Last weekend, by a happy calendar coincidence, I was able to take part in two very different kinds of activism. And no, I wasn’t yelling for the Garden Bridge…
On Friday, the day a certain Donald Trump is inaugurated to the highest office in the US, perhaps the world, I am holed up in a small room near London Bridge, as part of the Bridges Not Walls media and social media team, while up to 1,000 amazing people are taking part in coordinated banner drops on 9 (NINE!) central London bridges, including the iconic Tower Bridge, and thousands more are taking action around the UK and world.
This is the fantastic climax to a busy, beautiful journey from a crazy idea hatched back in November, the day after he was elected, to a worldwide, day-long expression of hope, anger, solidarity, creativity and activism: Bridges Not Walls.
After countless Skype calls, a couple of face to face meetings – where impressive facilitation meant all voices were heard and decisions were made democratically – plus many late nights, the big day has finally arrived. Now the bigger questions – Will we even be able to get onto Westminster and Waterloo Bridges? Will the London action be successful? Will anyone care? What it it doesn’t take off? – are about to be answered, emphatically…
Cycling towards the Thames on Friday morning, one thing is already obvious – it’s a beautiful, bright, clear morning for a protest, and the banners are going to look amazing!
Had it been grey, rainy or even foggy (as it has been since), it would have been a very different affair and the film and photos would have looked soggy and miserable. Ironically, as photos of people taking Bridges Not Walls actions across Europe and the world flood in, it looks like the only place where it is raining on Friday is Washington DC. Maybe there is a God after all, and she doesn’t support Trump.
With some good momentum on Facebook and Twitter (thanks largely to a post-pub tweet I posted on Thursday night of a great action in Paris that quickly ‘went viral’) it seems like we are well set up on social media. But will the London images look as iconic as Paris?
As the first photos of the Tower Bridge and London Bridge banners appear on Twitter it quickly becomes obvious: yes, they will!
All the amazing hard work and diligence that went into their creation was not only worth it, but essential. Everyone who worked so hard on the logistics of the operation, and put in the hours (literally, thousands of hours) to make the banners a reality deserve huge credit.
The combination of white fabric and dayglo lettering with a black outline just works so well. And the visual consistency of the banners make it clear this is a coordinated, yet multi-message action. Different messages, but a united cause.
Also vindicated is the late decision to change the direction of the boat’s journey, capturing the action starting at Tower Bridge and heading west rather than the other way, and the side the banners are hung – all lit up by glorious morning sunshine.
As the first pictures come in from Vauxhall, there are a few tears of joy in the room. Those guys and girls are having a party and they want the whole world to know it! The rainbow flares are a genius addition and give Vauxhall Bridge, with its brilliant message ‘Queer Solidarity Smashes Borders’, added oomph.
Meanwhile, on other bridges, the decision to add raised letters to spell out extra messages above the banners is also proving inspired – the lettering stands out against the skyline and gives more room for messaging.
In the ‘hub’, things aren’t going quite so smoothly though. We change the passwords to everything about 30 minutes before it all starts to go mental and in doing so nearly lock ourselves out of Gmail and Instagram. But at least it means all our sites and social platforms are secure as the traffic (and trolls) rocket.
After this, things settle into a pattern, and momentum starts to build. The first professional photos are starting to come in and they look incredible. We have Facebook Live from Westminster Bridge. We have live coverage on BBC London (TV and radio). Suddenly the hashtag is trending in London, then the UK, then the world!
Some time around 9.30am, the first real images of actions from outside London are starting to filter through, and they look brilliant. From rural Wales to urban Manchester, iconic to humdrum, hundreds of small but beautiful actions are being shared live on social media.
And then we start noticing that they’re coming in from all over Europe, thanks largely to Greenpeace Europe’s late involvement – from the far north of snow-covered Sweden to Berlin to Greece.
We’re trying to add photos to the rapidly growing Facebook album as fast as they’re coming in, but can barely keep up. Every now and again there’s an exclamation of “wow, check out Berlin”, or, “stand by – first photos coming in from Aberdeen, they’ve totally smashed it!” and a quick rush over to look at a laptop screen. Check them all in this photo album on Facebook.
Meanwhile on Twitter the trolls have come out to play. From the baffled (“but don’t you people understand, Trump’s been elected fair and square?”) to the plain nasty and gruesome, it’s all there, but satisfyingly, the hate tweets are outnumbered about 1000-1 by positivity and love for #BridgesNotWalls.
Countless people are saying things like “I don’t know who you are but thank you for giving us hope on an otherwise dark day.” Or, when seeing a banner, “I don’t know who made the banner I’ve just seen, but it’s made my day.”
Across the UK and the world, people are jumping on the idea and running with it. One favourite is a woman who shares a photo of a bridge she’s built out of books about walls. That’s deep.
By 11am, #BridgesNotWalls is the second biggest hashtag worldwide, and my Tweetdeck is in meltdown. The tactic of taking action early (before work) and setting the agenda for the day has 100% paid off – and also provides the perfect comeback to the bores who accuse us of being workshy lefties who need to get a job.
Something funny is happening to the media coverage too. Big-hitting sites including Mashable (with their 8m twitter followers), Buzzfeed, Time Out, The Guardian, Huff Po, Daily Fail and, most bizarrely, Breitbart (in an ‘exclusive’ – yeah, exclusive to everyone), have all covered the action and, almost without exception, covered it favourably. Much to the chagrin of their readers (check the DM comments for a laugh). Could all the staffers at Breitbart be over in Washington and it’s the intern who’s put the press release up without thinking to do a hatchet job first?!
By lunchtime, actions have come in from Sydney in Australia, Kathmandu in Nepal, Dubai in the UAE, and NYC in the US. What started as an idea in the mind of one person has spread around the globe in a single day and captured the imagination in a way we never thought possible.
In the afternoon, just about the same time as the first edit of the (excellent) film arrives, the internet in the office we’re in goes down. The first upload of the film to FB fails completely, and getting it onto Twitter is taking an age. We get wind of a ‘secret’ wifi network and pile onto it, just about managing to share the film before it goes down again.
The rest of the afternoon is spent sharing the film on Twitter with signatory and supportive organisations and individuals. It’s had thousands of views by the time we call it a day and hit the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate and chew over what has, I feel, been a ray of light on an otherwise dark day.
Plant trees, not walls
There’s no rest for the wicked though and early Saturday, complete with hangover, I struggle out of bed and into clothes vaguely suitable for cycling and tree-planting in sub-zero temperatures. I sleepily make my way to Clapham to hook up with around 16 other Time to Cycle cyclists who are ready to plant trees and help make the world that little bit less dull.
At 9am we set off in two groups, ‘fast’ and ‘fun’. I choose the fast group, although it’s not that fast, and it’s still quite fun. The route maybe leaves a bit to be desired though. We head out from Clapham towards Epsom on the A24, which isn’t an especially nice road to ride on. I’m pretty sure there are less busy routes to Epsom, although perhaps not from Clapham.
Our ride leader has to check his phone for the route on about 3 occasions (maybe writing down the route on paper would have been a good plan?) and he also takes us through red lights, which might be fine on your own in London, but in a small group it just means you get shouted at by Angry Surrey Drivers – a pretty common breed, especially on Saturday mornings.
Anyhoo, we get to the site, Langley Vale Woods, in one piece and, it turns out, I’ve cycled here before. In that blog post I described the path through the woods as “surely impassable in winter” and I’m not far wrong. It’s only because the mud’s frozen (and it’s been a dry few weeks) that we can cycle all the way to the planting site.
When we arrive, I say hi to some old Time To Cycle buddies, get a cup of chai to warm up, and then it’s straight into the digging and planting. Unlike the December plant, this is an almost military operation, with dozens of people, a full catering unit, and a huge field with the planting spots already marked in orange dots. This is the Woodland Trust – clearly they don’t mess about.
It’s a big old space to fill but, with so many people, we make rapid progress. By lunchtime the first field is full of tiny beech saplings. The plan is to create a beech coppice and also to connect two existing areas of semi-ancient woodland. The land we’re planting is currently arable but was returning such low yields the Trust were able to buy it at a pretty low price.
Despite the overnight frost, we’re planting on a south facing slope and the sun has already done its work. Thank god it’s another sunny day! The people planting range from 5 year old children to OAPS, and includes a large contingent from a local Muslim group, and another large contingent from a nearby Hindu community. Worth mentioning, since so often conservation is portrayed as the preserve of the white middle classes and environmental issues as of little interest to minority groups.
During lunchtime, the ‘fun’ group of cyclists finally turns up. A puncture en-route slowed them in their tracks and didn’t sound like much fun at all, unfortunately. Also rather unfortunately for them, by the time we’ve had lunch and taken an official group photo for Time To Cycle, there’s actually not that much tree planting left to do.
Because the event has been so popular, and also because a small area of land that was in the shade all day is in fact too frosty, we’re rapidly running out of places to plant and we finish a little early, meaning some of the late arrivals have barely planted a single tree.
Job done though, with at least 5,000 trees planted!
A smaller group of us set off back to London before it starts to get dark, but the group are heading back towards SW London so I decide to go it alone and see if I can re-trace my old route in reverse. I cycle through Epsom Racecourse again (fun!) and back along a few roads that seem vaguely familiar. But, as darkness descends and tiredness grows, I end up on fairly unpleasant roads that all seem to lead to Croydon. Isn’t it always the way?!
It’s here that I end up tiredly cycling along a road shared with a tram, and without really realising it, accidentally get my front wheel stuck in the groove of the tram-line. I tumble to the ground but thankfully I’m not going fast and am not hurt – although my saddle and front light are both damaged, and a tram approaching from behind means I have to get out of the way pretty quickly.
I blame tiredness, which suddenly hits me like a wave. I realise I’m right outside West Croydon station so I decide to admit defeat and take the Overground the rest of the way home.
I’m knackered, a little bruised, but happy that I’ve managed to make some kind of positive contribution to the world in the last two days – in two very different ways.