An Extinction Rebellion activist scaled Big Ben’s tower and unfurled banners calling for action on the climate emergency after a day of protest that marked the culmination of the group’s fortnight-long “October rebellion”.
The organisation said Ben Atkinson, a 43-year-old tree surgeon, climbed scaffolding surrounding the clock tower without ropes. Wearing a jacket and tie, and what appeared to be a Boris Johnson-type wig, he hung two large banners, reading: “No pride on a dead planet” and “Citizens Assembly”.
An XR spokesperson said Atkinson climbed the tower to “highlight government inaction on the climate and ecological emergency.”.
Police closed the road leading past Elizabeth Tower towards Westminster Bridge as they brought in specialists to try to remove Atkinson and shut several entrances to parliament.
XR supporters, who had been on a protest march around Westminster, gave a roar of celebration as they entered Parliament Square and spotted Atkinson’s stunt. They then moved towards Trafalgar Square where they were to stage a final ceremony to mark the end of their fortnight of protest.
Speaking to the Guardian from the tower, Atkinson said he had gained access to the scaffolding from the street level near the bridge.
“There was a bit of shouting going on, but no one wanted to come up the scaffolding after me,” he said. “It’s pretty much my bread and butter. I’ve been climbing trees since I was a kid. It was a pretty easy climb, to be honest.”
Asked how long he planned to remain on the tower, he said: “It would be nice to make the 6 o’clock news. I’m really hoping that Extinction Rebellion get some positive coverage on the news.”
By just after 2pm on Friday, the Metropolitan police said there had been 1,768 arrests in connection with XR’s actions over the past fortnight. Atkinson’s protest came on XR’s final day of action, which began with a blockade of Oxford Circus in central London.
At 9.30am, activists blocked the roads leading into the junction, one of London’s busiest, which was the scene of days of lively protests by the group in April, and erected a tall tipi-like structure.
Greg Frey, 23, from London, who was secured to the base of the structure with a bicycle lock around his neck, said: “We would love to go home. I would love to have not spent the last 13 days on the streets, but we have no choice. We’re trapped.”
Shortly after the blockade at Oxford Circus, five activists locked themselves together outside the door of the Kenyan high commission on Portland Place to highlight the plight of indigenous Sengwer people, who have been displaced in the name of conservation by the country’s government.
“Any climate change solution should respect and take into consideration the rights of indigenous peoples around the world,” said Laurance Tidy, 26, from Wales, who was locked around his neck to another activist blocking the door of the high commission.
At noon several thousand gathered in Whitehall Gardens, by the Thames, to begin a “red handed” march through Westminster, in a nod to the section 14 order that remains in place effectively criminalising anyone taking part in XR protests across London. Steve Coogan, the comedian, joined protesters. He said: “I’m here today because Extinction Rebellion is a spontaneous global movement and I support it – anything I can do to counter the negative caricatures about it.
“Boris Johnson described it as a bunch of ‘uncooperative crusties’, which shows how out of touch he is. If you look around, there are people from all different backgrounds here. This is not a fringe issue, it’s an issue about the future.”
Police arrested several activists who circulated the crowd and used red spray chalk to paint handprints on the floor, while those taking part held red-stained hands above their heads.
Matt Phelps, 36, from Sussex, said: “Before Extinction Rebellion I hadn’t done anything like this. I feel like having seen what happened in April when we made some impact when parliament passed a climate emergency motion, it feels like this time there’s been a lot more support.”
After a long fortnight, the mood among many of XR’s supporters was reflective. “It’s had its highs and lows, I think,” said one XR organiser who preferred not to be named. “In April we had this upwards trajectory – glorious sunshine, we met Sadiq Khan and the government – what could be seen in old campaigning terms as wins.
“Yesterday was a bad day, the day before was a great day. Today feels strong and for sure there’s much we have to learn. One thing I love about XR is our principle … which is we will keep learning. We are not a static movement that thinks it’s got the answer, we are just trying to do something.”