Solar Flares, Special Edition: XR Halifax

The day before the Halifax action, I leave Sydney by car. I don’t feel great about driving, but I’m picking up my friend P in Antigonish along the way, so at least part of the journey involves carpooling. I listen to inspirational music till I’m off the island. The weather is fabulous.

When I knock on P’s door, his whole family answers, including a six-month-old black lab puppy who is bound and determined to knock me on my butt. P says his goodbyes and we get back on the highway. I’ve only known him a short while, but it doesn’t surprise me to learn that P is one of the organizers of the Extinction Rebellion march in Halifax. We talk about the various roles I could adopt during the march, and about the likelihood of anyone getting arrested. XR, he reminds me, has a policy against violence and property damage, but that doesn’t preclude the police from trying to discourage us.

We stop for lunch at the Appleseed Diner in New Glasgow, sampling the meat-free options on their brunch menu (A+!). In Halifax, I drop P off with friends in the Northend, then find my hotel in the Southend—a classy heritage inn from 1867. That’s around the date that many carbon trackers start measuring an increase in atmospheric CO2, as the Industrial Revolution was taking off. Nowadays, Canadian hotels have little cards instructing how guests can save energy by using their towels and sheets for more than one night. It’s not going to be enough.

Monday morning, I’m up early. At the continental breakfast, I nab and extra apple for lunch on my feet. The forecast calls for rain, so I put on a sweater and two jackets, then double-check my gear before I head out. I have packed all the items one is supposed to take on a protest march, including goggles and a bandana in case there’s tear gas. I also write a cell number on my arm with a Sharpie, in case—I’m not sure, but that’s what they say you should do.

I also have a sign, pre-wrapped in clear tape to protect it from the rain. I take it on the bus ride from downtown to our muster point, an Anglican church on Joseph Howe Road. I arrive early, and everything is locked up. I stand under the porch awning, watching for signs of activism, but for awhile the only clue that I’m in the right place is a police car driving around the block. I know the XR organizers have told the Halifax Regional Police that we plan to march, so it makes sense they’d keep their eye on us.

Eventually, someone gets out of a car and introduces himself as J “from The Valley”–that is, Annapolis Valley, where apparently there live enough rabble-rousers to have chartered an entire bus to drive up. J expected to meet the bus here, but there is no sign of it. We chat for a bit, comparing quotes and factoids about the climate, until it occurs to me to check the parking lot around the far side of the church. There’s the bus! And a small throng of activists in windbreakers. And a long lineup for the bathrooms.

I find P again, and offer my services as a marshal on the march. That involves walking alongside the other protesters, making sure everyone is behaving themselves, no one is in distress, etc. My deputy’s star consists of a homemade armband—a furry swatch of absurdly Muppet-like orange fabric. I pin it on, and someone pins an XR logo to my backpack, and then I join the crowd outside the church. It looks like about 100 people—fewer than anticipated, but a decent turnout considering the weather.

We pose for pictures in solidarity with the water-keepers, then we strike out, but not very far. Our first stop, the Chronicle-Herald building, is right across the street. Energy and morale are high. One aging hippie distributes noisemakers, which the kids in the crowd embrace with gusto. We are chanting, issuing call-and-responses with L and E, ringleaders with megaphones. “What do we want?” “Climate justice!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

The doors to the Chronicle-Herald building are locked, and security doesn’t want to let 100 activists in. We tell them we’re staying put until the editors agree to speak with our representatives. More chanting follows, including songs from the Raging Grannies. It’s not raining hard, but it’s cold, so we march around the little parking loop in front of the building to keep our blood flowing. The hippie announces he has to return to work, and asks for his noisemakers back.

I start to feel the stirrings of a lifelong cynicism. What if they never come down? Do we stay here all day? Does this form of protest even work? But after half an hour, word arrives: the editors will speak with us. P and L go inside, amid cheering, and then we take turns leading chants while we wait another 15 minutes. The delegates return with good news: the Chronicle-Herald editors have agreed to devote more space to the climate crisis, including a daily count of the carbon levels in the atmosphere.

I blink. That was me! Or, well—I read that The Guardian was going to post carbon counts, and I posted a link on our XR forum and suggested we add it to our list of demands. This little victory does not make me feel like a hero, but I do feel a quiet warmth, knowing my contribution was taken seriously.

We take our signs and bullhorns down the sidewalk, around the corner to Chebucto, and up to the doors of the CBC. Emotions are mixed, here—many of the protesters are fond of the CBC, and don’t want to think of them as part of the problem. But, just like the corporate-owned Chronicle-Herald, the CBC’s doors are locked, and nobody wants to speak to us. Looking up, I see a group of staffers gawking down at us. It looks like they are eating cake. Somebody’s birthday, probably, but the irony is enough to stoke our righteous indignation.

We cycle through our chants, then add some songs to the rotation, including Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Just as before, the suits upstairs cave in after 30 minutes, and P & L go in to parley. I eat the apple from breakfast. By now, people who don’t dress for the weather are really suffering, and one comrade nps over to a drug store to buy a bunch of gloves to pass out.

We start organizing another mini-march, just to stay warm, but just as we set out, we’re called back. The report is less glowing this time, because our agents didn’t get to speak with the top brass, but they made an appointment to issue their demands in person. And while we were stanind under the gaze of the cake-eaters, a news truck arrives from their rivals at Global News.

We sing a couple of songs for the camera, then plan our third and longest leg: a forty-minute march to Nova Scotia Power, where we will demand they curtail their clear-cutting and their use of coal. The team splits up at this point, with the older or less able folks climbing onto the bus to drive downtown. I briefly consider joining that crew, as I am chilled to the bone despite my turtleneck and two jackets, but I know I need to do this right. So I resume marshaling as we march up Chebucto to Connaught—on the streets themselves this time.

All this time, the police have been on our periphery. XR informed them of our plans before the march began, and now that we are blocking traffic, the squad cars spring into action. They zip ahead of us and block intersections, but it’s quickly apparent they are not on our side. More cars push in on us from behind, trying to drown us out with their sirens. They try to warn us off the road, and when we ignore them, they get out and circulate amongst the marchers, warning us that we’re risking arrest.

We are prepared for this. At an XR action, participants classify themselves as greens, yellows, or reds. Greens are people who cannot afford to get arrested—because they have dependants, or due to immigration issues, or whatever. Yellows are more willing to risk arrest, and reds are more or less planning on it. So when the threat of incarceration comes up, the greens move immediately onto the sidewalk, but the yellows and reds stay the course. I’m a yellow, so if I get hassled, I am supposed to direct the cops’ attention over towards one of the reds.

But the cops either get lucky, or else they can see who the ringleaders are, and they choose P, pulling him out of the crowd and cuffing him. The crowd shouts “Shame!” as they put him into a squad car. We stay on the street, though, so they choose someone else to arrest—not a ringleader this time, just a random yellow as far as I can tell: an older lady, maybe 60. I follow them to the squad car, filming the arrest on my phone. I ask her if I can take her backpack for her, and she says, “Please.” I get her name, but I forget to get the badge number of the arresting officer.

Now I have a sign and two bags, one on my back and one strapped to my chest. I return to the throng, where I find that L has announced that—for now—we should all defer to the cops and stick to the sidewalk. “We’ll have more opportunities to get arrested,” she jokes. We continue, but the group’s morale has suffered. I focus on marhsaling, morphing into a traffic guard at each intersection, even when the cops are also there. Often the line becomes too spread out, so I race up to the front to ask them to slow down.

As we get closer to downtown, we encounter more curious passersby, but we have plenty of flyers to hand out, plus E uses a megaphone to explain XR’s goals and repeat the core facts of the climate crisis. At one point, we are waiting for a light to change when a young woman enters our midst, aiming for a teal bicycle that’s chained up near some banner-carriers. “Thanks for riding a bike,” I say. She asks where we’re headed, and then promptly joins the march, walking her bike all the way downtown.

I get the chance to observe the rest of the marchers more closely. Most of them are white and middle-aged, like me, but there are a few Mi’kmaq participants. I also notice an elderly Chinese woman who has been walking with us since the Chronicle-Herald. She does not carry a sign, and she doesn’t seem to be with anybody else, but she keeps marching resolutely, even as the rain increases to a genuine downpour.

“Thank you for being here,” I say as she passes me at one of the crosswalks.

“Where else would I be?” She answers.

The downtown blocks from Robie to Barrington are the home stretch for us. To me, they are more familiar than other parts of Halifax, and yet they pass in a wet, grey blur. I realize at one point that my theatre-trained baritone carries through the rain better than other voices, so I redouble efforts to join the in chants that seem to be the only thing maintaining morale. The organizer with the bullhorn takes note, and passes it to me, wrapped up in a protective plastic bag. I sing, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we’re not fine,” but it doesn’t catch on, so I return to the easier call-and-responses.

Then, without thinking, I start talking through the bullhorn instead. I start with the same basic spiel I’ve heard a dozen times from others: “We are Extinction Rebellion. We are a worldwide collective of citizens concerned about the climate emergency…” But then I’m extemporizing, speaking urgently and emotionally about all we stand to lose and what we have to gain. My voice wouldn’t break as much if I hadn’t basically been screaming for two hours, but I lean into it, hoping it helps to sell the desperation that brought me down here in the first place.

“We are marching to Nova Scotia Power,” I say, then add with delight, “I can see it from here!” We cross Barrington and descend to (the aptly named) Lower Water Street, where NS Power shares a blocky building with the Discovery Centre. Behind them, mostly veiled in mist and rain, is Halifax harbour. The lighthouse on Georges Island pierces the gloom, and when we arrive, the folks with the big banners pose for some photos with that dramatic backdrop. I think about how lighthouses warn ships away from danger. I wonder if we’re doing a similar job, or if our ship is already on the rocks, and we’re basically bailing water.

NS Power is a private corporation run by Emera. They control and profit from Nova Scotia’s power grid, and they burn not only coal but also clear-cut forests, which is an especial grievance for those in The Valley. Emera’s transition plans are underwhelming; they plan to keep the province on coal well into the 2030s, when wind energy is cheaper and obviously less destructive. XR’s demands involve a drawdown plan to net-zero by 2025, along with a citizens’ assembly to oversee its progress. They are not the sorts of demands a bunch of corporate energy execs are going to agree to, and we know it.

The main NS Power building is locked up tight, so we backtrack half a block to Emera headquarters. This move disorients the police, who have still been shadowing us. By the time they arrive at Emera, we’ve firmly established ourselves on the front lawn, and Lisa has dug out her spray paint. Now, everyone at the march knows this is chalk paint, which (especially in this rain) will wash off in no time. But the cops don’t know that, or pretend not to know it. They move in swiftly, arresting Lisa and one other activist before they can finish spraying the word “Coal.”

Now we are starting to run out of ringleaders, but we still have bullhorns and we know the drill. As expected, nobody inside the building wants to speak to us, and now the police are actively interposing themselves. I worry about morale, but the bus group that left us at CBC has bolstered our numbers, plus they’re far less soaked and sore, so we build upon their vigour and resume the chanting.

New activists take turns on the bullhorn: J recites a great performance poem, and then a 14-year-old boy tells it like it is: “I don’t want to be here. I want to be in school. But you’re not giving me a choice.”

Another marshal touches my shoulder, and points out a young man wearing a black kerchief around his nose and mouth. He is the only masked presence at the action, and he makes the marshal nervous, even though the sign he’s carrying — “I’d rather have a wind farm than a pipeline, but I didn’t get a choice” — isn’t especially inflammatory. “Keep your eye on him,” she says, and I do, but he doesn’t step out of line.

Instead, it’s a different guy, a teenager with far-set eyes and a scruffy half-beard, who disrupts the rhythm. He wants to confront E, the de facto ringleader, and convince her that the protest is futile. This is where the marshal steps in, I think, and I smoothly redirect the kid’s attention away from E and onto me. He throws a bunch of young-white-dude logic at me while I listen and nod, quietly grateful to have a break from the chanting.

This kid could have been me, I realize, although I don’t think my cynicism was ever so aggressive that I’d interrupt someone else’s protest. I spend a few minutes responding to his complaints, and finally I coax him into offering some suggestions about more effective tactics. “Don’t try to shame the people in power,” He says, “Get the power for yourselves.” He could be onto something, I think. I tell him that the people in XR need to hear his ideas, but this isn’t the best time. “Join us online,” I say, hoping that doesn’t prove to be a mistake.

I lose track of the young doubter when E announces that she’s going in to meet with the Emera execs (half an hour after our arrival – like clockwork). In fact, I use this little victory as an excuse to duck out for a “union break.” I haven’t eaten since the apple at the CBC, and I haven’t peed since the church—about four hours. When I get back, the group is still waiting for E to re-emerge, but I notice a different triumph: the cynical kid is holding up one corner of the big banner. Another convert!

Time passes. More news cameras arrive, but by now we lack the energy to put on much of a show. I find someone who knows the old woman who got arrested, and hand her backpack off to them. Then I talk with D, another friend of P’s, and we agree to head over to the police station after the protest, to see if we can help him get released. I’m concerned, of course, but also curious; I had no intention of getting busted on this march, but I doubt it will be my last, and the worse the crisis gets, the more civil disobedience I can imagine myself undertaking.

E returns with a moderately encouraging report. The Emera execs claimed ignorance about clear-cutting (they thought all the biomass energy was coming from fallen lumber), and they seemed willing to share their data about transitioning to renewables. It’s about as much as we can expect, and it’s especially heartening that we didn’t get shut out completely. This way, the protesters can depart feeling like action equals progress, however incremental. But we all agree, facetiously, to schedule the next march on a sunnier day.

No argument from me—except, I think: marching in the rain is uncomfortable, sure, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as a whole planet heating up past 2 degrees Celcius.

The Valley folks pour back onto their bus, and the locals head to the Farmer’s Market for some well-earned hot chocolate. I pop up to my hotel room (I very shrewdly booked a room only one block away from our terminal point), change into dry clothes, and then drive back to pick up D so we can go rescue P. Neither of us are local, but we manage to navigate our way to the Halifax Regional Police headquarters amid dense pre-rush-hour traffic.

Inside, it’s all hard oak benches and bureaucracy. We take a number and sit in silence. A portrait of the Queen peers down at us from its station high up on a pillar. I read a sign listing the HRP’s core values: the first one, which reads something like, “To serve the community and all its people,” has been crossed out—a gutsy act of vandalism, I reflect.

The clerk calls our number, but when we explain why we’re here, he says he can’t help. “Call this number,” he says, but when we call, we’re told they can’t release information about detainees over the phone. I wonder briefly if we’re going to face more static here than we did at Emera, but another activist enters the lobby with news: P and L have already been released! They’re in the parking lot outside.

I find P exuberant about his first arrest. He reports that the police were civil, and informed him up front that they would only detain him until the protest had ended. They fined him, though, and he has a court date to contest it if he chooses. He says he’s considering a “necessity defence” (ie. “Our lives depend upon this”), but he’ll speak with a lawyer first.

Then it’s ferrying various protesters back to their cars, or billets, or wherever they left their bags. The follow-up with Emera and the media will undoubtedly require a lot of patient phone-calling and message-leaving, but hopefully the Powers That Be will be motivated by the threat of more annoying protests outside their doors. In any case, I learned that 30 minutes seems to be the magic number. It’s a small price to pay.

Contact the author at scott.sharplin@gmail.com. Sign up for the Solar Flares e-bulletin here.

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