How A Small English Town Spurred The Group That's Reshaping Global Climate Protests
Katerina Hasapopoulos is not your typical rule-breaker. She's 41, the daughter of immigrants and once a power-lunching marketing director.
Now, she says, "I'm a rebel. I'm a tree sister. I am an Earth protector."
Having children, three little girls, she says, helped her think more seriously about the world they would grow up in. Though Brexit dominates most headlines in the United Kingdom, Hasapopoulos devours stories about how humans are causing climate change.
"Whole businesses have been built on trashing our Earth — the very thing that feeds us, that gives us air," she says. "Many scientists are telling us that we are already in the sixth mass extinction."
Last year, she joined her local environmental group in Stroud, a bohemian town of activists tucked into the rolling hills and daffodils of the Cotswolds in the south of England. That group, Extinction Rebellion, has now grown from a small-town band of determined neighbors super-gluing themselves to local city council buildings to a global movement of environmental demonstrators disrupting dozens of cities so policymakers will address climate change immediately. The group has kicked off protests again on Monday — including blocking traffic and landmarks and occupying government buildings, leading to hundreds of arrests in New York, London, Sydney and Amsterdam — and it plans to continue mobilizing for the next two weeks.
Since joining the group, Hasapopoulos has vandalized the Shell Oil Co. building and blocked traffic in London for days. Along with five other Extinction Rebellion members from Stroud, she was arrested for the Shell action.
"My mum is really disappointed, and that's OK," she says. "This is a matter of life and death. Our Earth is dying. Our Earth dies, we die. It's just really that simple."
Fighting for something so huge, she says, can't be done by standing on sidewalks with banners.
"That just doesn't work," she says. "The situation is extreme and we need to match that with extreme tactics. I actually don't think we are extreme enough."
"Life has been draining from this country"
Extinction Rebellion, also known by the abbreviation XR, was launched a year ago in the Stroud living room of Gail Bradbrook, a well-known local activist who had previously campaigned against a local incinerator and fracking, the technique used to extract oil and gas from rock. The group's activism helped push British lawmakers to declare a climate emergency in May and has now grown into an international movement with chapters all over the world, including the United States.
The group's symbol is a depiction of an hourglass — called "this generation's peace sign" — by an East London artist who goes by Goldfrog ESP.
The name Extinction Rebellion is "literally alarming on purpose," says Simon Bramwell, another co-founder, at the spice-scented garden of Star Anise, a vegetarian cafe in downtown Stroud.
"We need to activate emotion in people so they can actually feel what is happening around us."
Bramwell teaches wilderness survivor skills and often leads walks through the forests of Gloucestershire, the county where Stroud is located. Hikers and bird-watchers follow trails along the River Severn.
"Over the last 20-30 years, I've been noticing this steady drip as life has been draining from this country," he says, referring to the dwindling numbers of frogs, insects, foxes and birds here. "It's all going, and because we're leading such busy lives, we're just not noticing how fast its going."
The group's efforts to cause civic disruption regularly make headlines. Members have thrown fake blood on pavements, super-glued their bottoms to a window facing lawmakers in the House of Commons, and staged a mock funeral during London Fashion Week, saying the clothing industry is a major offender in the climate crisis. Members have also chained and glued themselves to the fence outside the London home of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party.
"His wife wanted us to leave. His aides wanted us to leave. He didn't speak to us," Skeena Rathor, an XR member and town councilor in Stroud, says of the Corbyn operation. The group ran out of nail polish remover to break down the super glue binding their hands together, she says, "so peeling off hurt a bit." But it was not in vain. "His neighbors loved us," she says, smiling.
David Lambert, who is in charge of media relations of Extinction Rebellion, says that's a common reaction, even when the group is causing disruption.
"Whether it's someone in traffic or someone from the police or someone from a security firm, there are connections all the time," he says.
Not everyone sees it this way. A senior officer at Scotland Yard recently told The Daily Telegraph that the protests are taking up more police resources than terrorism. This summer, an anonymous caller told BBC Bristol that he missed his ill father's dying moments because he was stuck in a traffic jam caused by an XR protest.
"A call to action" in a town with an activist streak
Extinction Rebellion's tactics may be controversial, but they are effective in part because the group has also connected with the teenagers inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, says Srdja Popovic, a Serbian political activist who wrote the 2015 book Blueprint for Revolution.
"This is the generation that will rule the world in 10-15 years," he says. "Their passion is there. ... Even in the small towns in the U.S., you can see students protesting on Fridays" as part of the movement Fridays for Future.
Popovic led student protests against the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. He now runs the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, which helps activists across the world build effective movements. He says climate movements have traditionally stalled at the public awareness phase — "a climate march here, demonstration at the G-10 there, a TV commercial, a Madonna song."
"What was missing in contemporary green movements is a call to action," he says, "and Extinction Rebellion seems to hit that, saying, 'We are very aware that the planet is in a state of disrepair, we are very aware something needs to be done, but that it won't be done by somebody else. It's time to take destiny in our hands."
Back in Stroud, which has long been an incubator for activism, that's a common sentiment.
"We don't have any more time," says Tracee Williams, who co-founded The Beacon, an "activism incubator" in Stroud "where we can create more rebels."
"Yes, what we do inconveniences people," she says, before suddenly bursting into tears. "If someone has a better idea, we will do that instead."
The area's relatively low housing prices and rents also attract a large number of artists, including Clay Sinclair, who's originally from New Zealand. He runs a gallery in town and also sells T-shirts and mugs that read "People's Republic of Stroud."
Sinclair says he has tried to reduce his own carbon footprint since his local environmental group went global. "I refuse to fly anywhere on holiday," he says, "which is making my wife a little bit angry with me."
But Sinclair also has reservations about Extinction Rebellion. He says some members have gotten caught up in conspiracy theories, like 5G technology causing cancer. And when he joined the spring XR protests in London, "my first observation was, I've never seen so many white, middle-class people in one place at one time. But then it's the white, middle-class people who have caused climate change."
Truck driver and Stroud native Spencer Ellis admits he hasn't seen many minorities like himself in the U.K. chapters of Extinction Rebellion. He has also been stuck in traffic caused by the group's blockades.
Still, he's cheering them on. "I get what they are doing a hundred percent," he says.
He points to his 2-year-old daughter squirming in her stroller. "I'm 50. I'm not getting another 50" years, he says. "But my daughter's 2. The planet is changing, and we're scared."
NPR London producer Sophie Eastaugh contributed reporting in Stroud.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.