Taking On the Red: The Catharsis of Silence Amid the Chaos

Maria Rummery - Philosophy & Culture

Photo credit - Leo Bild
Photo credit - Leo Bild

As a lifelong environmental activist, the letter-writing, demonstrating and petition-signing I had been doing for years was having little impact on the relentless breakdown of ecosystems and democracies we are witnessing on a daily basis.  Furthermore, I had arrived at the point in my activism journey where words were no longer enough to express the feelings of frustration, despair, rage and anxiety. All these things were giving way to grief. I soon found that traditional forms of activism, which provide no outlet to deal with these feelings, are fast becoming obsolete. The future of activism is being drawn from the ancient past, in an art-meets-social-consciousness movement. 

Through my local climate action group I learned about the Red Rebels, a theatre-based approach to activism, founded by Invisible Circus who aligned with Extinction Rebellion as part of Britain’s Spring Rebellion in April 2019.  The idea immediately captured my imagination and I knew it would fulfil the longing I had for beauty and expression amid the chaos.

In a podcast I listened to about the British uprising, the Red Rebels were likened to a modern-day Greek Chorus. In ancient Greece, when comedies and tragedies were played out regularly as a social commentary, the Greek Chorus was engaged alongside performances, to express the feelings of the characters, which were not otherwise apparent to the audience. The Chorus enhanced the unspoken truths for the audience using song, expression and nuance of movement.

The Red Rebels fulfil this same function amid the many public demonstrations that are occurring in response to the environmental crisis. However, they do so without speech or song: rather, they mutely embody the emotional landscape surrounding the protest. In one of our first actions, our local Red Rebel Brigade led protesters from the Climate Strike on a march to the office of our Member of Parliament. Collectively we delivered a letter of appeal for more effective action to address climate change, which had brought prolonged drought and extreme bushfires to our region. With faces painted white to emphasise emotion, and wearing red robes to symbolise the blood of species threatened with extinction, we walked slowly, our arms outstretched in silent surrender to our circumstances. Our presence created a sombre mood to the proceedings and had the effect of subduing protestors and onlookers alike.

Adopting the role of Red Rebel is in itself a form of moving meditation, as we are forbidden to speak at all or move at a normal pace. I found it unlocked a host of emotions - my grief for the catastrophic effects of climate change on our environment, my despair at the apparent powerlessness I have over it despite all my efforts, the frustration and anger I have towards the corporations and powers that refuse to stop their relentless destruction. As I walked with my fellow Red Rebels, joining in with the slow waves of movement and gesture, I quietly wept with the feeling of solemnity we manifested amid the speeches and chants of the marchers.  

As our small band of Rebels filed through the crowd going about their daily business, the ethereal intensity seemed to transfer to bystanders. A toddler cried out at our approach, then soon became silent as we passed unperturbed by events around us, ensconced in our own calm bubble. I heard conversations come to a standstill, some reduced to a whisper on our approach. Others became more animated as people rushed to wonder at or explain the phenomenon of the Red Rebels to their companions. Some spoke of mass extinction, new politics, the rising tide of rebellion. Just hearing snatches of these conversations gave me new hope. Knowing that I was playing a small part as a catalyst for these conversations in my community brought me joy.

Every action I have been involved in as a Red Rebel has impressed upon me the breadth of emotion that is ignited in myself and in my fellow humans. It is clear that the Red Rebels resonate with people on a fundamental level. The role of Red Rebel is empowering and cathartic for both the Red Rebels and those alongside them. 

Soon after the Australian Black Summer bushfires, I attended a national protest on the first day of Parliament in Canberra in February 2020. The large group of Red Rebels, many who had travelled hundreds of kilometres, were invited by the First Nations people to accompany the smoking ceremony, an event of great reverence. We later led the march of thousands of attendees to encircle Parliament House with a human chain, a peaceful request for the government to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change that we are now witnessing as a nation.

In my experience, taking on the Red gives me permission to occupy a space that explores the feelings surrounding the problems of our age. It celebrates the power of solidarity in confronting injustice and allows me to publicly grieve with others for the state of our world. It validates and nurtures this collective human suffering that otherwise goes untold within our modern narrative. Its ancient methodology emphasises the timeless significance of these factors in the history of humanity. The Red Rebels sit in juxtaposition with the modern chaos that has become mundane, bringing to light other stark contrasts: the fact we are privileged yet lacking, in a society that is democratic yet dictatorial, in a world that continues to rally yet is teetering on the brink.                                     


Maria Rummery is a climate activist and active member of the Red Rebels

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