TRAFALGAR SQUARE, LONDON—Every time I’ve dropped by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) kitchen in Trafalgar Square today, I’ve had to worry–will it still be there when I’m hungry next? It’s 9:30 p.m. as I write this, and by now, even though there was a thirty-person dinner line snaking from the tent when I left, with volunteers serving food and drinks nonstop, by now that tent might be ripped down and all that food, those cooking pots, supplies, and utensils could be locked in a police wagon–without a single arrest.
Why target the food?
Why would the police target a kitchen first, instead of setting up crowd-control roadblocks, or arresting the protesters camped out in public spaces?
I suspect this answer: it’s clear that regenerative culture is what makes Extinction Rebellion so powerful, and police know that infrastructure like kitchens and bathrooms serve as regenerative culture’s underlying skeleton.
But the police clearly missed something. They missed the dedication, tenacity, warmth, and determination I have watched unfold among the kitchen volunteers, many of whom I’ve never once seen sit down. Despite getting their tents ripped from above them, despite rushed mass-hauls of food to hundreds of feet away, they still served a full vegan dinner of pasta and couscous at 7 p.m. this evening like they originally intended to, as if a police raid had never occurred.
Early that morning
Let me take you back to the morning of October 9th at Trafalgar Square, London’s iconic plaza dotted with statues of lions, centered on a towering war-memorial obelisk, bordered by the National Portrait Gallery and a large traffic circle, just blocks from Downing Street. In the dark cloud of 7:45 a.m., fifteen volunteers man a six-tent complex on the occupied square that is stuffed with boiling kettles, pots of porridge as deep as my arm, foot-high piles of sixteen kinds of bread covering a five-foot table. At that time of the morning, the promise of jam and steaming cups is the one focal point of bustle in an otherwise quiet world. You rise up from Charing Cross underground station to confront a silence so foreign to urban life, it seems unnatural. Not a single car revs an engine. Suddenly, a tent unzips.
While rebels wake slowly, the kitchen volunteers have clearly been up.
It’s early morning, but even now two people stir batches of pasta sauce and vegetable ragout for a couscous on industrial-sized portable gas burners in the center of the cooking station. Dinner, they tell me. They’re chopping tomatoes and cucumbers by the crate-load. They have to start almost twelve hours early. A woman in braids serving tea to the long queue has ten knee-high insulated flasks of hot water stashed right behind her, but it’s never enough—she seems to be constantly on the edge of running out, leaning back to the kettles and calling for more.
I grab a coffee and tuck into a surprisingly tasty chocolate croissant.
There’s a lot to eat. Donations keep coming, so many that I hear volunteers refusing them. In just the twenty minutes I’m observing, passerby, on their way to work, deliver four different kinds of bread, including an entire paper grocery bag of olive focaccia, three whole-meal baguettes with crackly crust, a foot-wide pre-sliced white loaf from a convenience store, and a basket of morning buns. There’s so much urgency among the volunteers cataloguing the stores, I can’t get anyone to speak with me in more than single sentences.
Breakfast turns to lunch. By lunch, if you were to watch the encampment from a helicopter, the kitchen would look like the magnetic center of the entire square, with congregations of people drawing and collecting to it, taking bowls and circling back in for more cake. Radiating outwards.
By 5 p.m, that is all threatened.
The dinner raid
The police were really, really heavy handed, some of them were laughing as they came in.
The police push in. They go right past the people locked to a hearse in the road and go straight for the pots and pans.
I rush back to find tents uprooted and food stacked haphazardly in heaps. Someone is lugging a three-foot-long orange canister of cooking gas across the pavement while, even with the kitchen in transit, rebels are still lining up to grab platefuls of corn bread and ladles of curry, even if the food comes from pots set down directly on the pavement, even though there are no bowls or people to serve them.
George has been coordinating the kitchen in 14 hour shifts for three days straight. He springs about the site like a football player following the ball. He tells me, The police were really, really heavy handed, some of them were laughing as they came in. The burners were still going, there were young people and children in a nearby tent. Police just came and started ripping the tent down, while we were all still in it. But, amazingly, we managed to get all the kit onto the pavement, because we had about 300 volunteers move everything in a big mass move. So it’s really stressful, but we’ve set up hot tea and snacks once again. He laughs, the sound punching out of him. We’re unstoppable!
The next day
It’s the next day now, the afternoon of 10 October, and I’ve returned to the kitchen, crossing my fingers. Praying it’s still there.
And it is.
Look. Here’s proof: