What to make of Extinction Rebellion (XR) after its spectacular week occupying four very visible sites in central London? We were there on the first day of the action, on Monday 15 April, talking to protesters. Between us, we spoke to over 600 protesters and handed out surveys to a great many of them. from as far afield as Norfolk, Cornwall and Preston.
The vast majority were not new to protest. Only a handful, at most, told us that this was their first demonstration. Some talked of peace movement protests they had been on in the 1980s. Some we recognised, from previous climate protests, including the climate strike rallies in March.
So what’s different this time around? “I hope you are not going to write that we are white and middle class”, said one woman. Well… we could also add that our research shows that not only are they white and middle class, they are also very highly educated, very well informed and are from across the generations.
Many protestors also have quite spectacularly low levels of trust in our democratic institutions. A number of people would have given minus answers on our scale of 0-10 for trust in democratic institutions, if only our survey had allowed them to do so. Two women from Colchester were wearing identical signs, saying ‘Planet, not Politics’. We asked them what they meant by this: they told us they had little faith in parliament to address climate change in the way required, or for party politics to provide a solution to the crisis.
It’s fair to say that XR’s action this Easter, with 1065 arrests reported so far from the London April protests, have now squarely put the issue on the political agenda, and made the complaints about disruption and ‘misery’ from government ministers, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Cressida Dick, and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan look ridiculous in the context of climate disruption. The combined contributions of two secular saints at the start and end of the protest – Greta Thunberg’s arrival in London in time to join the demonstrators, and David Attenborough’s BBC programme on climate change were perfectly timed for XR.
Protest and policing
As we write, XR is voluntarily bringing to an end its presence in London, and is grappling with the question of what next. XR’s arrest strategy has certainly caused disruption, given activists agency, and attracted the world’s attention; its co-founder, Roger Hallam, based this strategy on the non-violent action theory of Gene Sharp, who wrote about how to resist authoritarian regimes. The key to this is winning over the forces of repression (the police, the army). But this strategy seems more relevant to the current events in Sudan than to the UK today, where the question is (usually) not whether the police or army will shoot, but how can public democratic space best be protected?
True, the Met struggled to justify using significant force against XR initially, especially given XR’s committed worthiness, unity, commitment and good humour. But the lack of a credible threat to public order, combined with the numbers of protesters, was probably more important than their niceness to the police, however tactically astute this was. This is also atypical: we know from recent studies of the policing of protest by Joanna Gilmore at the University of York and Will Jackson at Liverpool John Moores that where protesters are fewer, commercial interests are more obviously in play, and the locations are less visible (such as in the anti-fracking protests at Barton Moss and Preston New Road) that police have used increasingly tough measures against non-violent protests.
By the end of the Easter weekend, the policing of XR had noticeably become more robust. XR can likewise expect the police to adapt and attempt to undermine future protests. Undercover officers will be gathering intelligence, which police training manuals justify on the basis that disruptive protests are serious criminality, even ‘domestic extremism’. For the police, ‘peaceful protest’ is limited to the narrow definition of demonstrations, marches and non-disruptive actions.
XR would do well to study the history of the Committee of 100, whose sit-down demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1961 led to 1314 arrests, using a very similar strategy. The authorities reduced the numbers arrested and charged, concentrating on strategic incapacitation of leaders, causing divisions in the movement and a rapid decline.
The serious work begins now
Nevertheless, the politics of protest have changed since the 1960s. Civil disobedience is now more familiar, and even widely accepted. Given the momentum created by XR and the schoolchildren’s strike, there is an interesting argument coming up about the scope for using civil disobedience and non-violent direct action to create a new democratic focus that parties and elections no longer seem able to produce. This is not to replace representative democracy but to complement it: even if XR’s demand for a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change fails, this matters less than the sense that politicians and the major parties are playing catch-up, and looking to engage with climate mobilisations which clearly have a strong public echo.
The challenge XR faces now is one of movement building. Its success in mobilising its supporters was based on traditional methods of public meetings and training to remove the barriers to civil disobedience. This led to a broader mobilisation than previous direct action networks such as Climate Camp and Reclaim the Power achieved; but to build a movement equal to its ambitions, it needs to be broader still.
In other words, the serious work begins now: XR faces the challenge of growing the movement and sustaining the agency of the activists it has energised, or of falling into the trap of demobilisation (and the victory of the politics of ‘business as usual’). This means making the urgency of the response to climate change a new normal, through multiple local actions, away from London and media spectacle.
But this also means making choices which will alienate some. It’s fine to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change: but politics is about trade-offs, and climate politics is about fundamental systemic change. Some of XR’s initiators have spoken of wanting to appeal across the left-right divide; but the response to XR has mainly been critical on the right, and broadly supportive, although not without some criticisms, on the left. One issue is that XR’s strategy of courting arrest assumes a white and middle class privilege. Otherwise supportive critics have pointed out that people of colour may have good reason to be wary of inviting arrest and also that prosecutions and trials are likely to sap the energy of the movement.
XR’s initial framing of climate change seemed to be more moral than political, glossing over the explanation of why the harmful impacts of climate change are already being experienced in the Global South.
But even in the space of a few months XR has evolved. Naming the pink boat that was locked to the road at Oxford Circus after the murdered Honduran environmental and human rights defender Berta Cáceres was an important statement of solidarity. It was also good sign that the focus of the XR People’s Assembly at the end of the first week of the April London actions was on how XR can address decolonisation and inclusivity. Those debates can probably never be settled, but making space for them to take place is an important first step.
XR cannot appeal to everyone and will have enemies as well as friends: making ideological choices is an inevitable process in developing a social movement. How it responds to these two challenges, of ideas and agency, will determine its success – and maybe, the future of climate change.