On a suitably warm and balmy June day in North Bristol, thirty or so members of Extinction Rebellion – known fondly (or not so, depending who you ask) as XR – meet in a church hall. After loading up on vegan food and some polite chit chat, the group are seated in a large circle and two of the ‘hosts’ (XR’s name for meeting leaders) begin a conversation about the upcoming ‘action’. The action – or protest to you and me – is a follow-up to Extinction Rebellion’s headline-grabbing, road-blocking action in London earlier this year, which brought sites across central London to a standstill for over a week. Over the course of the evening, a series of activities take place aimed at establishing how each member is willing and able to take part in next week’s ‘Summer Uprising’.
This Tuesday’s meeting is taking place against a backdrop of growing discontent about climate change and what XR believe to be the British government’s inaction on the issue. Conceived in May and officially founded in October 2018 by a small group of academics, XR have rapidly risen to prominence through their commitment to non-violent direct action, aimed at garnering public and thus political attention to the forthcoming climate crisis. The organisation has taken inspiration from historical grassroots movements like the Suffragettes. But therein lies one of the most common criticisms of Extinction Rebellion: their attitudes towards arrests has been lambasted as blasé, and support for those arrested is, according to some, non-existent.
Certainly, at my first XR meeting, arrest is a common concern. Many of those present are new to XR, some new to protest movements entirely; the thought of getting arrested is less than appealing. Admittedly, the hosts are keen to reiterate that there is no obligation to be arrested: the vast majority of protesters will not interact with the police. But a salient takeaway from the London protest in April seems to be a concern amongst the membership about arrest.
Now in smaller groups, discussing our plans for the upcoming action, arrest is a hot topic. Newer members seem the most nervous, while reflections from the more experienced indicate a change in culture even since the early days of the movement in 2018: ‘not getting arrested used to be called “the fluffy option”’.
Reluctant concerns are also raised over whether particular favourite tactics of XR are affective in achieving the movement’s end goal or simply serve to aggravate the public. In particular, a method known as ‘swarming’ – in which in protestors block the road for seven minutes at a time, the limit before arrest is warranted – has caused the most contention. Having said that, the hosts seem keen to give freedom to small ‘Affinity Groups’ to engage with the protest as they please; the group are able to have a more constructive discussion thereon, though the issue of arrest remains present.
Extinction Rebellion pride themselves on working in a decentralised way, purporting to ‘build a movement that is participatory, decentralised, and inclusive’. In many ways, this principle is visibly realised at the local meeting. Encouraging individuals to discuss in smaller groups how they would like to participate, rather than dictating, allows each of member space to consider their role within XR. But the ‘decentralised’ structure also gives way to many ‘don’t know’s. Is there a theme? Maybe…we’re not sure just yet. Where is it going to take place? We’ll confirm closer to the time. What is Bristol North’s specific role? Currently unsure. It’s worth reiterating at this point that the protest was due to start in six days.
The local group leaders can’t be blamed for this uncertainty. In fact, XR’s structure claims to be loosely based on Brian J Robertson’s Holacracy, dubbed by its creator ‘a revolutionary management system that abolishes hierarchy’. But as a new movement, it seems XR haven’t quite established how best to enact such a system, instead leaving members lacking leadership and feeling uncertain about where they fit within its structure. ‘Finding the place where your skills fit takes perseverance, determination and confidence’, Bristol North host Kathy puts it. For those new to XR, this can be nerve-wracking.
But XR itself is new, and its members’ enthusiasm undeniable. It’s with equal parts uncertainty, curiosity and encouragement that I leave the meeting that evening. I am unsure of how – as I see it – several disparate and somewhat disconnected groups across Bristol are going to sustain a five-day, high impact protest in the centre of the city.
With this in mind, I was surprised upon my arrival on Monday morning to find a road block across Bristol Bridge, hundreds of protesters camped out in nearby Castle Park, a 10-foot high pink boat and information, food and workshop tents that wouldn’t look out of place at a music festival.
Over the course of the week, I undeniably impressed at how the various skills and widespread enthusiasm of XR translated into such an organised demonstration. Hearty meals were dished out for a voluntary contribution; the information tent ran at full pelt 24 hours a day; DJs and bands performed with the iconic pink boat, emblazoned with the XR logo, as their stage.
I shadowed a group who named themselves ‘Message in a Bottle’: the aim being to encourage individuals to make a ‘pledge’ (their own message in a bottle), a commitment to developing or changing a habit to reduce their carbon footprint. Some approached the group willingly, already sporting an XR t-shirt or sticker, and pledged to go vegan or stop all flights. Others were cajoled into taking part, perhaps on their way to Pret a Manger for lunch between meetings. This, for me, was one of the protest’s most positive elements: providing a friendly, approachable face to tackling climate change; giving individuals the freedom to consider their lifestyle and its impact on the environment. In this sense, XR’s principle to avoid ‘blaming and shaming’ was not only felt by its members but projected outward, even to less willing participants.
The week of protest in Bristol did not pass without its hiccups, of course, not least as a result of trying to maintain positive media representation. Inevitably, air time was given to frustrated members of the public, with BBC Points West often featuring angered motorists behind the wheel, lamenting the delay to their commute home. And while this is an inevitable part of the territory with civil disobedience of this kind, the media coverage does raise questions over where exactly the line is between ‘non-violent direct action’ and ‘unnecessarily pissing off and thus alienating the public’.
For many members of the public and XR, that line was crossed with the blockading of the M32, an arterial route into the city. The decision – taken by a small fringe group – exemplifies some of the central issues within the movement. XR’s desire to enact ‘holacracy’, thus avoiding dictatorial hierarchy, allows minority groups to expand the protest as and when they wish. Meanwhile, the remaining protestors, many of whom are uncomfortable with the level of disruption caused by the M32 blockade, were forced to contend with increasingly negative media attention and public perception. A similar toss-up is to be made in this context: was the greater disruption worth it in order to garner increased media attention? What about the damage to XR’s reputation?
These questions seem to sit at the core of many sceptics’ and even members’ concerns about Extinction Rebellion. It’s possible that the organisation’s rapid growth and currently slightly unestablished structure mean that it has not yet had time to grapple with some of these issues: the tension between disruption and reputation; the most effective form of protest; how to make the movement as inclusive as possible. But the June protest certainly made clear the undeniable power of enthusiasm and a commitment to affecting change. Meanwhile, XR’s answer to the best way of enacting such change will surely continue to evolve.