How XR's Controversial Co-Founder Fell Out With the Group He Created

Extinction Rebellion says it has grown up – and that means a split with Roger Hallam, who has been throwing paint at the offices of NGOs and charities.
September 24, 2020, 11:56am
How XR's Controversial Founder Fell Out With the Group He Created
Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam seen at a demonstration in London. Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

In July, environmental activists threw pink paint over the London offices of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Christian Aid. In a confrontational letter stuck to the walls of each building, a group called Beyond Politics, which was behind the paint-throwing, claimed that the organisations had done “fuck all that was meaningful”.

The action provoked outrage from across the climate movement, with many questioning why the party would choose to target climate and human rights NGOs over polluters and the government.

Beyond Politics, which has since rebranded to “Burning Pink”, is made up of activists formerly connected to Extinction Rebellion (XR), including XR co-founder Roger Hallam.

In response to the action, Extinction Rebellion UK released a statement explicitly distancing itself from the new party, stating: “Following actions this week at Amnesty, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid by the new political party, Beyond Politics, XR UK would like to restate that Beyond Politics are a separate organisation and not part of Extinction Rebellion”.

The statement went on to say: “We also would like to be clear that Roger Hallam no longer has any formal role in XRUK”.

Hallam has been at the forefront of Extinction Rebellion since he helped co-found it in October 2018. At the time, he told the Guardian that he hoped a campaign of “respectful disruption” would change the debate around climate change.

The paint-throwing stunt marked a divorce between Hallam and the group he created that has been long in the making.

Extinction Rebellion Beyond Politics Roger Hallam

An Extinction Rebellion protester being arrested at a demonstration in London. Photo: Aiyush Pachnanda

It was Hallam who insisted on XR’s tactic of mass-arrest – getting as many activists arrested as possible during protests – which he believed was the only way to achieve the change necessary to avert irreversible climate change. The method has been criticised within the wider social justice movement for alienating people of colour and marginalised groups who face harsher penalties from the police and judicial system.

Earlier this year, Extinction Rebellion released a statement acknowledging long-standing criticisms of its practice encouraging engaging in mass-arrest and the way it handled relations with the Metropolitan Police. “We recognise now that our tactic of arrest has made it easier for people of privilege to participate and that our behaviours and attitudes fed into the system of white supremacy,” the statement read.

XR’s first rebellion in 2019 saw 1,130 arrests and Parliament declare a climate emergency. In May 2019 the group announced plans to disrupt flights coming in and out of Heathrow Airport using drones, in protest at its proposed expansion. The protest would see activists fly drones close to Heathrow flight paths and then report themselves to the police and wait to be arrested. It lacked the support of most XR members and was widely criticised, and was eventually postponed indefinitely.

In September 2019 a new group, operating under the name Heathrow Pause and headed by Roger Hallam, undertook the drone protest. Hallam was arrested on suspicion of planning to cause disruption at the airport using drones and was held on remand for six weeks. A further nine activists were also arrested. Upon his release from Wormwood Scrubs prison in October 2019, Hallam caused further controversy by stating that conditions were “pretty much as good as you’re going to get” and saying “going to prison is not the end of the world”. It marked the opening of a very public schism between Hallam and many within XR who were increasingly frustrated with his tactics.

In July, XR press officer Ali Brumfitt said: “He has been removed from the strategic decision making role he had in XR, partly because of involvement in things like Beyond Politics – which do not represent where XR are at. He is wedded to his own vision of what is needed and XR has grown up – it is focusing on movement building and being a part of a collective struggle with allied groups – not suggesting XR has the only answer and everyone else has ‘failed’, which is line Roger uses a lot.”

A few days after throwing paint at Greenpeace’s offices, Beyond Politics held an event in London’s Trafalgar Square titled, “Bring Down the Government”. The Facebook event instructed attendees to gather in the square at midday on the 25th of July, and prepare to revolt for as “long as it takes”.

By midday, approximately 20 activists, dotted around the square, were swamped by police. They were searched and had their names checked for outstanding warrants.

Under Nelson’s Column, a giant pink banner emblazoned with the words “Bring Down the Government” had been unfurled and pinned down with rucksacks. Two dozen activists gathered and sat in front of it. Hallam was introduced to rapturous applause as “the troublemaker himself”. The epithet prompted a giant grin to stretch across his face.

Hallam was in a jovial mood as the officers asked him to stay in place while they ran his name through the database. “I’m sure you know who I am,” he quipped to one. The officer stared back blankly. After his name came back clean and he was free to go, he took a seat on the ledge of one the square’s famous fountains.

Addressing members of the press, he let a question about what made today’s actions different to those previously undertaken by Extinction Rebellion hang briefly in the air. “I’m talking for myself, please don’t say I’m talking for Extinction Rebellion,” he said, laughing nervously. “What we’re doing today is taking the next step, from rebellion to revolution. That’s to say: regardless of what anyone else thinks, regardless of who follows us, we are enacting a revolution against the British government, not to negotiate with it, but to remove it from power.”

When pushed to explain what he meant, he said: “Being in revolt means going to government buildings, breaking their windows, throwing paint at them, getting arrested, being let out, going to do it again, getting arrested, going to do it again. Going in front of a judge, the judge says you do that again you’re going to go to prison. You get let out, you do it again.”

Explaining the action against Greenpeace, Hallam said: “It was an act of love, in the traditional sense”, and one that required “an extensive period of self examination which was very painful in order to decide to do the action.”

“It involved a lot of heart-ache, a lot of despair,” he added, “a lot of depression. It was a very emotional thing. It’s not something to be done lightly but we’re in an emergency, and in an emergency you have to do things you’d never do in normal times and that’s all I’ve got to say on it.”

It may not have been the first time Hallam has experienced such heart-ache. Prior to XR’s official launch in 2018, Hallam led one of its first ever actions: a sit-in at the Greenpeace offices in London. Hallam confirmed he had had previous meetings with the organisation, including one in which he demanded access to mailing lists. Last year, he threatened to stage a one-day hunger strike against the organisation during Ramadan.

The plans for a “revolution” represent a redoubling of efforts from Hallam and his followers to revive the ideas that defined Extinction Rebellion’s first iteration. XR, meanwhile, seems to be moving on. Earlier this year, the group announced plans for a series of actions in May which would later be delayed due to COVID, stating: “Instead of blocking London’s streets for two weeks, Extinction Rebellion will take action in waves targeting the underlying causes of the climate and ecological emergency – toxic systems of government, media and finance – while taking care of the wellbeing of rebels and finding ways for diverse groups to meaningfully participate”.

Brumfitt said: “There’s a mix of feelings as some people will support Roger whatever he does – but I think the dominant feeling is extreme frustration and concern it might undermine what we are trying to do in movement building.”

“I mean – of course,” they added, “XR have a long way to go, but there has been such a sea-change in understanding about solidarity and movement building. It will be tragic if Roger’s actions in any way damage that work.”

In the run-up to the latest round of Burning Pink actions in September of this year, Hallam and four other activists were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage. According to a press release from Burning Pink, Hallam was released from Pentonville Prison “after a month spent in dire prison conditions”. The group’s planned revolution is seemingly on hold.

@bencsmoke