The Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest at Canning Town Station on the 17th October has pushed the discussion around the group’s tactics into a new direction. This event, alongside the ‘thank you’ flowers left at Brixton police station sparking controversy, has put XR under scrutiny from a new source of critics. With the main criticism of the group usually centred around the disruption to life in places they’ve protested, this recent display of civil disobedience has drawn criticism from those who support the movement’s message but feel that they are targeting the wrong people, excluding groups in their fight for climate justice.
The main criticism of the events from the Canning Town protest fall into two categories. Firstly, the mode of transport targeted by the group is under fire. Figures such as Labour MP, David Lammy berated the attack on The Tube, one of the capital’s more environmentally friendly modes of transport, as ‘plain stupid’ and misdirected. With the Tube carrying an estimated 5 million passengers a day (roughly over half of the capital’s residents) in a more emission conscious manor, the group’s actions are being deemed misplaced and ineffective. Questions are being asked of why the transport of ordinary people is being disrupted instead of the gas guzzling car entourages and polluting private jets of multi-millionaires.
Secondly, an emerging conversation about XR, centring around the inclusivity of their tactics, has been opened. Although the leadership have made a statement denouncing the protesters’ actions and reiterating the central organisations’ disapproval of the Canning Town protest, these activists can be seen to have inadvertently ignited debate less about climate change and more about class and race. Many saw the Canning Town protest as a movement, made up of predominantly white, middle class activists, preventing the commuters of a predominantly working-class area from getting to work. To some, the yell of ‘I need to get to work! I need to feed my kids!’, by an angry commuter starkly shows how XR is failing to encompass all and recognise the real impact of their actions.
The key tactics of the group is peaceful action, usually civil disruption up until the point of arrest. This tactic is hard to be deployed by anyone but white, middle class activists. A night in a prison cell for people of colour, especially black protestors, is not an appealing option. At best, the result is a criminal record: not particularly appealing when a racial bias in employment already exists regardless of a record or conviction. But worse consequences exist, with institutionalised police brutality and racism a concern for some activists who fear for their safety. Some believe that race is not relevant, as climate change is an indiscriminate force that we must all unite against and give our utmost to challenge. But fears of police treatment, subsequent consequences of arrest and the reaction to the flowers left in Brixton are reasons some from the BAME community have opted to stay away from the leading voice in the climate crisis conversation.
In response to the events XR has promised a ‘decolonisation’. The Scottish branch of XR has emphasised that “CLIMATE STRUGGLE = CLASS STRUGGLE” and that the global south will be disproportionately affected by the steadily increasing global emissions. They promisingly said that there is a need ‘to be quiet, and listen’, to voices that express a discomfort with the group’s actions when they often come from those who will be feeling a greater impact of climate change in the years to come. This can be seen as a promising response, with a recognition of privilege a first step in the attempts to listen and dismantle the structures that keep the group predominantly white and middle class.
But I am sceptical of these promises. I am also sceptical about how long they can maintain their momentum without more people feeling embraced in their protests and climate activism. XR fail to see how their desire to be arrested is a privilege, the notion of optionally wanting to be arrest an alien concept to so many within society. They fail to see how lucky they are in having a choice about being in a police cell. They fail to recognise how lucky they are they can get time off work to fight for a cause the believe in without worrying about money. XR’s white, middle class leadership expects a sacrifice for their cause, with the assumption that the experiences and outcomes of this sacrifice are universal for all: minimal violence, receipt of justice and dignity whilst in custody and few or insignificant consequences after acts of protest. The group’s tactics exclude on an issue that should unite us all. Stopping opinions towards them souring amongst those who support their message but not their tactics could perhaps be their key challenge as they try to keep the climate conversation continuing.
IMAGE: Flickr/Alexander Savin