Do I support mobilising large numbers of people to join in the climate protest in Central London taking place on 21 April, organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR)?
Do I think it will have a positive effect on the political debate in Britain and maybe elsewhere?
Do I agree with how XR are describing and explaining this protest?
No. Definitely not.
I think that XR has taken ‘talking big’ to a whole new level that is damaging to their own supporters and activists. I urge them to change the language they’re using around the 21 April event, which they call ‘The Big One’.
In their online explanation for why The Big One will ‘work’, XR gives this answer: ‘People power.’
Here is the rest of their explanation, in full: ‘There is a threshold of numbers, human energy, above which people power cannot be stopped. That’s what the target is. That’s why you need to be there.
‘On 4 November 1989, hundreds of thousands of people gathered peacefully in the Alexanderplatz in what was then East Berlin and refused to move. Five days later the Berlin Wall came down. There were no arrests.
‘Recent history is full of examples of the power of people power… of your power. Here are just a few: Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, Manila, February 1986; Wenceslas Square, Prague, November 1989; Maidan Square, Kyiv, November 2004.
‘All that’s missing from the list is Parliament Square, London, April 2023. Gathering peacefully in such large numbers at the nation’s seat of power will create a positive, irreversible, societal tipping point.’
This is an absolutely shocking distortion of our current situation.
Not the same
In its short history, XR has unlocked an enormous flood of positive energy; it created a channel for thousands of people to step up and take arrestable action for climate justice.
On the other hand, there have been many problems with how XR frames things, some discussed by our own Gabriel Carlyle (see PN 2624 – 2625, for example), some set out by Kevin Blowe of Netpol (PN 2636 – 2637).
Turning back to the XR statement on The Big One, it is just so dishonest and so self-defeating to suggest to people that Britain is on the brink of a social upheaval on the scale of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines in 1986, or the fall of the Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989, or the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004.
Unlike East Germany, Czechoslovakia or the Philippines during these crises, Britain is neither a dependent client state nor a dictatorship. Britain in 2023 is also in a very different state to Ukraine in 2004. Our situations cannot be compared.
It is the politics of shame to suggest to XR’s supporters around the UK that the only reason we won’t have a revolution in this country this year is because they didn’t manage to mobilise 100,000 people to stand around the houses of parliament for weeks on end.
Yes, sometimes nonviolent/largely unarmed uprisings take the world completely by surprise, and have miraculously surprising successes – like Egypt in 2010, or Iran in 1979, to add to the list.
But it is one thing to say that an upheaval like Tahrir Square is possible.
It is a completely different thing to promise thousands of XR supporters around the country that gathering 100,000 people near parliament ‘will create a positive, irreversible, societal tipping point’ – and overthrow the government.
With this kind of message, XR is setting people up for disappointment and exhaustion – and distrust of nonviolence.