Extinction Rebellion's hapless stance on class and race is a depressing block to its climate justice goal

It is unfortunate that the best recognised movement in the country still hasn’t figured out how to appeal to the people for whom the stakes are probably the highest

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Tuesday 15 October 2019 16:06
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Extinction Rebellion protesters lock themselves to caravan at Millbank Tower

For all the strides they’ve made, I have a funny feeling about Extinction Rebellion.

Of course, I’m not alone. There are those who – swayed by their own prejudices about activism – distrust them on that basis alone. To these people, the protesters are merely entitled, jobless “crusties”, intoxicated by the rush of stopping traffic dead and making everyone’s commute to work that much more hellish, never mind the climate crisis.

They will be happy with news today that the police have issued a section 14 order, banning them from continuing protests in London.

I don’t count myself in that camp. Fighting climate change is, to put it perhaps too simply, incredibly important. I consider it, as so many other activists have pointed out for years, an amalgamation of society’s biggest ills.

Environmental issues are human issues; are class issues; are race issues. They have been aggravated and created by the structures we’ve wrongly come to think of not just as irreplaceable but as intrinsic to the survival of the world: capitalism, colonialism, the patriarchy.

As such – and as has long been said and shown by the indigenous communities too often left out of mainstream discussions – it must be tackled with those barriers firmly in mind. But it doesn’t always feel like this is the approach that some parts of XR take when it comes to the action pursued. In fact, it seems to be the total opposite.

I’m not the first person to point this out. Black, brown and indigenous groups around the world have been stressing the roots of these problems for decades. In Britain, groups like Wretched of The Earth and Black Lives Matter UK, have raised similar points.

Wretched of The Earth has stressed the importance of reflecting “the complex realities of everyone’s lives” in responses to the crisis. That includes an open letter to XR – in May this year – which challenged the activists to tackle head on the ways in which “social, economic and political systems shape our lives – offering some an easy pass in life and making others pay the cost”.

These groups have protested – albeit to less fanfare – with the fullness of the problem of climate change years before XR came on the scene. They have called for an overhaul of approaches to migration and the financial sector, and tangible support for people in the global south who are being – and will be – hit harder than any other region due to environmental degradation.

XR itself, has in part acknowledged the issue, albeit after several missteps. In spring, it released an online prison guide for protesters (which has since been deleted), suggesting that protesters of colour who found themselves in prison could comfort themselves with the falsehood that “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time”. The group has since apologised for the wording in the document. But it doesn’t seem to have learned from it just yet.

Last week, on release from police detention in Brixton, an Extinction Rebellion protester took it upon themselves to send flowers and a thank you note “To all the kind souls at Brixton police station, for all you have done with decency and professionalism.” It was a move rightfully met with suspicion and concern considering the station’s part in Britain’s ugly history with deaths of black people in police custody, in this case, Sean Rigg.

In July, XR London also advised the police to “concentrate on issues such as knife crime, and not non-violent protesters who are trying to save our planet”, yet another misstep seen as a call to push police to focus attention on the “real” sources of harm – seemingly the black community.

That, paired with pushing Rupert Read to the forefront of the movement hasn’t helped to quash the impression that XR has several glaring blind spots when it comes to activism.

Read, who appeared on Question Time last week, has been taken to task for suggesting that the “net environmental footprint” is increased by migrants and that harsher immigration controls are central to fighting climate change. It’s an idea echoed in dog-whistle arguments about overpopulation in the global south, placing the ultimate blame on those who have been most disenfranchised by the structures that have fuelled climate change in the first place. And it relies on the over-simplified logic that the real reason we’re facing a crisis of this scale is that all those poor black and brown people are just “having too many babies”.

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And then we come to class. While XR recognises that “for our movement to be safe for everyone, it needs to be safe for the most marginalised”, in practice it seems the opposite is true. Some working-class people have said they feel alienated by the predominantly middle-class movement. With protests such as last week’s occupation of Smithfield market – by XR’s vegan faction – read by many as an unfair attack on people who were just trying to make a living.

So where do we go from here? In truth, I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that those of us who feel as though they have been treated as afterthoughts by XR, are growing tired of it. And rightfully so. It’s unfortunate that the most recognised climate justice movement in the country still hasn’t figured out how to appeal to the people for whom the stakes are probably the highest. Until they do, they run the risk of being reduced to a joke, regardless of the good work some, but not enough parts of XR are doing to stop that from happening.

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