Extinction Rebellion: Who are the climate activist group bringing cities to a standstill and what are their aims?

Action to block bridges and roads around the world expected to be five bigger than previous round of protests 

Emma Snaith
Monday 07 October 2019 17:07
Extinction Rebellion activists protest outside Royal Courts of Justice in London

Extinction Rebellion is staging a two-week “international rebellion” in October to urge governments around the world to take action on the climate crisis.

The environmental campaign group aims to occupy 12 sites in London including Trafalgar Square and outside Downing Street and the Home Office. Protests are also taking place in 23 cities across the world during the same two-week period.

It comes after more than 1,100 people were arrested at Extinction Rebellion’s protests in April, which brought parts of London to a standstill. The demonstrations were designed to cause as much disruption as possible with protesters blocking roads, gluing themselves to DLR trains and smashing windows at Shell’s headquarters.

This month, the group says the protests could be five times bigger with as many as 30,000 people involved. The Metropolitan Police has vowed to arrest an unlimited number of demonstrators if they break protest conditions.

So who are Extinction Rebellion’s supporters, what are they hoping to achieve and what are their tactics?

What is Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion (also known as “XR”) describes itself as an “international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction”.

It is centred around the belief that humanity is approaching a point of ecological and societal collapse as a result of man-made climate change.

The movement uses a circled hourglass as its symbol to represent time running out for humans and many other species.

What are its aims?

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion has three main demands:

1. The government must declare a “climate emergency” and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change

2. The UK must halt biodiversity loss and legally commit to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2025

3. A citizen’s assembly, which would be made up of people from all sections of society with advice from experts, must be formed to decide how to solve the climate crisis

Where did Extinction Rebellion come from?

The group was officially launched on 31 October 2018 by a group of activists from the campaign group Rising Up!

It held an assembly in London’s Parliament Square which was attended by 1,500 people. In the following weeks, it reassembled to block five major bridges across London with 85 protesters arrested.

Organisers say it now has over 400 groups across 72 countries ranging from the Solomon Islands to Australia, Spain, South Africa and the US.

Key figures Extinction Rebellion include co-founders Gail Bradbrook, a former biophysicist, and Roger Hallam, a former organic farmer with a postgraduate degree in the theories of social change.

The group cites the civil rights movement, suffragettes and Mahatma Gandhi as inspirations.

Fake Blood sprayed on the Treasury by Extinction Rebellion protesters

What are its tactics?

Six months after it was formed, Extinction Rebellion held its first “international rebellion” in April.

Thousands of activists brought London to a standstill, with protesters blocking roads at Marble Arch before moving on to Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Parliament Square.

Extinction Rebellion encouraged members to camp at the sites, which were decorated with trees and brightly coloured flags and banners. In Oxford Circus, a pink boat baring the slogan “Tell the Truth” was parked in the middle of the protest site.

Protesters also glued themselves to DLR trains, staged die-ins at the Natural History museum, blocked the entrance of the London Stock Exchange and smashed windows at Shell’s headquarters.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke to protestors during the demonstrations and urged them to “keep going - you are making a difference.”

The government said the protests disrupted the lives of "many hundreds of thousands of hard-working Londoners". Over the two weeks of protests, more than 1,100 people were arrested.

Extinction Rebellion considers arrest as a key tactic to try to achieve its goals. Co-founder Roger Hallam has previously said that the group needs about "two to three thousand people to be arrested and 400 to go to prison" for the movement to have an impact. He argues that the most successful activist movements from women’s suffrage to civil rights have involved arrests.

Earlier this year it emerged that all those who had been arrested in the April protests would be to be taken to court. Scores of cases have already been heard with the trials expected to carry on into the new year.

Since April, Extinction Rebellion has staged a number of smaller protests including staging a funeral procession at London Fashion Week, holding a die-in outside newspaper offices and using a fire engine to spray the the Treasury building with fake blood.

Heathrow Pause, an Extinction Rebellion splinter group, attempted to fly toy drones near Heathrow Airport in September in order to cause widespread disruption. However, a number of activists were arrested preemptively before the protest, while others who attempted to launch the drones said they were blocked by police using “jamming signals” to disable the devices.

Extinction Rebellion has also staged a number of protests internationally with activists blocking traffic in New York and dying a Zurich river green, while in Paris the police used pepper spray to clear activists blocking a bridge over the Seine.

The group estimates an additional 400 of its activists have been arrested outside of the UK since it was formed, including about 70 in New York City.

What is the response to Extinction Rebellion so far?

Extinction Rebellion’s eye-catching protests have garnered both support and fierce criticism.

After the protests in April, the then-home secretary Sajid Javid called on police to use the “full force of the law” against protesters.

Scotland Yard took the rare step of releasing a detailed statement setting out the difficulties they faced keeping control of the protests. Police rest days were cancelled over the Easter bank holiday, as more than 1,000 officers were deployed across the city.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he shared the protesters’ “passion” for tackling climate change but warned they could take police officers away from specialist duties such as fighting knife crime.

Extinction Rebellion says anyone who is annoyed by its protests should “find out more about the severity of the ecological and climate crisis”.

After giving a speech at the April protests, Greta Thunberg featured on a song by the 1975 about the climate emergency and requested that the proceeds went to Extinction Rebellion.

In June, Radiohead announced they would donate all proceeds from the sale of previously-unheard music that was stolen by hackers to Extinction Rebellion.

Actress Emma Thomspon and politicians Caroline Lucas and Diane Abbot are also among the group’s supporters.

Ahead of the October protests, Ms Lucas defended the Extinction Rebellion activists facing court and said people who were prepared to take part in nonviolent direct action were showing more “climate leadership than government ministers”.

“The brave XR activists taking nonviolent action to protect the planet on which we all depend for our survival shouldn’t be arrested and charged,” she said. “They should be applauded and they should be heard.”

What is happening in October?

Extinction Rebellion is set to stage its biggest round of protests yet from 7 to 19 October.

The group says they will be five times bigger than the demonstrations in April with as many as 30,000 people involved. Protests will take place in London and 23 other cities across the world during the two-week period.

Extinction Rebellion plans to occupy 12 sites across London including Trafalgar Square, outside Downing Street, the Home Office, and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Other actions include processions, marches and a sit-in at City Airport where demonstrators will attempt to occupy the space for three days.

Extinction Rebellion spokesman Joel Scott-Halkes said: “We’re going to blockade and shut down every single road going into the central area of Westminster around the UK government. We are going to very loudly, very clearly, very respectfully say that if a government is taking its people towards extinction, it is not a government anymore that we respect.”

Major events are also planned around the world in Australia, in Europe – in Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam – and in the US in New York and Washington DC.

As of June, Extinction rebellion said that nearly 4,000 of its members were willing to get arrested, with over 3,000 willing to go to prison.

In anticipation of the protests, the Metropolitan Police have asked for new legal powers against protesters.

Police have vowed to arrest an unlimited number of demonstrators if they break protest conditions, despite the “cost” to wider policing in the capital.

“If you choose to come along to this protest and act unlawfully there will be consequences for you,” assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave said.

Independent Minds Q&A session on the Middle East, Trump, Syria and Isis

“We intend not just to arrest and detain, but if reasonable and proportionate we will prosecute.”

In response to the police announcement, Extinction Rebellion said former police officers had joined its protests and “many are prepared to risk their liberty to stand up for the planet”.

“We appeal to the humanity of the government and authorities to remember that we are non-violent protestors,” a spokesperson said.

“We appeal to their humanity to remember that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Many are losing their lives already and we are called upon as human beings to act now.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments