Extinction Rebellion (XR) is all about ideas. Not all of them new, but some executed in a novel manner. Like it or not, the small-but-organised grouping is managing to get a lot of media attention by doing things a little differently.
In London, the group started off with a kind of arty soft launch (a parade and nudity in the Commons) before moving on to blocking major junctions and then public transport. Yesterday, they glued themselves to a DLR train and promised more disruption on the Tube and the Overground. Today, they have moved to block Vauxhall Bridge.
The group are largely millennial, white and middle class, which has brought some criticism from other activist groupings. Although the same facts have been used as a form of dismissal from the white, middle class media. Often without a sense of irony.
Its interactions with police and propensity for godawful folk dancing have (quite rightly) been jumped on. But they have also attracted a good number of lectures about ideas and how to use them from older activists. “Don’t do it like this, do it like this.” Although many fail to mention that their tactics are tried, tested and doomed to fail. It’s dad-dancing for the world of activism. Time moves on.
Many criticisms of XR hinge upon the idea of the group being to influence and grow support amongst the public. This assumption is where most people’s thinking on the topic breaks down. Influencing the public in a positive way is not high on their list of concerns. Instead, they are seeking to cause chaos as a means to an end. This is to highlight the collapse of infrastructure in a climate disaster, but also to act as enablers for more mainstream debate and politics.
With their star rising high, it is easier for politicians to raise their concerns. This is partly why the group glued themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s Holloway home, rather than Theresa May’s. One, this is seemingly a counter-intuitive move, as the environmentalist groups are seen (often wrongly) as exclusively left-leaning and two, it gives the tabloids a story they like: “Even the hippies hate Corbyn…”.
What XR are saying is that this emergency trumps public comfort, but by doing so they have escalated their profile to the point that they can now demand a meeting with the relevant Minister. Sadly for them, this is Michael Gove.
Further to this call for debate with Gove, they have put the fact that they are set to disrupt Heathrow Airport on one of its busiest weekends. If they hadn’t already alienated half of the public, then they can be sure that this is the straw that will break the camel’s back. But it simply adds to the pressure on politicians to act and allows them to be seen to act for the public without necessarily appeasing the activists.
It’s quite clever. XR are thinking more than one move ahead, having raised a somewhat middle class army of willing arrestees (most without a criminal record) and work-shopped their way around the UK via village hall meetings.
They have today leaked statements saying that they care about the impact on holidaymakers (leaking and feeding information to the media ahead of actions is a key part of their campaign and the pressure they exert), but they don’t really. That is not in their tactical bag of tricks. They especially see air travel as fair game, but any disruption is either a side-effect or the intended outcome of XR actions. This IS the means to the end.
Whether XR has the energy and thinking to maintain their momentum while alienating the public remains to be seen. But it is an interesting play to watch. Few can dismiss their broader aims without seeming mean-spirited and there are so many distractions (eg dancing policemen) that they can throw up as flak.
A deeper look at the activism tactics of XR is here. Well worth a read if you want to study the ideas further, or even steal some of them.