Has Extinction Rebellion got the right tactics?

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Has Extinction Rebellion got the right tactics?

Everyone agrees that we need to take action for climate change, but some environmentalists find the Extinction Rebellion’s tactics difficult to support. Environmental campaigners Chay Harwood and Marc Hudson speak for and against them.


A protester reads a mock-up newspaper as they block the road during an Extinction Rebellion protest at Bank, in the City of London on 14 October 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Chay Harwood says YES, XR’s tactics are right. He joined Extinction Rebellion in November 2018 in the final year of his criminology degree at university. He is most worried about the climate emergency and social injustice. He is also worried about climate change and the most vulnerable people in the world.

Marc Hudson says NO, their tactics are wrong. Marc was an aid worker, a physiotherapist, an environmental activist, and is now a researcher. He edits Manchester Climate Monthly and helped to start Climate Emergency Manchester in the UK.

CHAY: Not everyone agrees with our tactics. Disruption is our main tactic and it is not something we do lightly. It is perhaps surprising to hear that I find protesting very uncomfortable and it makes me anxious. I hate giving unnecessary stress to people who are trying to go about their daily lives. I also understand that the people we affect may have difficult lives.

But we are now at a very important part of this protest. The Amazon rainforest will perhaps be so damaged in ten years from now, or even less, that it will not be possible to repair it. People are dying right now in the Global South. The Global South is losing its natural resources, and this affects people who need them to live. Governments are killing peaceful activists and indigenous people to protect fossil-fuel businesses. We at XR disrupt business-as-usual for a few hours, but this is nothing compared with the destruction of our earth and Majority World peoples.

MARC: Protest without disruption is not protest. So, blocking bridges, gluing yourself to things, all that is normal. But perhaps we will come back to the idea of the tube train action! (This resulted in violence between commuters and XR protesters who climbed on top of a London underground train.) We have the freedoms we enjoy now because of protest, disruption, and organizing by past generations of protesters. I am not against the strong feelings, intelligence, concern, or courage of XR activists – but I am not sure about how well the tactics will work in the long term.

You say that the situation is now terrible and that the state and businesses are murdering protesters. But the idea of climate emergency has been with us, now and then, since the early 1970s. And this brings me to my questions:

What about the people who can’t afford to protest for long periods – financially, practically, emotionally? Don’t you worry that because only a few can be free for arrest, this will make ‘recruitment’ more difficult?

What is XR doing to make it possible for people to protest for years, not months, and to make it easier for others to be involved in a small way for weeks and months? What do you think an ‘average’ BME [Black Minority Ethnic] person thinks about people sending the flowers to Brixton police station? (Brixton is a part of London with a history of police racism.) Wasn’t that a mistake? And don’t you worry that XR’s idea of ‘no blame’ means the fossil-fuel companies can continue to destroy the planet?

CHAY: Yes, the idea of climate crisis is not new and many organisations have done great work. Extinction Rebellion recognizes that they have helped to lead the way for our organisation. The problem now is that we will face the destruction of the environment, society, and the economy in the next 20 years. I am from a poor, single-parent family. I am also of mixed ethnicity so I understand the difficulties with protesting. There are many ways that you can be part of the organisation and be at protests and not risk arrest.

We have many working groups: media, spokespeople, art, outreach, lobbying, wellbeing, logistics, finance, and more. Affinity groups (local groups in different parts of the UK) choose what kinds of actions they take and it depends on what people are comfortable doing.

Regarding arrests and policing – this does need to change and the only way we can do it is through education. I am part of a team that is creating an information pack for educating members on social inequality in our society. And it will, of course, be about policing, arrests, and social injustice. But this is ‘do or die’.

‘No blame’ does not mean ‘no accountability’ – it means recognizing that we are all victims of the system of corruption, greed, and ignorance that led to this emergency.

MARC: I am interested, then, in what things Extinction Rebellion believes it is doing differently from other organisations. Because it sounds the same as Climate Camp 2006 - not the idea that ‘police are our friends’ - and this was before we knew just how many undercover police there were. We had many different working groups too, and we said we were building a ‘do or die’ movement.

For me, the idea of a Big Event when some people will get very tired, make friends, and feel different, but others cannot be involved, sounds the same. And it is not a way to long-term success. These are usually two- or three-year periods, and then the organizations break down.

We will know how XR will do by about 2021. But I repeat my first question – what is it that makes you think XR’s tactics, which are very similar to Climate Camp’s, mean the result will be different this time?

CHAY: We use very different kinds of tactics. Perhaps you only hear about the roadblocks, but our protests use art and music to interest people and we use a lot of different media. A lot of artists, musicians, and celebrities support us and use their influence.

What is different is how we market ourselves and use people’s different skills. In only one year, we have over 70 countries worldwide, for example, Lebanon, Ghana, New Zealand [Aotearoa], America, and Australia and many others.

A lot is still uncertain but we must continue to work with different communities and help all kinds of people to protest against the system that we are all victims to. It is possible that perhaps we will not be successful but we will fight until the end for our planet and all that live on it.

MARC: Climate Camp, which ran from 2006-10, also used art and music to interest people and used a lot of different media – but there was no Facebook or Twitter, and no smartphones then. It also talked about building movements and had international groups doing camps in many countries. It wasn’t very mixed, perhaps for similar reasons to XR, – most people are students or retired.

Yes, XR’s actions are on a bigger scale than Climate Camp’s. Perhaps because of help from social media, the very hot summer of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5 degrees report, David Attenborough, and the Greta Thunberg effect.

But it feels the same to me – there are some strong people. And then there are people who are worried about climate change but cannot see themselves doing yoga in a prison cell. There are some people who come to one meeting, don’t feel it is right for them, and they don’t come back.

In the past climate protests usually lasted three years or so. I’ve not heard anything that makes me think XR is going to be different. In about 18 months from now, it will be very clear if your positive view, or my negative view, is correct. But I am sure that we can both agree that, by 2021, the world needs to do more to change things than it is now.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)