Divisive Tactics Mar Extinction Rebellion’s London Protests

Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) global protests came to an end earlier this week yet, despite an early wave of goodwill from the general public, their Canning Town tube station protest proved divisive. On the morning of 17 October, XR activists mounted tube trains in Canning Town which led to angry altercations between the activists and commuters which ultimately led to the former being dragged from the train roofs by the latter. XR’s principal aim is to cause widespread disruption in order to force governments from around the world to act urgently on the environmental crisis. This month’s protests in London formed part of a spate of global protests which XR has termed the ‘Autumn Uprising’ and has led to major disruption and thousands of arrests in London alone.

The Canning Town protest has drawn many critics including London Major, Sadiq Khan who condemned the ‘illegal’ action as ‘dangerous and counterproductive’. However, this sort of criticism is not all too unusual for a movement that, in the words of spokesperson Clare Farrell, seeks to be disruptive. What is more unusual is the fact that the action has also been criticised by XR activists including Sarah Lunnon who stated that ‘they didn’t get it right’ and that they must ‘learn from what happened around the Tube’. This sentiment was echoed by XR South-West Britain who said that ‘many of us felt that it was wrong to target the Tube and disrupt people from using a form of transport that is part of the solution in the zero-carbon world’. In fact, a poll carried out amongst XR members prior to the Canning Town protest showed that 72% of activists were opposed to disrupting the tube thus demonstrating how divisive the protests were even amongst their own membership.

Although XR could argue that any publicity is good publicity as far as getting government and the wider public to acknowledge the severity of the environmental crisis is concerned, this particular tactic is highly counterproductive. Such action risks alienating segments of society whose support is integral to the success or failure of the movement. As an organization that is bent on overruling capitalism and sees doing so as an integral part in achieving their aim to reduce carbon emissions, it seems counterproductive to disrupt and punish those who are already aware of the issues within a capitalist society. Canning Town is an area of high unemployment and poverty and this action risks alienating working-class people, many of whom already perceive XR as a largely middle-class movement. In addition, regardless of the demographics of those who are disrupted by XR’s protests, it is non-sensical to punish those who are already using public transport in order to decrease their carbon footprint.

The ‘Autumn uprising’ has sought to elicit government action in the form of legally binding environmental legislation and although such legislation does already exist, it is insufficient. The government is committed to reducing greenhouse emissions to 0% by 2050 however, by setting such an unoptimistic target, they are essentially kicking the can down the road and not reacting to what has become a crisis which requires an immediate response. XR in the U.K. wants the government to commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2025 and argue that urgency is necessary given the severity of the crisis. Such protests are likely to continue if government inaction continues and could even intensify given the recent step taken by Donald Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

It is important that XR and other environmental movements learn from the protest at Canning Town—a protest which fostered detachment rather than unification. The ugly scenes at Canning Town mustn’t be repeated if XR are to gain the support of the wider public.

Luke Entwistle