Extinction Rebellion isn't ‘beyond politics’ – and its members are waking up to their white privilege problem

Even though the people most affected by climate change aren't wealthy or white, the world's biggest climate crisis movement hardly feels inclusive. And their willingness to get arrested betrays a feeling of safety around the police

Natalie Fiennes
Monday 07 October 2019 10:41 BST
Police chief says Extinction Rebellion protesters will be arrested 'very, very fast' and suggests officers were not assertive enough last time

This morning, thousands of bleary-eyed Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters will have been woken up by their alarm clocks, gearing themselves up for two weeks of sustained political and direct action. Just as Britain endures the most cataclysmic and protracted political meltdown of recent times, XR have announced their plan to “shut down Westminster”.

If we go by the group’s estimations, the next two weeks will be the largest and most sustained environmental mobilisation in British history. XR have inspired thousands, but just like all mass protest movements, they have also received a healthy dose of criticism.

This week will see a new “bloc” within XR take the stage: the environmental justice bloc (EJB), whose aim is to try and tackle head-on some of the challenges to the movement so far. Over the next two weeks, the bloc will be responsible for one of the sites in London on which XR activists are planning to descend, which include Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament.

One of XR’s key rallying cries is that the movement is “beyond politics”. Their decision to step away from party politics and the left-right divide is likely strategic. One of their key ambitions is to mobilise as many people as possible, and it’s undeniable that they have the numbers.

And yet, in spite of XR’s cries to “tell the truth”, to say that the climate crisis is beyond politics is not, in fact, entirely truthful.

The climate crisis cannot be divorced from politics. It is about some of the most profoundly political questions facing us today. It is about who has power and who has access to resources, about whose lives are considered worth saving and whose are seen as disposable.

The great injustice about climate change is that those people that caused the crisis are not the ones suffering its effects. Historically, the UK has emitted more CO2 than any other country – and yet, from droughts to food shortages, it is communities in the global south who are facing the worst effects at the current one degrees of warning.

By 2050, there will be an estimated 1.5bn climate refugees looking for a safe place to live. If the current system is still in place, they will face closed borders, a hostile environment, indefinite detention and increasing hate crime on Europe’s streets.

In the words of activist Rumana Hashem, who is part of the Phulbari Solidarity Group and the EJB, "We are in a climate emergency which demands urgent action. We are also in the midst of a refugee crisis. The two are inextricably linked.”

Environmentalism takes many forms. The one pursued by the EJB, “climate justice”, considers all of the above inequalities, and looks for a solution to the problem based on a just green transitionIt is a markedly different approach to Boris Johnson’s reliance on technology and markets to pull humanity out of the crisis or indeed Michale Gove’s move to ban plastic straws.

In its campaign for climate justice, the EJB has brought together a coalition of climate and migrant justice groups.

With the exception of a few groups, among them Wretched of the Earth and Black Lives Matter, it’s no secret that environmental movements in the global north have been predominantly led by white people. Of course, there are many activists of colour within XR, but as an organisation, they have not done themselves any favours to challenge this longtime image problem. It has been pointed out that XR’s over-reliance on peaceful arrest as a non-violent tactic displays an insensitivity to the institutional racism of British law enforcement and many people of colour’s awareness about the disparate risks they face dealing with the police.

Having listened to these concerns, the organisers behind this fortnight’s protests have designed various actions to minimise the risk of arrest. That will give those activists who don’t want to be arrested, or who may face harsher treatment in the eyes of the law, safer ways to engage in XR’s actions in the next fortnight.

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The EJB is led by activists and communities from the global south, BAME activists from the UK, and will be both a site of resistance but also celebration, with displays of art, music and stories from activists around the world.

Ultimately, the climate crisis is forcing us to take the most momentous political decisions of our age. Business as usual is no longer on the table, so what kind of economic and ideological system will replace the one we live under today? When Britain transitions to a greener economy, what will that mean for the billions of people living in parts of the world most affected by climate change? And will their lives continue to be seen as less important than protecting our borders and lifestyles?

As XR and its supporters rally to save humanity and the planet, we have to ensure that the green transitions of the coming decades are not only effective, but just.


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