By Danny Halpin
Like many others who have visited London from the north of England, Lydia Dibben sat at the base of Nelson’s Column reading a book. There was no traffic that day. Instead, clusters of tents huddled around gazebos and makeshift stages, where musicians sang and scientists spoke and commuters mingled with colourfully-clad protestors on the road or on the pavement; nobody looked down to notice the difference, their eyes were captured by the vibrancy, the unreality, of a pop-up festival in Trafalgar Square.
While Britain’s most revered and mighty war hero thrust himself up towards the canopy of heavy, grey clouds, reaching for the unobtainable ocean of blue beyond it, Lydia focused her attention on the words in front of her, words of wild experiences from the far side of the world. Her red hair splashed over the D-shaped bike lock that held her neck to a plywood structure that had been smuggled through police lines the night before. It was morning. By the end of the day, Lydia would be lying in a cell for the second time in six months.
Originally from Guilford, Lydia has just begun her third year of university in Leeds studying zoology. She first heard about Extinction Rebellion (XR) last October in an advertisement for a meeting where three people had registered their interest. She didn’t go, but her nose had caught a scent.
At that time, Extinction Rebellion was still embryonic. It took its first disruptive action in November, blockading five of London’s major bridges: Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth. “I remember it was just mind-blowing”, Lydia says. “I’d gone out the night before and so I’d had about two hours sleep because we’d gotten on a coach at like 4am from Leeds… but I was so energised.”
The experience gave her an emotional high that was almost addictive, so when the next round of disruptive action came, she was back on the bus to London, where the weather was warm enough for the rebels (as XR activists call themselves) to sleep in the open on their mats and sleeping bags.
On Easter Sunday, a warning came through that 16 police vans were en route to clear their site. She scrambled like an RAF pilot rushing to meet the Luftwaffe, leaving her socks behind. “I was locked on to my friend, in one of the big arm tubes. We both superglued our hands to the tube and then this 70-year-old woman glued her hand to our tube as well. There were some people next to us who were also locked and glued on, so we were a big lockey, gluey pile”, she says, laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
She takes a sip from her refillable water bottle which is plastered with black-and-white XR stickers, jangling her array of necklaces as she does so. “It’s amazing to see how much love there is in this movement. I saw a quote on the way over here saying that pouring love into adversity seems really hard and tiring, but it’s the only way we win.” When asked why she wanted to be arrested, Lydia said: “because there are so many movements in the past that have used direct action, civil disobedience and mass arrests to force social change and it has worked… it shows how serious we are about this cause. It isn’t just some little opinion”. Her voice takes on an authoritative tone, her fist rests on the table.
She is not worried about her future career as a zoologist. In fact, during the heat of the rebellion she has twice considered dropping out of university, although now in the calm, rational atmosphere of this windowless studio she thinks she will stay on to finish her final year, if only for the benefit of being taken more seriously.
Her outlook on the future would be considered pessimistic by most people’s standards. If a job interviewer asked her where she saw herself in five years, she would probably answer: somewhere between a rioting mob and the rubble of this office building. But that scenario is not as ridiculous as it may sound. The officers who arrested Lydia in Trafalgar Square could not look her in the eye after she told them that in a few years time it might be their job to crack the skulls of half-starved parents who cannot afford to feed their children.
Lydia’s emotions ride on her words as she speaks. Be it love, joy, anxiety or fear, they are unrestrained. On Millbank, the first day of the October Rebellion, the police were dismantling the rebels’ camp before it could be set up, confiscating infrastructure by the van load and arresting drivers as they arrived. Lydia watched months of hard work evaporate in minutes. She grabbed a megaphone, her hands trembled with rage. She was ready to unleash venom, but when she opened her mouth, another emotion found its voice. She spoke of signing up to birthstrike, of how she never wants to bring a child into a world that is doomed, who will experience more fear for their future then she does for hers. She sobbed through the megaphone in front of a hundred people, half of whom were also crying. Her desperate words repelled the oncoming police and they ceased their harassment. The tents remained.
A few days later, with her neck inside the D-shaped bike lock, she was rested and calm. She ignored the surrounding ring of officers and the persistent roar of the helicopter above her. They would cut her out eventually, just as they did in April. Reading her copy of Wild, Jay Griffiths’ attempt to reconnect with a life outside of the horrors of mass industrialisation, was a reminder of what Lydia was fighting for and why she was sacrificing her liberty. “I can’t bear to spend any time not fighting for this movement… I have no idea where it’s going to go, but I feel bloody excited.”