Who are Extinction Rebellion and what are their aims?

Extinction Rebellion kick off two weeks of protests in central London, but what is ‘XR’ and what are their aims?

Joanna Taylor
Tuesday 24 August 2021 08:28
Extinction Rebellion protesters kick off two weeks of demonstrations

Extinction Rebellion has begun a two-week protest in London aimed at disrupting ‘business as usual’ in the capital as the climate crisis unfolds.

The Impossible Rebellion, which began on 23 August, is the activist group’s first major action since its Autumn Rebellion in September last year, which lasted for 10 days.

The primary aim of the protest is to demand that the government “stop all new fossil fuel investment immediately”. XR also hopes to “build pressure on the biggest financial institutions” in London it says are fuelling climate change.

As well as gathering in Trafalgar Square, protesters have so far erected a 4-metre high pink table bearing the words “come to the table” near Leicester Square which they say will remain there for the “long haul”.

Actions are planned across the next fortnight at St James Park, London Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, the Bank of England, outside the Brazilian Embassy and at other locations around the city. But what actually is Extinction Rebellion and where did it come from?

What is Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion is an environmental movement aimed at forcing businesses and politicians to act on climate change. It was founded in the UK but has since spread across the globe.

XR is best known for its disruptive and headline-grabbing tactics, such as spraying fake blood at the Treasury in Westminster or dumping horse manure outside newspaper offices.

Also distinctive is its hour-glass symbol and the font printed on its posters and placards —​​ which was designed especially for the group. But, although XR aims to appear cohesive through means such as this, it defies the notion of any sort of hierarchy or leadership.

“We organise in small, autonomous groups distributed around the world,” the Extinction Rebellion UK website says. “We are working to build a movement that is participatory, decentralised, and inclusive.”

This principle has led to the foundation of offshoots at home and abroad, such as XR Youth and Doctors for XR.

What are Extinction Rebellion’s aims?

“There is no definitive vision statement for XR, nor do we desire one,” the activist group’s website says.

Despite this, XR does have a constitution of sorts, and lots of individual members or groups of members have attempted to loosely define the movement or put together mission statements.

And it does have three stated aims for the UK: to persuade the government to (i) declare a climate emergency, (ii) achieve net zero by 2025 and (iii) create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate justice.

Other aims, such as this year’s push to stop fossil fuel investment, are continually added by the group’s adherents.

Where did Extinction Rebellion come from?

Extinction Rebellion was born out of the campaign group Rising Up! in 2018.

After around a hundred academics signed a call to action on the climate crisis, Rising Up! activists Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook and Simon Bramwell, among others, founded the movement.

The first major protest took place on 31 October 2018 in Parliament Square. More than 1,000 people are said to have attended.

Since then, numerous high-profile figures have aligned themselves with the group, from Bob Geldof to Emma Thomson to father-of-the-prime minister, Stanley Johnson.

Multiple protests have also been staged, notably in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

What are Extinction Rebellion’s tactics?

Thousands of people have been arrested at Extinction Rebellion protests. The movement’s founders believe that causing disruption and having protesters arrested and even jailed is a more effective means of drawing attention to their aims than tactics like writing letters or signing petitions.

XR have also held actions from local marches to major protests and others such as sit-ins and ‘die-ins’, wherein people lie on the ground pretending to be dead. Protesters have, moreover, glued themselves to buildings and defaced government buildings.

Controversially, in October 2019 a group of protesters climbed on top of Tubes at Stratford, Canning Town and Shadwell, causing disruption to the Jubilee line and Docklands Light Railway.

The group were criticised for disrupting public transport, particularly in what many considered to be working class areas. XR have also been criticised for centralising perspectives and tactics — like seeing out arrest — which some say are middle-class and rooted in white privilege.

What has been the reaction to Extinction Rebellion?

Attempts to curtail Extinction Rebellion have largely failed. In 2019, the Metropolitan Police imposed a ban on XR protests, only to be told that this was unlawful by the High Court.

The movement has gained significant media attention, both positive and negative. Analysis of 2019’s International Rebellion suggested that the movement was mentioned more than 70,000 times online – a trend which dipped during the coronavirus lockdowns but is likely to start rising once more.

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