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Protesting Against Air Pollution Crisis, Extinction Rebellion Stalls Rush-Hour Traffic in London

Campaigners in the city's southeastern borough carried signs that read "This Air Is Killing Us" and "Let Lewisham Breathe."

Extinction Rebellion activists

Extinction Rebellion activists temporarily block the A23 at Lewisham Station on June, 14 2019 in London, England. (Photo: Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

Dozens of students, parents, teachers, and professionals joined a Friday protest organized by Extinction Rebellion that temporarily stalled morning rush-hour traffic in London's southeasten borough of Lewisham to push politicians to more boldly address dangerous air pollution across the city.

The demonstration was just the first in a series of actions Extinction Rebellion (XR) is planning for the "Let Lewisham Breathe" campaign. Lorna Greenwood, who protested Friday despite being nine months pregnant, told the Guardian that "the idea was to stop traffic temporarily to put pressure on all of our politicians—Lewisham council, [London Mayor] Sadiq Khan, and the government—to confront the air pollution crisis."

Though Khan has called the air quality issues that plague his city a "health crisis," he criticized Friday's action. A spokesman for Khan told ITV: "The mayor recognizes we face a climate emergency and shares the protesters' passion for tackling this issue. But he is clear that causing disruption for Londoners in this way is unacceptable."

Commuters were reportedly more supportive. Toting signs that declared "This Air Is Killing Us," campaigners handed out leaflets and cake to drivers, and urged them to shut off their vehicles while they waited at the three locations of the sit-ins, according to organizers. They also warned of the disruption in advance, both online and with banners along the affected routes, and notified local schools and emergency services.

"There was some backlash but not as much as you would expect because people in the area know how bad the problem is," Greenwood said. "Lewisham suffers really badly with air pollution so it's at the forefront of everybody's minds and it's something that really unites people. It doesn't matter what job you do or how old you are, people have to breathe the same air."

"The environment catastrophe will far outweigh the damage caused by a few roadblocks on a Friday morning," 35-year-old demonstrator Harry Gibson, who also participated in XR's London demonstrations in April, told the Evening Standard.

"The planet's not going to last, it's not protected with the way that we're going," he warned. "We need to look to the future for future generations."

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Pete Pello, 32, concurred. "I'm here because I can't ignore the facts anymore. I don't feel comfortable standing by and letting future generations deal with the world we are creating for them. It's something I feel I have to do," he said in a statement from XR.

"It's been amazing so far," Pello added. "People are being patient and waiting. We've had a few angry shouts but most people are pretty relaxed and supportive. There's a really great mix of people here from school children to older people. For lots of them, it's the first time they've done anything like this."

Freya, a 13-year-old protester, told the Evening Standard: "I'm here because lots of people don't care. Most adults don't listen to the children. They can't stop polluting. This is the only way to make change."

"We are in a climate and ecological emergency that requires a change in all aspects of society," protester John Hamilton told MetroUK, pointing out that "Lewisham Council themselves passed a motion declaring the borough to be in a state of climate emergency."

This Is Local London reported Friday that Lewisham Councillor Sophie McGeevor, cabinet member for the environment, said, "As one of the first councils in the country to declare a climate emergency, we share the same goal as Extinction Rebellion—to save the planet and clean up our air."

"We understand that without action the planet is heading towards a climate catastrophe," she said. "We are taking bold action to improve air quality whether that is: supporting the ULEZ and campaigning for it to include the whole borough, investing in cycling and walking infrastructure, proposing to make the most polluting vehicles pay more for parking, installing green walls outside schools, increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations, or investing in Lewisham's award winning green spaces."

McGeevor added, "We want to go further and faster to meet this challenge, but with local government having gone through nearly a decade of austerity we need central government support to do so."

In addition to calling on Khan and the U.K. government to do more to tackle air pollution and the climate crises, members of XR are also urging the Lewisham Council to follow the lead of the Oxford City Council in establishing a citizens assembly to weigh in on how the government should address the issues.

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