Interview with UK Extinction Rebellion activist, Jo Flanagan, about a protest against BlackRock in 2019. Jo explains how the action was conceptualised, organised & run.
During a series of actions carried out in London by Extinction Rebellion (XR) in October 2019, the XR affinity group Earthquakes targeted the London offices of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and investor in climate damaging activities. Slipping through police lines, they set up a dinner party in front of the company’s building during which a group of mock executives scoffed on bank notes. Behind them stood a banner bearing the Chief Seattle quote,
When the last tree is dead, the last fish caught and last river poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.
As part of the action, Earthquakes member Jo Flanagan glued herself to the glass front of BlackRock’s London HQ. The protest was covered extensively on national and global media, helping to pile pressure on BlackRock ahead of commitments it made the following year to finally take action on climate. The success of the action also fed into changes in strategy and priorities amongst climate activists. XR subsequently launched ‘Money Rebellion’ and the British-born now-global movement increased its focus on financial institutions.
Image courtesy of blackrocksbigproblem.com
In this interview, Jo Flanagan discusses how the action was conceptualised, organised and run. It includes a number of tips for creative and disruptive actions, and demonstrates the value of passion, persistence and applying lessons learnt from successive protests.
How did you come to organise an action focused on BlackRock?
I was already involved in environmental activism and had been part of some actions and learnt a fair bit from them in terms of how to get media coverage and what not to do as well as what does work. Doing a lot of reading had shown me that we’ve basically got very limited time, a small window to change things. So, I started focusing more on what’s going to make the biggest difference in the shortest timescale. To be honest, I had previously barely heard of BlackRock and knew very little about asset managers and their role in climate destruction, but I received a general email about them and began digging and realised that this was the target. Due to the massive scale of its financial holdings – and especially in fossil fuels, BlackRock is the world’s largest asset management company and literally has the power to determine whether our planet remains habitable or not.
I put it to the group that we should do something focused on BlackRock for the next London XR Rebellion, which was in part going to focus on the financial sector, and they were on board. I contacted an address I found at the bottom of an email and immediately heard back from a BlackRock campaigner the next day. He was very supportive and hugely helpful with background information and research, the nitty gritty which we could use in press releases, and I was also given some very wise strategy tips. That gave me the confidence to step up and take on the might of the financial sector.
I’m a Quaker and am part of a mainly Quaker XR affinity group which we call Earthquakes. I somehow wound up in the role of coordinating actions. I hadn’t been in a leadership type role since I’d been removed from being netball captain in school for not being competitive enough, so this was new and a challenge for me. By the time of the BlackRock Eating Money action, I had coordinated a few of them – learning what was and wasn’t effective and developing my skills as I went.
Who did you work with on the action?
There was an immense amount of diverse talent and enthusiasm within the group for this particular action, a group which included businessmen and women, doctors, a retired headteacher, a researcher, a recently retired radio presenter, artists, a writer, a builder and a librarian and me a Careers Adviser working with young people. Everyone was allocated roles, and all played their parts brilliantly. I approached activists within three separate affinity groups within Bristol XR.
It sounds like the combination of factors set you up well for the action – having an existing affinity group, an upcoming event, receiving detailed information about BlackRock and then getting encouragement from those already campaigning against them.
Yes, and XR being decentralised means you can go where your strengths are and our group’s tend to be around performance-based actions with really strong visuals and messages.
Being part of XR’s October Rebellion with the focus on the financial sector and the City of London meant that the world’s media were also geared up to cover any actions and XR’s media and messaging team also supported our action.
I’d learnt a number of things from an earlier performance action, based around the theme of the Titanic. The first time we did it, we didn’t get any media coverage, but the second time, during G7, there were about 30 news cameras from around the world.
After that first Titanic action I’d coordinated, I’d asked for feedback from a freelance photographer about why he hadn’t been able to use any of his photographs and he said that there had basically been too much going on in the shots. I had a massive banner with a painting of the sinking Titanic and around them had used masses of placards – all with different messages, I had 12 musicians playing and circus actors wearing masks of politicians’ faces, comically rearranging the deckchairs and so on. There was simply too much going on, too many messages, and too wide a shot for any photographer to get a strong and clear visual.
What I learnt was you need to think like a photographer, which means having the target, the message and the visuals all in one frame. The second time round I streamlined the visuals and the messages to keep it focused and to make it easier for journalist and photographers to use.
Whatever demo, march or action I’ve been on, I’ve always taken time to step away and watch from the pavement as if I were a passer-by trying to work out what it was about. And mostly, we’re useless. If the banners don’t have in-jokes or whatever talking to other activists, then they’re usually not even facing outwards, they’re not communicating outside the bubble, and I always try to do that.
So, it was important to talk to people who had been targeting BlackRock for some time to find out what key messages the movement was focused on and what the strongest ones were so we could support them. So, we had the thing about BlackRock being the biggest investor in climate destruction which included them being the biggest owner of coal.
Just as important, and it’s been a key part of every action I’ve been a part of, was having a ‘heart message’. We had a brainstorm within our group about what that could be and what won out was the quote, “When the last tree is dead, the last fish caught and last river poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.” Which I know has been used before but is just so pertinent now. Including that in the action meant we had the humour but the pathos too. We wanted this message to have an impact on BlackRock staff as well as the wider financial sector.
Tell us about what was involved in the planning and run up to the action.
I worked out what the various roles needed were for this action and contacted individuals within my XR affinity group and two other groups trying to match activists to roles that best suited them. (I have previously been a manager of Bristol’s Volunteer Bureau so that bit was relatively easy and to be honest there are some ace activists in Bristol.)
A great deal of the preparation was done by the three wonderful XR artists that I had approached and included the researching, writing and designing of the beautiful BlackRock money flyer which was based on our £10 note and had the crying face of Jane Austen on the front (we thought that this money design would be more likely to be taken and read by on-lookers including BlackRock employees). The wonderful BlackRock campaign strategist I linked with was very, very helpful not just in giving me the confidence to do this action but also in terms of messaging, research about BlackRock and giving me ideas about effective strategies.
A lot of work went into the painting of the quote banner and the sewing of ‘BlackRock’ onto the front drop of the tablecloth so that the ‘heart message’ and target of the action was clear in any photos.
The main ‘actors’ rehearsed beforehand and were brilliantly funny and effective which was also key and helped draw BlackRock employees and journalists into witnessing the action. This also made for a good video of the action which was widely shared (humour is an important weapon).
I wrote an arrestee statement in readiness explaining my reasons for co-ordinating this action and gluing on that was read out by me after my arrest hoping that my reasons would reach inside BlackRock, and we spent a long time between us working on press releases and getting relevant contacts. I made sure that all the participants were involved in using social media to pile on the pressure to BlackRock after the action and I had a photographer and wonderful videographer within our group who linked with the national XR media team and others to get as much negative coverage for BlackRock as possible.
There are hundreds of security cameras around the City of London. I had gone up and checked things out and lots of the roads leading up to BlackRock’s offices are private so you can be arrested and moved on very quickly. I knew that we would have to be very quick and prepared in case the action only lasted 30 seconds. I did four rehearsals with the different groups involved so that we’d be fast but also to get the positioning of things right.
How did things unfold on the day?
We had 26 activists involved. I asked them all to dress as BlackRock employees so that they could get through the security cameras. Every demo I’m in I always dress up so that we can’t just be dismissed as “the other”, as hippy, dippy activists – and more to the point so that our arguments are less likely to be dismissed.
Image courtesy of blackrocksbigproblem.com
We knew there would be a police line there because they knew XR were out in force and targeting the financial sector that day. I asked a friend who teaches acting for some tips. I said, “I’ve got the suit, I’ve got my hair up, got the look, but how do I walk? How can I pass myself off as a BlackRock employee?” He got me to stand up and literally got me to look down my nose as if I was entitled to walk into that building. I also had a decoy to walk alongside me as we approached BlackRock – he is a wonderful activist friend who was an ex headteacher and was able to look like a BlackRock executive.
I had a sleepless night before, wondering whether we were going to be able to smuggle in all the activists plus all the props including a fold up table and chairs, banner and several placards.
I got off the train two tube stops early as I knew that the police would be checking for any potential activists emerging from stations near the City of London and I caught a cab for the last bit of the journey. I didn’t tell the cabbie that I was an activist, but we talked about the traffic disturbances, and I told him I was sorry for the inconvenience but he said “No, it’s okay, they’re doing it for us all.”
I met up with all the activists and briefed them. They had all dressed the part in smart office suits and one as a posh artist with an art portfolio in which he placed the neck placards hidden under paintings just in case he was stopped. I briefed every participant individually and together, so they all knew what to do and to reassure them (they had also been given written, detailed action plans beforehand).
Just before we left the rendezvous place, I got a message from the videographer we’d hired to say that there had been a tip off and that journalists were heading to BlackRock. I made a tactical decision not to tell everyone because their body language would’ve changed, they’d have been more nervous and spotted right away.
We had people follow myself and my decoy activist in twos and threes and I suggested that everyone just keep the group in front of them in eye shot. I suggested that every now and again that they briefly stop and look in the shop windows and at their mobiles so that we didn’t look like one big group. I was very nervous but did my best to project calm (the feedback afterwards was that I had somehow succeeded in that).
When we arrived, the side-street I’d checked out the week before was blocked by two police officers. My decoy friend went up to them and said, “Excuse me officers, why’s my road being blocked?” They replied, “So sorry sir, it’s only temporary, next left is free,” so we led everyone down that road instead!
Outside BlackRock there was a line of police. I had previously been very law-abiding but having researched what BlackRock were doing and knowing the power that this one company had in determining the future of the planet and its inhabitants and also being a recent grandmother, I felt that I just had to step up and, in Quaker words, “speak truth to power”. I had carefully weighed things up and thought that gluing myself onto their building would possibly help get more publicity about their destructive financing and hopefully positively influence staff within the BlackRock offices.
The other three women in our group who’d also planned to glue on were sadly thwarted by the police, but possibly because of my adopted air of entitlement and being accompanied by someone who looked like a company director I was able to get through. I put some super glue on my hand, walked straight past the police line and towards the entrance and put my hand on the glass frontage. It was a couple of minutes before one of the police officers turned around and asked with surprise, “Are you glued on?”
Image courtesy of blackrocksbigproblem.com
We had said to XR that we didn’t want all and sundry there, because it’d stop us from getting into the area but also because then we’d possibly have people barging inside BlackRock and I didn’t want that to be the story, I wanted the focus to be on the messages we’d decided upon. Anyway, thankfully we pulled off our action… the team quickly rigged up the table and props, held up the banner and placards, handed out the money flyers, engaged with BlackRock staff and others in the financial sector and tucked into their money grub with great gusto (and wonderful humour) and every now and again, as instructed, they paused and posed for photos. Half an hour later we were joined by a group from XR Scientists and a samba band who were great and added to the pressure on BlackRock.
I was glued to the glass front of the BlackRock HQ for what seemed like ages and had plenty of time to watch as the action unfolded. During my previous sleepless night, I had reflected on what were the main messages that I wanted to convey if interviewed by journalists and overheard by BlackRock employees, and these messages included the hope that a future ecocide law will criminalize senior management of companies like BlackRock – not people like me. Eventually the police unglued me, and I ended up waiting in the back of the police van for ages as there were so many XR activists getting arrested that day that the cells were pretty full. In the police van I said to the arresting officer, “I bet your bottom dollar there will be someone from BlackRock calling to scare me off by saying I’ve caused thousands of pounds damage to their window” and sure enough as soon as we got to the police station they did, even though I knew that any remaining glue could be removed with nail varnish remover and window cleaner.
XR had a policy during that October Rebellion to not give your name to the press or the police so that you blocked up the police cells for longer, with the idea being that you overwhelm the system. So, I just called myself “a 57-year-old grandmother.” One comic moment was when my bag was emptied and searched by the police sergeant when I was at the police station and having refused to give my name, he held up my prescription drug for migraines which had my name on it – my cover had been blown – so much for my meticulous planning!
I was interviewed by a solicitor and read out my pre-prepared arrestee statement on camera and was then placed in a main waiting area within the police reception area where another comic moment occurred when twice visiting lawyers approached me assuming that I was a solicitor and I said on the second time “no, I’m not the lawyer here, I’m the criminal.” I am a chronic migraine sufferer (to be honest my main worry in the days running up to the action was that I would end up letting the team down by getting a migraine). Luckily the bad headache I had all day only turned into a migraine when I was put in a cell. The strip lighting glare made it even worse, but the police sergeant took pity on me and turned it down, so I was able to get some relief in the quiet darkness of the cell. I was eventually released “under investigation” at about 9pm.
The action captured a lot of media attention and gave you the opportunity to communicate with BlackRock employees as well, didn’t it?
Yes, it did. I’d asked my decoy to head to the Financial Times offices, which were around the corner, after I was glued on, and he successfully returned with a journalist in tow. My videographer had tipped me off that journalists and videographers were being told to get to BlackRock and they were there in force just after we arrived and had set up. In the weeks running up to the action, my team and I probably spent half the preparation time doing work on the press releases and linking up with useful media contacts. I had different press releases written for the tabloid press, financial press, local press and the broadsheets.
Image courtesy of blackrocksbigproblem.com
People who had been working on the BlackRock campaign for some time were also vital in giving us useful research material and helping to get the story out globally. The action was covered in just about all the financial newspapers around the world as well as all the London papers, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, etc. And the message was clear, “BlackRock, get out of funding fossil fuels” (coal in particular) and “…you can’t eat money.”
The action had been deliberately timed over lunchtime because I really wanted the people inside the building to get the message.
That was another part of this, to turn their hearts and minds. Several employees were standing nearby when I was talking to the media about why I was doing the action and I later found out that it had an important impact on some of them. Looking at footage I was surprised how calm I looked – I spoke as a grandmother – I didn’t blame the employees but the senior management – I remember saying something like “the people in the building behind me are working hard for their families and children, many of them are unaware that the company they work for are actively involved in funding the destruction of the planet and their children’s and grandchildren’s future.”
I can remember feeling very calm and sure that I was in the right place and doing the right thing. I was also massively relieved that everyone in the group was safe.
As I said previously, to help get through to the employees we’d also created these BlackRock bank notes, which were created by a wonderful graphic designer in our group. We knew they’d be more likely to take these than a normal flyer. This was based on something we later did with Barclays Bank when trying to get shareholders to take action. On that occasion we created these mugs with the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft China Pottery with the Barclays flyer £ notes printed round the outside and sent them to Barclays executives, shareholders, journalists and famous people like David Attenborough. They had different messages on the outside and inside and we now know that that bit of craftivism has created some positive ripples.
A letter outlining why we were there was also handed in to BlackRock. Along with many activists across the world, I continue to try and put pressure on BlackRock, and we will continue to until the small shifts they’ve made so far become the big shifts we all need. I coordinated an action outside Avon Pension Fund who have big investments with BlackRock and have tried to use pension fund divestment as a secondary way of putting pressure on BlackRock. In August 2021 I also coordinated a Charred Earth Award Ceremony outside BlackRock’s London HQ, focussing, on their continued funding of companies involved in the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest.
You’ve talked about learning from the various actions that preceded this one. What did you in turn learn from doing this one?
Linking up with BlackRock campaigners was hugely helpful in terms of them providing research and helping with messaging and generally giving me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone and step up and peacefully confront what some in the financial sector are financing. Being part of XR was important too because they do things that NGOs would shy away from.
I learnt that we need to use social media even more effectively to reach an even wider audience. The action really helped encourage some activists to focus more on the financial side of things in Britain and shortly afterwards our Earthquakes affinity group hosted a launch event for XR Money Rebellion. It was helpful also to discuss strategies and potential future targets and since then I’ve been actively involved in working with others on the Barclays/Sharklays campaign to creatively highlight their greenwash and climate-wrecking activities. Most of all I’ve learnt about the importance of having a committed, courageous, creative team around you and to not give up – we can’t afford to…
I think that being an activist is a bit like having a handful of pebbles and you’re throwing them into the pond, and you don’t know what ripples you’re going to cause. Sometimes they just sink to the bottom, and you think, “What was that about?” but other times they cause positive ripples and really ‘land’.
So, you need to be persistent and keep trying different things; have a good team around you (I had the best!); think about how the action will be viewed by those within the financial sector and the wider public – and what will be most impactful and hopefully get the changes needed. What I and other activists do may not ultimately be enough, but for my grandchild and future grandchildren, for the natural world and for those who are most affected by climate injustice, doing nothing is not an option.
To gain more insight into the planning and execution of these kinds of actions read the resources in the PDF, which includes an action template, arrestee statement and further tips from Jo Flanagan.
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