Apocalypse Later: Climate Activists Gather at Capitol

Climate change activists will have to draw on the Capitol building another day

Extinction Rebellion demonstrates in London / Getty Images
July 13, 2019

No one seems to know what's going on here.

It's 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, and about 100 people have gathered in a park behind the House of Representatives office buildings. They've taped up the trees and lamp posts with yellow emergency tape. A man standing by a picnic table hands out vests which look like they were filched from the gilets jaunes. Passersby stop and gawk at the spectacle.

This is Extinction Rebellion, a worldwide organization devoted to combating climate change. Its demands are both simple and simplistic: Governments must declare a global "climate emergency" and work together to save the human race from total annihilation within the next 30 years. Its members are self-professed fanatics, eager to ditch their dignity for the sake of saving their species.

The group (which styles itself XR) first became famous last November for a series of dramatic protests in London, where it was founded. During a day of climate awareness, XR activists blockaded the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy and glued their hands to its doors. Other unrolled a giant flag on Westminster Bridge reading, "Climate Change: We're F—d." Still others glued themselves to the gates of Downing Street, which stand near the British prime minister's residence.

In the next few months, XR staged similar acts of civil disobedience in Copenhagen, Berlin, Madrid, and many other European urban centers. XR gained worldwide attention when activists stripped to their underwear in the balconies of the House of Commons and flashed British legislators. Two protestors donned elephant masks and painted their bodies gray to address "the elephant in the room" (it's the climate emergency). As British police came to arrest them, they glued themselves to the building.

XR has not yet staged any such demonstrations in the States. There have been some marches in New York City, and the Washington, D.C., chapter formed earlier this year, but no one is stripping down to save the earth.

All that would change Tuesday, XR said in an email the previous week. Organizers promised the "biggest action Extinction Rebellion DC has ever taken," complete with "a brave cadre of arrestables ready to roll." Although the specifics of the arrestable action were kept under wraps, over the next few days, a deluge of tantalizing emails flooded climate-conscious inboxes. They urged XR members to consider arrestable action, to sign up for classes on how to get arrested, and to support those who seek arrest at the upcoming protest. XR even set up an arrest practice run two days prior to go time. Everything seemed to be in place.

But just hours before the protest, would-be dissidents received a disheartening email. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and Earl Blumenauer (D., Oregon), announced Tuesday morning that they are rolling out a resolution for Congress to declare a climate emergency. This is one of XR's primary demands, and the news made the need for a protest—and the prospect of a noble arrest—superfluous.

But XR will not allow good news deter its militancy: "We definitely do not trust that Congress will take this resolution seriously," an email to protestors said. "If things go as expected and Nancy Pelosi refuses to even consider this legislation, Extinction Rebellion will go forward with the plan to nonviolently disrupt business-as-usual in Congress and force our government to take the climate crisis seriously. Let this be a warning to Congress: do your job and tell the truth about the climate emergency, or there will be consequences."

But as activists mill about the park Tuesday evening, it's unclear if they'll be able to deliver on those "consequences." There's nothing to protest, really. XR leaders have pivoted away from encouraging extreme civil disobedience, which "possibly" could have included DC Climatistas gluing themselves to the steps of the Capitol building, according to organizer Kaela Bamberger. Instead, they've decided to vandalize the Capitol steps with chalk, which is only "slightly against the law," Bamberger says.

As vested volunteers hand out chalk and pick up signs, Bamberger calls over Connor Whitaker, whom she says can succinctly explain the coming collapse. Whitaker says the world does not have a future if "we don't act on climate change now." In his view, in about 30 years, up to 70 percent of all species may be headed toward extinction and human civilization might fall apart entirely.

"I think that in itself is enough justification for immediate action on climate change," he says. "Obviously, this is probably not going to be taken seriously by the rest of Congress, so until it is we're just going to keep on escalating our acts of civil disobedience until they're forced to."

Sentiments are similar among other attendees. A 16-year-old girl stands on a table and shouts through a megaphone, speaking for other teens, who, like her, are "sobbing on your parents' bed, with fear gripping your whole body, stealing the breath from your lungs, paralyzing your whole body in panic" over their impending deaths in the climate crisis. Another speaker rips into Pelosi and other House Democrats for their inaction on climate issues. The crowd cheers when he says he's "tired of DNC hypocrisy."

The anti-Democrat animus continues as the march begins. Activists raise the cry of "Nancy Pelosi, we'll be back!"—an admission that a word-salad resolution signed by three far-left members of Congress is not going to save the world from climate change. The booing and chanting ramps up as XR makes it way to Capitol Hill.

Once the march reaches the back lawn of the Capitol building, the police decide XR's time is up. A number of motorcycles, which had been escorting the group down Independence Ave., form a blockade to keep the protestors away from the steps. One person attempts to vandalize the Capitol parking lot, but police prevent him.

The rest of the protestors flock to the officer in charge and demand that he respect "their rights" and let them draw on the building to "leave a message."

But he just chuckles. "I don't have the smarts or the willpower to debate, so I'll just stand here and smile at you," he says.