Soundtrack to a thousand memories of roadblocks, marches and stand-offs with the police, the pounding rhythms of the samba band have arguably done more to define the feel of XR protests than anything else.
In response, the government’s Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, soon to pass into law, threatens to outlaw this staple of mass protest by specifically targeting “noisy” protests.
The Bill strikes not only at what has been a central tactic of XR from its earliest days, but at the very nature of protest itself.
XR’s connection with samba drumming began through sheer coincidence when Jake Slocombe, a long-time drummer and musician, happened across a nascent XR at the Buddhafield festival in summer 2018. During an “Introduction to XR” session, Jake, filled with zeal by the talk he had just heard, pledged to launch a drumming group and bring it to the upcoming Declaration of Rebellion in London.
At the time, Jake was living in Tinker’s Bubble, a fossil fuel-free community near Yeovil, Somerset. A friend within the community, Pedro Brace, quickly joined in and together with six other friends formed a ragtag band and began preparing for the Declaration day of October 31.
In those early days they were carried by pure momentum. Jake, the only serious musician in the group, led the rest on a samba drumming crash course. Pedro recalls: ‘We had something like an afternoon session on the Sunday and then I think we had two sessions maybe on the Monday, one on the Tuesday,’ and on Tuesday afternoon the group set off for London.
Wednesday was the Declaration of Rebellion, XR’s foundational moment, and Jake and Pedro’s band drummed for 1500 people in Parliament Square. Their size meant they lacked much presence during that event, but they planted the seeds of what would become a perennial element of XR protests for years to come.
Less than one month later, the samba band played in Bristol for a day of Rolling Roadblocks. Billed as a “street party to raise awareness of climate change”, the Roadblocks action saw around 30 people, including the band, walk slowly along the roads of central Bristol on an unplanned route, stopping and starting as they pleased.
Pedro recalls that for the first time ‘we got people we didn’t know to join the band.’ Although this created some tension amongst the drummers, some of whom weren’t keen on blocking roads, this was quickly overcome. ‘By the time we got to the first pedestrian crossing everyone was in the road. We got a huge vibe,’ said Pedro.
Rolling Roadblocks was an “Aha” moment for Pedro and Jake, when they realised the potential power the samba band could have. ‘There’s something about the samba band, that it can make a crowd of 20 people feel more like a crowd of 200,’ said Pedro, the awe that his memories still inspire clear in his voice.
Protest drumming of course has a long history dating back to samba drumming in South America. A personal source of inspiration for Jake was Rhythms of Resistance, a samba band formed in 2000 that took part in Reclaim the Streets and anti-globalisation protests and now has branches all over the world.
It was becoming clear that the new samba band being formed by Jake and Pedro could become something similar. Speaking of the spirit of the samba band in its early days, Jake said, ‘this isn’t meant to just be a march, this is meant to be disruptive.’ More than an addition to the protest, drumming can itself be the protest.
Over the next few months, the Tinker’s Bubble band took part in the Days of Rebellion in Yeovil and Bridport. Meanwhile, having left Tinker’s Bubble, Jake started a second band in Bristol, attracting budding activist drummers to practice at the Easton Community Centre.
In April brought XR’s first International Rebellion, and after a last minute intervention by XR co-founder Roger Hallam to grant Pedro and Jake funding which other organisers had initially been reluctant to give, both bands joined thousands of protesters in central London for what would be a defining moment for XR and the XR samba bands.
Videos from the two weeks that XR held central London to a standstill are peppered with the snap of tams, the clank of cowbells and the sonorous thump of bass drums. Each day the samba bands inflamed the protesters’ will to resist during the drawn-out occupations of Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square.
Pedro is particularly proud of the role the samba band played on Parliament Square on April 17 when police came in heavy in an attempt to break the occupation.
The band arrived to a bleak scene, said Pedro. Protesters’ energy was waning fast and police were everywhere, making arrests. Initially unsure of whether they could help, and wary of arrest themselves, the band began to do the only thing they could: drum.
Pedro: ‘Suddenly everyone was feeling much more energised and the police were finding it hard to carry out their evictions with all that noise going on…it felt like we turned things around.’
Video footage from that day shows how the samba band can lead a crowd and shape the energy of a protest. People crush around the band, forming a swell of pulsating resistance that the police simply cannot break. Even as darkness falls, the protest only intensifies; the blue lights of police vehicles amplifying the party atmosphere.
The Parliament Square occupation held for another week, only ending when the whole protest was called to an end London-wide. The samba bands played until the very end.
Between then and now Jake and Pedro’s two seedling samba bands have multiplied to 40 bands across the UK and a network of 700 drummers.
People are drawn to the bands by the low barrier to entry – ‘It’s not difficult,’ according to Jake: ‘If you’ve got any sense of rhythm’ – and the fact that drumming is a fun, communal activity.
What makes people stay is the sense of power that drumming gives, the power to control the mood of a protest or the direction of a march, as Pedro felt on Parliament Square and as no doubt anyone who has ever been to an XR protest and danced to the drums in the face of the police will have felt, too.
It is this power that the government is now trying to take away. Samba drumming, for all its apparent innocence, has left Westminster’s cages sufficiently rattled for the government to include in the PCSC Bill specific provisions for police to clamp down on protests – even one person protests – should an officer determine that the noise of the protest might cause people in the vicinity to feel “unease, alarm or distress”.
Asked about the impact the Bill has on him, Jake is initially despondent, saying that it makes him feel powerless. The passage of the Bill into law will likely have a chilling effect on would-be protesters, deterring all but the most committed from taking part for fear of arrest. For a group like the XR Samba band, already toeing a careful line between legal and illegal, the Bill could prove fatal.
Yet, at the same time both Jake and Pedro remain defiant. ‘You can’t stop noisy protest,’ said Pedro, adding: ‘We need the right to be loud and to shout out and make our complaint.’
Jake, too, overcoming his downbeat tone, said that you could no more ban noisy protest than you could Notting Hill carnival.
The real reason for the ban is that: ‘It clearly annoys [the government] massively,’ said Jake, ‘because it clearly works and it brings people together.’
‘When you hear the boom of the bass drum coming down the street,’ he added, ‘it makes you feel like “yes, we’ve got power”. And they hate it. They absolutely, clearly hate it.’
Today Jake lives with his young daughter and works as a builder and an aspiring musician whilst Pedro is starting a farm in Devon with his girlfriend. Neither is involved with XR samba, though they have left a strong legacy, albeit an ambivalent one.
By steering the growth of samba within XR they brought an element of what Rhythms of Resistance call “tactical frivolity” to climate protest on a large scale. At the same time, by making protest attractive they have partly led to the government’s crackdown on protest of all kinds today.
But therein lies hope. That eight people playing second hand drums can cause sufficient concern that the government legislates against them shows the power of civil resistance and the ease with which one can become ungovernable.
What comes next is difficult to predict as the PCSC Bill leaves so much in doubt, but humans have been drumming for thousands of years and drumming in protest for almost as long. It seems unlikely that a piece of legislation, however draconian, will change that.