‘Next Door Radicals’ is a series by Sul Nowroz – individual stories about ordinary people taking extraordinary action to resist injustice and oppression. While corporate and state media often portray activists as ‘other’, defining them by their actions, Sul gives us their personal stories and journeys, revealing nothing more radical than compassion and public-spiritedness.
Alexander Park 2013
Alexander Park, Manchester (2013) Photo: BBC/Tim Cooke
It began under the cover of darkness on the night of Thursday January 31st, 2013. Approximately seventy people of various ages and backgrounds breached a temporary security fence that encircled a large cluster of trees. Once through the fencing some began climbing trunks and branches, finding hard-to-reach places to lodge themselves into; others simply locked-on to the trees at ground level. Within a few minutes this part-time, voluntary band of brothers and sisters were enacting a grassroots expression of resistance.
By morning word had spread and hundreds gathered in a show of unity and support for the activists who had climbed over fences and up trees. This community-led defiance was playing out in Manchester’s Alexander Park, a sixty-acre site that dates to 1870. Alexander Park is best known for challenging tradition by experimenting with oval and curved shaped pathways rather than adopting the popular rigid geometry of the Victorian period. On February 1st, 2013, it again played host to an act of rebellion, this time attempting to thwart the felling of four-hundred healthy trees to make way for tennis courts and decorative raised flowerbeds.
Eamonn O’Rourke, council Head of Communities and Culture at the time, said: “The actions of a small, noisy band of protesters are now holding up much-needed improvements to the park. These plans are about making this historic park fit for the 21st century so people feel safe and can get involved in a wide range of activities.”
O’Rourke studied business and administration before assuming his role. He would go onto become a sports and leisure consultant.
Protester Ian Brewer commented: “I think it is an environmental crime that is being committed here and it needs the public to prevent this from happening.”
A few hundred feet from Brewer is university student Kat Dawson. She has come to Alexandra Park in-between lectures – in part to show solidarity, in part out of curiosity. Nine years later, and two hundred miles away Kat will herself be protesting another environmental crime.
October 12th, 2022, was a Wednesday, the middle-of-the-week day when many indulge in thinking about the weekend, thinking about a break in the monotony of early morning alarms and commutes, and sandwiches on the go, of lazing in front of the evening television.
For Kat, this Wednesday was different.
“I was at work in the morning, and obviously my anxiety was ramping up as the day progressed. I finished work at around one o’clock and went straight home. I prepared my backpack – a change of clothes, some toiletries, and a book. And no phone – that was the strangest part of packing. No phone.”
By mid-afternoon Kat was ready to begin her trip. Her friend and flatmate drove her to the station. The drive was ordinary, occupied by everyday conversation. It was when Kat boarded her train to London the anxiety re-surfaced. Then the paranoia kicked in.
“I’m not a paranoid person normally.”
Kat scanned the carriage, lingering on faces that looked dubious or suspect.
“I felt like everybody on the train knew what I was about to do, and they were going to call the police, and I was going to get arrested.”
Kat arrived in London in the middle of rush hour. People hurried between trains and across platforms, down escalators and along walkways but there were no police waiting for her. She had slipped into the capital unnoticed and undetected.
Losing herself in the crowd Kat made her way across London to the home of a long-time friend. The evening, like the drive to the station, was uneventful. The anxiety and paranoia receded, replaced by a sense of calm and comfort. Kat and the friend chatted, cooked, ate, and relaxed. Tomorrow seemed a distant place.
“When I went to bed, that’s when things changed. I was awake most of the night with worry and anxiety – about what I was doing and how it was going to turn out.”
I asked Kat if that night she had re-considered what she was doing; if it ever crossed her mind not to follow through with her decision.
“No. By that point I was fully committed. I was comfortable with the decision. I just wasn’t sure how it would all play out.”
Kat elaborated: “This [decision] was well thought through, well thought out. I considered the possible personal consequences, and how it might affect my work.”
On the morning of Thursday October 13th, the headlines, news-bites and tabloid chatter in the U.K. obsessed over Liz Truss’ dysfunctional premiership. As a result, many people missed the release of a key report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Known as the Living Planet Index, the report, issued every two years, assesses the health of wild vertebrate populations. Its conclusion that October morning was alarming: Wildlife populations had declined by 69% in less than 50 years.
In the report WWF Director General Marco Lambertini elaborated: “Land-use change is still the biggest current threat to nature, destroying or fragmenting the natural habitats of many plant and animal species on land, in freshwater and in the sea. However, if we are unable to limit warming to 1.5°C, climate change is likely to become the dominant cause of biodiversity loss in the coming decades.”
Kat was up early that Thursday, despite having only slept a few hours. She got dressed in a dark long-sleeved top, dark trousers, and light-coloured walking boots. Attire was comfortable and functional. With little appetite she ate a single banana for breakfast before saying goodbye to her host and catching the underground to southeast London.
The Journey to Activism
“At first, I really didn’t like it,” Kat answered when I asked her about Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) April 2019 rising, and their use of civil disobedience.
“I was working at Great Ormond Street Hospital and my route to work was blocked. I was inconvenienced and started looking for alternative ways to get to work.”
After a few days, Kat became more curious about what was happening, about the energy and positivity she was witnessing from the protestors, about the sheer scale of the resistance and the way it engaged the public. That April would prove to be XR’s highpoint, a moment that would become lore and legend for both the environmental and civil disobedience movements. There was a raw mix of innocence and belief, both of which would come under attack in the coming months. The former would be shattered by a combative right-wing government, the latter undermined by fractured leadership. XR would go onto spawn several smaller resistance movements and inspire a generation, but it would fall short in mobilising the public at large.
“I’ve always been interested in the environment, and the changes we are seeing. It first came up in my geography classes at school. We learnt about it [the climate emergency] but always thought of it as something that was generations away, at least not in our lifetime.”
Kat finished school and studied music as an undergraduate. During this time, she became an environmental representative at her university, and launched a series of grassroot campaigns aimed at influencing the climate emergency debate. There were marches and demonstrations, letter writing to officials and cycling initiatives. Although Kat was relatively new to activism, she learnt a lot from her mother, who was herself a social justice campaigner.
On graduating Kat focused on her career and worked in healthcare and education. She busied herself as a mid-twenty’s adult does – socialising, travelling, and making sense of the world we live in. But Kat also continued asking that all important question: What type of world do we want to live in?
Being of service to others was emerging as a core value for Kat, and in 2018 she enrolled on a mental health post graduate degree. She relocated to London and moved in with a long-time family friend. The friend, a forester, invited Kat to environmental talks and gatherings, and to book readings and film screenings about nature and life systems and climate change. It wasn’t long before Kat realised the impact of climate change was profound and immediate.
Kat’s initial resistance to XR’s use of civil disobedience dropped away and instead she became intrigued by their operating practices. She started attending XR meetings, built a network of relationships and by 2021 was performing non-arrestable support roles.
“It was a slow process,” she says looking back.
Joining Just Stop Oil
XR is a unique entity. It began as an organising model and operating system, ignited a global movement, and served as a cornerstone of resistance. It gave voice and travel to a zeitgeist, and channelled a groundswell of emotion that, up to that point, was directionless. Most of all XR gave hope. Then it stalled. Why and how is best covered elsewhere, but relevant to Kat’s story, many climate activists were drawn towards the newly-formed Just Stop Oil (JSO) in February 2022.
JSO describes itself as a ‘coalition of groups working together to demand that the government immediately halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.’ In early 2022 it opened a chapter in Kat’s hometown. Roger Hallam was invited to speak; Kat was in the audience.
Kat came away from the talk motivated: “The appeal of JSO was it had a very clear demand. It was focused on one single issue.”
What happened next, I asked.
“People just kind of floated across to JSO – it’s where the energy went.”
It’s where Kat went.
On December 31st, 2022, XR published its controversial ‘We Quit’ statement announcing they were temporarily shifting ‘away from public disruption as a primary tactic.’ It was the end of an inciting and rousing four years. The energy had gone.
The Action – October 13th, 2022
Original image courtesy: Guy Smallman
Walking through the streets of south-east London on the morning of October 13th, 2022, Kat realised she wouldn’t be going home this way. In a few hours she wouldn’t be free to walk down these streets, to catch the underground or to show up at her friend’s house.
“Taking (civil disobedience) action, and facing arrest is such a bizarre situation to find yourself in,” Kat recalls.
St George’s Circus is just north of Elephant and Castle. It was built in 1771 and was London’s first ‘purpose-built traffic junction.’ In 2005 guerrilla gardeners adopted the landmark and planted it with lavender, rosemary, and tulips, and a single seven-foot Christmas tree. All have since been removed.
At just before 9am Kat and a handful of fellow activists donned their bright orange high vis jackets. They waited for the signal.
“I felt physically sick just before the action. My heart was racing.”
I asked if she had ever felt like this before.
“No. I don’t like conflict. I am generally a compliant person. This was very different for me.”
Seconds later the signal was given – it was safe to enter the road. Kat and the others walked quietly and purposefully into the road and proceeded to sit down, ensuring no traffic could pass. JSO banners were hastily unfolded, homemade placards held up – No New Oil. This was one of eight roads blocked that morning by JSO activists.
On the pavement a small crowd of onlookers gathered. There is interest in what is happening. Two heavily built men appear. One is wearing a baseball cap, the other has his anorak hood pulled up tightly around his face. Both walk with a bully’s swagger towards the protesters. They proceed to kick the JSO banners to the ground. It’s a use of force designed to intimidate, harass, and frighten. A voice from the crowd repeatedly yells at the two men, asking them to stop and leave the protesters alone.
“We are a non-violent movement, and we don’t resist such behaviours” Kat told me.
Kat was afraid. She was aware of instances of fellow activists being manhandled and abused by members of the public. She tried to steady herself.
Within minutes the police arrived. Within two hours Kat and the others were arrested and driven to a local police station. By 1030am traffic is moving through St George’s Circus unobstructed. The two men who kicked the banner were never arrested.
Kat was charged with wilful obstruction of the highway and her case will be heard in December 2023. Under current guidelines, she will not be allowed to use the ‘necessity’ defence, which would allow her to argue that she acted to stop a greater crime. In short, she will not be able to explain the motivations behind her actions.
I ask Kat how this period defines her.
“Whatever the outcome of the trial, I’m not characterising myself on that. When you connect with the climate crisis, it’s distressing, and there are intense moments of grief. But I’ve also found meaning in the pain, and that’s what I acted on.”
I ask how the experience has affected her.
“It’s been a complete roller coaster of emotions. I am careful who I share the experience with, and I came off all social media. It has led to some strained relationships.”
There is a short silence. Was it worth it I ask.
“I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing by getting arrested, but I did what I believed was the right thing, what was necessary. I felt compelled to act.”
Kat is a nurse in the NHS. She lives with her partner, loves her parents, and wants to live a full life. She is a fun-loving person; a perpetual smiler who epitomises care and compassion – whether on the ward or at St George’s Circus on a Thursday morning in October.
©2023 Sul Nowroz Kat Dawson is a pseudonym.