On Extinction Rebellion and doing the work

How do we start from imperfect places and end up somewhere better? This is a basic question which can apply just as well to a messy room as it does to our fossil-fueled economies, or to popular movement which wants to represent many people, but whose membership and decision-making structures don’t center diversity or intersectionality.

The wrong target

So now you know what I’m talking about: the decision, by one Extinction Rebellion affinity group, to disrupt morning public transportation in East London.

Many people commented on this event, some noting the violence was itself a sign of a frayed society. One crucial point here is that the protestor reacted violently to being pulled off the train, and thus to characterize the violence as purely one-sided coming from the delayed commuters, as it often was at first, is inaccurate. This also showcases the importance of practicing non-violence and de-escalation. Another point is that the vast majority of Extinction Rebellion activists opposed this action before it took place, but the decentralized nature of Extinction Rebellion as a movement meant that the affinity group that planned it still went forward under the banner of Extinction Rebellion.

The incident led to many debates: around who is targeted (working class commuters and communities vs. the powerful profiteers), what is targeted (public transportation vs. private, community-serving infrastructures vs. multinationals), whose voice is heard as authoritative in the movement, and even the core principles of a movement who would allow this action to go forward.

Not the only incident

It is also worth noting that this action was not the only one, or the first, that raised criticism in the last two weeks. Many members of BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic, for non-UK readers) communities have been critical of Extinction Rebellion’s rose-tinted-lens portrayal of a police force that often targets them with harassment and violence. In this context, a member of Extinction Rebellion sending a letter of thanks to the Brixton police, where Sean Rigg was killed, was another misstep. The letter was not from Extinction Rebellion as a whole, but the sense that Extinction Rebellion is on the side of the police, not the community, was felt widely.

I understand that Extinction Rebellion is partly acting strategically in its relations to the police: talking to them to inform them of the gravity of the climate and ecological crises, showing empathy with the disruption of their work due to civil disobedience (same as for anyone who is disrupted), and hoping to gain their sympathy and support as the campaign moves forward. These are all worthy activities, but they do not excuse the erasure of the real harm and violence enacted by the police on BAME communities.

Beyond last week, I cannot pass over in silence the fact that several non-white people I know personally have been quite badly mistreated by Extinction Rebellion, in a way quite apart from the experience of white activists. They have been ignored, dismissed, belittled, viewed with suspicion — their work, experience and contributions negated. This is the fault, not just of individual Extinction Rebellion members that they came into contact with, but of the culture of the organisation as a whole, otherwise their experience would not be so pervasive. One of my friends, a veteran activist and genius campaign theorist was continually neglected and ignored, but then contacted again “because we have been told we need more brown faces.” Such mistreatment cannot be erased as a case of a few bad apples: it has to do with an organisation taking on the rot of the society around it, because it has been unwilling to do the necessary work of anti-racism and decolonisation.

(Another point is to note that NGO-world is notoriously rife with unchecked abuse and bad behaviour, where employees and volunteers are supposed to put up with this bad behaviour for the “greater good of the cause”: but acting just as badly as a bad sector is certainly nothing to aspire to. Extinction Rebellion can and should aim to do much better.)

A first confession

I have a confession to make here: I myself have not been putting in the work that would allow me to fully take part in these conversations. Despite my vocal and early support for Extinction Rebellion, I was away from the UK last year, and the combination of wanting to be with my son in the evenings, my long commute and my health (I get tired fast) all mean that I have been to exactly zero organizing meetings. This is an explanation, not an excuse.

But this also means I have an outsider’s view of the movement. So last weekend, when I went down to London to finally participate in the autumn rebellion, I had no idea what to expect. These are some of my observations.

  • Bedraggled. The camp at Vauxhall was wet & muddy. I saw people obviously tired, some I spoke to were ill, because of the cold, wet and being harried from place to place with stuff confiscated by the police. There were children emerging from tents and running around in mud-spattered clothes and wellies, trying to find some fun in the rainy setting, with obviously tired parents shuffling after them. There was a sense of real sacrifice: people were there because they felt it was the right thing to do, but they were paying a visible price. The regeneration culture of XR (shorthand for Extinction Rebellion) was discussed: many activists were taking the weekend as a pause for rest and regeneration.
  • Action-oriented. The organization at the camp, as in other XR settings, was impressive, with various tents set up for information, action, communication, family spaces, kitchens, and well-being. I was struck with the action-orientation of the people participating: there were rotas to sign up to, for cooking, clean-up, safety, direct action, etc. And people were there to work, either in these collective activities, or to get training for future participation. Unlike previous activist setting I have been in, no one seemed to have shown up just to be part of a scene or a party: it was to be part of actively engaging in some aspect. I can’t even express the immense difference this makes, and how energizing it was.
  • Not macho. This one might seem like it shouldn’t be said, but again this is very different from previous activist settings I have been in. The men at XR seemed particularly uninterested in throwing their weight around, as far as I could see, and respected the leadership of women. It was really refreshing to see the leadership of women, both young and old, acknowledged, and the ease with which their words carried, at least from what I could see.
  • Multiple. Apart from specific large actions, like marches, people were keen to organise and participate in smaller direct actions: swarming traffic, die-ins at museums sponsored by fossil fuel companies, and so on. I participated in a die-in at the National Portrait Gallery (which has been proudly sponsored by BP for 30 years! BP gains social legitimacy and access to policy-makers through such sponsorship). It was spontaneously called-for, organised and happened with 3 hours of being called. It was so big we had to spill out of the gallery into the lobby, so big we had a whole choir in there singing during the action: it wasn’t covered by any media, as far as I know (unlike the more recent action). And this is probably true of many actions. As I was walking to & from Trafalgar Square, I saw multiple types of actions, smaller marches, all kinds of things being organised and happening. What was picked up and broadcast by the media was a small sampling, sometimes obviously deliberately ignoring larger actions (like the BBC refusing to cover Saturday’s large funeral march).
  • Prefiguring. In its decentralised, training-based, non-macho, caring and action-oriented culture, the Rebellion became something more: it became a demonstration of how differently we could and would organise our societies, if only we were given half a chance. It became much easier to see how a radical social and economic transformation prioritizing the low-carbon provision of human needs could actually take place: not through technocratic market measures, but by massive scale education, engagement and action.

It’s true that Extinction Rebellion’s demographics were dominated by white people, but there were many BAME people as well, and the last thing I want to do is erase their presence and contribution. There was also a constant awareness at the Vauxhall camp, raised in almost every conversation, that XR did not want to be disrupting Lambeth: that this was a working-class community where XR had not done enough. People were grateful for the use of the gardens, and wary of negatively affecting the neighbourhood.

Criticism and necessary work

So I was humbled by the work being done and planned by Extinction Rebellion activists, and felt keenly my own lack of contribution. But after the East London public transportation incident, I felt another lack of contribution. This is what I want to talk about here.

I have long been aware of criticisms of Extinction Rebellion coming from various parties. Some of the earliest ones came from veteran activists, who felt like the lessons learned from their work weren’t recognized. Some of these were valid, and some felt like sour grapes, or an inability to see and seize a new type of opportunity, away from niche activism, and towards popular mobilization. Some came from scientists, my community, who spoke up against specific targets, or tried to clarify the science behind the numbers. In time, though, many prominent scientists came to publicly support the climate youth strikes, and just last week, signed in their hundreds a statement in support of mass civil disobedience.

The criticism that was most pointed and comprehensive, though, came from Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots collective. It encouraged Extinction Rebellion to consider historical and colonial processes underpinning our current moment, and the lived reality of current threats and deprivation faced by poor communities, communities of color and immigrants. It echoed Mary-Annaïse Heglar in the USA, who pointed out that “Climate change ain’t the first existential threat.”

Wretched of the Earth’s open letter was a call to conscience and action. And I know that many within Extinction Rebellion took its message to heart, and started doing the necessary work. XR Liberation, a group focusing on climate action from the perspective of oppressed populations, went live just before the start of the October action.

At Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, there was a large Global Justice tent, which hosted planning and events around global solidarity and migrant justice. These groups proposed a new explicit demand, to be added to Extinction Rebellion’s original three, to be centred around justice. It is worth noting that the US branch of Extinction Rebellion already has such a demand.

All of these are positive developments, but why are they happening so late in the day?

A second confession

And this is where I have a second confession to make. Not only have I not been engaging sufficiently in person, as opposed to virtually, but I have been derelict in a core duty of expressing my own misgivings, and solidarity with migrants and other oppressed groups. I am not saying, by any means, that my voice alone could have changed anything. But my silence is a source of shame for me, and I hope by these words to encourage others to be more reflective, and not just automatically defend Extinction Rebellion against all criticism, but to be willing to do the work to think through the criticism, fair or unfair, hurtful or not, and build a stronger, more diverse and more just coalition.

I knew that Extinction Rebellion was started by a mostly white core group, and that some of its core members were cavalier to the point of being dismissive of BAME lived experiences with the police & white-centred activism, or came from a strain of environmentalism that sees migrants as burdens on environment and society. But you know what? I was so excited about Extinction Rebellion as a nascent movement and new opportunity that I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t raise my voice in support of what I believed to be right.

My reasoning went as follows: “Here is a promising movement. If I criticize the views of some of its founding core members, I might contribute to nipping it in the bud, before its promise can be fully realised. And anyway, who am I, who am not even putting in the day-to-day work of organising, communicating, building the movement, to be making such criticisms? I hope, as Extinction Rebellion grows and becomes successful, its growth in members and diverse demographics (younger, more female, less white, more queer) will shuffle these other views away, to the margins rather than the core.”

(It might also be worth noting here that my academic training was in physics: a culture which I can, in hindsight, describe as extremely macho and aggressive. I never learned, during my training, how to argue in a constructive way. To this day, it difficult for me to criticize some aspects of a whole I dearly wish to support.)

But who was I protecting, in my silence, and who was I exposing? In hindsight, it’s very clear. I was protecting the harmful views and practices of some people, while exposing the new members I rested my hopes on to hurtful confrontation.

I was passing the buck, hiding behind the oppressed groups I should have been speaking out for. And ultimately, I was exposing the entire movement, because without a visible and robust core group standing for class, racial and global justice, Extinction Rebellion itself is obviously weakened. The number of articles and columns decrying the white & middle class character of the movement could now fill a whole anthology, and has become something of a genre in itself (one does wonder if some of these columnists would also be willing to engage more positively with the immense work at hand, of turning our fossil-fueled tanker of an economy around to preserve a livable planet — much sooner rather than later, in fact). At the same time, the crucial work of groups within Extinction Rebellion, including the Global Justice and XR Liberation groups, as well as Disabled Rebels, is going unrecognised.

I would especially like to draw attention to this twitter thread by a disabled Extinction Rebellion activist, because it showcases the weaknesses of a top-level executive group that does not have disabled representation.

Addendum 23/10/2019: XR Disabled Rebels point out that they were well represented in the core group planning the Autumn Rebellion.

The lack of systematic participation is paradoxical: Extinction Rebellion calls for Citizen’s Assemblies, which in many places have been set up following the declaration of climate emergency. In Leeds, I testified to a Citizen’s Jury, which was designed to be representative of the Leeds population based on random selection, with a deliberate over-representation of BAME and disabled demographics, who were considered to be most affected by the intertwined issues of climate impacts, air pollution and choices of decarbonisation (for instance in transport). It’s almost as though Extinction Rebellion itself doesn’t trust its own membership or principles, when the structures it calls for are more representative than its own central group.

Acknowledging while strengthening

There are several excellent pieces of advice I believe we can all take forward at this point. I’ll put them forward in no particular order.

The astounding Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement (the activist side of the Green New Deal), states in interview, that she knew that environmental issues, because of their historical framings, would generally attract a white and middle class demographic. However, she also knew that truly transformative and protective movement would not be white and middle class. To protect her nascent organisation, she and her colleagues baked social and racial justice into the core principles of the Sunrise Movement. I believe this is crucial to protect Extinction Rebellion: to guide its actions and its organising. I support the addition of a core demand centring social, racial, migrant, disability and indigenous justice.

Some object to adding such a demand, saying that this would be in contradiction to the “beyond politics” demand, because it positions XR’s demands as aligned with the left. This discussion probably needs to be fleshed out in a separate piece, but I’ll state three main points here. First, if your politics include the active advocacy of continued and exacerbated inequality and injustice, that’s fine for you [note: it’s not fine], but probably not a winning argument for the forward-looking movement. Second, from the example of the Green New Deal in the USA, a strong and coherent social-justice-based climate program is a winner in public opinion, and indeed forces the right-wing side into a defensive position, where they feel forced to propose climate action measures of their own. It’s called moving the Overton window in public debate, and it works. The third is that the “beyond politics” demand is really about process: about the creation of Citizen’s Assemblies and more democratic processes for accelerated climate & ecocide debate and action, not about preserving injustice as a respectable political position. I would also recommend following and learning from Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the genius policy architect of the Green New Deal in the USA, who explains very clearly that climate action should not be an excuse to perpetuate past inequality.

Another example we can learn from was provided last week by Marianne Brooker, content editor at the Ecologist. She countered the journal’s past publication of migration-as-environmentally-harmful pieces by writing an editorial which I believe is worth reading by everyone. She concludes in a way that I believe we can all learn from, and which could be written for Extinction Rebellion as well:

At The Ecologist we want to acknowledge our own historic contradictions and shortcomings, as well as the present and future challenges of a changing world. We want to support diverse movements for climate justice that are themselves safe and equitable. Recently we have been developing a section of our website dedicated to international solidarity which you can explore here, and we will be further exploring best practice for holding our processes and platforms to account.

And finally, from Dr. Sunny Singh, some key pieces of advice to take to heart in all our interactions and organising. She has been one of Extinction Rebellion’s harshest critics (indeed, she goes as far as to call it “a movement criticised for its adherence to white supremacy” — which is quite a stretch, but also a stark reminder of the stakes of resolutely choosing the right side here). Her advice here is spot on, and needs to be fully absorbed by the movement.

As means of concluding this overlong list of thoughts, Extinction Rebellion is a wonderful movement that centres learning and truth-telling, change and creativity. The truths and insights conveyed by critics can be debated, absorbed, and reflected in new connections and actions. This learning and metamorphosis, too, must be part of our regeneration. For one, I welcome it.

PS: after I finished writing this piece, I saw this excellent contribution from XR Scotland. It’s well worth reading.

Immigrant, Swiss-American ecological economist at the University of Leeds. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.