Extinction Rebellion, an environmental movement formed less than a year ago, has seemingly swept through every city in the Western world. Taking on a grassroots approach, the group has found significant success in large-scale protests organised by local activists. The seriousness of the issue and the validity of their concern is, I think, plain to anyone. The question remains, however, whether their actions are justified, and in turn whether the British government is justified in taking steps to counteract against the protesters.
Central to Extinction Rebellion’s activity (whether consciously acknowledged by participants or not) is economic disruption – the group does not only aim to hold events with significant numbers; they hope to slow down traffic, bring Heathrow to a standstill, and generally force acknowledgement of the issue through direct action. This Thursday, protesters disrupted a Canning Town Tube train, leading to commuters pulling the protester off the carriage. The fact that Extinction Rebellion spokesman Fergal McEntee tacitly condemned the tactic perhaps indicates that the group are – even by their own admission – not justified in some of their activities.
At the very least, the activities of the group has exposed the faux-concern of the British government and more specifically the London government, including and especially Sadiq Khan. Though such figures pay lip service to the threat of climate change, when push comes to shove, they ultimately stand against direct action, demonstrated in the London ban of the group.
An almost unprecedented act, London’s Metropolitan Police on Monday banned all assemblies associated with Extinction Rebellion – one might find it odd that a non-violent group protesting over climate change is banned from London, while in the past the Metropolitan Police have allowed far- right organisations like Britain First and Islamist organisations like Al-Muhajiroun to demonstrate within the city.
So, why might one think that protests by Extinction Rebellion are illegal and unjustified, while demonstrations by extremist groups have been tolerated in the past? As I alluded to earlier, the reason may be the economic disruption caused by Extinction Rebellion, who have explicitly sought to protest in and around economically strategic locations within London, most notably Heathrow Airport.
It is difficult not to sympathise with those directly affected by direct action – the commuter stuck in traffic, on the London Underground, or at the airport. Others may very well agree with bringing transportation to a complete standstill; if I was hoping to get the Canning Town train and was late for work, I suspect my support for Extinction Rebellion might become somewhat tempered. That said, when one understands the purpose of direct action, and understands the legitimacy of concerns over climate change, it becomes difficult not to view the London ban as anything but a wholesale clampdown on a deeply important aspect of our democracy.
That said, when one understands the purpose of direct action, and understands the legitimacy of concerns over climate change, it becomes difficult not to view the London ban as anything but a wholesale clampdown on a deeply important aspect of our democracy.
The purpose of direct action (by which I mean protests, strikes, blockades and so on) has never been solely to vocalise one’s opinion – certainly climate change has been raised as a concern by members of the British public for some years now; we don’t need protest simply to alert the government to our concerns. Rather, direct action intends to hurt government and business through non- cooperation – by going on strike or establishing a picket line, the worker hurts the businessman’s capacity to make money, in turn bringing them to the negotiation table. So too in these recent protests, Extinction Rebellion has focused much of their attention on areas like Oxford Street, Heathrow, Bank, and most recently Google’s HQ.
If one rejects direct action which intends to put pressure on the economy, they can only ever support a woefully neutered form of public protest – the kind which can never truly place pressure on the government or business to change their ways. Though it may be uncomfortable, direct action in the form of disrupting road networks, financial centres and the like are exactly those forms of direct action best placed to succeed in forcing change.
The police’s reaction to the success of Extinction Rebellion in my mind evinces that they are genuinely affected by the mass protests. Though bound by laws they do not make, the Metropolitan Police saw it fit nonetheless to implement this ban, now likely being challenged by the High Court – reportedly, Sadiq Khan did not even know about the imposition of the ban.
The police’s response arguably constitute an infringement on protest rights – Extinction Rebellion has, by all accounts, been a peaceful movement, and the leadership have taken extreme lengths to ensure that members do not engage in violence or destruction of property. The message of the group also is wholly uncontroversial (or at least should be), and has never involved a call to violence. Thus, the police cannot be justified in banning the protests in virtue of their extremism or the like. The only remaining justification for their ban is therefore their success – that they have been so effective in hurting the financiers, the business executives, and the government officials that in turn suggests a need for suppression.
If instead, one accepts that effective protest must have an effect, in terms of the disruption of the economy, one has little reason to oppose Extinction Rebellion or defend the police’s banning of the group from London.
We must, I think, be careful not to turn against Extinction Rebellion, even if we find some of their actions unproductive. If we accept the seriousness of climate change, and find ourselves concerned by the government’s lack of action over the issue, we must then ask – is direct action justified in the peaceful disruption of the economy? If we answer no, one supports a wholly inept form of protest, completely incapable of being anything but a statement of concern – one which can be easily ignored by the police and government. If instead, one accepts that effective protest must have an effect, in terms of the disruption of the economy, one has little reason to oppose Extinction Rebellion or defend the police’s banning of the group from London.
The banning of Extinction Rebellion from London therefore should be considered a sign that the protests have been working – they have clearly attracted concern from government, the police, and big business. This is a sign of success. The ban from London constitutes a flagrant attempt at suppression and silencing in response to this success, one which cannot be tolerated in a democracy.
Image credit: Julia Hawkins