Rebirth of a climate movement: Are we seeing an Extinction Rebellion renaissance?
Charlotte Moore, head of research, SIGWATCH
As life in London starts to get back to something resembling the pre-2020 “old normal,” a familiar scene played out in the streets of the UK capital on the last Sunday of June – thousands of Extinction Rebellion protestors marching. This time their destination was the headquarters of the Daily Mail Group, where they dumped seven tons of horse manure at the entrance in protest of the Mail’s and other prominent British newspapers’ open scepticism about climate change.
It has been some time since we have seen such a well-supported event by Extinction Rebellion, commonly known as XR. Founded little more than three years ago, XR quickly captured the attention of the media and politicians with its trademark tactic, spectacularly executed in April 2019, of very large, peaceful, and deliberately obstructive blockades of key roads in London and other city centres, and subsequent (as intended) mass arrests. Since March 2020, this effective tactic was rendered useless by Covid-19 social distancing and stay-at-home measures. Exacerbating XR’s inability to continue to make an impact was its severely underdeveloped online campaigning infrastructure. As a result, XR has almost disappeared from public consciousness (as, for similar reasons, has the UK end of Fridays for Future, the school climate strike movement inspired by Greta Thunberg).
In truth, XR’s effectiveness was in decline even before the first lockdown. While the group’s 2019 “October Rebellion” attracted large crowds of supporters and significant public acceptance, increasingly disruptive actions were drawing the ire of many. An attempt to stop electric trains running to London’s Canary Wharf during rush hour, preventing hundreds from getting to work on time, led to commuters dragging XR activists out of the way. It was incidents like this that helped shift public perception of XR from climate heroes to out-of-touch clowns.
Meanwhile internal strife between members and one of XR’s two founders, Roger Hallam (the other was Gail Bradbrook), and a focus on controversial messaging and tactics, were eroding the movement’s credibility with its base. Hallam had conceived Extinction Rebellion as a non-violent, apolitical group that would use mass civil disobedience and arrests to trigger a climate revolution, as Gandhi’s independence movement had done in British-ruled India. While this strategy, along with its eye-catching performance protests, may have initially appealed to seasoned climate activists and a new generation of highly engaged supporters, the lack of clear political positioning and concrete demands meant XR failed to develop the kind of political influence that its closest U.S. counterpart, Sunrise Movement, achieved with the certain parts of the Democratic Party.
Ironically, despite it being initially branded by the right-wing press as Radical Lefties, Extinction Rebellion’s apolitical stance did not particularly appeal to the actual Left, some of whom accused the group of being overly chummy with the police and exhibiting a fundamental misunderstanding of class politics. Advice posted on XR’s website in 2019 telling supporters who got arrested to treat prison as a yoga retreat and claiming “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time”, merely showed how out-of-touch XR’s predominantly white, middle-class leadership was with the realities of life for minority groups.
Hallam himself also became an increasingly unpopular figure. In 2019 his credibility was severely damaged when he told two of Germany’s leading newspapers Die Zeit and Der Spiegel that the seriousness of the Holocaust had been “overplayed”. XR in Germany promptly declared Hallam persona non grata. Then, there was the Heathrow drone debacle, when Hallam sought to shut down Britain’s busiest airport by flying drones near the flight paths of landing jets, despite overwhelming opposition from within XR. In mid-2020 it was announced that he no longer had a formal role within the group (he has since founded the similarly audacious climate-focused political party, Burning Pink).
Hallam’s exit allowed XR to cast off some of his more controversial ideas – particularly those concerning relations with police – while retaining the more effective elements of his approach. For example, in July 2020, around the same time as the Hallam split, XR publicly acknowledged that its mass arrest tactics make it easier for “people of privilege” than those of colour to participate. It also recognised its alleged contribution to white supremacy, and affirmed that the police are “institutionally racist”, although adding that it views individual police officers as “employees who may or may not act with integrity”.
In the same vein, XR responded to Home Office condemnation of its mass disruption tactics and the possible introduction of curbs on protest freedoms by playing a big part in opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, and joined forces with Black Lives Matter groups at recent large-scale #Killthebill protests in London.
However, XR is holding fast to its apolitical stance. It claims to “go beyond” personal, oppositional, identity, and Westminster politics “to build a world where everyone prospers”. This position seems unlikely to win back support from the Left. One only has to look at the derisive replies to the group’s September 2020 tweet denying Socialist links, to see that its refusal to get off the fence has made it unpopular with political activists. A pledge to focus actions on the City of London (the financial district) rather than London as a whole, may help to redress this.
Other clues to XR’s change of tack can be found in its “XR UK Actions Strategy 2021”. Although the group still holds to rather vague core demands – Tell the Truth, Act Now, and Go Beyond Politics – it has also introduced a new immediate demand, that the UK government stop all funding of new fossil fuel projects. This concrete demand gives XR both a realistic goal and may rectify the somewhat directionless feel of past campaigns.
Extinction Rebellion has pledged to invite other movements to participate in its next “Rebellion” in August, although so far it only names XR sister groups as potential participants. It will be interesting to see if XR’s new-found spirit of collaboration will extend to established NGOs such as Greenpeace. It was the latter’s London headquarters which XR stormed in October 2018 as one of its first acts after coming into being, because its founders felt Greenpeace was not taking climate change seriously enough.
To ensure a return to big numbers in August, since June XR has been on a “Freedom Tour” across England and Wales, stopping at several university towns. Timing may be on their side if young people, frustrated by the hardships of the pandemic, are willing to get back on the streets as attention on climate change rises ahead of the UNFCCC’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November.
So does the sight of thousands of climate activists marching once more through central London indicate that XR has regained its mojo? Is the group undergoing a resurgence which could see it once more capture public sympathy, and position itself as a credible threat to the fossil fuel industry and reluctant politicians?
Although it is unlikely that the upcoming “Rebellion” will pack the same punch as it did in London in 2019, business and government would do well to prepare. It seems Britain’s cities are due for a return of disruptive mass protests that few could have expected just months ago.