Extinction Rebellion (XR) has achieved an amazing feat. Its multiple and large-scale actions have pushed the climate crisis to the fore and pressured decision makers to take drastic action to work to secure a better future for all species.
XR has been able to motivate ordinary people to participate in peaceful civil disobedience and to break from business as usual by building on the work of past social and environmental movements, as well as the renewed urgency created by the release of the 1.5 IPCC report approximately one year ago.
The reaction from the Home Office has been to ban protests related to XR. The group must be doing something right to draw the ire of the state. The ban only emboldened XR to continue and new people to join their ranks. We are thankful to all who have made these protests happen, many who have taken action on the streets for the first time in their life.
However, the action to shutdown public transport at rush hour exposed many weaknesses in XR’s strategy and decision-making process. This action was undertaken despite principled objections from the majority of rebels. It demonstrated that XR needs to rethink its decision-making processes and find a way to prioritise accountability within a decentralised movement.
This action also demonstrated the truth to some early criticisms of the movement and its messaging - that it chose to ignore the role of capitalism and colonialism in creating the climate crisis.
Thankfully there are groups within XR such as the international Global Justice Rebellion that are pushing XR to include a fourth demand: global climate justice. We hope that this will bring deeper strategic thinking to future actions.
We are heartened that the vast majority of rebels were opposed to this action and that XR values openly challenging itself and the toxic system, as well as reflecting, learning and welcoming everyone.
We ourselves are people of colour (Poc) residing in Europe who have been actively involved in the global climate justice movement for over a decade. Here we offer our analysis of how XR can and must do better.
The strongest weapon of non-violent movements is people power and it is not strategic - neither is it ethical - to alienate marginalised communities.
As the grandchildren of those who resisted British colonial rule in South Asia, we wholeheartedly support civil disobedience and know that all successful movements include an element of sacrifice.
But civil disobedience does not necessarily mean arrest. Many civil disobedience movements have managed to achieve change without mass arrests. XR will need to be more agile if it is to keep the authorities, the fossil fuel industry and financiers guessing about what will come next.
For example in Chile, the miners association called for non-cooperation by driving below the speed limit, not sending children to school, and banging pots and pans every evening at 8pm. Through such actions, it became clear that the opposition to Pinochet was growing without forcing people to land in harsh jails.
Fetishisation and glorification of arrests individualises collective acts and belittles how those that look different than the majority of rebels are treated by the police. Focussing on individual arrests plays into a neoliberal focus on personal pursuit and exceptional action, rather than building community.
This strategy has been detrimental to people of colour (PoC) joining and identifying with XR. Getting arrested can be a rather small sacrifice for an upper-middle class white man in his mid-fifties and he is likely to be treated respectfully by the police, whereas the transgendered black British youth with a disability born to Caribbean immigrants will have a very different experience.
A Facebook post from Roger Hallam exemplifies his lack of understanding about how others experience imprisonment, and assumes that the majority of people can afford a court case and will face no consequences if they do not show up to work for an extended time.
Advocating for disruption and non-cooperation - in small and big ways, everyday and collectively - would be more inclusive and is likely going to increase the movement's impact.
While XR has done a phenomenal job of building a movement with strong principles, one that many people feel they can identify with, the ways in which these principles are put into practice has been uneven.
Sending flowers and a thank you note to staff at the Brixton police station, where three young black men died in custody in recent years, is disrespectful towards those who have their rights trampled on daily by the police and the state.
Similarly, asking the courts to prosecute knife-crime rather than non-violent protesters shows a lack of understanding about how institutional racism and austerity measures have impacted communities of colour.
We strongly recommend that rebels participate in a continuous practice of anti-oppression analysis and self reflection, applying this to how they fight for climate justice.
Mass action and ‘whirlwind’ moments do not happen in isolation, without outreach or deep community organising - as the Engler brothers point out in their book This is an Uprising. This means that sometimes one has to go slowly at first in order to go fast later.
Additionally, this analysis by Nafeez Ahmed points out that XR has not taken into account the differences between protesting to avert climate crisis and overthrowing authoritarian regimes propped up by the police.
A deeper understanding of the case studies and empirical evidence should have translated into finding weak spots and sympathetic people within the ranks of those sectors primarily responsible for the climate crisis, such as the fossil fuel industry, bureaucrats, banks and insurance companies.
People have always been on the move and will continue to be so.
In today’s world many of the factors contributing to displacement and migration are related to the legacy of colonialism, such as political instability, war or economic inequality, and to climate impacts.
If we are able to use this crisis as an opportunity to create a more just world, we can expect that a number of drivers of immigration will become less acute. But arguing for immigration controls as a climate response is massively unjust.
While it is good that XR supports climate refugees, what about other types of refugees? Where do climate refugees start and stop? If you are a farmer and face desertification, a slow process linked to climate change, and decide to flee, are you a climate refugee or an economic refugee? This differentiation among types of refugees creates unnecessary divisions.
XR must actively work to include activists from migrant communities if it is to fully embed global justice in its strategic workings. At the same time, as a decentralised movement it must work to remain accountable at all levels, in order to avoid replicating structures of oppression.
Rather than simply maximising disruption in public spaces, XR must focus its aim on the fossil fuel industrial complex - those who have cut subsidies or blocked investment in public transport infrastructure, transport ministries promoting roads over rail, automobile manufacturers, financial and banking companies investing in fossil fuels or infrastructures, and of course the oil, gas and coal companies themselves, such as BP.
These actors are fuelling the crisis and their power has to be removed. At the same time, marginalised communities bearing the brunt of climate impacts and economic inequality must be actively empowered.
We must learn from the Gilet Jaunes movement in France and the current uprising in Chile.
While science indicates that we must quickly stop emitting greenhouse gases, it does not indicate how we do this. That is up to us - we must provide a vision of how our lives can improve for everyone in a carbon free society and how we get there in a socially just manner. We hope that XR can expand its demands to include how greenhouse gas emissions can be stopped in a socially just manner.
Social movements are successful when they are able to increase support from those who have previously demonstrated passive opposition, and when they are able to diversify an active base.
Within its own ranks, a number of XR groups including XR Youth, XR Slough, XR Scotland, the XR International Solidarity Network, and Global Justice Rebellion are proactively and constructively addressing oppression within the group. They should be listened to and be a part of the leadership within XR.
There are numerous working class, disabled, immigrant and/or activists of colour across the globe who have been a part of the climate and other social justice movements for many years. They should be consulted in an effort to incorporate demands from the most impacted communities and to build meaningful relationships. These groups must have a place at the table and XR must be willing to modify its structure, culture, messaging and tactics based on their inputs.
By making these changes, XR will be stronger, more effective and strategic. With diverse widespread support across large swathes of society, the government will have no choice but to stop protecting the fossil fuel industry and financiers, as well as make climate justice a reality for all.
Payal Parekh is an international climate activist and former programme director of 350.org. Asad Rehman is the executive director of War on Want.
Image credit: Talia Woodin, Extinction Rebellion.