Extinction Rebellion, the climate movement commonly known as XR, wants to be the largest campaign of non-violent civil disobedience in British history. Its ultimate aim is to avert climate catastrophe and the devastating social and ecological consequences.
Why this story?
Extinction Rebellion is the climate change activist movement that aims to force government to take immediate action by direct action to disrupt society.
Today a second significant action is planned to bring London to a standstill. As we reported last week, the cause has turned thousands of ordinary Britons into rebels. Will the movement grow, and what is its strategy? David Taylor, editor
On Monday XR returned to the streets in 60 cities around the world; London was the main focus as organisers tried to stage the most organised protest yet. From 10am on Monday, rebels planned to set up 11 protest sites outside government departments to block every road into Westminster for two weeks.
If the police try to stop them, one senior XR member said in a pre-rebellion press conference last Thursday: “We have other plans that are more disruptive.”
By Friday, more than 1,000 people had been arrested – and in New York City, a green boat bearing the legend: “Act Now” was blocking part of Times Square.
What do they want?
Their demands of the government are three-fold: tell the truth by declaring a climate emergency; reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and halt biodiversity loss; and delegate government decision-making on climate policy to a citizen’s assembly.
How do they want to achieve that?
Disruption is key to XR’s strategy. In April it took just 5,000 activists to shut down London and make the police lose control. Nearly 10,000 people have already signed up for the October rebellion, activists whom XR describes as its keenest members. XR hopes to have at least twice that number on the streets in reality.
The XR ambition is to cause disruption, first on the streets, then in the justice system, in the tradition of non-violent civil rights protest.
For XR, direct action means taking up space: blocking bridges and intersections; glueing and chaining themselves to vehicles and buildings; and filling police cells. XR must stay non-violent, organisers say, inspired by research that shows movements that stay non-violent are twice as likely to succeed as violent movements.
The police have only 683 cells across custody sites in London, and they reached capacity twice in the first two days of XR’s 10 day April rebellion. Over the course of the whole action, just over 1,000 activists were arrested. XR’s pool of “arrestables” has since multiplied; it now claims to have 5,000 people who have stated that they are willing to be arrested, and more than 2,000 people who are prepared to go to prison.
Can it succeed?
XR has resuscitated many existing protest groups, including anti-war and animal welfare movements who have been assigned to sites in October. But its ultimate success will depend on its ability to mobilise the uninitiated – people, old and young, who have never held a placard, let alone been arrested. “We need a popular movement of ordinary people,” says one of XR’s founding members, Robin Boardman.
One way XR aims to do this is by engaging people on the theme of intergenerational justice, the idea that it is your children and grandchildren and those who come after them whose lives are on the line. “That’s creating resonance with middle Britain, who are thinking about their own children,” says Graeme Hayes, an academic in protest movements at Aston University.
How are the rebels organised?
The campaigns of civil resistance which inspire XR, such as the women’s suffrage movement and the US civil rights movement, were asking for specific rights that could be written into law immediately. The demand for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions could require pressure from ordinary citizens for years.
XR believes this pressure can only be sustained by fostering a sense of community and trust-building in its activists. So the movement organises newcomers into smaller “affinity groups”. These are autonomous support networks of 10 or so people in a structure likened to those created during the Spanish Civil War. Members decide on their joint activity for a rebellion and support each other throughout, via an encrypted WhatsApp or Signal group on their phones, sometimes adopting codenames.
XR’s rapid growth is partly down to its structure as a self-organising system – anyone can start a new local group without permission provided they follow the values and principles of the movement. XR claims to have more than 500 groups in 72 countries, and well over 100 satellite groups across the UK alone, who organise autonomously but also feed into the national action through regional coordinators.
What about during the direct action?
This month’s rebellion will be similarly decentralised. XR hopes a new, multi-layered system for making decisions will allow it to resist and adapt to police tactics. Each site around Westminster is autonomous and supported by a sophisticated infrastructure, which includes a “rebel council”, daily meetings, and coordination across sites. If one site is emptied by police, other rebels will try to move to fill it.
Newcomers to XR are inducted with specific training sessions for how to engage in non-violent direct action, held before a protest or onsite. Veteran rebels lead role plays between mock police, passersby and protesters to teach people how to stay calm and disciplined.
The theory of civil resistance is that after a couple of days of large-scale disruption turns into a week or two, something people hardly notice becomes a national crisis.
Then the authorities are faced with a dilemma: do they let activists continue to occupy the streets, or do they react with force? Any overreaction from the police, and millions of people will see it.
XR co-founder Roger Hallam, a 53-year-old PhD student researching protest movements, said: “It only takes one per cent of those watching to go, ‘You know what, this is terrible, I am going down to support those people.’”
Then, he argues, the protest becomes a movement. Mass civil disobedience does not guarantee success, but it makes the conditions for change possible.
This article was first published on Monday 7 October and was updated on Friday 11 October.
All Photographs Getty Images