IT was just a few words – seven in all – and you might easily have missed them. But the ramifications of those seven words could yet have a huge impact on Portsea Island and its residents, commuters and tourists.
Speaking in last Saturday’s edition of The News, Nicholas Day said this about the roads leading into Portsmouth: ‘They would be incredibly easy to block.’
So who is Nicholas Day, and what is he talking about?
He is a coordinator for the Portsmouth branch of Extinction Rebellion – the climate change action group that has made national headlines this week via protesters holding up traffic in Oxford Circus and on Waterloo Bridge in central London, as well as supergluing themselves to diverse objects such as shop windows, a train, each other and Jeremy Corbyn’s house.
It is believed they have cost London businesses about £12m, though how the national press arrives at such figures has always bemused me.
Anyway, could such scenes be on their way to Portsmouth? Could this newspaper soon be reporting on protesters armed with adhesive substances outside Gerald Vernon-Jackson’s home, or on a train at Fratton station? Or the scenario that Nicholas Day was keen to make public – sit-down protests blocking traffic on Eastern Road and the Portsbridge roundabout at Hilsea?
Let’s be honest, he is completely right, Portsea Island WOULD be an incredibly easy place to cause huge disruption, and the reason why is screamingly obvious – it’s an island.
Imagine such protests taking place on a Portsmouth FC home matchday? There’s traffic chaos at the best of times, without people sitting in the middle of the road.
In order to create such disruption, though, Extinction Rebellion would need numbers. It is easy to drum up large support for London-based protests, but where would they draw local support from.
Easy answer – students.
Nicholas Day told The News: ‘We want to target the city’s 23,000 students – we want to radicalise them.’
‘Radicalise’ can be an inflammatory word these days, with its connotations of terrorism. Extinction Rebellion’s ‘radicalisation’ relates to another war, one without bombs or beheadings but which can still lead to deaths – the war on carbon emissions.
Numerous studies have shown that Portsmouth residents are being exposed to worrying levels of air pollution. None should have been remotely surprising – this city is one of the most densely-populated cities in Europe. Residents can spend ages driving around the streets trying to find somewhere to park. It would have been a shock if the reports said Portsmouth’s air was as fresh as that in the South Downs National Park.
Back in 2017, The News reported that city dwellers are ‘inhaling air considered too dangerous to breathe by the World Health Organisation’. The situation has not improved since.
Tom Vick, who was at last week’s Extinction Rebellion protest in Guildhall Square, said: ‘You see headlines saying that if you live in Portsmouth for a year, it’s the same as starting smoking – it’s quite alarming.’
So it is, if true – I’m not saying Tom Vick is guilty of peddling Fake News, but I’ve had a good search online and can’t find the headline he is referring too. Still, there is ample evidence to show this city’s carbon emissions are so high it is worthy of a major protest.
Because whatever has been done so far, hasn’t been good enough.
Portsmouth City Council is not plunging its head ostrich-like into the scant sand on Southsea beach, though. Last month it made the ‘historic act’ of voting to declare a ‘climate emergency’ with the pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. In a city with Portsmouth’s traffic infrastructure and plans to build more houses, good luck with that one.
It has been claimed English people are ‘too nice’ to get involved in large protests – the stereotypical ‘let’s have a cup of tea instead’ attitude found in the shires. And recent history shows large-scale demonstrations have a tendency to erupt into violence, seriously diluting any support from the law-abiding masses. Witness the 2000 May Day demo in London which ended with the statue of Sir Winston Churchill vandalised, or more infamously the 1990 Poll Tax demo in the capital which resulted in one of the biggest riots in UK history and metal poles being hurled like javelins through police car windows. Some protesters, however, will argue that the carnage worked – the Poll Tax was abolished. Some will argue it was influential in Margaret Thatcher quitting as PM later that year. They may not be wrong either.
Other UK protests have had little effect. Remember the lorry drivers’ blockading ports in the September 2000 Fuel Protests. At the time a litre of unleaded petrol was 80p. Now it’s £1.20(ish) and has been more than £1.30 on occasions. But there have been no more protests since 2000. Are we, as a nation, just too accepting? Are other nations more eager to wear, for example, a gilet jaune?
Will Extinction Rebellion be a short-lived protest group, eventually viewed as a bunch of middle and upper class rabble rousers? (Many protesters are from privileged backgrounds – remember the sons of music legends Bryan Ferry and David Gilmour being in trouble with the police?). Or will Extinction Rebellion one day be seen as a conduit for real environmental change, up there with Sir David Attenborough and his television documentaries? It is far too early to judge, so no-one can.
Nicholas Day is not advocating placard-waving university students go and sit down at the top of Eastern Road any time soon. ‘We wouldn’t want to go down that route, as the challenge is mobilising the public’, he has said. ‘But if the council starts to drag its feet, we will resort to direct action.’
That, to me, sounds like a gauntlet being hurled to the floor. Wikipedia describes a ‘gauntlet’ as a piece of armour ‘formerly thrown down as a challenge to combat’. So we will see, won’t we? And if the roads into Portsmouth are ever brought to a standstill by Extinction Rebellion, well, at least no-one can ever say they weren’t warned ...