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Stop Asking People of Color to Get Arrested to Protest Climate Change

Extinction Rebellion is overwhelmingly shaped by the concerns, priorities, and ideas of middle-class white people. If it doesn't tackle white supremacy, it doesn't serve us.

by Tatiana Garavito and Nathan Thanki
Sep 18 2019, 2:37pm

Police arrest a climate change activist from an XR demonstration blocking Waterloo Bridge in London in April. Photo by Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

Indigenous peoples and people of color are disproportionately affected by our global climate crisis. But in the mainstream green movement and in the media, they are often forgotten or excluded. This is Tipping Point, a new VICE series that covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.


Tatiana Garavito is a Colombian organizer working with racialized communities in the U.K. She also works with activist groups leading climate justice campaigns in Colombia and is part of the Wretched of the Earth.

Nathan Thanki is a human ecologist, writer, and activist who works in support of the global movements for climate justice, including within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Back in April, London was rocked by Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, with more than a thousand people arrested during weeklong occupations of Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, and other notable landmarks. Since then, XR has garnered tons of media attention—and even celebrity endorsements from the likes of Radiohead—for its acts of civil disobedience. But for those of us whose immigration status is still questioned even after becoming citizens, getting arrested was not an option.

XR was founded in 2018 by a small group of British academics interested in civil disobedience, and since then has painted itself as a decentralized, “apolitical” group outside the mainstream environmental movement. It says it has no leaders, and uses non-violent direct action to call attention to climate change and biodiversity loss. XR aims for the widest appeal possible, and promotes local chapters in countries outside of Western Europe, though it lacks a base outside the U.K.

As people active in climate change politics, we have witnessed what American activist Van Jones described as the “unbearable whiteness of green” for a long time in the mainstream environmental movement. For all its apparent novelty, XR embodies the same problems: It overwhelmingly reflects the concerns, priorities, and ideas of middle-class white people in rich countries of the global north. By doing so, it ends up silencing the stories of our communities, who for hundreds of years, have been resisting the root causes of climate change.

These biases are inherent in XR’s core demands: that governments “tell the truth” and reduce emissions to “net zero” by 2025.

But whose truth? As we wrote in an open letter to XR as the Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots environmental justice collective for Indigenous, people of colour, and diaspora groups in the U.K., “The economic structures that dominate us were brought about by colonial projects whose sole purpose is the pursuit of domination and profit. For centuries, racism, sexism, and classism have been necessary for this system to be upheld, and have shaped the conditions we find ourselves in.”

We understand climate violence not as a threat of a future apocalypse but as the wind that fans the flames of existing injustices. It is already here—in the Cyclone Idais, Typhoon Haiyans, Hurricane Katrinas, and other, slower disasters that beset communities in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East (the global south) and marginalized people in the global north.

We don’t need to read the latest scientific reports to know that those least responsible for causing the climate crisis are usually the most vulnerable to its effects, including displacement. And that those people are overwhelmingly poor, Black or brown, and in the global south.

Yet XR, in its attempts to gain widespread appeal, is abandoning the people of the global majority. In Europe we already face frenzied anti-migrant rants from senior politicians and media figures. Now these attitudes are being further legitimized with the brush of environmentalism: We’ve both heard old white “climate activists” saying that we have to stop climate change so that crowds of poor brown people don’t come looking for shelter in Fortress Britain.

It hurt when, in a recent video, XR activist Ronan Harrington encouraged others in the movement to learn from xenophobic politicians and avoid taking “lefty liberal” positions such as “no borders” to not alienate potential right-wing allies. If the comment section is anything to go by, his notions have widespread support, including from XR co-founder Roger Hallam.

Hallam sees our anti-racist, feminist, and global justice politics as “chronically overcritical, radical, and hard left”—a strategic flaw and a barrier to success. Instead he advocates putting “scientific fact” before political ideology in shaping XR’s strategy. But this itself is an ideological position. What kinds of people do you think get to set the strategic priorities? Why aren’t they people like us?

XR’s primary tactic—mass arrests—has also left other activists baffled. Many of us already live with the risk of arrest and criminalization by virtue of our background. As we said in the open letter, XR’s strategy “needs to be underlined by an ongoing analysis of privilege as well as the reality of police and state violence.”

White people in XR, however, assume that if they are polite and reasonable, the government will listen to them and protect them. Racialized communities and marginalized people know better.

XR’s lack of accountability to communities in the global south and those without access to power is a tactical and moral failing. Despite having an “international solidarity” working group, XR never echoes our key climate justice demand: that rich countries do their “fair share” of a collective global effort to keep temperature rise below 1.5 C.

Asking the U.K., U.S., and other rich countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, as XR does, is not enough to avert further climate catastrophe. According to the Climate Equity Reference Calculator developed by nonprofits Stockholm Environment Institute and Ecoquity, the U.K. would have to reduce its emissions 202 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 to do its fair share. To date, all rich countries’ pledges fall way short of the mark.

What’s more, without reparations in the form of huge financial and technology transfers, countries in the global south simply won’t be able to make sufficient reductions, nor will they be able to help their people adapt to the already-severe and worsening effects of climate breakdown. Developing countries are estimated to need around $4.4 trillion just to fulfill their contributions to the Paris Agreement. XR has ignored these facts in favor of what they deem to be simpler and more palatable messages.

If XR had listened to the many movements rising in the global south for decades, it would have adopted the politics of anti-racism, feminism, and global justice not only as a matter of morality, but as a matter of strategy.

When we challenged XR about its overwhelmingly white base and problematic demands and tactics, Ronan McNern, a spokesperson for XR, insisted that it is “trying to directly ensure a more diverse movement.” He mentioned a voluntary living expenses initiative, so that it isn’t just people with money who can actively take part in actions, and a two-day decolonization training in July.

“We aren’t perfect but we are trying—and we welcome the engagement with those with different experiences and knowledge,” he said.

However, as far as we can see, this effort has not advanced much beyond cold-calling people of color to ask them to publicly endorse the “rebellion.”

Many in XR agree that we need to tackle white supremacy and build an environmental movement that avoids replicating the same power imbalances that led to the crisis in the first place. But that requires active listening, not just tick-box exercises that pretend to take our concerns on board. The good folks in XR should remember that its “left-wing” critics are not its enemies. This is the fight for all of our lives, and we need to do it right.

Follow Tatiana Garavito and Nathan Thanki on Twitter.

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