At Oxford Circus thousands of protesters danced to live music at the normally busy junction. A lifesized model of a boat was parked in the middle of the crossing with the slogan Tell the Truth emblazoned on the side. At nearby Piccadilly Circus the youth section of Extinction Rebellion held a sit-down protest, writing messages in chalk on the pavement.
Organisers hope the rebellion will last for several days and say its success depends on the number of people willing to occupy the sites in the days and nights ahead.
Laura Sorensen, a retired teacher who travelled from Somerset to join the protests, was one of thousands who gathered on Waterloo Bridge in the sunshine.
She said: “I am so worried about what’s happening to the planet. We are on a knife-edge now and I felt strongly that I needed to get out and show myself, rather than just talk about it in the pub.”
Sorensen said she had not previously been active in the environment movement but that as a child she had been given a love of nature by her parents. “I see this disaster unfolding all around me … it is terrifying and the government have done nothing despite all the warnings, so we have to act now.”
Trey Taylor, 19, was with two friends in Piccadilly Circus. He said he felt compelled to act when he realised the scale of the emergency.
“We are facing environmental breakdown and nothing remotely proportionate is being done about it … when you look at the facts this is happening now and the government response is utterly woeful.”
In Parliament Square about 2,000 people gathered under a sea of flags, placards and banners. From an octagonal stage erected on the green for speakers, Jamie Kelsey Fry, the contributing editor for New Internationalist magazine, said: “This is not a political movement, this is a movement of humanity. We are all backgrounds, all ages, all races, bound together in one wish, one dream, which is that we will have a good, decent, loving future, for generations to come.”
Five protesters were arrested for suspected criminal damage when they staged a demonstration at Shell’s headquarters. A glass revolving door was shattered and hundreds of passersby watched as two activists climbed above the entrance, writing “Shell knew” and “Shell knows” on the building.
At Marble Arch hundreds of people sat in the sun, listening to bands playing from an open-sided truck.
Police walked among protesters, many of whom had come with their children, while groups of activists at the periphery blocked the various roads feeding into what is usually one of London’s busiest junctions.
Alex Armitage, an NHS doctor, had been drafted in as a spokesperson for the Marble Arch group. He said he hoped the police could be brought on side. “Eventually if this is going to work, if we are going to have the massive change in the economy that we need to protect ourselves from climate change, we are going to need the police to be unwilling or unable to restore order, and then the government has no option but to negotiate,” he said. “It all seems really grandiose – but so is the scale of the problem facing us.”
A number of major roads in the capital were brought to a standstill with roads gridlocked in surrounding streets. The AA said the disruption had been significant.
Police on Waterloo Bridge said there were no plans to move protesters on for the time being. One officer said: “It’s been very peaceful so far. Everyone has been really pleasant. The only grief we’ve had is from passing motorists shouting at them to ‘get a job’ – that’s about as exciting as it’s got.”
The events in London were the biggest demonstrations but there were smaller protests in other cities around the world.