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  • Writer's pictureMike Nelson

Archive: Extremism Rebellion?

This article was originally submitted as part of my MA Final Project in September 2019.

“The leaders of Extinction Rebellion seek a more subversive agenda [than combating climate change], one that is rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism.

“If we fail to confront those who incite and encourage mass law-breaking, we fail in our duty to confront extremism.”

So says the preface of a paper entitled ‘Extremism Rebellion’, released by the centre-right think thank Policy Exchange on July 16 2019.

In response to the paper, Extinction Rebellion (XR) were quick to point out that this was by no means the first time environmental activists had been labelled in such a way, citing a period of history in the early-2000's labelled ‘The Green Scare’, where organisations such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front in the US were referred to as ‘domestic extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ by the police, intelligence agencies, and legal system.

But can the high-profile actions taken by Extinction Rebellion really be classed as extremist? 

Over the last 12 months, Extinction Rebellion has grown to be one of the most active campaigning groups in the UK and beyond, with 650 active XR aligned groups across 45 countries as of April 2019.

Their rise has been meteoric. On October 31 last year, the first XR protest took place at Parliament Square in London to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government. 

Around 1500 people took part in that first protest, and over the next few weeks more and more people rallied to the cause. 6000 people would arrive in London to blockade major bridges, plant trees and superglue themselves to the railings outside Buckingham Palace.

Naturally, their actions garner huge amounts of publicity, attracting more people to the cause who, Extinction Rebellion says, connect with their values and ideas which resonate with a deeply felt need for community and solidarity.

Oscar Thorpe, an articulate 19-year-old business student now based in Manchester, joined Extinction Rebellion after seeing further protests and displays of public disobedience in London in April, which saw activists glue themselves to the Docklands Light Railway and block streets across the capital.

“I’d heard about the group before but I hadn’t met anybody involved and I was a bit cynical of it to be honest, but when I saw the protests happening in April I started to think that actually this is something tantamount, this is something which is really taking off.

“We campaign for system change in Extinction Rebellion and, if we’re going to have system change, it needs to be something on the street, it needs to be visible to the public and it was that moment that I thought that this is an actual movement that I want to play my part in, and as you can see written on my t-shirt, I want to be on the right side of history.”

Oscar is one of a number of volunteers who helped out at a mass Extinction Rebellion rally which blockaded Deansgate in the centre of Manchester for an entire weekend at the end of August. 

The event was organised by Northern Rebellion, an umbrella group encompassing many different XR activist groups from across the North of the country, with representatives from Manchester, Sheffield and even Scotland taking part.

Although the atmosphere was a mixture of anticipation, excitement and positivity, a large number of police were present for the rally with the expectation that civil disobedient activity would take place across the city over the weekend.

That came when protestors glued themselves to the pavement outside of Barclays bank headquarters, to highlight the banks investment in the fossil fuel industry, and lay down in front of a Primark store to draw attention to the wastefulness of the fashion industry.

But civil disobedience was not the main aim of the blockade in Deansgate. Rather, the main aim was to reach out to the public, speak to them face-to-face and work to build a bigger and more understanding community.

One of the ways they say they’re achieving this is through highlighting Extinction Rebellion’s core value of supporting a regenerative culture.

Chris Jeffries has been involved with activist groups such as Greenpeace for over 40 years, but says that Extinction Rebellion appealed to him because of how the group is organised.

“I thought the tactics were spot on with really clear, short, sharp aims, and ones which could apply to a large number of people. Secondly, the devolved nature of it, the way in which everybody is equal, there’s no boss, and I really believe that nobody should have power over somebody else on a personal or political basis."

He was based at the wellbeing tent at the Deansgate blockade, educating people about what a regenerative culture means, and how crucial it is for the continuation of the movement.

“The reason for it is simple: If we need to regenerate the planet, then we need to be able to look after the people who are trying to do that.

“So that’s generally looking after people during actions. We will always have a wellbeing person with any action that’s taking place, and we have our wellbeing hub which is a backup to that and includes first aid, mental health support and a relaxation area where people can get tea, biscuits, those kinds of things.

“But crucially, it’s about thinking about how we look after ourselves so we don’t burn out and let it all become too much for us, how we look after the people around us, and how we look after our society by doing the actions and attempting to change the climate emergency.”

So, what about that Policy Exchange paper?

“The report itself is nonsense”, says Oscar. “It is really ideological, it’s not fair, it’s not balanced, and if you look at some of the donors for the think tank, they’re just nameless faces with unknown agendas.

“I read through it and it’s just a lot of scaremongering where, basically, anyone who calls for system change or challenges the economic order through any means is labelled a radical or an anarchist.”

When pressed on some of the actions Extinction Rebellion involve themselves in, including the recent decision by some activists to fly drones close to Heathrow airport, Oscar remained defiant. 

“I do appreciate that some people would find some of our methods extreme, but as I said we call it a climate emergency, a climate crisis, and what one person would call extreme, others would call it a proportionate response.

“When we have only 11 years until the effects of our emissions are irreversible, I would argue, and many in Extinction Rebellion would argue, that gluing yourself to a train and stopping public transport isn’t that extreme when you consider that these are exceptional circumstances.”

Of course, any successful movement must ensure they engage with the general public, and in Manchester there were plenty of people around with opinions on Extinction Rebellion.

One woman said: “They’ve upped the game in highlighting the climate emergency and I think they’re great. I’ve been thinking about joining them myself.”

Others were less keen. “I don’t get it, they come here with their plastic bottle sculpture, probably bought loads of single-use plastic bottles of water from Pret, and it just seems to be against what they’re standing for. I understand their cause, I just don’t think they’re going about it the right way.”

With people continuing to be divided on whether Extinction Rebellion’s methods are justified, it remains to be seen whether they can truly capture the will of the majority of people to do something about climate change, or whether they will act as an echo chamber for the already enfranchised.  

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