Climate change

Inside XR: part 2 | Growing pains

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It’s a week after Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Summer Uprising’, and the number at the North Bristol weekly meeting has swelled noticeably. There’s certainly a buzz in the air, a feeling of excitement at having achieved something. Many are keen to reflect: what went well, concerns raised, and even how to do better next time.

XR’s Summer Uprising took place across five cities, with varying degrees of success. Following a series of protests in London earlier this year, the protest sought to take across the UK the momentum currently pushing XR to national prominence. London, Glasgow, Leeds and Cardiff, as well as Bristol, were the cities in which the organisation’s brightly painted boats were placed on main roads as the centre of the protest, each committed to enacting ‘civil disobedience’ in various ways.

The action in Bristol occupied Bristol Bridge, a main road in the city’s centre, for a full five days; public and media responses were mixed, though both attention for and frustration with the protest climaxed when a fringe group of protesters chose to block the M32, a busy dual carriage way into the centre of the city.

The mood at tonight’s meeting, though, is upbeat. And with good reason: the number in attendance has grown by 25 following the protest, a factor of a third. In sheer numbers alone, the action has been a success, growing XR’s outreach and profile. In more subjective terms, the most common positive takeaway seems to be the inclusive and friendly atmosphere across the protest. Certainly, some of the newer members seem excited to have been part of XR’s community spirit: ‘community is the main thing’; ‘this is what I like about it: the positivity. People feel empowered and are not just sitting down and waiting for positive things to happen’, two members say as the group reflects on the activities of the past week.

Discussing individuals’ anxieties about the summer uprising prompts a number of the same responses, many of which reflect wider public and organisational concerns about the movement. The unplanned blockading of the M32 in Bristol towards the end of the five days, which prompted frustration not just by delayed motorists but also by XR members themselves, is the subject of the most concern. While XR maintain a friendly relationship with the police – who were notified in advance of the protest and even helped erect the main roadblock – the M32 blockade was not discussed with police – or the majority of XR Bristol for that matter. Was escalating the protest in that way a breach of trust?

But Extinction Rebellion’s civil and close relationship with law enforcement is the subject of its own debate within the movement. For some, it is a representation of how XR is changing the game of protest. For others – some of whom are present tonight – the police presence made the action too ‘safe’; a small group even claim there were ‘not enough opportunities to get arrested’. (A few weeks later, at a meeting in central Bristol, a seasoned member sums up this feeling: ‘It felt a bit tame. We didn’t fight for the roadblock so we didn’t have to defend it’.)

Hearing remarks like these, one can’t help but consider how such attitudes interact with accusations of a lack of diversity within XR. How might the prevailing attitude towards arrest change if the movement were not predominantly white? Black Britons are over 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. Meanwhile, tragedies such as the fire at Grenfell Tower – which killed 72 people – have prompted accusations of institutional racism, drawing attention to glaring racial disparities in sectors like higher education.

Whether or not these data speak to an institutional racism within the police force – or British society, for that matter – it is not difficult to draw a link between XR’s close relationship with the police and its majority white membership. The use of arrest as a tool of protest could also speak to the innate privilege afforded to white protesters over people of colour. 

In fact, part of XR’s DNA, their modus operandi, is the sacrifices made by members through protest. The intention therein is to demonstrate visibly a commitment to the cause, attracting members through such a statement. But simply being willing and able to be arrested as a sacrifice alludes to a particular form of privilege, be it racial or economic. 

The interaction between race and arrest speaks to a wider debate, one which goes to the heart of Extinction Rebellion. In essence, there is a central tension between gaining (and maintaining) media, public and thus political attention and managing a positive image. An issue like arrest exemplifies this. On one hand, Extinction Rebellion themselves state that an important element of civil disobedience is arrest: it indicates sacrifice as well as successful civil disruption. Arrests, as well as the escalated disruption that necessitates them, prompts more widespread media attention, public notice and thus, is the hope, government action. On the other, disruption of this level risks alienating the public; allowing, even willing, members to be arrested raises issues of race and diversity within XR.

Much local and national media coverage of Extinction Rebellion followed a similar format. Disgruntled motorists in backed-up traffic, complaining of being late to work or to pick up the kids from school, are a common theme. The rogue M32 roadblock was the subject of particular contention. And while it is all too easy for XR to dismiss such a response – after all, climate change on its existing track is set to cause far more disruption than some traffic congestion on a hot day – media coverage is central in forming perceptions of the movement. Again, this dilemma raises the question of where exactly to draw the line between sufficient media coverage and a positive public perception. While the former is necessary to raise the profile of XR and increase membership, political pressure and support, the latter must be maintained in order to change minds and policy.

Extinction Rebellion is nevertheless almost brand new, and already making national headlines. Say what you like about their tactics, XR’s timing is second to none: with figures like 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg simultaneously leading cross-generational climate movements, there was never a better time to tap into the growing global zeitgeist.

But another feature of the twenty-first century is the unprecedented scrutiny placed on protest movements, the newly intense pressure to ensure they speak to and include everyone. Currently XR are missing the mark on this – and have only limited time before they risk becoming defined by their pitfalls. Climate change, we know, will affect us all, which is why inclusivity is as important as ever. In their ambition for growth, Extinction Rebellion must be sure not to leave anyone behind.

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