London’s Canary Wharf became the centre of striking scenes on Friday, after healthcare professionals belonging to Extinction Rebellion (XR) were forcibly removed from the pavement they had occupied outside an investment bank.
Dozens of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and anaesthetists, all clad in scrubs, kickstarted XR’s 11th day of action in the capital by targeting JP Morgan Chase, which was identified in a 2021 report by the Rainforest Action Network as the world’s biggest funder of coal, oil and gas extraction.
The medics, who all form part of the environmental movement’s Doctors for XR faction, gathered outside the bank’s front doors just after 7am to explain why the climate crisis must be considered a “public health crisis”, and to read a letter they had written to the bank’s CEO Jamie Dimon.
Others, meanwhile, lay ‘dead’ on the ground beneath a giant banner which read: “Cause of death: fossil fuel finance.”
Quickly, though, as the building’s security warned XR members they were “trespassing on private property,” Metropolitan Police and private security guards began a clear up operation, lifting doctors by their arms and legs and carrying them down the road.
One XR member, a GP, told The Independent he could not understand why there were “so many police” and why they were being “so heavy handed when we weren’t even blocking the road”.
Around six of the protestors proceeded to superglue their hands to planters and pavement outside the building, where they remained for more than three hours until specialist police were called in to free them.
Dr David McKelvey, who has been a qualified GP for 36 years, spoke while glued-on: “We are the inconvenient truth for JP Morgan, health professionals are calling out the reality of the future they are investing in. They must face up to the reality of the catastrophe they are fuelling.”
The Independent later saw four of those glued, once freed, being immediately handcuffed, escorted into police vans and driven away. Met Police are yet to confirm how many arrests were made.
Rhiannon Osborne, a 23-year-old medical student, who was at her first XR protest, described the police intervention as “pretty scary”.
“I find it kind of sad and embarrassing that we’re the people being policed, not the people who are financing fossil fuels and basically committing crimes against humanity,” she said. “It makes no sense that there’s so little scrutiny being put on these banks.”
Ms Osborne added: “The thing that really angers me is that it’s not the people in those rooms, who are making money from these investments, who will suffer the most from the climate crisis – it’s the regular people, the patients we’re already seeing, who suffer from the health issues caused by climate change.”
Dr Lynne Jones OBE FRCPsych, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, described the demonstration on Friday as “an act of communication”, saying she “wanted to educate people” as best she could.
“There was a report out a couple of days ago saying that air pollution shortens life more than HIV, malaria, car accidents, smoking, war and terrorism,” she told The Independent, adding: “These are all issues I’ve spent my life’s work on, yet they are nothing compared to what global warming is doing to us. It’s an emergency.”
Dr Jones, who has worked with children overseas during major humanitarian emergencies during her career, finished by saying she is “more scared [by climate change] now than I was in Sarajevo [during its siege] in the Nineties”.
The Met Police’s deputy assistant commissioner released a statement amid the action to say the force had tried to balance the rights of “protesters to assemble together” with the “the rights of others”.
“We’ve fulfilled our duty by facilitating these protests, but where protesters have taken direct action and broken the law our response has been firm and, at times, direct,” DAC Matt Twist said, adding almost 500 arrests have been made since XR’s “Impossible Rebellion” began last Monday.
Asked if he thought the risk of being arrested was worth the journey from Bristol, GP Duncan Still, 47, said it was his “duty as a doctor” to be there.
“One of our duties of care is to look out for the wellbeing of individuals in front of us, but also populations more widely and if we think there is an imminent threat to health it is incumbent on us to act.”
He continued: “I take that very seriously and that’s why I’m here, to draw attention to the fact there is an imminent threat.”
XR announced on its Twitter page that the medics, alongside other supporters and members of the group, had moved on to St Paul’s by around 1pm. “See you on the streets rebels,” the tweet said.
Hoon Seong, a 53-year-old intensive care consultant, told The Independent as she headed to catch a tube that she was part of the rebellion because “history proves” campaigning works.
“Take the abolition of the slave trade, people think that happened overnight but it didn’t. It took decades of campaigning – and a civil war in the US – before it finally ended. Why? Because there was a lot of economic interest invested in the slavery of human beings – just like there is in fossil fuels,” she said.
“It may take a long time but that doesn’t mean you stop pushing, because if we stop trying to fight this [climate crisis], nothing will ever change.”