It’s about changing the form of disruption and making sure that we don’t insult or cause financial harm to ordinary people.
Extinction Rebellion's go-to weapon of choice - blocking roads and disrupting the general public - has lost the movement key support from core pockets of our society.
It’s a method of disruption that was wholly necessary for our assent into the public and geo-political sphere and has been effective in achieving many of the victories that XR has won in just under two years. However, the time has come for building bridges, as well as blocking roads.
In the last year and a half, Extinction Rebellion has shifted public opinion on the irrefutable climate and ecological emergency, and has influenced a series of key policy decisions at governmental and parliamentary level. We have won a string of high-profile court rulings and played our part in foiling environmentally destructive proposals across the UK - including the Bristol Airport expansion and the Heathrow Airport third runway.
The journey started in November 2018, when we blocked and occupied five key bridges in London and ‘swarmed’ the streets of the capital. The aim was to force the UK government to 'tell the truth' about the climate and ecological emergency, implement measures to reach carbon neutrality by 2025 and set up national Citizens’ Assemblies - giving people the power to shape our planet’s future in the years to come.
Our actions gained mass media coverage and proved themselves contentious with the general public and political pundits. We all felt the anger and contempt during that period of swarming, standing face-to-face with people going about their daily business.
For some time I expressed concern at our disruption of working citizens and my concerns were heard and valued by my colleagues across the board. However, we were still faced with the problem of how to bring the climate and ecological emergency to the forefront of public debate and governmental action without ruffling feathers. Blocking roads seemed to be working.
Momentum soared throughout 2018 and our International Rebellion in April 2019 saw a real sea-change in public and political opinion. Celebrities and people of influence rallied behind the cause and showed their support in many ways. Much of the public seemed to support us and the media was somewhat sympathetic to our aims. The ‘Summer of Love’ feeling of the April 2019 International Rebellion is something that many will hold with them for the rest of their lives.
In October 2019 we returned to London in full force, we were met with brutality from the police who were hot on our heels from the beginning. They confiscated a large proportion of our equipment - including ease of access equipment for disabled rebels.
This was to be expected. The police proved pretty relentless and determined to teach us ‘uncooperative crusties’ a lesson in complacent conformity.
However, there was something else different and it wasn’t just the weather. Public opinion seemed to have shifted in the opposite direction than in April, even though we were heavily targeting governmental departments and trying to keep road blocking to strategic sites.
Then came the disruptive train action at Canning Town station, which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
We had lost the sympathy and support of the working class public, if we had ever had it in the first place. As a working class guy from Swindon town, this broke my heart. I struggled to engage in blocking roads and refused to swarm when our key sites were seized by the police.
Fortunately, a big part of my role within XR is focussed on quelling concerns by engaging with the press and the public, explaining why we were there and what we hoped to achieve. Most of the people I spoke to eventually agreed that what we were doing was necessary but our somewhat punitive approach was wrong.
The conversations I have been having with people, both within and outside of XR, seem to come to the same conclusion. Simply disrupting the public is no longer effective or necessary to achieve our goals. What we need to do now is engage and empower communities and target those with decision-making power and influence.
This is not to say that disruption will become a thing of the past for XR Bristol, it’s about changing the form of disruption and making sure that we don’t insult or actually cause financial harm to ordinary people. This can be done by developing a more targeted ‘laser surgery’ approach to civil disobedience, knowing that we can deploy mass disruption at any time, with relative ease.
This means doing two things at once - firstly, investing resources into diversifying the movement through serious community engagement across the city and secondly, unapologetically ramping up the pressure on the institutions, corporations and individuals complicit in the proliferation of the climate and ecological emergency.
This is easier said than done. This new approach that XR Bristol is taking will require much nuancing and a whole lot of listening to the concerns and aims of different communities in Bristol. Already, the change in perspective is evident, every person I speak with in Bristol is completely for this new approach.
Our communities team has already started much of the work. XR Bristol have formed a special partnership with African Voices Forum (AVF) to co-host a series of events in African Liberation Month in May 2020 that will focus on pan-Africanism and the environment. We have started to design actions that target specific institutions, corporations and organisations that are integral to this emergency.
Nationally, we have been engaged in a range of community projects and there are surely more to come. I am even in talks with colleagues from London about how we engage with communities through the Covid-19 pandemic.
All of this gives me hope that Extinction Rebellion will reach the tipping point needed to effect real system change in the years to come.
Chay Harwood joined Extinction Rebellion (XR) in November 2018 and has helped organise actions in Bristol and London since. He co-coordinates XR Bristol Spokespeople and their Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. Chay is also on the XR Bristol 2020 Strategy group.
Image: Miriam Hauertmann