“We are going to be causing some traffic delays. But the traffic is not moving at any speed anyway.” So proclaimed the megaphone-wielding leader of today’s Oxford climate march. This quip was manifestly true. The march, which organisers afterwards proclaimed to be some 3000 people strong, made its way down Cowley Road in the early afternoon, crossed Magdalen Bridge, and took a circuitous route into the city centre, holding up traffic – as promised – on the way.
The methods and intentions of any march are often hotly debated by marchers themselves. Some, like the white-haired Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist whom I spoke to first, have come to the conclusion that civil disobedience is the only way to make a point within the climate movement, citing non-violent civilly disobedient protestors in the American Civil Rights movement and the British suffragettes as their examples. Others, and particularly families with young children, are less keen about sticking themselves to roads. In any case, though, today’s march – not a protest – was a comparatively restrained affair, notable for the variety and size of the crowd, which came in three times larger than anticipated, according to the organisers. There were representatives from the Oxford Green Party, Extinction Rebellion, and the socialist movement, among others. A group of NHS doctors, nurses and medical students in their twenties posed for my camera. They explained their participation in the march through their commitment to patient responsibility: “We have to be advocates for patients [and] protect public health,” one medical student told me. “We swear an oath to ‘do no harm’, and we [can’t] do that without being here.”
There was notable and significant variety in the age of the marchers. At the rally in Broad Street after the march, one of the organisers started her speech with an apology to younger generations “who have been left to deal with this [crisis].” Indeed, many children and young families were present at the protest, with parents and children alike carrying signs. I spoke with Wynn Jones and Annie Weaver, activists waving Green Party flyers, who both told me that their induction into the climate movement came with Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, in 1974. Wynn and Annie were both wearing white poppies today, and carried signs bearing Greta Thunberg’s proclamation of “No more blah blah blah”, perhaps the most prominent of today’s slogans. Wynn, 75, had come to the march with her family, including her youngest grandchildren, aged 5; she had a simple message for their fellow grandparents of Oxford: “Come and join us!” Ron Malone, a former plumber and vegetarian of forty years who joined the march, related a parable about smoking which will resonate with climate activists. He expressed particular concern about the number of young people he saw smoking in Oxford, and argued that if the government wants to deter smoking, schoolchildren “[should] speak to people in the cancer ward.” Ron’s message, I gathered, was that the only way the urgency of the climate crisis can be conveyed is through immediate encounters.
The most immediate context for the march is, of course, the COP 26 climate conference currently taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. One group of participants in the march had dressed up as large, bloodshot eyes, in tandem with their slogan, “all eyes on COP 26.” Corporate interests were also targeted, as students in the High Street took up chants of “No coal, no oil, keep your carbon in the soil” and “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, take your filth and go to hell.” One participant, who wielded the microphone for the long walk up the High Street, had exhausted his vocal cords by the end of the march: “I sound like I chain-smoke cigars,” he said.
For many participants, the climate crisis is a cause which has brought together many issues they care about. Participants on the march were variously vocal about oil pipelines, the Grenfell Tower fire, and the indictment of Julian Assange. The UK government came in roundly for criticism, with some marchers bearing signs reading, “I’ve had better cabinets from IKEA.” Trevor O’Connor, an Oxford student of comparative social policy, summed up the desire, expressed by some signs, for “system change, not climate change,” citing his dissatisfaction with the vanity projects of billionaires and the continuing enrichment of the 1%. He ended with a message inspired by United States Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “The only thing that beats organised money is organised people.”
Susan Brown, the leader of Oxford City Council, spoke at the end of the march, and described some of the city’s commitments to practical climate-saving measures, including the £10 million decarbonisation of Oxford’s leisure centres and £1 million of investment in Energy Superhub Oxford, and measures to tackle pollution and air quality issues. She re-affirmed the City Council’s commitment to “social justice and fairness”, while imploring institutions and the government to do more – “not tomorrow, but now today.” It remains to be seen whether her commitments will be fully realised.