XR have changed the conversation - and it's time for other activists to recognise that

Climate activists have always made mistakes, and Extinction Rebellion has too. But passing judgement on their imperfections, isn't activism.

Leila Deen
Leila Deen
1 May 2019, 8.24am
New Banksy artwork near Marble Arch, London, 29 April 2019
Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/PA Images

There’s a new favourite topic of conversation in the UK community of activists who once self-defined as ‘the climate movement’: It’s new-to-the-scene Extinction Rebellion (XR), and what it’s getting wrong. In a series of posts, blogs, WhatsApps and drunken conversations at parties, we’ve raised concerns about how white XR is, how unstrategic XR is, how privileged, middle-class and frankly naive XR is.

Then right in our faces, XR shut down key bits of London for over a week, with the promise of more to come, and they have since met with and convinced Labour to push a vote to declare a “climate emergency”.

Activists climbed on top of DLR trains, blockaded Waterloo bridge and beached a giant pink boat in Oxford Circus. It’s been an audacious protest that has resonated across the Atlantic. And finally , maybe too reticently, many of us have concluded that XR did a bloody good job.

So now XR has changed the conversation, we are warming to them. What does that say about us?

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It’s worth dissecting how our community responded to the emergence of a new group of people who are doing their best to resist the almost inexorable demise of the planet, which is what we have been calling for all these years. And what our attitude means for building a future of emancipation and solidarity.

As someone who spent 10 years of my life in the UK climate movement, supergluing myself to doors and throwing custard on politicians, and who has lived in the USA for 5 years since, I am less worried about what is being said about XR, than I am about the intention behind it.

The UK movement is at risk of adopting a paralysing tendency of passing judgement as a replacement for activism. This trend is visible amongst some “white & woke” US subcultures who focus overly on who is best walking the fine line of ‘getting it right’’, possibly more than they do on actual political transformation. This has left many willing activists scared to act.

This is in no way to reject the importance of critique itself. The concerns around XR are legitimate. It is too white — just like the last mass climate movement Camp for Climate Action was too white, just like Reclaim the Streets was too white, just like the Green Party and the Labour Party and the bloody government and the entire British middle class is too white. There has been progress in diversifying protest from groups like Sister Uncut and Black Lives Matter UK that this extremely white movement could smother. XR has to take this seriously — an Indian friend received a message from XR asking her to visibly support them solely “because we really need people that are not white men”. So yes, someone still needs to walk some XR members through the basics of racism.

XR is also too middle class — which again is too white — I refer you to the previous paragraph.

And yes, XR is behaving naively about how sustainable a movement built entirely on getting white middle-class people arrested can be. Their declared belief that they just need 3.5% of the population to affect systemic change is a basic communications fail because it smacks of bulldozing past those who are not yet onside — both the minority communities and much of middle Britain. And if witness accounts of XR working with the police and treating them as a force to be turned to the bright side are true, then not only are they ignoring the reality that communities of colour have suffered at the hands of police and prison for centuries, but a lot of the organisers are now on a computer database they will likely never get off that will exclude them from a range of privileges — from certain jobs to mortgages to Airbnb membership.

But none of this negates the fact that XR — made up largely of parents, pensioners and young people — is driving thousands of people to confront and struggle against the end times for our planet, and in doing so opening new space for the beleaguered climate community to be heard again. Wrestling with all of these issues is a very typical part of the messy and exhausting process that we call change-making. None of this is unique to XR — many more seasoned climate activists have been making similar mistakes for decades. What is unique — for the climate movement — is that XR have mobilized thousands of apparently normal people to shut down London for days. Which means we can now talk about these complexities in the mainstream. Many us have been failing to do something similar for a very very long time.

Change happens when we pull together. XR has created a popular flank that many long term activists — paralysed by the overwhelming horror of climate change — have been crying out for. It’s not perfect, but it has happened, and now that it has, are we really comfortable with staying home and passing judgement on those who are acting, who are mobilizing, who are spending month after month showing up in local communities or on teleconferences supporting those who are?

If we want to suggest strategic improvements from a place of love and match it with an effort to help, let’s be on the streets, bringing supplies and sharing thoughts on climate justice and solidarity with a captive audience who are quietly locked onto a railing.

Judging, in contrast, is a lazy form of zero-sum critique which is rooted in puritanical gatekeeping and that makes us feel more “in” by judging others as “out” — and it seems is increasingly replacing our doing the actual work. This does not help us reach an emancipatory future.

Just like those who camped out for weeks at Occupy or were pepper sprayed during UK Uncut actions or who were battered by police as they ran towards coal power stations during the Camp for Climate Action, there are exhausted allies holding down a climate rebellion across the world wondering if back-up on its way.

Is our reply really going to be “Sorry, we are at home, judging you”?

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