We all know by now that Extinction Rebellion (X.R) has become an institution far beyond its own imagining. They are a movement which began only one year ago, humbly and with the best of intentions: to save our choking planet, and rally a cry of emergency across the world in its protest action. They collected, they researched, they took stock from the revolutions of the past and they took to the streets of London, holding things up, making a nuisance of themselves in the name of climate emergency. Their recently published collection of essays, This Is Not A Drill, compiled essays from activists and experts all the world. I read it. With the exception of a few naive statements on the benevolence of the police, I enjoyed it. I even posted it on my Instagram page, saying ‘Everyone should read this!’ The facts scared me, as facts often do, into realising we really don’t have time to fuss and argue about the little things. Eco systems are collapsing around us, and those most deeply affected will be those who have little in the first place. The book also gave me hope. Like an apocalyptic film in which you feel like you’re drowning in the despair of society’s imminent end, its protagonists keep their heads above water, fighting to find solutions to save the world. In it are writings by indigenous people, LGBTQ+ activists, scientists, politicians and economists. X.R, it seemed, knew their position as a white, Western organisation tackling issues which will largely devastate the Global South. They don’t make blanket statements as other environmentalists seem to do, like ‘Stop driving your car!’ or ‘Stop eating any animal products!’ or ‘Stop getting on planes, ever!’. While those things are all ideal courses of action, they aren’t realistic for all people. X.R call for the dismantling of the systems we currently use, a system based on continuous use of the Earth’s resources without any proper way of replacing or replenishing them. They call for a circular economy. They encourage people to take non-violent action in the streets by getting arrested (more on this precarious concept later). If you’re not up for arrest, they say, join us anyway. Share food, share your skills of sewing, or cooking, with others. Be part of a community who will stand up for our planet, the only planet we will ever have, despite what Elon Musk says.
So far, so good – so it seems. Sure, they’re a little idealistic, but nobody else is loudly standing up to society about climate change in such a huge capacity. They’re the largest organisation in the world taking climate action – surely that says something? Plus, their message is always non-violent. They don’t want to hurt anyone, their aim is not to riot but to reason. It is cooperatively refusing to cooperate. They have, unfairly, been figures of ridicule by climate cynics, who arrogantly fob them off as a bunch of hippies taking time off their libby jobs to fart around at Trafalgar Square and have a nice time. I don’t believe that’s true. I believe that the individuals at the core of the organisation have true intent, care deeply about the issues to which they dedicate their entire lives. They have taken great risk to rally such action from so many civilians, whose actions and words under X.R’s representation, they cannot control.
However, in the processes of their action, Extinction Rebellion have dug themselves a deep grave. Others have written at length about their lack of consideration for racial issues among the organisation, and about their too-close-for-comfort relationship with the MET Police, and I encourage you to read any and all pieces about X.R you can find. The police, indeed, are an enormous point of contention in the discussion around X.R’s course of action. Let’s talk about the MET Police.
All police forces in major cities have a slightly different relationship, reputation and position in their neighbourhood. The NYPD, for example, are a different organisation to the LAPD, who are different to London Metropolitan Police. At their cores, though, the same devastating racial violence among police organisations have wrecked any respect black communities and their allies might have had for the police. In London, the institutionalised racism among the police force is ongoing and evident. In a recent interview I conducted for my series Invisible Subjects, with a young black man, an ex-gang member working with the church, I asked him about his view of the police force. He said to me, ‘From my experience, police just automatically hate you. I’ve been beat up by police so many times […] All black youth feel like police are racist.’ I’m not implying that every single police officer is a racist, or an evil person. But I am saying this: if you align yourself with an institution which has systematically murdered black people for years, you are complicit in that. Simply by wearing the uniform, you are bearing the badge of a racist organisation. Extinction Rebellion briefly address the police’s structural racism in their ‘Pre-Action/Arrest Preparation document’. They say, ‘Unfortunately we live in a society where people are not treated equally, whether it is due to disability, sexual orientation or gender, ethnicity or other aspects of people’s identities. One well documented example is Institutional racism. Whenever we talk about arrest in XR, we need to acknowledge that it is taking place in the context of structural racism and white privilege.’ Cool. So they know. But do they?
In action, unlike in words, X.R’s members seem to have forgotten altogether the danger the police pose, along with their history of racial brutality. They have cosied up to the cops in a pretty grim way. One instance of this went viral on Twitter, when Chris Greenwood, the head of media for the Metropolitan Police, tweeted a photograph of a large bouquet of flowers, alongside a note. The note read, ‘To all the kind souls at Brixton Police Station, for all you have done – with decency and professionalism.’ The flowers were a gift from an arrested protestor. The ignorance of this note and gift are yet to fully sink into my brain. To send a police officer flowers for deciding not to beat you up or murder you is callous, corny and ultimately disgusting. Crucially, for X.R, it stinks of white privilege. It is an example of being out of touch, totally oblivious to the fact that Brixton, of all places, is not a place to be rewarding police with lilies. As @MediocreDave wrote on Twitter, ‘People have died in that police station. It is the site of killings. Leave your flowers on the tree outside.’
Perhaps this isn’t X.R’s fault, I thought. After all, these instances of pure ignorance didn’t come directly from X.R as an organisation, but a few individuals who spoke and acted in their name. My thought didn’t last long. X.R deliberately decided not to denounce these instances of idiocy, and instead allowed them to happen uncriticised. I concede that they can’t keep track of everyone, and everything, that happens in their movement, but these felt like important moments for them to prove they’re not a bunch of white, middle class posers, and they didn’t take the moment seriously. Mistake number one.
Their next act of self destruction was a one which came from the roots of the organisation itself. During their two week protest which began on 7th October 2019, X.R decided to take their disruptive action to Transport for London, by blocking tube trains during rush hour. Disruption of public services are not a bad idea. In fact, they’re a necessary part of effective protest; disrupt the system, stop its perpetrators in their tracks. This action performed by X.R, however, was not well thought out, and very quickly backfired for a few key reasons. The first reason being, they attacked the wrong system. While the tube is a fossil fuel-burning form of transport, it is the most eco-friendly way of travelling in London, outside of cycling and walking. Yes, it is dirty, polluting and unnatural, but it’s better than driving, and cars are still an enormous problem in central London’s landscape. If every single person used tubes instead of cars in London, the money generated could be used to improve the tube system into an electric or otherwise eco-friendly enterprise, lowering London’s devastating pollution levels and making it a quieter, generally more enjoyable place. Attacking the tube altogether was their first mistake.
Secondly, and perhaps most short-sightedly, was X.R’s choice of tube stations. Their choices could not have been poorer. At rush hour on the morning of the 17th October, X.R sent rebels to Canning Town and Stratford stations. For those of you who don’t live in London, both of these stations are in East London, and Canning Town, in particular, is an extremely low income area. Most people taking the tube at rush hour from this station are manual workers, who are paid by the hour, and risk losing money and even their jobs from skipping a shift. As is to be expected from this absolutely disastrous choice of stations, one rebel had drinks and other objects flung at him by the angry crowd on the platform, and was eventually dragged off the top of the train by a commuter. While it’s never acceptable to physically attack a peaceful protester, the blindness of X.R’s protest at Canning Town speaks volumes of the organisation’s privilege. Once again, someone on Twitter got it just right: Jonathan Page tweeted, ‘Of all the stations to pick, they picked CANNING TOWN?! ARE THEY MAD? Any money says they’ve never set foot in Newham before today.’ Not only did X.R prove themselves problematically blind to the workers they were disrupting, they gravely endangered their protestors by placing them in such a situation. While the protestor dragged off the train wasn’t hurt, as commuters formed a protective circle around him once he landed on the platform, the consequences of this action could have been worse. X.R responded to this with a statement, saying, ‘It is regrettable that there was violence at today’s action at Canning Town tube station. We would like to express our sadness that events escalated this way.’
This disastrous tube disruption proved more than the fact X.R don’t know London very well. It proved that their systematic disruption was fundamentally the wrong kind of disruption. It would have been easy for them to disrupt bank workers at Monument station, or better still, to block roads used by private cars in the heart of the city. It’s not enough to disrupt a system, it must be disruption that inconveniences those who are perpetrating problems and have a choice not to perpetrate them. Sure, using the tube is polluting the planet. Minimum wage workers using the tube are not the problem. The system which has made it necessary for them to work long and underpaid hours, for which they must get on a packed tube every morning and be on time or face the consequences, is the problem. X.R didn’t see that, and in attacking those who would be most affected by lateness, they have proved their critics right – they are not getting through to anyone except the white middle classes. This isn’t good enough.
Extinction Rebellion have done many things right. They have committed to nonviolence, and they have unapologetically disrupted the systems which are rinsing this planet clean of its life. They invite everyone to join them. So why isn’t everyone joining them? It isn’t like they put out an ad for middle aged, middle class white people to join forces against the sixth mass extinction. Yet those are the demographic that showed up. Of course, there are some obvious answers to this. Those who can get themselves arrested without disastrous personal consequences are inevitably going to have money and security in their lives, and in this society, those kinds of people all tend to look the same. X.R have made their protests inaccessible, perhaps through sheer ignorance. Their Facebook site encouraged people to ‘Book time off work. Take to the streets.’ Okay then. Sure. Let’s all just book some time off work. Go unpaid for a bit. No biggie. Can you see me rolling my eyes?
In order to catch everyone’s support, not just a privileged few, X.R need to show they understand and care about the fact that most people don’t have time to worry about the planet. While this is an absolutely devastating fact, it is a fact. In a system where, from 2017’s figures, 27% of Londoners live in poverty, and 58% of those people are in a working family, is it surprising that their cries for the death of the planet are only heard by the middle and upper classes? When life for over a quarter of Londoners, that’s around 2.3 million people, is about whether or not they can put food on the table at the end of the day, are we really shocked that people aren’t booking time off work to sit in Trafalgar Square? X.R, to prove itself as an inclusive organisation, must quickly find a way to reach out to non-middle class activists. Most of all, they must take advice from those who come from underprivileged backgrounds. They must have everyone’s knowledge, everyone’s reality, within their infrastructure. They must join forces not just with doctors and scientists, but with social workers, housing associations and school teachers from the city of London. How do I know they haven’t already done this? Because not one working class Londoner would have recommended Canning Town as a site of climate protest. Not one. Wake up, Extinction Rebellion, or the slow death of irrelevance will come to you.