Extinction Rebellion activists have stormed Leeds city centre in a planned five days of protests, blocking a road with a boat and causing heavy traffic across the city.
The environmental activists blocked Victoria Bridge, by Bridgewater Place, at about 10am on Monday, July 15.
A line of protesters block the two entrances to the bridge, at the Bridgewater Place junction and the Sovereign Street junction, and will sleep out in tents overnight to keep the road blocked until Friday.
There is a yellow boat in the middle of the bridge and protesters have climbed on top of it, shouting through a megaphone and leading the crowd in chanting.
Some protesters are lying down on the street while others have pitched tents in preparation for sleeping on the road overnight.
Why is the group protesting?
The five days of action are part of Extinction Rebellion’s ‘summer uprising’ campaign, which has seen similar blockades in London, Cardiff, Bristol and Glasgow.
The group is protesting against investment into the fossil fuel industry, which they say is funded by the finance sector and the government.
Protesters are calling on the government to declare a climate emergency and work with other organisations to ‘communicate the urgency’ for change.
They said they have chosen to disrupt Leeds as the biggest and fastest growing financial district outside of London.
Protester Dr James Chan, an A&E doctor in hospitals across West Yorkshire, believes that climate change is the biggest threat to the health of people in the UK.
He said “I feel the biggest threat to humanity is what we’re doing to our planet and our climate.
“We depend on it to survive and just like someone can become unwell and need help, a very small change can mean a big difference to our planet.
“If we let climate change go unchallenged, I know millions of people will eventually suffer and society is at risk.”
What tactics are the protesters using?
A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion claimed that across the country, 1,000 protesters are ‘willing to risk arrest’ and 500 protesters are ‘willing to risk prison’.
West Yorkshire Police and Leeds City Council issued statements last week, warning local businesses that protesters could use tactics such as ‘lock ins’, ‘sit ins’ and swarming buildings.
However, protesters in Leeds said today that they plan to use peaceful tactics to hold the Victoria Bridge for five days.
University of Leeds lecturer Sara Han, who is organising the protests, said she expects 500 to 1,000 protesters across the week, including people from Manchester, Sheffield, York and Liverpool.
She said: “We plan to hold the bridge as a point of focus, to shine a light on the role of finance in the fossil fuel industry and how it is contributing to the climate breakdown.
“We’re going to have music, we’re going to have talks, workshops, speakers, dance and performance.
“It’s going to be peaceful and non-violent and we won’t use any kind of contentious form of protest.
“It’s all very peaceful and we just want people to come along and speak to us and open up the dialogue on climate change.
“There will be people’s assemblies so everyone can come down and have their say, even if they’re not someone who is part of the Extinction Rebellion movements.
"We actively encourage any Leeds residents or people from local businesses to come down.”
How have police responded to the protests?
There is a heavy police presence in the city centre and PCSOs are diverting traffic away from Victoria Bridge.
Police officers surround the protesters and liaison officers are at the scene, although there does not appear to be any conflict between police and protesters.
In a statement, West Yorkshire Police said: “We have been working with partner agencies to put appropriate plans in place for this event and have a policing operation underway to manage it peacefully.
“We aim to manage people's right to protest, balanced with the wider public's right to go about their daily business, with minimal impact on those living, working and visiting Leeds.”
It is not clear at this point if police will try to break up the blockade before Friday.
MPs and councillors have shown support
Labour MP Alex Sobel, for Leeds North West, was at the Victoria Bridge supporting the protests.
He said: “We’re in the middle of an ecological crisis and we’re seeing ecosystems close down because of humans’ effect on the planet.
“I support Extinction Rebellion because we are facing an extinction level crisis, if the way that we treat the planet doesn’t change.
“These sorts of protest are really important to raise awareness with the general public, so I’m down here to show my support and solidarity.”
Candidates for the Green Party also showed their support for Extinction Rebellion and made speeches at the protests on Monday afternoon.
What travel disruption have the protests caused?
Victoria Bridge is closed to all vehicles, but pedestrians are able to get through the blockade.
PCSOs are on the Bridgewater Place junction, diverting traffic away from Victoria Bridge and giving advice to drivers.
Traffic is currently moving through the junction but there is heavy traffic across the city, with congestion expected to get worse into Monday evening.
There is heavy traffic on the Headrow, Vicar Lane and Merrion Way due to the diversions, with traffic moving at less than 5mph.
On the A58, Clay Pit Lane, there is bumper to bumper traffic with average speeds of about 5mph.
There are delays and diversions to bus services as traffic is being diverted over Leeds Bridge, disrupting services 2,3,3A,12,13 and13A.
Services passing through Neville Street are also affected, including 1,1a, PR1 (Elland Rd) and PR2 (Temple Green).
First Bus has warned passengers that the delays will last all week if the protesters keep their hold on Victoria Bridge.
They are advising all passengers to check their route before they travel.