Extinction Rebellion London (Kārlis Dambrāns/CC BY 2.0)
More than 1,000 people have been arrested at Extinction Rebellion protests in London, in what is being hailed as one of the most successful displays of civil disobedience in modern UK history.
In a blend of performance art and protest, activists glued their hands to trains and bridges, chained themselves to politician’s houses and anchored a bright pink boat in the center of Europe’s busiest shopping area, transforming metropolitan London’s clogged arteries into open, green and communal spaces.
Extinction Rebellion has shocked the world, reenergized the climate debate and for those of us who didn’t need convincing, they have inspired hope in the face of an ecological crisis. But the group still faces serious questions about how its newfound spotlight will translate into concrete political gains.
The tendency among XR’s core activists to point to arrest numbers has sparked criticism across the political spectrum. Left wing critics (often in solidarity) argue that this laser-eyed focus on arrest counts risks alienating marginalized groups like migrants and ethnic minorities that are disproportionately victimized by the police. Prominent activists like Ash Sarkar have expressed support for XR, maintaining that it is more diverse than its critics acknowledge. But addressing these concerns will in no small part determine the group’s ability to forge meaningful alliances.
Extinction Rebellion has been criticized for being motivated by mainly white, middle-class concerns. XR organizer Robin Boardman stormed out of an interview with Sky News presenter Adam Boulton after the host decried the group as “a load of incompetent, middle class, self-indulgent people who want to tell us how to live our lives.” However, many of the activists I met in the two days I spent in London are unemployed, homeless or in precarious living situations. The sense of inclusiveness and belonging offered by XR might be the saving grace for those bruised by Brexit and nearly a decade of Tory government.
While XR’s core philosophy can at times seem like the odd fusion of game theory and environmentalism, or as if dissent is being “datified,” its tactics are culled from historic struggles like the civil rights and Indian independence movements. (Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, whose chiefly empirical research stipulates that in order for a peaceful mass movement to succeed 3.5% of the population must join its ranks, is popular among the movement’s core.)
Extinction Rebellion describes itself as “an international apolitical network,” and of its strategic approaches, here lies perhaps its most enigmatic. Many within XR’s ranks claim that climate change is an issue that transcends politics and is beyond the purview of the opaque policy discussions that rattle the halls of power. But climate change is hardly an apolitical issue: It is fundamentally about the distribution of power in society and how we form community.
Is this a movement in its infancy hoping to cast wide appeal? Or does XR ascribe to the notion that once a more democratic form of governance is put in place, like a citizens’ assembly, the state will begin to lose its political character? (For the record, none of the organic farmers, teachers and youth climate activists I talked to ever quoted the Communist Manifesto). The most important question facing XR, however, is how it will render its message into a concrete political strategy.
Whatever misgivings Labour activists harbor for Extinction Rebellion I think that they are posing the same question to society: Are we really going to continue ‘business as usual’ and obey the logic of the market in the face of human extinction?
Despite its initial apolitical posturing, an internal memo that made the rounds early on Easter Sunday suggests that activists within Extinction Rebellion are making the case for a political turn. Farhana Yamin, XR’s political circle coordinator, said that the movement would momentarily scale back its occupations and shift focus toward making political demands. “Being able to ‘pause’ a rebellion shows that we are organised and a long-term political force to be reckoned with,” said Yamin.
This shift would be welcome by many on the left who argue that the Labour Party’s transformative economic program is the best way, or at least the best available way, to address the ecological crisis. Occupy Wall Street was short-lived, but it imbued our political discourse with a new moral vocabulary and undoubtedly helped pave the way for the Sanders revolution and insurgent candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. But Extinction Rebellion can go further. In the US, Occupy had the Democrats to contend with, a party that still actively suppresses the ascendency of its more radical factions. But in Labour, Extinction Rebellion has a potential partner — at the very least they have their attention.
The Labour leadership has lent solidarity to XR and the shadow health secretary John Ashworth has even backed their demand for a citizens’ assembly. When MPs returned to Westminster on Tuesday following the Easter recess, former Labour leader Ed Miliband called on the government to declare a climate emergency and introduce a Green New Deal. This groundswell of support follows the recent launch of Labour for a Green New Deal, a grassroots campaign inspired by AOC’s push for a radical economic program that tackles both inequality and the climate crisis. The campaign is calling for an expansion of public ownership, a massive investment in public infrastructure and a four-day work week.
The word movement itself evokes a sense of dynamism and fluidity. Movements are not static and fixed. Labour activists will have to decide whether their differences with XR will be hashed out on the sidelines or from within. Extinction Rebellion has elevated a vital conversation and depending on how the cards fall it might just be one that ends in a Green New Deal for the UK. SOURCE