On Extinction Rebellion and doing the work

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.

A People’s Assembly, held in defiance of the ban on freedom of assembly, in Trafalgar Square, October 16th 2019.

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.

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.

  • 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).
Celebrating the end of the Holocene: the National Portrait Gallery has been quite unashamed of its BP sponsorship.
  • 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.

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.

A strong message in the Global Justice tent at Vauxhall Gardens.

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.

Commentary on the reality of disabled activists within XR.

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.

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Julia Steinberger

Julia Steinberger

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