Extinction Rebellion (XR) planned to disrupt the Underground system on Thursday as part of their two-week ‘international rebellion’. Instead, two activists were dragged and pushed off the roof of a tube train by angry commuters in Canning Town, a largely working-class neighbourhood in east London. Alarming footage uploaded to Twitter appears to show some in the crowd attacking one of the protesters.
The attempted disruption – which also resulted in angry verbal confrontations with other commuters at the Docklands Light Railway station at Shadwell – even prompted the London outpost of the group to issue a now-deleted apology aimed, in its words, at “Londoners, ordinary commuters, working class citizens, black people, minority communities, humans of all ages”.
“We recognise that this action unnecessarily targets ordinary commuters and disrupts London transport – which is an eco-friendly way to travel,” Extinction Rebellion London posted on its Facebook page. (It did not respond to a request for comment on why the apology had been taken down.) “Although we are pushing for disruption and civil disobedience, we are still learning how to do this in a way that does not result in violence, and that does not discriminate against hard-working individuals.”
The fallout today is testament to the rising tensions within XR, now a global movement with tens of thousands of supporters involved worldwide. To understand how it’s gotten to this point, it’s key to understand the origins of the group itself.
The campaign was launched in May 2018 by a group of experienced climate activists after a proposal from Roger Hallam, then a King’s College London PhD student studying activism and now known more widely as an XR co-founder.
“When Martin Luther King organized the civil rights movement in the 1960s, there was a bit of a joke that he only had two books to go on – the autobiography of Gandhi and the Bible. But over the last three decades there has been 30 years of research in how to effectively change a society in a radical way,” explained Hallam to an audience in Penzance in August.
The tactics outlined by Hallam rests more on academic research done into activism than any ideology, something that marks a break with previous forms of activism that are traditionally heavily ideologically motivated. XR’s strategy is based heavily on the work of Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard professor who studies political violence and non-violent activism. In Why Civil Resistance Works, the book she co-authored with Maria Stephan, she reveals that campaigns of non-violent resistance between 1900 to 2006 were more than twice as effective as ones which used violence in achieving their goals, and every campaign that involved more than 3.5 percent of the population has always succeeded.
Every decision that XR makes is geared towards helping 3.5 percent of the UK population – 2.32 million people – get involved in their campaign. The idea is that once that percentage of the population is involved in non-violent civil disobedience to stop the climate crisis, the government will have to do something. This means political decision-making is reduced to pragmatic choices that are navigated through research and data – and that XR are happy to swerve the typical expectations of what climate activists do and say if it means they can get more people to take part. It’s also led to internal dispute within XR.
“They don't want to say anything 'too left-wing' because then they put off liberals and conservatives effectively and they want everyone to join the movement,” says Cameron Joshi, a spokesperson for Global Justice Rebellion, a section of XR that openly identifies as anti-capitalist and anti-racist. “They believe that's the only way they're going to reach the critical mass they need.”
But the attempts to court conservatives are alienating people on the left whose involvement you might otherwise expect – something that could make it difficult for the organisation to mobilise the millions they need. Veteran activist Kojo Kyerewaa has been involved in several climate camps, the climate activist gatherings that took place between 2006 and 2010, as well as campaigns against police violence. He refuses to get involved in XR as he believes their strategy panders to racists.
“They have consistently thrown the spectre of mass immigration as a reason to act on climate change,” he explains, adding that he’s never seen such “‘blatant green nationalism” from an environmental group, such as XR spokesperson Rupert Read’s opposition to “large-scale immigration” or XR listing “mass migration” as one of the downsides of climate change on their website.
“It reinforces white fears about the poor racialised others who will ‘bring the country down’, but it also reinforces the argument that the violent border regime that Britain and the EU runs is legitimate and may need increased brutality in the years to come,” Kyerewaa says. “This reveals a politics which disregards people targeted by border violence or, at best, regards their misery as a bargaining chip to influence the government of the day.”
Joshi joined XR before the group occupied five London bridges in November 2018 – the first mass action to gain nationwide attention – when there were, by his estimate, only around 50 people involved with the group. He tells VICE that he had argued for the organisation to work with anti-racist activists and not to worry about scaring people off by talking about anti-capitalism. His attempts to take XR in a more radical direction were shut down by people who had been in the organisation for longer, citing an earlier decision they’d made to keep XR ‘apolitical’.
While activists like Joshi are optimistic that XR can develop anti-racist politics, not everybody involved in climate activism is convinced the organisation can be redeemed. Out of the Woods, a collective that writes extensively about the ecological crisis, told VICE that it was concerned by a core XR tactic of “seeking as many arrests as possible”.
“It provides a propaganda service for the police and prisons, who will only ever be enemies in the fight for ecological flourishing,” they said. “It also creates significant dangers for other groups involved in direct action and collective struggle. We see little space for the dissensus necessary for development in an organisation that – despite nods to non-hierarchical modes of organising – remains top-down and shows little willingness to engage with critics."
The XR London apology – which followed on from a similar disavowal from the group’s Croydon outpost – is not the only sign of dissent within the organisation. In October, the XR Scotland group unveiled a banner on the street outside Westminster Abbey reading “Decolonise XR”.
Mikaela Loach, a medical student and woman of colour involved in creating the banner, explained why she felt it was necessary to make the case for XR to be explicitly anti-racist: “The people who're experiencing the most severe effects of the climate crisis are people of colour in the global south… XR, as a UK movement, can frequently negate that and instead have this narrative [of] ‘it’s support for the future or our future grandchildren, it's all the impacts that are going to happen in the future’. In reality, these things are happening right now.”
The banner was also created because of experiences people of colour have had within the organisation when raising issues with the group’s messaging. “There can be a lot of infighting. For example, a person of colour will say: ‘This narrative that we're pushing about the future or tokenising this person isn't okay, and this is why,’” Loach says. “A lot of the time, rather than engaging, XR UK can sometimes just shout that person down or say that we don't do blame – which is a very weird concept – and also they feel personally attacked by it or that person is being angry or violent in their language. That is incredibly exhausting.”
When VICE asked XR if it struggled to involve people of colour, Nuala Lam, a press and spokesperson coordinator, told us: “There's a historical problem with the environmental movement and XR is not separate from that. We're also not separate from the rest of society which is structurally racist. There's a lot of people of colour working within this movement in ways which are having an influence.” XR did not respond to a further request to comment on the way it responds to internal complaints about racism.
Loach also blames the XR tactic of “love bombing” the police for alienating people of colour from the movement, including the common chant of “police we love you, it’s for your children too” and banners thanking law enforcement. Last week, Met Police head of media Chris Greenwood tweeted that an XR member had sent flowers to Brixton Police Station, thanking the officers for taking care of them after they’d been arrested – the same police station where three young black men, Wayne Douglas, Ricky Bishop and Sean Rigg, were killed while in police custody.
As XR London acknowledged in its apology, the train stations targeted this morning – Stratford, Shadwell and Canning Town – are “areas of London with largely working class and highly ethnic populations [sic]”. In other words, the exact people that XR should try to win over if their strategy of becoming too big to fail is right. But Loach points out that the group is failing abysmally on that score.
“I have friends that found [thanking Brixton police] hurtful and upsetting,” she explains. “Many who won't get involved. One feels he can't because he said his friends would call him a traitor to black people and our struggle. The focus needs to be on making those people feel welcome because if people are being told that they're a traitor for getting involved in a climate justice organisation... Then we're doing something severely wrong.”