Last thursday at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, Extinction Rebellion (XR) drew their ‘phase one’ of protest to a close with a ceremony which – like the rest of their efforts over the previous 11 days – was moving, peaceful, and emphatic. The scale of the XR achievement is huge and difficult to overstate. Though there have been the usual fingers-in-ears responses (and worse) from sections of the right-wing press, the key XR message – that the inhabitants of the Earth are facing extinction due to human-made climate change unless dramatic action is taken immediately, and on a far faster timescale than any government hitherto has been willing to contemplate – has landed.
Though XR hasn’t positioned itself as an explicitly anticapitalist movement (as the controversy over ‘XR Business’ illustrates), the magnitude of their impact can be seen in a brief aside from the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin. Noting that some believe that ‘only the overthrow of capitalism will save the planet’ – a point made repeatedly by prominent XR supporter George Monbiot– Harrabin acknowledges that ‘the debate surely needs to be had, given the severity of the crisis in nature.’For this punk, hearing a London cabbie in a Radio 5 Live interview – whilst criticising the protests for the damage to cabbies’ incomes – state that she could see and accept the protestors’ point, was symbolic in its own way.
The scale of the sustained mobilisation XR has been able to achieve has been frankly staggering. Multiple sites in London and around the world, and after a slow start due to the characteristic reluctance of capitalist media to give radical protest airtime, huge exposure. Coupled with the impact of the BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts, fronted by David Attenborough, the talking points on climate change have altered irrevocably. As Greta Thunberg, the inspirational leader of the school strikes for climate movement, condemned politicians in Parliamentfor their passivity, to wide approval (and spectacularly unsuccessful attempts at Twitter trolling by figures from the right), it became increasingly clear that the debate on climate change, in the UK at least, has changed irrevocably in the past two weeks. Politicians are running to catch up.
But XR’s efforts have not been without criticism even from those who support the goals of the movement. And a key issue has been the question of cops. XR, following a theoretical blueprint advanced by the activist and researcher Roger Hallam, has embraced what it sees as non-violent direct action (NVDA), and has raised eyebrows with its tactic of getting as many people arrested as possible. Hallam has argued that this strategy will lead to a ‘tipping point’ of its own, and ultimately compel government to listen to the movement as the forces of the state struggle to deal with the scale of the rebellion, largely in purely logistical terms; overflowing custody suites, jammed up court schedules, the cost of police overtime. Hallam believes that once a magic number of arrests is reached the government’s position will shift, and XR figures have even claimed that the police will come over to their side.
So far, so tactical, even if highly-disputable. But what raised eyebrows even further amongst activists – and did more than raise eyebrows in many quarters – were chants and songs of ‘police, we love you’at protest sites. The active celebration of the state and its agents struck a nerve amongst many activists who have often been on the receiving end of ‘the treatment’, surveillance, assault, imprisonment or discrimination.
Criticism of XR has been framed by some as a generational thing, typical of the holier-than-thou sectarianism of what Mark Fisher once called the ‘vampire castle’ of the Left. And without doubt some of the criticism of XR has been visceral, not just for its interactions with the police but also for its positioning of itself as ‘beyond politics’, which raises significant questions about where the movement can go – not least in terms of the possibility that, with a lack of political analysis, it could become an authoritarian movement wedded to anti-democratic technocracy. Such criticisms have been paralleled by criticism of the movement’s apparent lack of diversity which – takes together with its negative stereotyping of other, more combative direct action methods – have been seen as evidence of the movement’s class and racial privilege. This hasn’t been helped by representatives of the police claiming that XR are ‘probably quite nice people’, clearly contrasted by implication with those involved in other campaigns such as racial equality or student activism.
In this context, being critical friends of XR matters. Contrathe views of some, much of the criticism hasn’t been holier-than-thou, or ‘sniping’; it has been respectful and even celebratory of the scale of the XR achievement whilst attempting to address the problems which remain. It is a criticism which stems from memory, and memory matters – not just for movements and their success, but as a bedrock for justice.
Whilst the XR protests took place, there were a number of significant anniversaries in the UK. On 15 April, the first day of ‘phase one’, it was the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, a tragedy where 96 supporters of Liverpool Football Club were killed in a crush at the FA Cup Semi-Final fixture against Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough stadium, Sheffield, in 1989.
It was a disaster which was caused by police negligence. Negligence which was then followed by a police-orchestrated cover-up, which included a smear campaign against the victims conducted by the right-wing press, where the victims themselves were blamed for the tragedy – rather than the police management of the situation. The smear campaign had a long-term impact on British perceptions of the city of Liverpool and its people, an impact which added to the grievous trauma suffered by the grieving families. It took 23 years and a heroic struggle for justice by the families and their reporters before an independent panel was able to set the record straight.
On 22 April it was the 26th anniversary of the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence by white youths in Eltham, south London. The police’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice led to the Macpherson Inquiry and its famous verdict that the Metropolitan Police Service was ‘institutionally racist’. It took 19 years for two of the killers to eventually be brought to justice, again following heroic campaigning by the Lawrence family and their supporters.
Two days later – the penultimate day of Rebellion ‘phase one’ – it was the 40th anniversary of the death of Blair Peach, an anti-racist activist killed during a protest against the neo-Nazi National Front in Southall. An internal police enquiry concluded that Peach was most likely killed by a police officer belonging to the Special Patrol Group (SPG), but the report was withheld from the public until being published by the Met following the death of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor attacked by a police officer in the vicinity of the G20 protests in 2009. The police officer in the Tomlinson case belonged to the SPG’s successor unit, the Territorial Support Group (TSG).
Beyond the poignancy and intrinsic significance of the anniversaries, there is clearly a broader point to be made.More than 1700 people have died following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. The #spycops scandal revealed that police infiltrators, particularly from the Special Demonstration Squad of the Met, infiltrated almost every protest movement of the past 40 years. In doing so, individual officers fathered children with the activists they were spying on.The activists under surveillance were in many cases members of environmental groups.
In the UK, instances of police misconduct in relation to protest and activism, and instances of discrimination – sometimes with lethal consequences against people of colour or members of the working class – are legion. The sheer volume of them militates against the ‘few bad apples’ narrative defenders of the police are so fond of. The killing of Mark Duggan. The killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.The shooting of Cherry Groce. Orgreave. The Battle of the Beanfield.
As any activist who has ever uttered the slogan #ACAB – ‘all coppers are bastards’ – knows, the cops aren’t your friends, even when they appear friendly. They are agents of the state. As Netpol consistently reminds us, police liaison officers are not to be trusted. Many communities cannot forget the violence done to them by the police, not least because such violence is a part of broader structural violence, which is ongoing. The work of Black Lives Matterhas shown majority white publics in the US and UK the reality of police violence against people of colour in unmistakable terms. Whatever the rights and wrongs of XR strategy, chanting ‘we love the police’ in the face of the real traumas experienced on a daily basis by minority and working-class communities at the hands of the state is privilege. And decrying criticism of XR made on this basis, or seeking to silence it for reasons of ‘discipline’, is also privilege.
Yet part of the problem in getting these points across is that criticism has seemed to some XR activists as the unreflexive sermon of the self-appointed. Whilst noting XR has made and is making mistakes in its attitude to the police and politics, it’s also possible to see why many in XR haven’t taken such criticism well – not least because there are XR elements which acknowledge all of the above, who have been on the protest sites, and who are keen to emphasise XR isn’t as homogeneous as its critics – or in this case its critical friends – make out.
They are, of course, right. The problem here is XR’s messaging and performance. Its core messages are tight and curated; its website for example comes across as corporate in style rather than accessible. This is different than XR groups online and in person, and the XR official communications channels have amplified the pro-police line consistently. This fits with Roger Hallam’s very-specific but highly-questionable strategy, which in practice has led to a top-down ‘management’ of XR’s spontaneity. Many activists have reported attempts to communicate with XR and its leadership which have been simply ignored.
There is no doubt that the strategy – and ostensible (rather than real) lack of politics – have, in part, gotten XR this far. But how much further? The reality on the ground is already failing to bear out the belief that the ‘police will come over’ to XR’s side. In fact, the police are now seeking new powers against peaceful protest, arguing that their current powers are insufficient. It is hard to believe that phase two – when it comes – will meet the same kind of (deliberate) police passivity that was seen during phase one.
The leadership of XR aren’t stupid, and this isn’t ‘generational’ sniping, ‘activism was better in my day’. Firstly, it wasn’t – all the green marches I’ve been on haven’t achieved a fraction of this exposure or mobilisation. And secondly, XR’s core leaders leadership are older than me and many of the activists making the criticisms, and have been around longer. They know the score. Yet they must also know that over 3,000 arrests in the 2011 August riots didn’t shift government policy on austerity or racial equality; it led to harsher sentencing and all-night sittings in courts. XR’s leadership has yet to show how far they will support their own arrestees. Given their tactics, this will be a crucial test for them.
So credit to Extinction Rebellion for the most powerful mobilisation on green issues in terms of exposure in UK history. Credit to the activists and protestors who manned the sites and took the arrests. Credit to the supporters who amplified them. Credit to them for a frankly unprecedented achievement which has shifted the narrative on climate change to somewhere near where it needs to be. No movement is perfect, and it is understandable for some to see any criticism of XR as ‘here we go again’ – an eruption of left sectarianism. But in many cases it isn’t. It’s about trying to have a conversation, as groups such as the Green Anticapitalist Frontand others are trying to do, about how to recognise that climate change is fundamentally political, with different impacts for different communities. That climate change, as Leon-Sealey Huggins and others have shown, has a firmly colonial dimension which we all – XR and the rest of us – need to address. This inevitably means politics, and it means engaging with critical stances towards the political actor which guarantees capitalism, and thence climate change – namely the state, and its agents.
punkacademic is a historian/sociologist and anarchist activist. He tweets @punk_academic