Extinction Rebellion – are they the voice of our time?

With every day that passes I’m more passionate about finding an environmentally sustainable way of travelling – and living. This means I try to reduce the amount of waste I produce, I try to cut down on plastics and I try to reduce my carbon footprint.

So when I heard that Extinction Rebellion was taking over London, I was delighted. I love protests and I admire activists deeply. Not only for their passion to change the world, but also for the sense of community there is in these situations. In April 2019 (or this month, depending on when you’re reading this), Extinction Rebellion took to the streets of London with one simple mission: stop the city and meet with the government.

One of the sit-ins was conveniently next to my apartment block. Thrilled with excitement and with the nostalgia from my early student days (I attended the Indignaos protests in Madrid back in 2011), I ran to grab my camera and dragged a friend to check out the scene.

What I found was, in both a good and a bad way, exactly what I expected.

Protesters sit on the bridge and engage in different activities – from singing to cooking and sharing dinner.

Who are Extinction Rebellion?Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent activist group seeking positive action to slow down climate change. To protest, they camp on several major locations in London and abroad to have their demands heard.

The Good

Extinction Rebellion protesters dancing on Waterloo Bridge
Protesters dance on Waterloo Bridge

The right to protest is vital in any healthy democratic system. Even the most egalitarian of societies will deal with some issues and civil unrest is the greatest platform to keep those in power on their toes.

Camps and sit-ins like this are important to assert our power as citizens. Climate Change is the issue of our time. Our governments aren’t doing enough.

Extinction Rebellion sit-in Waterloo Bridge
Passers-by cross Waterloo Bridge, adorned with XR flags and signs

So we need to protest. We need to take to the streets and peacefully express we care about this. Protests such as Extinction Rebellion also lead by example, as often you’ll find community spirit, compassion and a healthy dose of wanting to have just a little bit of fun.

Dancers on Waterloo Bridge

The Bad

More eloquent writers than I have already written on the challenges Extinction Rebellion is facing with inclusivity and white-washing. When I visited, I thought the same thing. Entering the protest kind of felt like being transported back to the 60s to a hippy commune.

It was upsetting to see that, although the organisers had gone to efforts to provide appropriate bin disposals, Waterloo Bridge was starting to have litter everywhere. The live music was great, although I feel they could have invited experts on environmental science and climate change to educate passers-by and activists alike.

Protesters and onlookers stand on the barriers at nightfall

Then there’s the whole premise of getting arrested. I can understand that an important part of peaceful activism is to get involved with the local forces and to get arrested. First, this can lead to important media exposure and second, it helps the public sympathise. I visited the camp again on the first night and it all felt a little bit anticlimactic. The officers knew there was not going to be much resistance and the activists were ready to be taken. It felt more like a political dance serving the interests of egocentrism rather than triggering change.

Police officers have arrested around 300 protesters so far without any violent incident.

Looking deeper into XR’s set of demands, there’s also a lot to be unpacked. From an objective point of view, everything in their manifesto is important to create positive change. From a practical point of view? This is where it begins to get trickier:

“Telling the truth”

Governments (except perhaps the US president) have not tried to deny climate change. Some countries are taking better action than others, yes, but in this day and age, hardly anyone is turning a blind eye. My question is – what does the government need to change? What difference will declaring a state of emergency make?

Police officers arrive to the scene and prepare to take action

“Act now”

Again, yes. We need to all act now. However, this claim is broad and non-specific. Providing some suggestions or solutions would empower the public to decide whether to get involved or not.

Police officers arrived to the scene as protesters held signs and chanted

“Beyond politics”

This is all about creating a citizens assembly, formed by “impartially selected at random” participants, who would inform parliamentary decisions. This sounds OK and democratic, but for how long would these citizens have to commit? Would they have the right to decline participation?

Protesters began to huddle as the night fell and police forces and press arrived to the scene

XR – yay or nay?

It’s a rotund YAY from me – with some healthy criticism added. Climate change IS the issue of our time and we need to turn the tide both as individuals and as a society.

We need groups like XR to spark the conversation again. Even if you don’t agree with their methods, I’m certain you’ve started thinking about this in the last week. It’s also important we use this awareness to resurface groups that have been vocal about this in the past – be it BLM, indigenous associations, local groups, etc. We need to give credit where it’s due, after all.

Nonetheless, I’m happy that Waterloo Bridge has been under peaceful blockage for 5 days now – and I hope they stay a bit longer.

Protesters holding their place on Waterloo Bridge

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