GBC is a rare example of institutional memory and expertise on the often transient horizontalist environmental left.
Legal advice group Green and Black Cross (GBC) has taken the unprecedented step of making a public statement raising a series of legal and security concerns around Extinction Rebellion (XR).
The statement was published just days after the organisation, which provides legal support and solidarity to those involved in protest activity, entered a three month recuperation period.
The main take-away is that GBC have said that they are no longer willing to continue the work of supporting XR. They had done this through help, advice and training; legal observing; and back office support.
GBC concludes with a list of asks for XR to enact going forward. GBC’s reasons for concern cover three areas: XR’s use of legal observers; the safety of participants, particularly regarding arrests; and security in the organisation.
Legal observers “provide basic legal guidance and are independent witnesses of police behaviour at protests”. GBC says that XR’s legal observers are poorly trained and do not remain independent on actions.
Other concerns include that participants are put at heightened risk of prosecution when details of conditions imposed on actions are shared on social media, and that misleading information is provided to those risking arrest.
Regarding security, GBC says that personal data is inadequately stored and communication channels used for legal observers allow for the police to access that information.
GBC’s should be take particularly seriously. There contribution is about assuring the safety of individuals taking part in XR as well as the movement as a whole.
GBC is a rare example of institutional memory and expertise on the often transient horizontalist environmental left. Its advice should be understood as coming out of that unrivalled experience around protest law and security, rather than yet another ideological or strategic dispute.
XR’s relationship to traditional environmentalism and the left is complex. This has made a productive dialogue challenging. XR explicitly rejects much of the politics, strategy and framings of traditional environmentalism.
On the other hand, it superficially draws on some practices relating to direct-action, while stripping back the underlying politics and divorcing practices from their context.
This has led to contradictions which result in very real in issues around safety. The case of legal observers is among the most pertinent examples of this.
XR has adopted the use of legal observers in their actions, but dispute the analysis of the police which foreground their necessity.
Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, explains in his booklet Common Sense for the 21st Century XR’s divergent attitude to policing.
He criticises an attitude that “the police are nasty for ideological reasons x and y” which leads to movements finding it “difficult to accept the police can be cooperative in a particular set of circumstances.”
His proposal is that XR activists “[treat police] consistently in a polite way when we are arrested and at the police stations” and build trust “through having regular meetings”.
Out of this attitude, XR has diluted the independence of legal observers. They often wear XR insignia or pass on information from police to protestors.
Firstly, this undermines the legitimacy of their evidence if presented in court. This could be the difference between a conviction or not.
Secondly, this negatively impacts legal observers across the movement. Their role as independent witnesses is undermined for the entire movement that relies on them for impartial evidence if they are considered as ‘part of the protest'.
In his booklet, Hallam is astutely critical of cultural tendencies within green and left movements which limit for building mass politics.
He argues: “Activist routines are off-putting – hand signals which are not explained, [...] and new age or academic (radical left) language.”
Although he doesn’t explicitly make this link, inferring the security culture of much of the environmental left as being implicated in these limitations would be reasonable.
Security culture is largely a response to the systematic infiltration of protest movements by the police in past decades, as well as the often legally risky nature of direct action.
This culture often manifests in using secure channels of communication, such as Signal or encrypted email; vetting activists before they can fully participate in actions or organising; and informal hierarchies where key decisions are made between activists with strong affinity, behind the veneer of open consensus meetings. Rejecting this exclusivity is core to XR’s successful mobilisation model.
Connor Woodman’s history of infiltration and the movement proposes an alternative response based on building mass politics which makes infiltration redundant.
This is preferable both to “small, isolated affinity groups” and XR’s approach of rejecting any critical analysis of the policing of protest. However, as long as arrest is being seriously risked, precautionary measures must be retained to mitigate risk of conviction.
Hallam writes: “It’s not about creating a comfort zone but about getting on with the critical work that needs to be done – it’s not going to be easy."
He’s right. Security culture shouldn’t be about reinforcing a comfort zone to the exclusion of mass participation. But XR’s strategy is contingent on making participants vulnerable to the force of the state.
Eschewing measures to reduce the chance of conviction is irresponsible in this context. The safety and health of individuals and the movement as a whole should be paramount.
XR should take GBC’s recommendations on board in full. They include training legal observers sufficiently and treating them fairly with coordinated check ins, appropriate and verified legal guidance and buddying co-ordination.
GBC asks that XR maximises the safety of those seeking arrest by: informing them of the risks; providing accurate resources; limiting the possibility of conviction by not broadcasting conditions imposed by police; and creating a culture of security around communications and data storage.
These are not ideological subjectivities prejudiced by a culture of hostility to the police. They are wisdoms derived from years of experience supporting those participating in direct action and relating to the police in that context.
For XR to succeed on their own terms, they need the trust of participants as well as dedicating resource to the safety of individuals and the movement.