Richard Smith: Why are doctors sticking themselves to government buildings?

On the day that a United Nations report said that “Climate change is devastating our seas and frozen regions as never before,” I joined a protest with Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, playing, I must confess right away, a minor part.

I wasn’t involved in the detailed planning, but I knew that our destination was the Department of Business, Industry, and Energy, a good target as the UK government subsidises fossil fuels by €12 billion (£10.5 billion), more than any other country in the European Union. In contrast, it spends only €8.3 billion (£7.3 billion) on renewable energy. 

The group of about 30 doctors assembled by the café in St James’s Park at about 7.30 in the morning. There were older doctors, but most were young, two with babies. The doctors had come from across the country and many different specialties. We’d been asked to wear surgical greens and stethoscopes. I’d searched for my stethoscope and eventually found it in my sock draw, but then I’d forgotten to take it, an inefficient rebel.

When I arrived people were already gathered behind a 30 foot long banner saying “Government inaction will cost countless lives.” I joined the group, and multiple people photographed us. We then gathered around our leader, who explained what would happen. Two “stickies” would stick themselves to the doors of the department, while two “jumpers” assisted by “lifters” would jump up onto a porch above the doors and attach posters. The rest of us would enter the forecourt of the department, so trespassing, and unroll the banner. Selected people would speak, while others would live-Tweet the protest and hand out leaflets. We would probably have a die-in. Once the police asked us to move, those of us who didn’t want to be arrested would move into the street, where it is legal to protest.

People were encouraged to provide the contact numbers of next of kin and lawyers in case they were arrested in the fray. The stickies and the jumpers, who knew they would be arrested (“arrestables” in Extinction Rebellion jargon) were prepared, some with the numbers written on their arms. 

Tensions rose as we came nearer our mission, and we were invited to gather round, close our eyes, breathe deeply, and feel our feet on the ground. One of the jumpers read out the vision of Extinction Rebellion: “Our world is in crisis. Life itself is under threat. Yet every crisis contains the possibility of transformation…. We catch glimpses of a new world of love, respect, and regeneration, where we have restored the intricate web of all life….And so we rebel for this, calling in joy, creativity, and beauty….Our vision stretches beyond our own lifespan, to a horizon dedicated to future generations and the restoration of our planet’s integrity. Together, our rebellion is the gift this world needs. We are XR and you are us.” It had a religious feel.

Then we were off, walking through the park to our destination. We were a ragged army. I chatted to one of the live-Tweeters, but my mouth was dry. I wasn’t exactly scared but apprehensive. I didn’t want to be arrested because I had an important meeting to chair that afternoon, and I’m not yet ready to be arrested, although I’ve played around with the idea. I feel that I should be one if I can muster the courage. A friend didn’t want to be arrested because he wanted to get to his book club that evening.

As we approached the DBIE offices we were told that there were only two security guards, and when we arrived it went easily: the two stickers were struck in seconds, and the jumpers were up on the porch roof and beginning to stick up their posters. The rest of us entered the forecourt and unrolled the banner.

A microphone and amplifier were produced, and doctors began to make speeches. They emphasised that with our scientific training we understand the seriousness of climate change and that the effects are not just in the future, but now. Despite scientists warning of climate chaos for 30 years governments have been slow to act—and the little that has been done is wholly inadequate. That’s why doctors have been driven to civil disobedience. We are rapidly running out of time to avoid catastrophic damage to life and nature.

Both the stickies spoke passionately. They didn’t want to be stuck to a government building. They would rather be doing their work, caring for patients, but desperate circumstances require desperate measures. Few people stopped to listen, although four Japanese lingered, looking bemused.

While the doctors spoke we began a die-in. I lay as dead on the stone floor. I felt relaxed, although I could feel the cold of the stone. It was impossible to see what was happening, and I wondered how long it would be before the police took some action. After about 20 minutes we abandoned the die-in and returned to holding the banner.

Two policeman had arrived moments after we had. They used their walkie-talkies, and soon others arrived. Eventually a minivan with perhaps 10 policemen arrived. The police were presumably prepared to carry us all away if we resisted. About 45 minutes after we arrived, a man accompanied by two policemen came and told us that we were trespassing and that if we didn’t move we would be arrested. We moved out into the street with our banner, and a policeman asked us politely not to block the pavement. 

After a while I left, but most of the doctors continued the protest, moving later to outside Parliament. That evening I saw a video of the jumpers being arrested, and as I lay in comfortably in my bed that night I thought of them in cells and admired their commitment and courage.

Is civil disobedience effective? I’m currently reading the letters of Bertrand Russell, and involved in many protests he came to conclude that it did hasten change. He was strongly in favour of votes for women, but at that stage in his life he did not support the suffragettes who took direct action. Later he came to conclude that they had been essential for the cause to triumph, and when years later he campaigned for nuclear disarmament he supported civil disobedience, upsetting some of the leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Civil disobedience has a long history stretching back to Antigone and has been used by many groups in many countries, most famously by Gandhi in freeing India from the British and by the civil rights movement in the United States. Shelley is said to have a first enunciated the principles in his poem The Mask of Anarchy written in response to the Peterloo Massacre. Gandhi would often quote the poem when motivating the Indians.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:

Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”

Civil disobedience is most effective when it uses different methods, and doctors, some of the most trusted people in society, taking direct action adds to the armamentarium of Extinction Rebellion. Think about joining the next major rebellion on 7 October.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.