Summer uprising: the Extinction Rebellion returns

With evidence pouring in, from permafrost loss in the arctic to the first disappearance of a glacier in Greenland, the window for action is quickly closing.

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“I am willing to be arrested. I am willing to be jailed. And I can tell you something else; I am willing to die for this movement, because I am not leaving my kids with the future that they are set on right now.”

-Gail Bradbrook, Extinction Rebellion founder

Beginning on July 15th and lasting until the 20th, the fast-growing environmental group Extinction Rebellion (often shortened to XR) went back to the streets in the United Kingdom, where the movement started. The series of actions during what was called the ‘Summer Uprising’ was reminiscent of what we saw from the group last April when thousands of people risked arrest to draw attention to the growing danger represented by climate change at different locations throughout the country’s capital.

The main difference this time was the sites of protest. Unlike those in the spring, major protests (along with smaller, more focussed actions) took place in five UK cities: London, Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow.

While there was less mainstream coverage of the recent actions than there was in April, there were interesting parallels in what coverage there was to some of the criticism that’s been leveled at the U.K. Labor Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn over the past few years, with most of it coming from the same right-wing tabloids.

Typical of this style of coverage was a piece in the Daily Mail on the last day of the uprising with a title that claimed some members of the group had left because XR, which was officially formed in October, was taking on a “Marxist tinge”. What exactly they meant by this turn of phrase was left unexplained in the body of the article, as is so often the case when this term and ‘socialism’ are used by corporate media outlets.

It’s probably only a matter of time before we’re told that environmental groups like XR or the youth-led American movement Sunrise want to turn countries like the UK into ‘Venezuela’.

Soon after this hit piece appeared, Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, two founders of XR, wrote a reply to the accusations in a Daily Telegraph editorial, at the same time explaining the group’s ultimate goals, “We oppose a system that generates huge wealth through astonishing innovation but is fatally unable to distribute fairly and provide universal access to its spoils. We need a ‘revolution’ in consciousness to overturn the system we live in, to strengthen our democracy, to find courage and give hope to our children.” 

While Extinction Rebellion itself has said that it isn’t interested in defining itself in political terms, it’s pretty hard to argue against the idea that many of the activists fighting to put climate change and related crises like biodiversity loss on the global agenda self identify as being on the left. This is probably because so many who call themselves ‘conservatives’ refuse to acknowledge the scientific consensus around this issue or, using a more recent tactic, deny that the crisis is being driven by humans. For their part, centrists like those who make up the majority of the Democratic Party in the U.S. or Liberal Party here in Canada, while they claim to believe in climate change, either sit on their hands and take money from the very industries driving it or look for ‘market-based solutions’ to a problem partly caused by an economic system that sees the natural world as something that can be endlessly exploited without any consequences.

It may also be that a willingness to risk arrest in the name of confronting injustices through civil disobedience is a more of a tradition on the left. These kinds of sacrifices are rare and appear almost unimaginable in the present context for those in the center or on the right of the political spectrum. While these voices most often complain about the inconvenience caused by groups like XR, it’s their inaction that has made the group and related movements necessary.

Perhaps the stronger pushback from British media to the Summer Uprising, as opposed to earlier actions, came as a result of the group’s criticism of media, especially during the April protests. Continuing in this vein, a group of about 100 activists staged a die-in outside of the offices of several of the country’s biggest newspapers last Friday in Kensington, in west London. The action was reminiscent of a similar one undertaken at the offices of the New York Times by XR New York in late June, a protest that resulted in 66 arrests and introduced the group to most North Americans for the first time. 

As Donnachadh McCarthy, an activist with the UK group explained about the Kensington die in, “Most of the media are climate skeptics. But even the papers that highlight the climate emergency are not doing enough. You can’t report on the crisis and then promote consumerism and a high-carbon lifestyle in adverts and the travel and fashion sections. We need to treat the crisis with the level of urgency placed on informing the public about the Second World War”.

While XR is serious about its commitment to force action on climate change the way they go about it is often playful.

One the most memorable aspects of the April actions was the pink boat the Berta Caceres, named for the murdered Honduran indigenous and environmental activist, which was the symbolic focus of the days long encampment at Oxford Circus. For the more widespread SummerUprising, each city had a colored boat named for an environmental activist and containing messages like ‘Act Now!’ alongside the groups’ distinctive hourglass style logo. 

On the final day of the Summer Uprising, London police banned any boats from the city, releasing a statement which read, in part, “No boat, vehicle or other structure may form part of any procession by Extinction Rebellion or join the procession at any point on its route or at its final location on Friday, 19 July 2019 within the London region,” 

More chilling than the ban on the boats in London is the increasing calls from the Metropolitan Police for stiffer penalties for those arrested and the prosecution of many who would have had their cases discharged in the past. The most recent large protest in London was held outside of the Royal Courts of Justice, with the stated demand that the cases against 1,000 people charged during the April rebellion be dropped.

A spokesperson for the group took a positive view of the situation, telling the UK Guardian that XR would use the cases as another platform to get their message out and that, “Our legal team also hopes to use these cases to set a major precedent in British law, establishing a citizen’s right to act in the face of emergency.” 

With June being the hottest on record in North America as in Europe, shattering last years’ record and with July on track to be the hottest month in recorded history,  it’s becoming harder for the usual suspects to deny the reality of climate change. The evidence is becoming something that people around the world are experiencing in their day to day lives rather than an abstract concept that’s easily ignored. While XR was able to get the UK parliament to declare a climate emergency in April, the plan for zero emissions by 2050 proposed by the UK government is far from the group’s ambitious 2025 goal.

With evidence pouring in, from permafrost loss in the arctic to the first disappearance of a glacier in Greenland, the window for action is quickly closing.  Extinction Rebellion plans to expand the scope its activities once more with a worldwide rebellion planned for October.https://rebellion.earth/act-now/events/

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