“Are you alright?” a policeman asks a man dressed as a tree who is staggering a bit on high stilts.
“I’m not, mate” says the tree. “I’m part of a rain forest so I’m f***ed.”
The tree’s name is Stumpy. “I’m short for a tree. Trees give cruel nicknames.”
I'm at the Extinction Rebellion's anti-greenwashing protest in Glasgow. The largely peaceful protesters have gathered on Hope Street after successfully managing to evade police cordons just by changing direction at the last minute. Everyone – police, protesters, Stumpy – is a bit out of breath and some people are sitting on the street. "This is what democracy looks like!" they chant.
And, “What do we want?” “Climate justice!” “When do we want it?” “Now.”
There are Extinction Rebellion flags and samba drummers. People hold banners reading “Stop Climate Crime” and “Blah blah blah” (an echo of Greta Thunberg’s dismissal of politicians). A dog named Ziggy has a jacket declaring: “No squirrels on a dead planet.”
Suddenly a couple of protesters try to rush the door of Scottish Sea Power. The police quickly gather around the doorway and then other protesters gather around those police. It’s hard to see what’s happening so several people ask Stumpy to narrate from his great height. “I think someone is being arrested,” he says.
The protest started at noon with about 500 people on the steps of the Buchanan Gallery. It’s very relaxed initially. Some guided meditation is disturbed by an evangelical preacher. “You are worshiping creation not the creator” – but he’s soon outspeechified by activists.
Tim Hunt, who cycled here from Brighton, is wearing ragged multicoloured clothes because he is "a town frier burning with the planet".
“We’re non-violent so we have to draw attention somehow,” he says. Back home he’s a real town crier.
An 18-year-old named Panther cycled his very tall homemade bike all the way from Manchester. “We slept in church halls and camped.” He’s currently staying in the Faslane anti-nuclear peace camp.
Paul Wielgus is with the Blackbirds of Somerset who are dressed as blackbirds. He talks about depleted biodiversity. "What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves," he says. One of the blackbirds, a retiree named Barbara, has been arrested twice at protests. She's a local politician and believes politicians need pressure like this. Most of the people I meet see a need for climate talks, they just don't believe that politicians or businesses are taking it seriously enough.
Giulia Rubin, from the Netherlands, is staying with a Scottish family via the Human Hotel network which offers free accommodation to delegates and activists. "They're a very kind family," she says. "They take us in for nothing while all of their neighbours are making lots of money renting to activists."
Nearby there's a huge figure in red named Dispossessed Dora. Inside is a man named Richard Leat and outside, minding him, is Veronika Liebscher. They're both retired and here to speak for the "real Doras" dispossessed by climate change. "There are floods in Germany and Britain," says Liebscher. "Soon it could be any of us." She gazes ruefully at the police lining the street. "We were saying it's called Cop26 because everywhere you go there are 26 cops."
The protest eventually leaves the steps of Buchanan Gallery and moves towards the junction of Sauchiehall Street and Renfield street. There they hit their first row of obstructive police. The Red Rebels, women in red robes and painted faces, stand behind the policemen with their arms raised. "We find we have a de-escalating effect," says Louisa Demorna, an off-duty Red Rebel. "We're a witness."
‘Watch your back!’
Also attempting to keep things calm are the “legal observers” from the Scottish Community and Activist Legal Project (Scalp). Every time there’s a particularly tetchy interaction, they rush over. A few arrests are apparently made on the fringes.
Eventually the protesters head back the way they came and a strange game of cat-and-mouse begins. The protesters start outflanking the rows of police by diverting down apparently unexpected side streets, then the police shout “Watch your back!” and barrel through the crowd to outpace the protesters.
After many detours, including one that passes a row of perplexed motorists, a few hundred people are caught between two lines of police outside the Bank of Scotland. People give speeches. People dance. A mobile kitchen distributes hot food. But it's soon cold and dark and the police won't let people leave. Eventually some are permitted to exit the cordon. Others stay. Two women in the Toni and Guys hairdressers, across from the bank, continue to have their hair cut. "As you can see, we're kettled," explains a young man who distributed food earlier. "We'll be here for some time."
After negotiations they are permitted to move on but with a phalanx of police surrounding them. At the time of writing they are on the road to the Scottish Event Campus host of Cop26.