PoliticsExtinction Rebellion: Force For Good Or Problematic?

Extinction Rebellion: Force For Good Or Problematic?


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Extinction Rebellion (XR) recently vowed to ‘come back stronger’ as 500 arrests were made in London. The direct action group, which seeks to compel the government into action against climate change by engaging in disruptive civil disobedience, launched a two-week campaign – dubbed the Impossible Rebellion – in the capital, where hundreds of protestors were arrested.

Thanks to Priti Patel’s new legislation, police now have the power to be more forceful with XR demonstrators. A report from the Guardian said that police scaled a double-decker bus and drew batons in order to combat them, which to many represented a shift in the state’s approach to the movement and its followers.

XR protestors are known for pulling off crazy stunts and causing criminal damage in order to get attention. Two such people were caught vandalising by using hammers to deface and shatter the glass at a J.P. Morgan bank, whilst in 2019 an infamous video showed a demonstrator on top of a Tube carriage to stop it moving being dragged off by angry commuters.

XR supporters break panels of glass at a J.P Morgan bank branch. Video credit: Extinction Rebellion

The group has certainly divided opinion of the public, and with the government now being more abrasive and confrontational with the group, XR seem to be becoming more desperate by attempting to pull off more and more increasingly dangerous stunts.

Many have questioned the tactics of the movement. Many support it, as they draw comparisons with other historical events where direct action was needed in order for change to be implemented. XR supporters have been seen comparing themselves to the civil rights movement in the United States.

Others disagree, as they question the motives behind the protests, as well as the repercussions of their demands being met. Many of these demands would have a direct impact on the working class, and so there is a social injustice that comes with climate awareness.

Make no mistake about it: XR are a terrorist group. Putting aside the politics and nuance of the situation, they are textbook terrorists, no matter how noble they attempt to make themselves appear. It’s very easy to define them as such, as the movement has identical characteristics to the definition of terrorism.

So, what is terrorism? According to the Crown Prosecution Service, terrorism is defined as: ‘the use or threat of action, both in and outside of the UK, designed to influence any international government organisation or to intimidate the public. It must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.’

‘Examples include serious violence against a person or damage to property, endangering a person’s life (other than that of the person committing the action), creating a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public [and] action designed to seriously interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.’

Infamous video from 2019 where XR protestors are dragged down from Tube carriages. Video credit: The Telegraph

Are XR guilty of this? Yes, they are. XR have three main demands (not requests): governments to declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2025 and for them to ‘create and be led by a Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice.’

How do they try and force this? Via non-violent direct action and disruptive civil disobedience. Examples of this include blocking Tower Bridge, stopping newspapers from being delivered due to an alleged ‘anti-climate change bias’, attempting to build wooden and metal structures in busy parts of central London and dousing the Treasury building with fake blood.

Have XR ‘used action’? Yes, as seen in videos for years. Are they doing these things to directly ‘influence the government’? Yes, as proved in their demands on their website. Have they caused ‘damage to property? Yes, in a video they themselves uploaded to social media for the world to see.

Have they taken ‘action to seriously interfere with or disrupt an electronic system’? Yes; XR co-founder Roger Hallam was arrested after trying to fly a drone onto a runway at Heathrow Airport. Have they ‘created a serious risk to the safety of the public? Yes, when a campaigner climbed on top of a Tube train and was dragged off.

Police stop XR protestors from building a construct in the middle of the street.

All these things confirm XR’s status as a terrorist group. Their actions and motives prove this, objectively. Not many people can deny climate change, neither are people claiming that XR should not have a voice.

In fact, many people disagree with Patel’s new legislation as it defines certain groups as ‘annoying’, which is a subjective notion, meaning the state decides what ‘annoying’ is and isn’t, which is dangerous.

However, there is a difference between peaceful protest and direct and disruptive action. In a democracy, people have a right to protest and make themselves heard. People also have a right to go to work uninterrupted and free from harassment.

The two can coexist, but it seems this isn’t enough for XR. They wish to involve people in situations where they don’t want to be.

XR protestors stop newspapers from the press being delivered due to their owners being ‘anti-climate. Video credit: Sky News

The repeated yet indefensible rhetoric from XR is ‘we are non-violent’; but unfortunately, ‘non-violent’ does not mean ‘legal’. Being ‘non-violent’ does not give you permission to cause traffic, delays and chaos in busy areas. It does not give you the right to vandalise private property. It does not give you the right to try and disrupt aircraft at international airports.

The government’s new legislation is certainly questionable but groups like XR cause it. Direct action will have direct consequences. XR only have themselves to blame for any and all consequences that come their way. It’s only a matter of time before they’re recognised as a terrorist group, and it can’t come soon enough.

Climate change is the real terrorist here.

The infamous video of an Extinction Rebellion protester being dragged from the roof of a London train in October 2019 is one that sent shockwaves of outrage throughout the public, and with good reason. XR protestors, those fortunate individuals ensconced in Surrey, appeared to have not bothered to research London boroughs, and decided to pick on Canning Town that morning.

According to Newham Council, Canning Town is among the five per cent most deprived areas in the UK. In one of the video clips from the incident, XR protesters are seen apologising to commuters, stating ‘This isn’t directed at you, I’m so sorry.’ Be that as it may, XR had, it seemed, irreversibly damaged their reputation among just the individuals they needed to support them. But was that really the case? Are XR’s methods really the work of terrorists, or are they the work of desperate climate campaigners doing their utmost to ensure they are noticed by those in power?

Protests that consist of standing in public places and handing out leaflets tend to generate zero media attention. That isn’t a risk a protestor against the lack of climate change prioritization can be prepared to take, as their whole aim is to secure media attention and consequently awareness of the actions they are taking, and why they are taking them. It’s very true that XR’s behaviour when obstructing trains in Canning Town and other stations portrayed them in a negative light rather than a positive one. However, we must ask ourselves: when did it become a requirement to do drastic acts of obstruction and vandalism for media coverage? Throughout history, e.g during the suffragette campaigns that generated both censure and praise from the media during the 1910s, political organisations have engaged in direct action and civil disobedience. Both these approaches appear ‘radical’ to the general public, but they originate from existing political technique – not terrorism. From the quote in the video, it’s clear that XR protestors were remorseful about the negative effects they were having on commuters. They had no evil intentions. They are hardly an example of terrorists, as opposed to saviours – they are willing to risk potentially violent public and police backlash in order to get their demands across, just as the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union were.

An easy way to counteract the work of XR protestors and dismiss them as ‘terrorists’ is to argue that everyone cares about the climate. Indeed, I’m sure more of us are concerned or worried about intergovernmental climate inaction in 2021 than we were in 2019. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, raging wildfires, enough melting of ice in Greenland to cover Florida in 2 inches of water, and dangerous heatwaves across Europe, Canada and beyond. XR should be commended for renewing its momentum despite the effects of a global pandemic naturally shaping individual and governmental priorities. Given that COVID-19 most likely affected humanity through zoonosis, the pandemic is inextricably linked to climate change and humanity’s impact on the planet. In addition, COP26 in Glasgow is only 2 months away; it would be remiss for any group of committed climate activists to not take every opportunity to get the word out there and dominate media coverage in the run-up to a global climate event.

There are other ways to accomplish this, of course. XR may consider taking a fresh stand on politics. They claim to be apolitical, which perhaps they are, but they provoke far too much division to be labelled that way. If they stand for local councillor or MP roles, promoting tactical voting, and put their strongest candidates forward with the intention of making climate action a priority, they will be able to ensure that radical change does indeed happen within official policy channels. We’ve all seen instances where this does not work or takes years to work. It’s perhaps preferable to engendering public hatred, but does it really work? And can we afford to wait so many years for changes to be enacted through governmental policy (a notoriously slow system) while our planet hangs in the balance?

If it can be concluded that XR’s approach is tone-deaf, (that is if they desire to elect an activist into Parliament), then that’s fair enough. But if XR exists to drive up media attention and be an example of how the fear of climate change can drive us to do incredible, dangerous things, then surely they cannot be doing such a bad job. Those accusing them of terrorism may simply not want to look climate change in the face. Many of us, as the incident at Canning Town station proved, are simply not able to dedicate a certain number of hours per week to keeping the climate at the top of the media agenda. If XR is in a fortunate position where it can do so, why stop them?

Aaron Fenton-Hewitt
Aaron Fenton-Hewitt
Aaron Fenton-Hewitt is an aspiring journalist and political commentator. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film from London Metropolitan University, and a Master's in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice from Middlesex University. He wishes to continue his academic career, with a PhD in Politics or related field. Aaron is also a freelance photographer, an avid foodie and an Arsenal supporter.

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