Politics

‘I spent two years in Extinction Rebellion here’s what you should know’

Two years before I become a journalist, throughout the end of 2018, all of 2019, and part of 2020, I was an activist with Extinction Rebellion (XR).

Like most members of the group, climate activism wasn’t something I did full-time.

XR was what I spent my evenings and weekends doing, alongside completing an undergraduate degree in architecture, working for a year as an architectural assistant, and eventually changing paths to study my masters in journalism.

Throughout those two years, I took on various roles for the group; I did graphic design, costume and arts, ran various social media channels, even liaised with the press – until I decided to join them instead.

READ MORE: What does Extinction Rebellion want? 3 important demands the environmental group is calling for

Extinction Rebellion protesters blocked Oxford Circus with a giant pink table structure earlier this week, as part of their fourth major protest in London

Although I still have friends active within Extinction Rebellion, I no longer consider myself a part of the movement, for various reasons.

But I’m writing this article because I believe my two years in the group, followed by my new role ‘on the other side,’ as an onlooker and reporter, has given me a unique dual-perspective which might be worth sharing.

In particular, it has made me aware of many of the misconceptions which still haunt Extinction Rebellion from the outside – misconceptions I was too wrapped up in the movement to be aware of at the time.

So here are some things I think you should know about Extinction Rebellion:

They are not all ‘jobless’

I can’t really believe this still has to be said, because anyone still tweeting to accuse Extinction Rebellion activists of all being ‘jobless’ must simply just be living under a rock.

But, just to set the record straight – the vast majority of activists I knew and worked with in Extinction Rebellion were either in employment, or still in education.

'I spent two years in Extinction Rebellion here's what you should know'
Doctors join an Extinction Rebellion protest in Trafalgar Square in October 2019 in London, England

To take my five closest friends in the group as an example, they consisted of a zoologist at Newcastle University, a PhD student, a training architect, a high-flying commissioner in the NHS and a waste disposal manager at Durham County Council.

When we travelled down to London to take part in the April 2019 protests, every single one of us had booked off annual leave, sacrificing holiday, in order to do it – I’m not asking for sympathy for this, I’m just trying to demonstrate how important it was to us.

You might hate XR, but their tactics work

I have lost count of the number of people who have told me, both during my time with Extinction Rebellion and since, that, “your tactics do nothing to help your cause”.

To put it bluntly, they are wrong.

Of course XR’s controversial tactics of gluing themselves to walls, locking themselves to structures, blocking roads, and throwing paint over war memorials is going to make people – a lot of people – dislike them.

Police officers remove protesters from the fountain at the Queen Victoria Memorial, which they have covered in red paint, during an Extinction Rebellion protest outside Buckingham Palace
Police officers remove Extinction Rebellion protesters from the fountain at the Queen Victoria Memorial earlier this week, after they covered it in red paint

But anyone who claims these tactics ‘harm the cause’ is missing the point – because ‘the cause’ is not about winning public affection, as some people seem to think.

In fact, if everyone suddenly started thinking XR were a charming bunch of tree-hugging cherubs who deserve a pat on the head and a shiny new wind farm as a prize for their good behaviour, their campaign wouldn’t be as effective.

Because the purpose of their campaign is not to be liked – it is to get as many people as physically possible talking about climate change.

The Suffragettes, who most people in polite society mocked at the time because of their unsavoury tactics, are an excellent example of how well this ‘deeds not words’ approach has worked historically.

'I spent two years in Extinction Rebellion here's what you should know'
Most of polite society at the time hated and scorned the unsavoury tactics of the Suffragettes – but that only gave their cause more publicity

Whether XR is hitting the media for various ‘hypocrisies’, for ‘vandalising’ another statue, or just for cluttering up London’s business district by looking unsightly, the point is they are hitting the media – and so is climate change.

That’s not to say XR enjoy being disliked – in my experience most of us found it mortifying to be constantly abused online, shouted at in the street, and even sneered at by close friends and family – but we did it anyway, because it worked.

When XR hit the media, people talk more about climate change – we have already witnessed this on an unprecedented scale since the first protests – naturally, what follows this is that public pressure for the government to take action increases.

This is the XR effect, regardless of whether anyone likes them.

So as for the ‘tactics do nothing to help the cause’ argument, frankly nobody is about to start burning more fossil fuels because XR are unpopular – that would be ridiculous.

'I spent two years in Extinction Rebellion here's what you should know'

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XR has its problems, but people are desperate

I will be the first to admit XR has its problems.

The group still has a major class problem (emblazoned into public memory by the fiasco caused by the few lone-acting members who jumped on top of a Canning Town Tube train at rush hour in 2019), and a major race problem.

Although I am told this is changing, for now it is still painfully middle class and white, and these diversity problems are a large part of why I eventually chose to leave.

However, I would still say this – the vast majority of activists in XR are simply desperate, and don’t know where else to turn.

Disillusioned with politics, feeling powerless to prevent the wildfires and flash-flooding already tearing through parts of the world and taking countless lives, crushed by the fear of what the future might hold, people joining XR are simply trying to exercise what little control they have left over that future.

They are doing it for the same reason I did it – because it feels like their only hope.

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