on blocking traffic as a form of prayer
I’m staring at my screen as somewhere in America a handful of Extinction Rebellion road blockers are all but beaten up by a passer-by on his way to work. I keep replaying his high-pitched, furious shout: “What is wrong with you people?”.
The young rebels’ vulnerability is palpable, but the scene evokes a deeper sense of frailty than that. The idea, maybe, that obstructing a few commuters might head off the relentless extermination of the living world that both rebels and motorists are caught up in, like it or not. For all its nastiness, a sort of poignant silliness seems to hover about the whole encounter.
Anyway, whoever those road blockers are, this letter’s for them.
Back in Spring 2019 some friends from Cornwall decided to mark XR’s April uprising by walking the 400 miles from Land’s End to London. They set out on their March for Life with a month in hand, timing their arrival in London for the rebellion’s start. I’d arranged to join those falling in with the march at a West London tube station for its final ten-mile leg. At this point I’d not much idea what that would entail.
We heard the drumming well before we saw them, then caught sight of bright flags swirling above the traffic. Finally several hundred marchers swung into view, flailing drums and yelling. As they approached, big sewn and painted banners showed there were other groups here now – people who’d walked from Cardigan, Stroud and other parts of the West country, hooking up with the Cornwall marchers as they neared the city.
Over the next few hours I got the hang of what these people meant by a march. Among other things it meant occupying whole lanes of the busy dual carriageway into London, and closing down busy roundabouts armed with nothing more than High Viz vests and attitude.
At some point I fell in with a ten-year-old girl and her grandmother. Somewhere in the march the girl’s mother was here too. The next time I saw the two of them was a week later on the BBC, as they spoke about watching the mother get arrested on Waterloo Bridge.
As we came to the last stretch through central London, heading for the muster at Hyde Park Corner, the police presence became much more intense. By the time we reached Kensington High Street their motorcycles were weaving round us like wasps at an August picnic. In the midst of all this, a formidable and likeable Welsh woman at the head of the column – the kind of person you might want beside you, faced with an angry motorist – swung round as we entered the intersection of Kensington High Street and Church Street and announced in her booming Welsh lilt that it was surely time ‘we all sat down for a nice little rest’.
So along with two hundred others, I did as she proposed. A minute later we were squashed up shoulder to shoulder, our ragged circle filling the space between four sets of traffic lights – and within seconds, of course, we were surrounded by backed-up traffic.
Ten minutes later we were still sitting there. The police had begun remonstrating with the march stewards, but to my surprise they weren’t moving in to arrest anyone. Everything that unfurled over the next fortnight seems to be right there, looking back. The heady triumph of ‘taking’ a busy junction, when the truth is surely that we were being given it. And for me, at that point anyway, an uneasy sense of the ridiculousness of it all – sitting there in the road as people attempt to get to wherever they’re going. The arrogance of it, maybe.
Then a man in his 20s began to speak. He asked us to join hands, and called for two minutes’ silence. A pause to remember the non-human species being driven to extinction, right now, by human civilisation. 200 species vanishing every day, he reminded us. One of those blunt abstractions that gesture towards a too-big-to-touch grief. Towards a dying so all-pervasive that most of us struggle to even get it in focus, let alone act upon it.
For that two minutes, holding hands as an ever-growing number of engines revved on all sides of us, it felt like a deep well of calm fell open within the city’s endless hubbub. Even the police stood in silence now, waiting. I think those two minutes were when I got Extinction Rebellion. Or when Extinction Rebellion got me, maybe. And as we finally clambered to our feet and headed for the Knightsbridge junction, where the game would begin all over again, a half-jesting idea popped into my head – one that, joking or not, seems to have stuck there: that what I was watching, sat there in the road, was the birth a new species of religion. One so newly emerged that it’s only just beginning to work itself out. As if in capital cities around the planet, this unborn thing was trying on one shape after another as it worked out what sort of a religion it might be exactly. And as it puzzles its way through each absurd little gesture of resistance, what’s becoming clear is that most of the old rules for how religions are meant to behave are no longer of much use.
‘Here’, it seems to say, ‘it doesn’t matter what name you address your prayers to, nor what you do or don’t believe about them, nor what you choose to call yourself. Here, there’s just one rule to steer our emerging communion (shall we call it that?). That we come together only when and only by physically obstructing the extinction-engine that this omnicidal culture has become.’
And because no one quite knows how this is meant to work, we keep getting it wrong, and will presumably continue to do so. All we have to go on, after all, is that at this point any such coming together which does nothing to hinder this culture’s lethal trajectory no longer speaks to our shared need.
I said that this letter was for that handful of American rebels. I hope they had good friends on hand to support them, and didn’t lose heart. But I think I was wrong leave out the passer-by.
What does prayer mean to you? Whatever reply comes easiest to your lips, may it set you down between that man’s perplexed, boiling rage and the reedy voices of those young rebels blocking the road with their uncertain singing. And may your prayer quietly open you to what holds them and all of us within its dark belly: the looming grief which each of these scrappy encounters calls out to passing traffic, with no real idea of what to do about it. And may your prayer allow you to remain there, holding the uneasy space between them without pretending to have any better answer to it than your choosing not to move from your spot.
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