown - as they pass.
At the top of Downing Street they stop and compose themselves. Who knows what sort of satnav they use? They seem to have a hive mentality, the group has its own internal logic complete with sense of direction and wordless forms of communication. There is silence around them except for the rustle of the folds of their clothes in the wind. A passerby says of the apparition: “Who are they?”
Who are they indeed. They are our consciences. It takes a while to recognise it but that just goes to show how dissociated society has become. The Red Rebel Brigade theatricalises a step-change on our journey. They make it look nice and easy, but we know it isn’t. People are being arrested, threats are being issued, damage is being caused. That’s how it is today, and what we know now that we didn’t know last week is that having a consensus - or even a conscience - that takes us all forward together is a lot tougher to achieve than previously envisaged.
Later in the afternoon, Silent Rebellion stages a sit-down meditation at Lion Yard. The week has concluded with the Red Rebels taking to the streets to sow metaphorical seeds in the upturned earth around Newton’s legacy and beyond, and its concluding offers a moment to pause and ponder. Say what you like (within the law), but perhaps we all need to calm down a little and consider what it all means before the next segment begins?
More by this authorMike Scialom