Comment Writer Esther Purves re-examines Extinction Rebellion, asking if they can overcome recent controversy

Written by Esther Purves
Second year English Literature student. Manchester, UK.
Images by Julia Hawkins

After a highly publicised attack on the London Underground, environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion faced a city-wide ban in London. Although Metropolitan Police deemed it the only way to tackle widespread disruption, the ban was contested in the high court, which went on to rule in favour of the activist group on the grounds that the act is in place to ‘manage’ and not ‘prohibit’ the activities of campaigning groups. This ruling eradicates the Metropolitan’s ability to impose a ban prior to protests beginning; a clear win for Extinction Rebellion. But is this freedom limited? Amidst speculation that the Government is pressing the police for greater control over the group, XR could have only a short time to get their demands met. This ruling should be seen as a push to create educated and effective protest strategies in place of reliance on theatrical spectacle to achieve their goals.

The extent of consideration behind the tube protest can easily be called into question. In possibly the most controversial protest, activists climbed onto trains at Stratford, Canning Town and Shadwell during rush hour. The protest caused eight arrests and temporary suspension of the Jubilee Line and Docklands light railway, wreaking havoc to the regular tube users. There is a distinct discontinuity between the groups that Extinction Rebellion targeted and the groups that bear the responsibility of climate change.

It is a huge risk to disenfranchise the working classes from the XR cause

Not only is it deeply ironic that an environmental activist group would target an environmentally friendly way to travel, the people that were primarily affected were the working classes. It is a huge risk to disenfranchise the working classes from the XR cause; these groups will feel the largest socioeconomic effects of climate change, and they therefore should be actively encouraged into joining the movement rather than being averted from it. Reports from the event tell of commuters using violence against the protestors in their frustration, and BBC interviews from the event show one traveller protesting ‘I have to get to work – I have to feed my kids.’ Creating ‘us and them’ binaries between Extinction Rebellion and the working class could be detrimental to participation within the campaign. Perhaps for XR, reliance on spectacle is prioritised over intelligent protesting. 

This pattern of theatrical spectacle could continue to disenfranchise minorities from XR protests. Writing for The Guardian, Athian Akec argues the exclusive nature of XR, deeming it designed for the white middle class. Glamorisation of arrest is the epitome of this privilege; Akec highlights this discomfort for groups that have had adverse relationships with the police.

Glamorisation of arrest is the epitome of…privilege

He quotes his friend in response to the stories of intentional arrest: ‘That’s not an option for black people.’ Again, Extinction Rebellion have undone themselves with their activities. Exclusion of this group comes with exclusion of an essential perspective in the fight for climate justice. Akec explains the essentialism of having minorities in the XR cause, arguing that the presence of BAME protestors will prevent ‘climate colonialism’ where the west exploits the resources of the south to decarbonise their economies and save themselves from the climate crisis. 

Acknowledging the failure of the tube protests, senior figures of Extinction Rebellion have apologised on account of ‘people [having] given up their jobs to join XR, for them to be so upset and so dismayed by the action is an absolute pointer to us that we have to look again at how we make those decisions.’ Indeed, future plans for the group’s protests are more promising; plans to target iconic buildings in the capital will enhance the narrative that climate change responsibility lies with large corporations and governments, rather than the commuting individual.

This movement has never been more essential than now

Their activities need to continue moving in this direction; away from naïve theatrics towards diverse and educated protesting strategies. Eradicating the exclusivity of Extinction Rebellion will create an educated and effective group that can protest for accountability and zero carbon emissions in the interest of everyone. This movement has never been more essential than now: the looming inevitability of the climate crisis paired with minister’s talks to weaken the checks on Police creates a combination that could be detrimental to the cause of Extinction Rebellion. The high court has given them a second chance, and it should be used effectively.