How far would you go to protect your world?
By: Dominic Munton, English BA
Illustration: Asbjørn Oddane Gundersen
I’ve never really seen the point of activism. That’s not to say there aren’t a great many injustices in the world that inspire my indignance or compassion, only that I’m jaded as to the ability of activism to do anything about them. When I was 16, I was on my way to visit a friend in London when I accidentally got caught up in a march against the UK’s impending involvement in the Iraq War. During the march, over a million participants passed through central London singing, dancing and unequivocally declaring their resistance to the anticipated invasion. Despite the scale of protest, a scant month later the government took the country into war. The experience left me with a sense of the futility of protest in the face of powerful established interests. If the government can ignore a million-strong protest movement with no consequences, why bother to protest at all? In the same vein, for most of my adult life I’ve remained politically apathetic because I never felt like my participation could make a difference. UK politics have been dominated by two parties for as long as I’ve been alive, both of whom differ on a handful of issues whilst fundamentally agreeing on the kind of destructive, exploitative economic policy that has created today’s climate crisis. A vote for either of them always seemed to me a vote in favour of the kind of policies that I am against. Therefore, I chose not to vote.
In March of this year, I participated in the School Strike for Climate in Oslo. It was intoxicating to stand outside Stortinget with the chanting hordes of youth, but I couldn’t help feeling that despite a lot of media attention, there was no real government response to the protest. Around that time, I started to read about Extinction Rebellion (XR). Upon discovering that they were prepared to use civil disobedience to achieve their demands, I was intrigued. I know relatively little about civil disobedience, but enough to know that it was used successfully by both Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights movement, and by Gandhi’s followers in their quest to liberate India from British rule. The more I read, the more inspired I felt, and on the 15th April I found myself with a small group of activists blocking the entrance to Finansdepartementet, waving a banner and nervously watching the police as they tried to work out what to do with our illegal protest.
It is not enough that we simply stand in the streets to demonstrate; such protests are too easily ignored. Civil disobedience works by creating a situation that is impossible for the government to ignore, as has been aptly demonstrated by the XR ‘International Rebellion’ this April (focused in London but echoed by smaller actions in countries all around the world). During the protests, teams of demonstrators drilled in non-violent disobedience techniques and occupied five key junctions in central London, disrupting traffic-flow and local business. The protestors held onto their junctions for over a week, causing an apparent £20 million in lost revenue, lengthening journey times and creating a pedestrianised area in some of the capital’s busiest streets. Over a thousand people were arrested over the course of the week, and yet the police were unable to clear the roadblocks thanks to XR’s ingenious strategy. In the words of one of XR’s founders, Roger Hallam: “My approach and my research is how we can update the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King in a modern context.” Hallam is currently doing a PhD at Kings College on the design of ‘digitally enhanced political resistance and empowerment strategies’.
My approach and my research is how we can update the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King in a modern context. – Roger Hallam, XR Founder
During a period of extensive planning, XR’s organisers and legal experts decided that the best way to get the government to agree to their demands was to find as many people as possible who were willing to be arrested. The willingness of otherwise law-abiding citizens to suffer the loss of their freedom in the pursuit of the movement’s demands is a powerful political statement – one that becomes harder to ignore as the numbers climb. Obstruction of a public highway is among the most minor of arrestable offenses on offer in the UK, providing an opportunity for XR to make its voice heard with minimal risk to its members. Members who do not wish to get arrested are also welcome, and perform many important logistical tasks such as carrying water and food to the ‘arrestees’.
During the ‘International Rebellion’, the police found that the road-blocking demonstrators were all too willing to be arrested, only officers could not arrest them fast enough to keep up with the influx of new, willing ‘arrestees’. Whilst not resisting arrest, protestors ‘went floppy’ in the policemen’s arms, forcing them to use between four and six officers to remove one protestor. Within days, 10,000 additional officers had been summoned to London, and the capital’s police station cells were overflowing. The financial and logistical inconvenience created by the protestors sparked vocal resistance from some locals, but that frustration was only directed in part at the XR – the rest was directed at the government for their inability to remedy the situation. Legally speaking, however, , the government’s hands were tied. The police were unable to use more heavy-handed tactics due to the peaceful nature of the protests, and there existed no precedent for managing large numbers of citizens who actively sought to be arrested. There were calls for new legislation, but no one wished to put forwards a bill that would criminalise peaceful protest.
In the weeks since the protests took place, the government of the UK, and the assemblies and parliaments of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have declared climate emergencies, satisfying XR’s first demand in a clear victory for the protestors. With that accomplished, few in the movement show signs of letting up the pressure on the government, and new mass-actions are planned for later in the year.
| XR in brief |
Founded October 2018
Structure: Decentralised, non-hierarchical, participatory, small groups
Strategy: Non-violent civil disobedience
1) The government must tell the truth about climate change by declaring a climate emergency and working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change,
2) The government must act now to half biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025,
3) The government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice
Further Information: http://rebellion.earth
Facebook: Extinction Rebellion Norway
One of the greatest challenges facing any government in today’s globalised economy is balancing the need for protecting their citizens and patrimony at the same time as creating an environment attractive to the activities of multinational corporations. If a single country legislates to protect the environment, this may cause multinationals to relocate their operations to other countries with less restrictive regulations. This potential risk is reduced when governments act multilaterally, leaving potential polluters with no option but to conform.
Climate change is a global issue. If we are to mitigate its effects we must be able to work together globally. XR has already achieved unprecedented results in forcing the UK government to recognise the urgency of our situation. If XR can continue to expand their operations internationally and achieve the same results with governments worldwide, we have a novel opportunity to escape ‘business as usual’ and create a world in which humanity has a future.
XR’s ‘International Rebellion’ was centred in the UK, but it was echoed by smaller movements around the world, such as that in Oslo. It is up to us to see that such movements grow and to discover whether the same tactics used in the UK can be successful elsewhere.