This post was originally published on Will Sinclair Marshall’s Medium page on 17/10/19.

Since it’s inception Extinction Rebellion (XR) has had the finest of lines to tread; it’s concept revolved around civil disobedience and disruption in order to draw attention to the Climate Emergency. It’s a risky tactic. Many will applaud their efforts as individuals make great sacrifices, giving their time, their voices and in some cases their freedom to a greater cause. Many, though, will feel that the disruption of their day-to-day lives in a step too far.

At it’s core, the movement risks turning away moderates from activism and hardening the resolve of climate deniers. There is a reasonable argument, of course, that this is a risk worth taking in order to grab the headlines.

There is a fundamental problem though with any movement such as XR that has a distributed structure where many different groups all act under the same banner (just ask the loosely defined ‘Antifa’ in the USA). There will always be a hardcore of activists willing to go one step further, often with the greatest of intentions, but without oversight and management this can destroy the credibility of the whole.

What we’ve seen over the last weeks seems to be exactly that: there is a minority of XR willing to go any length, even if that involves massive disruption to normal working people, or even endangering individuals’ safety.

Protesters spray fake blood from a fire engine
Spraying ‘Blood’ and noxious diesel fumes at the Treasury (CNBC)

Two weeks ago, demonstrators pulled up outside the Treasury in a fire engine and sprayed ‘blood’ over it’s facade, a loosely defined protest against UK military spending in the Middle East and investments in fossil fuel countries. After only a few moments, the activists lost control of the high-powered hose, spraying bystanders, whilst the hose writhed around like a 5-tonne snake. The Police had to call from a distance to ask the protesters to be careful until the hose stopped and they could be arrested. Those involved feel this was worthwhile to draw attention to Government spending, but what the public saw was a small group inconveniencing and recklessly endangering passers-by and the Police.

A man lies on top of a jet aircraft at London City Airport
James Brown sits atop a plan at LCY (Reuters)

Then a week ago a lauded Paralympic athlete climbed onto the roof of an aircraft at London City Airport in order to cause disruption. There’s no doubt he achieved this, but he also delayed a few plane-loads of commuters (arguably the point, I know) who are now much less likely to support the cause, and caused airport workers to have to endanger themselves to get him down. (Also worth noting he will likely receive a prison sentence as endangering an aeroplane is considered a pretty bloody serious offence.)

Today though… was a different story.

XR protesters stood on top of a tube train at Canning Town (stupidly dangerous) at peak commuter time, disrupting one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to travel.

What we saw was a turning of the tide. Commuters turned aggressively on the activists as a mob mentality set in, dragging one of the protesters off the roof as he lashed out, and descending with fists-flying onto him and a journalist on the platform. Not England’s finest hour.

The problem is, the argument that the disruption is worth it to bring the problem to the forefront, doesn’t fly if you’re on a zero-hour contract, and being an hour late might mean you lose your job and the roof over your head. Those affected by these actions aren’t politicians. They aren’t oil executives. They don’t fly on private jets. And now they don’t give a shit about Extinction Rebellion either.

The loose leadership of XR need to make a PR decision, quick. Either they need to solidly denounce the actions of this minority, or risk destroying the sympathy of the general public. They’ve suddenly taken a much more important role that they had ever intended: the power to turn millions away from the climate emergency cause in is their hands.


Note: This article is not meant to criticise the actions of Extinction Rebellion as a whole, but the actions of the few who might inadvertently undermine it.

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