Trading convenience for freedom

Your London “Eye” reports from the XR protests

vol 1 issue 32

Love or hate the XR protestors, they demonstrate how in order to be liberated from nuisance, we allow ourselves to become imprisoned.


This is a free edition, the first of five reports from the UK and Iceland. A special hello to our new UK readers. I am so happy to have you and hope that you will enjoy reading, and might even consider joining as a premium reader. If you do, I am offering a 20% discount for ever! Regardless of how you subscribe, please forward and share with others!

One thing I did while in London was spend time talking with some Extinction Rebellion protesters. I came upon them after completing some business in the West End, which is just beyond Trafalgar Square where the “XR” protestors as they are known, were gathered. I had gone looking for whatever was the source of interest for the helicopters hovering above. It occurred to me that there had to be something to the fact that one law enforcement chopper in particular was hovering low in one spot, making so much noise, it was difficult to have a conversation.

Regular readers are probably thinking, Wait – you’re talking about helicopters again?  

Yes, I am, because they are omnipresent it seems, and as a reporter I am telling you straight what I have witnessed. As a critical observer I am telling you why I think they merit attention. So many helicopters are an abnormality – unless they are becoming the new normal. And if that is the case, then I agree with Amy Siskind, it’s important to chart how “never ever” has become now.

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Helicopters were not the only law enforcement tool in use. There was the instant revision of a UK law traditionally meant to strike the balance between peaceful assembly and public order, part of a law which has worked for decades both in the UK, with similar laws in the US.

And then there was the threat of facial recognition, as it was described to me by protestors, and which has been used in Britain before and so was highly likely to have been used again this time.

The trifecta of these as crowd control tools, I hope captures your attention because together they form a new approach to meeting disagreement with the status quo.

If you’re not familiar with the XR movement, it is a global group of activists who are staging peaceful protests to bring attention to what they claim is imminent climate breakdown, as evidenced by many events, including the loss of biodiversity, which is fancy science talk for the loss of about a dozen species daily.

The XR protestors have been characterized by some as loafers with no jobs and nothing else to do but screw up traffic, which they do on a regular, prolonged basis, at least twice annually. This feature story rounds up some tweets of complaint, some of which raise valid points, others of which are just crude.

This time, the protests in London included the blockading of bridges, roads, entrances to banks, and the crowding of other public places. They were supposed to have lasted 2 weeks, but after about a week,  and without public deliberation, the police revised their code for public assembly and with no warning, cleared everyone out of Trafalgar Square, declaring all protests specific to XR’s October 2019 uprising were unlawful.

Theirs is a shared governance model at XR, where they vote on how and where they will stage their protests. The protestors I spoke with told me their goal is for their nonviolent, civil disobedience to lead to as many of them being arrested as possible. To date, although estimates vary, it’s safe to say nearly 1,500 arrests were made in London since this round of protests began on October 7, although protests were also held in other international cities.

“We want the authorities to see that it’s pointless to keep locking us up. The more they try to stop us, the more we will come out in force,” one of the men I spoke with told me.

Their ultimate goal is to decelerate the pace of species extinction, and to reverse climate change.

Some rogue protestors recently decided to go against the XR majority and stop public transport service from mostly working class London neighborhoods. It didn’t end well for the protestors: angry commuters pulled them from the tops of the trains and beat the snot out of them. Some are now publicly criticizing their own. It certainly didn’t help XRs cause, particularly since the train was an electric one, which has a realtively low coarbon footprint.

Regardless, while the protestors are viewed by many as a nuisance, authorities view this as an opportunity to treat them as a threat to be put down.

While I only saw two choppers, plenty of UK media reported on them, and what some of the protestors I spoke with told me was that earlier in their protests, several helicopters constantly flew as low as possible – “only 20 meters above our heads”, the one protestor told me – to drown out the crowds and to menace them. Further, I was told by two protesters that police harassed the crowds with maneuvers such as removing portable toilet facilities for the disabled and arresting the contractors who were called upon to re-deliver them. I can’t confirm any of this because I didn’t see it myself, so factor that in when you draw your conclusions about the protests.

While the choppers were, to me, disturbing, remember that these protests were entirely non-violent. The agitators I spent about a half an hour talking to were Quakers from Bristol, UK. They were actually not unemployed, but either retired, or taking leave from work. I didn’t canvass the whole lot, so sure, probably many of the protestors were unemployed.

I concluded that overall, protestors were passionate and committed, nor bored and feckless. Yes, I understood that they were upsetting people trying to get to work, whose lives are adversely impacted by the disruption.

Yet, be careful of letting your inconvenience be the cover for authorities’ strengthening their counter-measures.

In a statement, the London police said they did what they must in order to avoid a tenth day of London having been brought to a “stand still”. In other words, the inconvenience would no longer be tolerated.

The use of the police helicopters and the other tactics are worth considering in a larger context.

The protesters I spoke with also told of how police have used facial recognition technology (called AFR) and cameras mounted on their vests, as well as other surveillance gear to record the faces of the protestors. Whether this was actually true in the policing of the XR protests, such surveillance is a rising phenomenon in the UK without regulation, public warning, or consent, or input from the UK home secretary, which has drawn talk of a legal challenge.

Welsh police have been using it without public debate or consent for “years” now according to the anti-AFR group, Liberty Human Rights.

At least two legal challenges to the use of AFR in the UK are underway, and the Welsh police have acknowledged their use of the technology has resulted in at least 2,000 persons being wrongly identified as criminals. Many of them were even arrested before it was clear the authorities were drastically in error.

That what I am reporting on occurred in London is still important here in the US.

While visiting the UK, one of the threads of conversation that came up repeatedly with friends, family, and others I spoke with is the fear that after Brexit, despite the overwhelming unpopularity of our president, there will be a tighter, even if uneasy, alliance between our nations. The Brits I spoke with feared that our president will encourage more of the same autocratic moves; I fear that he will be encouraged by what he already sees is possible with the way the protests were put down in London.

We are already ripe for the taking.

In the US, we’re also tagged with AFR technology. As of this August 2017, thanks to an expedited executive order by POTUS45 of a pre-existing but unimplemented law from over 20 years ago, to pass through customs and to re-enter the country, I had to have my face photographed to match the photograph in my passport.

For now, we’re told that the photos are deleted from the servers within 12 hours, and passing through the scanners is supposed to be optional, but so was EZ Pass and other digital toll payment systems supposed to be optional…until we now have plenty of highways where you can’t travel on them unless you have the electronic toll reader that helps track where you go and when.

And flatly, I don’t trust that there isn’t a database being created, either through thoughtlessness or devious means. As to the former, the major airlines in this country actually had cameras in the in-flight entertainment systems. They claim it was just standard manufacturing, not intentional, and they have now covered them after passengers complained.

As to the latter, the TSA is making the case for why it’s a good thing to move forward with it for the sake of more convenient travel.

The larger point of what happened to the XR protesters is that the cost of convenience is the erosion of our freedom. Ultimately, in order to be liberated from nuisance, we become imprisoned.

In our country, the rise of AFR and the full tilt increased surveillance of our population is rooted in the arguably over-reaction of the Patriot Act post 9/11 which was sold to us as a way to “ensure” our safety from terrorism (although an entire other argument could be made that if so, why are we terrorized by gun violence and mass shootings…). Toll cameras and electronic tracking was sold to us as a way to avoid traffic jams. These claims are rooted in half-truths, and always sold to us with no mention of anything but how they will enhance our lives. Put another way, they are robed in propaganda.

And yet…these so-called liberations come with chains. Once in place it is nearly impossible to erase these databases.

Such unfettered use of digital technology is why being told we live in a free country increasingly feels like a lie. This is why being so sure you’re right to be offended that others are exercising their rights to offend and inconvenience you sure seems a speedy way to lose those rights for us all. On both sides of the Atlantic.


As promised, I have lined up some great guests for the podcast, including London-based economist and Institute of Public Policy fellow, Grace Blakeley, author of Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialization. We’re set to record later this month, and going online in early November. Other authors and policy innovators include one with culture critic Nathalie Olah, author of Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, and a live recording of some “jazz ambassadors” who have a look at how American music – not grift, bullying, or arms – has been used historically to open doors where we’ve needed them opened across the world.

Plus, other guests and insights. If you have an idea or an author or speaker to pitch, contact me, please. All points of view regarding the future of America are considered, so don’t worry about political stripes. We’re not about stripes. We’re about the matrix of dots, blobs, stripes, and strokes that make up the whole picture. Actually, I specifically want to hear from more conservative voices who have new ideas since so far, the most interesting and novel insights into american thought that I am being approached with seem to be coming from the center and left.

Tomorrow: more news, this time from Iceland. Other reports for premium subscribers later this week.

Thanks for reading!


(Photos by Blair Fishburn)

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