If not now, when? 11 days of (Extinction) Rebellion

“We have gathered here today and in many other places in London and across the world... We have gathered today because we have chosen which path we want to take and now we are waiting for the others to follow our example.”

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In the early morning of Monday, April 15th in London, England, the international rebellion began.

A pink boat named the Berta Caceres after the Honduran human rights and environmental campaigner murdered for her activism on March 2nd, 2016, was one of the first signs of what was to come when it showed up at Oxford Circus in the city’s West End. On Waterloo Bridge, protesters arrived with trees in tubs and potted plants to block traffic and create a second protest camp. A third mobilization occurred in Parliament Square and a fourth major site was at Marble Arch, where Greta Thunberg, who initiated the international student strikes for the climate, spoke before a large crowd last Saturday.

The first three of these mobilizations were each meant to represent one of the demands being made by the activist group in the UK, where it was officially formed in October of 2018. The first was represented by the Oxford Circus camp: to tell the country’s government, as printed on the Berta Caceres, “to tell the truth’ about climate change. The second was to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 to tackle biodiversity loss, an ambitious goal represented by the garden created on Waterloo Bridge, and finally, the third large protest at Parliament Square was to petition the government to create a People’s Assembly to allow ordinary citizens to debate climate and other issues like biodiversity loss and come up with broadly democratic solutions to these ecological crises. 

The fate of the Berta Caceres, which, besides being an eye catching focal point for the Oxford Circus protest, also acted as a stage and solar powered DJ boot, was decided by authorities on day five, when police removed the people attached by various means to the boat, dismantled it and moved it. This was made an arduous process, as peaceful activists surrounded them on all sides. Even as the boat was taken away, the hundreds of protesters reportedly chanted, “We have more boats!” 

As a group that has in engaged in civil disobedience in the UK and increasingly in the United States, Canada and other countries, Extinction Rebellion, sometimes abbreviated to XR, asks those who wish to participate if they are willing to be arrested as part of the actions they’re involved in. This tactic provides a very public spectacle of people willing to risk their freedom, at least temporarily, to force governments to begin to address the potential catastrophe laid out most fully in last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

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As of this writing, well over a thousand people have been arrested in the ongoing rebellion, both in the main protest sites and in a number of smaller actions, with 69 charged.

Those who wish to start their own chapters of the movement in their own communities throughout the world are only asked to follow the group’s 20 principles to use the name and begin planning their own non-violent actions, which can create attention for an issue that mainstream media rarely covers.  U.S. news especially, often demands that climate change not be brought up during crises that are at least in part driven by it, for what cable newsreaders often claim is the fear of drawing attention away from tragedies like Hurricane Maria as they occur.

Thus, the issue remains unaddressed, requiring new activist groups like Extinction Rebellion and the youth driven groups like the international Student Climate Strike and U.S. based Sunrise Movement to force a conversation.

Here in Montreal, Canada, six Extinction Rebellion activists chained themselves to the doors of the office of the Premier of the province, Francois Legualt, in the early morning on Wednesday, April 17th.

As Elza Kepart who took part in the protest at the door to Legualt’s office told the Montreal Gazette, “We know that the climate crisis is at our doors and we are at his doors to make sure the message is heard…”

In California, two protesters with Extinction Rebellion Los Angeles glued themselves to the Universal Studios globe on Earth Day, this past Monday.

Taking a somewhat different approach to their British counterparts, the protesters sent a list of demands to media company NBC Universal, which owns cable news channel MSNBC, asking the corrporation to publicly admit that the globe is, “indeed in a Climate and Ecological Emergency – that the extinction of the natural world is happening, that we are facing the collapse of civilization.” 

To say that the British press was hostile to the large protests in London is to be guilty of understatement. Time and again, opinion writers and TV hosts insisted that the country was creating 38% less emissions than in 1990, usually failing to note that this particular success story is due to the increased use of renewable energy in the form of offshore wind farms as a replacement for coal and natural gas, a process that will need to be accelerated where possible throughout the world if the worst results are to be avoided.

One Sky News host, Nick Ferrari, at times compared the protesters to fascists and said after the first day of actions, “Have I woken up in some strange dimension here, where protesters and law-breakers are allowed to carry on with police just watching on the side?”

Considering the fact that the protests were uniformly peaceful and most of the participants were more than willing to be arrested, and in the interest of avoiding harm to both the protesters and bystanders, the answer to this question should probably be yes. The problem of lost revenues and inconvenience are more nuanced and as such more difficult to address, but it should be understood that for the most part the businesses in the areas where protests took place are large companies like H&M, whose ‘fast fashion’ business model is a little mentioned contributor to the climate crisis in and of itself.

As for the inconvenience caused to other citizens, it should be noted that from the suffragettes to Rosa Parks to Act Up, civil disobedience and protest may have a momentary effect on unrelated individual lives but the changes produced are almost always worth it when viewed through a larger historical lens.

With police working to evict protesters from three of the sites over the weekend, some of the main organizers called for a pause to protests over the last week, although they by no means convinced everyone, and actions were still ongoing until Thursday, when it was officially announced that this phase of the rebellion was ending, with protesters blocking the Treasury building and London Stock Exchange by gluing themselves to the entrances.

As Farhana Yamin, a spokeswoman for the group explained on Monday, “Week two marks a new phase of rebellion focused on negotiations where the focus will shift to our actual political demands.”

While some have argued against Extinction Rebellion’s tactics, there is no denying that they’ve forcefully brought climate change into the public consciousness, not only in the UK but in over 40 other countries. Whether it’s people’s assemblies as XR proposes or a Green New Deal as championed by Sunrise in the U.S. (or some combination of both), there finally seems to be momentum to confront the tasks ahead.

As Greta Thunberg told the admiring crowd at Marble Arch last Saturday, “We have gathered here today and in many other places in London and across the world… We have gathered today because we have chosen which path we want to take and now we are waiting for the others to follow our example.”

As climate scientists have warned for many years, time is of the essence to secure a future for ourselves, other life on this planet and for the generations to come.

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