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‘We want a city where we can all breathe’ – a night out with Bristol’s SUV saboteurs 

Black and white photo of two people crouching at the tyres of an SUV.

For months a small group of activists have targeted the large, polluting cars of the wealthy, deflating their tyres in the dead of night. With unparalleled access to the group, Max Roche explores what it means to be a Tyre Extinguisher.

Words: Max Roche
Images: Simon Holliday

Lentil or mung bean? An obvious debate to be having on the streets of Clifton in the early hours of a rainy October morning. 

There are few signs of life around at this hour, save for the occasional drunk student and a small group of mask-wearing climate activists who call themselves the Tyre Extinguishers. There are no petrol bombs or sledge hammers here though, just a small Tupperware box of legumes and some printed leaflets. 

With the lentils distributed around the group, they set off to patrol the nearby streets in search of a particular prize – a sports utility vehicle (SUV). Amongst the architectural grandeur of Clifton, it doesn’t take long to locate what they’re looking for. 

Barely fifty metres up the road, a member of the group crouches down on the pavement, his hands darting fervently around the rim of a car wheel to locate the dust cap. Unscrewing it, he carefully places the lentil over the valve before re-tightening the cap, forcing the lentil into contact with the valve. A gentle hiss radiates out into the night and is soon smothered by the wind. 

Meanwhile, another member of the group strains awkwardly over the bonnet placing a leaflet under the windscreen wiper explaining why their vehicle has been targeted. The whole affair is over within a minute. 

‘There’s an element of creativity with this stuff,’ Joe* tells me with a slight smile. ‘It’s one of the great things about activism. If you’re not going to go and smash stuff, you have to find other creative ways of raising attention.’

The group move on silently, fanning out in search of more SUVs. Although it might feel a little ad hoc, they’ve done their research. They know the areas they want to target, they know the streets to avoid where they are more likely to be tracked by CCTV, they understand the risks involved in targeting private property, and most importantly, they know the reasons for doing what they’re doing.

An SUV pandemic 

The Tyre Extinguishers emerged in February this year following a staggering piece of research from the International Energy Agency that named SUVs as the second largest energy-related cause in the rise of global carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade – surpassing aviation and shipping, heavy industry and trucks. According to the research, if all SUV drivers decided to form a country, it would be the sixth largest polluter on the planet.

Disillusioned with empty climate promises and political platitudes, the Tyre Extinguishers formed and decided to take direct action to mitigate the damage being done through SUV ownership. 

They want central and regional authorities to step in and introduce pollution levies to tax SUVs out of existence and a ban on SUV ownership in urban areas. Until these demands materialise, they’ve vowed to continue taking matters into their own hands.

The group continues to roam the streets under the cover of dark, gnawed by a strong wind and steady rain. There is no doubting that this is not the most glamorous form of activism. And yet, as more and more hisses seep out into the night there’s a definite sense of empowerment for the activists in reclaiming a shared public space that has been vandalised by a minority. 

‘It’s a bit of a drag,’ Joe tells me. ‘But it’s a necessary one.’ With SUVs now making up nearly a quarter of all UK cars (up from just 6.6% in 2009), it’s difficult to argue with his conviction. 

The outing is complete in just over an hour and the Tyre Extinguishers have deflated 55 tyres. Not a bad haul for the evening, but far from their personal best of over 100 and certainly not in the same league as Brighton’s notorious 250 ‘disarmed’ SUVs in a single night earlier this year. 

A flyer left by the Tyre Extinguishers on a vehicle.

‘It’s done with careful, loving hands’

A couple of weeks later I catch up with the group at one of their houses. The masks are gone now and the atmosphere is far more relaxed compared to our last meeting. 

Sitting in front of me in plain clothes, you wouldn’t look twice if you passed this group on the street. Far removed from the fanatical depictions of climate activists as tree-hugging ‘crusties’ or hemp-clad bongo drummers, they all look strikingly ordinary. Many have full-time jobs and stable careers to balance alongside their late night exploits.

Talking over a cup of tea, I’m keen to find out just how effective the group thinks their tactics are. The most common criticism levied at them is that the action is ineffective, in the tangible sense that more emissions will be emitted if motor services have to be called, and that psychologically these tactics alienate a portion of society with significant purchasing and political power. 

Reactions across Reddit range from general support for the group to mild disapproval towards something seen as ‘criminal’ and ‘dangerous’, to outright loathing and overt threats. ‘Let’s hope one of these eco-warriors are caught in the act and have their face smashed in’, writes one less than happy motorist.

Deflating tyres clearly polarises public opinion, but the Tyre Extinguishers think it’s unfair to label it as excessively radical. 

‘It probably seems radical to a society that has an almost erotic relationship with their cars,’ Joe says. ‘But in the end, it’s relocating a small bit of air and minorly inconveniencing somebody who almost certainly has another means of transportation.’

‘And it’s done with careful, loving hands.’ adds Holly*, borrowing a phrase from US gas pipeline saboteurs. ‘That’s where all of this comes from. It might come across to some as scary or radical or violent, but we just want a planet we can all live on and we want a city where we can all breathe – that’s why we’re here.’

Despite some of the more colourful reactions from the online community, recent research would suggest the momentum in this debate is shifting. An opinion poll conducted last month at the time of the Just Stop Oil protests found that 66% of the public now support people taking ‘non-violent direct action’ to protect UK nature, with 34% opposed. Although support amongst Conservative voters has fallen, nearly half (44%) said they supported the work of direct action climate activist groups. 

The Tyre Extinguishers are convinced the public discourse is changing around direct action. Monitoring social media, Reddit and newspaper comments, they say more and more support is emerging for their cause and the public are waking up to the necessity of these sorts of tactics. 

‘There’s a real human cost to it all but I definitely think it’s working,’ says Nat*. ‘I think people are really coming round to the necessity of these kinds of tactics and that’s due to a huge effort on the part of climate activists who are desperate and pissed off and scared. It’s all driven by the complete inaction and denial by politics. We wouldn’t be here if they [politicians] were doing more.’

One of the activists keeps an eye on the road whilst deflating a tyre.

Bristol authorities are resting on their laurels 

Alongside taxes to take SUVs off the streets, the Tyre Extinguishers want local authorities to introduce a comprehensive system of free public transport, thereby reducing our reliance on car ownership. There’s a sense, however, that this is a long way off.

‘I think our politicians are resting on their laurels that were set up quite a few years ago.’ says Holly. ‘We had a climate emergency declaration in 2018, but since then I can’t see any evidence that anything has happened. There’s a Clean Air Zone coming but you can just buy your way out of this if you’re rich enough. It’s all too piecemeal.’

Following the declaration of a climate emergency, Bristol council published the One City Climate Strategy in 2020, which set out a vision in which Bristol would be a carbon-neutral and climate-resilient city by 2030. A central pillar of this strategy has been to improve transport links throughout the city, promote cycling and walking, and convert remaining vehicles to zero-carbon fuels.

Nearly three years on from the publication of that climate strategy and Bristol’s public transport network has hardly become the paragon of accessible, efficient and carbon-neutral planning that was promised. 

‘How do you find words for it?’ says Nat. ‘Our public transport is just so bad. There’s this comfortable feeling that Bristol is a green city, but for many people this actually seems deeply flawed and it’s not what we’re getting from our leaders.’

In September Bristol Community Transport ceased operations affecting a number of bus routes in south Bristol and terminating the community and dial-a-bus services which are relied on by some elderly and disabled residents. At the same time, First Bus announced that a number of their buses would be cancelled or operate under a reduced schedule. Adding to the turmoil, they recently announced they will be axing a further 1,500 bus journeys a week until April – a move branded ‘the collapse of Bristol’s transport system’.

The situation for cyclists is not much better. Despite becoming the UK’s first Cycling City in 2008, cyclists’ safety remains a hotly contested topic in Bristol. A recent petition from Bristol Cycling Campaign calling on the council to install a network of protected bike lanes connecting all parts of the city received 3,700 signatures, forcing councillors to formally debate the issue.

With £15m of additional funding recently announced for a new mass transit system, set to include an underground rail network, progress could be on the horizon. It is hoped that the combination of better rail links and the introduction of the Clean Air Zone will improve the situation for Bristol’s cyclists by taking a number of cars off the roads. But concerns over lengthy delays have left many sceptical as to whether these reforms will ever actually materialise. 

Bristolians are making green choices in spite of the city’s leadership, not because of it, say the Tyre Extinguishers. In the absence of any coherent leadership on this issue, they see direct action as an important way of raising awareness and putting pressure on elected officials. 

A standoff with the government

The stakes for being involved in direct action are rising. Earlier this year the government passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, bolstering the ability of the police to crack down on protests deemed to cause “significant disruption”, with harsher punishments for the perpetrators. 

Now the government is attempting to push through the Public Order Bill which contains a number of measures voted out of the PCSC Act by the House of Lords due to their highly pernicious and authoritarian nature. If passed, tactics such as blocking traffic, or obstructing oil and gas infrastructure could result in a year in prison – over twice the sentence for common assault. Although there are currently no stipulations in the bill for letting down tyres, the government’s approach to climate activism has become painfully clear.  

Are the Tyre Extinguishers concerned by any of this? ‘Absolutely,’ says Holly, as we discuss the group’s previous run-ins with the authorities. There is an inescapable sense that the group does not take the task of deflating SUV tyres lightly, and the possibility of harsher sentences and greater fines will do little to alleviate these anxieties.

The criminalisation of climate protest is not all bad in the eyes of the group, however. In fact, they are quick to interpret it as an indication that their tactics are working.

‘An escalation in tactics for something that people deeply care about is always met by an escalation in defence by politicians,’ argues Holly. ‘But that’s only going to make more people stand behind that cause, and more people stand more passionately behind it.’

Faced with what UN general secretary António Guterres recently called the “collective suicide” of climate change, it seems unlikely this draconian legislation will be sufficient to quell a rising tide of angry, scared and organised activists who are already shifting the calibration of political power across society. 

For the Tyre Extinguishers, these recent moves feel both ominous and desperate in equal measure. ‘The policing bills are just an attempt to claw back power and status by politicians,’ Nat tells me. ‘But activists have removed that power from their hands. It’s literally in the hands of the people now.’

*Names of the activists have been changed to protect their anonymity. 

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