Extinction Rebellion (XR) has sprung upon us and is mobilising thousands of people to take direct action demanding radical action on climate change. They’ve filled the streets. Thousands of new people are taking action. Despite this most established environmental activists have reacted with criticism, much of which is justified.
To understand XR, it is important to note that it has a defined leadership. Roger Hallam and a small group make key decisions, and those participating in XR do not have a direct say in these decisions. This is unlike many recent movements involving direct action, most of which have been non-hierarchical in some way.
While XR is a participatory movement that any can join, the leadership does make clear strategic decisions. Some of these are impressive and uncontroversial, like the decision to stop the main actions in central London after 10 days in April. Others, like the strategic decisions not to centre the movement on those in the Global South feeling the effects of climate change or not being explicitly anti-colonial are controversial.
On issues such as diversity, privilege and the police, I found very different responses from XR activists on the streets compared to the XR leadership. Those on the streets seemed willing to hear concerns and incorporate action on these issues into their practice. They talked about arrest as ‘using your privilege to try and bump up the odds of life on earth surviving’. But as social movement researcher and trainer Tasha Adams says: 'It’s hard to add intersectionality and diversity after your movement’s DNA is fixed.'
For me, it is important to make sure critiques of XR leadership are targeted there, rather than at the many new activists that are participating in direct action for the first time.
It’s unfair to write people off because they do not have a radical analysis of the police or white privilege just yet – this would exclude people who aren’t 100 percent right on about everything from ever taking action.
Looking back to my first demonstration, I was pig ignorant about this stuff. We need to differentiate between the leadership and those that are taking part.
Diversity and privilege
XR has come under a lot of criticism for what some say is the leadership’s strategic decision to ignore this element.
In my visits to XR, there certainly were a lot of white men in positions of leadership, but there was visibly more diversity in participation than I have ever seen in previous environmental campaigns – although that is sadly a low bar.
I worry that XR’s lack of focus on diversity and privilege may have made it even more attractive to those of privilege that don’t like being in activist spaces that discuss it.
I put these thoughts to Liam, an organiser with XR, who responded: 'We're being politically diverse, going beyond the usual politics. We’ve got an amazing international solidarity team that is supporting frontline campaigns around the world. We had actions in over 33 countries this week. What we are trying to do now is trying to work on bringing the white working class into the movement. They are going to be hit so hard. We are running anti-oppression workshops. We’ve done better on racial diversity than most climate activism. I think we are doing pretty well in terms of participation – but we do need to go further on class diversity.'
'We love and respect everything the environmental movement has done in the last 30 years – but carbon emissions have increased – so we have to have new tactics.'
This was one of the first things that Liam said to me when I talked to him.
XR seem to have an attitude of reinventing the wheel when it comes to their approach.
This has clearly lead to some breakthroughs, attracting people outside of normal activist demographics. But XR often discard learning too.
Perhaps the most obvious example is alienating the Green & Black Cross, a legal support group with years of experience of supporting arrested activists – just the kind of people you want around if you have a strategy of mass arrests. Consequently, support for those arrested has been patchy at best, with worryingly inaccurate information being circulated.
Most recent direct action in the UK has been nonviolent, but not explicitly so, whereas XR are very clear they are nonviolent.
Liam says that working it into the movement’s DNA has helped, pointing out that when The Sun printed a story about the London shutdown, they led with a picture of a giant 'nonviolent' banner across a road. This is not the usual scary picture of protestors. However, the press on the right has not by any means stopped misrepresenting XR.
For Liam, being explicitly nonviolent has helped with the policing: 'We have had regular communications with police. Not to ask permission, but to explain what we are doing, that it is nonviolent, and to ask for nonviolence in their response.… If they come down hard on protesters it will bring us more support. They are not ready to do that – at the moment.'
So far, the police’s use of force has been relatively low, especially given the level of disruption. It remains to be seen how long this will last, especially if XR begins to get close to the change it is demanding – change that threatens our current economic system.
Already political cover for state violence is growing, with home secretary Sajid Javid calling for 'the full force of the law' to be used against XR.
XR acknowledge that the police can be problematic, but don’t highlight this when it comes to how they train people to deal with them. This refusal to mainstream any of the problematic facets certainly alienates many who have suffered at the hands of the police, which let’s face it are usually going to not be white and middle-class.
Those that explain XR’s strategy speak of how it is based on nonviolent struggles of the past, particularly those led by Gandhi and King. Tellingly they refer to the leaders of the movements, not the Indian Independence Movement or the US Civil Rights Movement. Regardless, there are a few key differences.
XR roots its nonviolence in the realm of the practical – their argument is that based on academic research, nonviolence is simply more effective.
The movements led by Gandhi and King were also rooted in a spiritual and moral dimension. Curiously, XR embrace implications of the moral/spiritual side of nonviolence like believing in the redemption of the oppressors, but do not argue the moral/spiritual side at all.
Disruption is the goal of current XR actions, and this again differs from the civil rights movement in the US and from the Indian independence movements. Those campaigns were more focused on those oppressed creating moments of drama, where the 'truth force' of the oppressed, confronting the institutions that oppressed them and being willing to suffer, powerfully, drew attention to injustice.
However, those who suffer now are largely in the Global South and these are London-based protests. The London-based protests are less likely to include people with personal connections to people most affected by climate change now, and it’s hard to dramatise their future suffering when it has not happened yet.
That said, it does feel weak that XR often fail to use opportunities to speak about the plight of those most affected by climate change. During XR's April actions, 600 people lost their lives in flooding in Mozambique, and it was not part of their media messaging.
That said, the pink boat that XR parked in the middle of Oxford Circus was named after Honduran indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
No blame game
Liam told me something that felt very different from other activist groups: 'XR have a culture of not blaming and shaming. Even politicians!'
A lot of activists who have experience have found this very tricky. Liam explains: 'There is no calling out in public spaces. We deal with issues in a one-on-one way. If you can’t, there is a team that works on that. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.'
For me, this chimes with a culture of calling-in, rather than calling out. While this is a cultural norm of communication more familiar to the middle class, it is also a strategic decision for XR.
Liam: 'All of this is designed to carry this movement long enough to create change. It needs to not split into factions! We have people with vastly different politics and vastly different theories of change. We are here to build a mass movement that can push for change.'
'Toddler Movement' is a phrase that Liam keeps using as so many new people are getting involved with XR.
In trying to find out why, I spoke to many people who had been arrested for the first time, from teenagers to people with professional jobs, to retirees. One of them put it bluntly: 'It [XR] is a gateway drug to direct action.'
From what I heard the key factors in motivating new people to get involved feel like:
- XR’s framing, not looking at individual issues but the big picture of climate change and their sense of a need for urgent action.
- The clear definition of what XR are, with explicit nonviolence being a factor. Things like lack of aggression towards police or the positive atmosphere – no-one shouting 'scum' at anyone.
- The sense that this was a moment with so many people involved – and that they could really make a change.
- Unlike many activist groups calling for arrests, the social view in XR is that everyone can be arrested. It’s not just for the hardcore. You can be arrested and go back to your normal life. You don’t have to be an activist, and being involved / arrested won’t make you one.
Many activists are largely outraged by this last point. They rightly point out that getting arrested can be traumatic, and the bureaucracy and stress that follows can eat up a lot of time, therefore it should be approached with more caution.
These are valid points, but perhaps some activists’ disquiet is also because XR make arrest – on which some activists build part of their identity – so accessible. When an activist who has experienced a hugely-stressful and long, drawn-out episode arising from an arrest for protest, sees arrest being treated so apparently flippantly by XR, this can re-open those traumas and potentially to lessen an activist’s own sense of self-worth.
The tactics of mass arrest
XR encourage people to be arrested, and to be accountable for their actions. This is in contrast to most direct action movements, which are often more about causing disruption, only being arrested if necessary and choosing the legal defence that allows people to suffer a minimum.
An experienced activist who had spent time with XR pointed out that this can make sense:
'The advantage of saying from outset that you want to get thousands arrested is that the police will likely try to avoid arresting people. This means that you can start to take more radical tactics that may actually start to directly disrupt the political-industrial system. It also means that the people that turn up are uniquely prepared to do what it takes to achieve the movement’s goals. In my day, most participants in social movements were not prepared to get arrested, let alone go to jail. This enables the authorities to isolate those that are from those that aren't, and bore them into submission with bureaucracy.… Nowadays in the UK the state are mostly forced to grind peaceful protesters down with the criminal justice system, rather than bash them on the head or shoot them. However, there is a limit to how many people can be accommodated by this system, as the poll tax movement showed.'
The police took a long time to adapt to this. When they started to try and clear the Waterloo Bridge XR protest, they had to give up after about 200 arrests as all their cells were full in London… then Luton… then Brighton! Only after almost a week’s worth of protest did the police managed to seriously begin to re-take any space occupied by XR.
Filling up the police cells?
XR also state their intention to fill up the jails. Perhaps here XR’s practice hasn’t quite lived up to their theory so far. The majority of arrests are for people simply sitting in the road, and the police have been processing most arrestees quickly and releasing them with no conditions.
In the UK there is no bail bond to pay so that cannot be refused. The majority of offences are for crimes that will not result in prison.
The police cells may be full in London for short periods, but the jails are not. When three Extinction Rebels were remanded into custody after blocking a train, XR did not send hundreds to repeat their action to fill the jails.
For now, this element seems to be ignored. I can see why, as unprecedented disruption and numbers of arrests are bringing media coverage and responses from some areas of government.
Maybe they will return to this in the future, or update their theory to take it into account.
So far no one in XR is looking at any serious time, and the police are not doling out beatings. XR have indicated they want to bring in this dimension, as when people face suffering it is often very powerful. Gandhi called it 'truth force' or satyagraha. Many existing activists do not understand why anyone would want their movement to suffer, and this element really aggravates a lot of them.
A couple of recent actions do offer a clue as to why this is powerful. In 2009, nine protesters climbed a chimney at Didcot Power Station and stayed up there for a week to protest new gas power. There was not a lot of media coverage initially, even though they stayed up there a week. However, when the power company tried to sue them for £5,000,000, suddenly the media was very interested and they were able to tell their story.
Similarly, the 15 protesters that broke into Stansted Airport and stopped an immigration deportation flight were largely ignored by the media at the time, but then were able to shift the debate about these inhumane flightsduring two years of trials facing life sentences on preposterous terrorism charges.
The role of suffering is certainly one that is ignored in most UK direct action. XR speak about it, but have not yet begun to use it the way movements on which they base themselves did.
XR’s tactics differ in many ways from much of established climate activism – whether that is grassroots direct action or NGO-led campaigning. This has upset many, as they do not respect existing learning and do not place an understanding of privilege at the centre of their analysis. There are certainly parts of their thinking that I’d be interested to hear more about as they don’t quite tally with their actions.
XR’s leadership deserve much of the criticism they have faced, but also much praise. Their thinking challenges UK activist culture in many ways, and will certainly affect future movements.
Being so open and explicit about nonviolence is very different to the UK’s recent mass direct actions, and in many ways is proving effective. The impact they are having in streets, in the media and in public discourse is undeniable. I’m excited and grateful that this imperfect rebellion exists.