XR SNOWFLAKES EPISODE ONE
Extinction Rebellion’s arrestable activists: Inside the formation of civil disobedience affinity groups
by Fox (Instagram: @SnowflakeFoxtrot)
[Image: Snowflake Charlie is arrested in the blockade of Southwark Bridge]
“… and all those of you prepared to do the most arrestable actions all week, in the far corner by the window.”
London, England – two hours in to the first of Extinction Rebellion’s Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) training days.
The hundred or so people present divide into clusters in the large hall depending on how far people are willing to go and how often. Most spread towards the other end of the room from me, willing or able to attend only one or two action days, or preferring low-level offences like roadblocks. I’m stood with half a dozen others just outside of the far corner – prepared to go all week and willing to try all sorts of actions, but unsure of being arrested.
In said corner to my left, a group of six or seven people with determined faces stand shoulder-to-shoulder, facing out to the rest of the room. There’s something unnerving and yet inspiring in the calm set of their faces. Looking at them, I’m filled with a mix of awe and jealousy.
One of the primary goals of the training session is for those attending to form affinity groups – the core unit of XR activism. They’re groups of around 8 to 12 people who have an ‘affinity’ for each other. This is based partly on practical elements, like how close they live to each other or how much free time they have. But they can also form based on how well people connect, the values they share, the targets they have in mind, or how daring an action they’re willing to try. Once formed, XR affinity groups can act independently of any central organiser or coordinator, taking action when, where and how they see fit – as long as it squares with XR’s values and vision of change.
When the organiser suggests arrestables need to be backed up by a non-arrestable support team, my cluster is naturally magnetised to the heady atmosphere that surrounds the silent stoics in the far corner. They’re a mixture of genders, ages and experience levels. A couple are veteran activists, with experience of repeat arrests at demonstrations such as Preston New Road’s anti-fracking campaigns. They’re fighting for their children’s and grandchildren’s futures. Others have only dabbled in activism or have never done this before, and just seem like younger people fed up of not being in control of their own.
We form a circle of fifteen or so people. As we go round and introduce ourselves, the atmosphere is electric and tensions run high. My original cluster of mostly young people explain, almost embarrassed, reasons why they’re hesitant to be arrested. Some are worried about how the police might treat them, one is worried about being sectioned, some work with children, or a criminal record could end another’s career. Everyone listens without judgement.
But those from the far corner cluster each calmly assert they are willing to be arrested repeatedly, until they are put in prison on remand for their actions. There is no posturing or arrogance, just a quiet certainty. For some, it seems like a decision they’ve taken a long time to arrive at.
As each establishes when they’re available and what they’re willing and not willing to do, many leave the circle for other clusters less willing to do the high-risk illegal actions. Eventually the group pears down to just eight individuals – four arrestables, and four support crew including myself.
Extinction Rebellion’s policy is to be open about who they are and what they are doing from the get-go, with no-one hiding their faces or resisting arrest. One of the first things that a coordinator did was to call out the fact that police infiltrators or corporate spies might be present – and to encourage them to “do their job really, really badly”.
Most people in the room are using their real names, and have no illusions that their details and data are readily available to the police, often before they’ve even done anything. During the training, arrestables prepare to be held fully accountable for their illegal actions, gathering knowledge on the likely charges they’ll face and their legal consequences.
However, from here on, I’ll refer to the activists by code names. This is partly in respect for each individual’s privacy and personal security from public opponents of the Rebellion. More practically, it’s useful to to tell their stories without embellishing them as heroes or appealing to the “activist’s ego”. But the main reason, to me, is because in relation to an issue which affects the whole planet, their identity should be irrelevant. This story isn’t about who they are, it’s about what they do.
We establish roles – who does what as a general rule. An action coordinator volunteers themselves, assigned to communicate information within the group such as meeting points and times, and to potentially liaise with other affinity groups taking action on the same day. Each activist pairs with one other in the AG: a buddy they will stick with if we get split up or if things get out of hand.
Dark-haired woman ‘Bravo’ buddies up with ‘Charlie’, a woman with short hair – both arrestables. The two other arrestables appear to know each other: an elderly lady with extensive experience of anti-fracking activism at Preston New Road, who I’ll call ‘Veteran’, points to a bearded animal rights advocate with a determined expression, ‘Echo’.
“I feel safe with him. We’ll buddy up.”
Echo nods in calm agreement.
I volunteer for wellbeing coordinator, thinking my first aid training might make me useful in that sense. It’ll be my job to make sure the arrestables are looked after at the actions – that they’re fed and watered and warm. It’ll be up to me or a Legal Observer to find out which police station they’re being taken to, and to communicate the details to the Wellbeing team and Arrestee Support. This way, we can make sure one of the AG or someone from Arrestee Support is there to meet them as they come out – with snacks, cigarettes, or whatever other comfort they’d requested beforehand.
[Image: a Wellbeing team member, wearing a blue Wellbeing sash, calls out for supplies as they attend to two arrestables laying in the road, who are locked on to each other in the roadblock in front of the Brazilian Embassy. November 15th 2018.]
A younger Scottish man and woman who are already friends, ‘Delta’ and ‘Quebec’, buddy up together and agree to help me on wellbeing. Another quiet man, ‘Hotel’, agrees to help out with coordination.
We spend the rest of the day training and preparing for what the likely worst consequences will be of our actions. There’s a conflict de-escalation role-play, where we take turns playing angry drivers on blocked roads, and the activists talking to them to defuse their rage. We practice going limp while being arrested as a non-violent means of slowing police from moving you: we take turns pretending to be police and activists, dragging each other along the to get used to the physical feeling of it. We learn about the likely charges and legal consequences of different actions.
[Image: Snowflake Charlie uses passive resistance (going limp), a non-violent method of slowing police which does not count as resisting arrest in the UK.]
Many questions are answered, and a lot of knowledge is shared not only by those who’ve set up the event, but by those who have come to the training: anti-fracking activists recount their previous experiences of arrest and actions, lawyers shed light on court procedures and offences, scientists add in useful facts. A flurry of documents and phone numbers are distributed on paper and electronically for activists to learn more about what they’re getting into. Although Extinction Rebellion coordinators acknowledge there’s no way to tell how the state and the police will react, all the legal information is explained in a surprisingly simple way.
At some point, one of the organisers running the workshop asks us a difficult question: what is the name of our group? I suggest ‘Maximum Effort’, referring to the Deadpool catchphrase and how far our arrestees are willing to go – but no one gets the reference. Echo suggests ‘Reasonable Choice’, and this gets a few nods – but we’re running out of time.
“Snowflakes,” someone says.
Almost everyone seems in agreement, but the name makes me uneasy.
“Do you all know what that means?” I ask.
The term ‘snowflake’ is used as a patronising insult that describes people as fragile, wrapped up in the uniqueness of their ego, and easily offended. It’s often used by those at one far end of the political spectrum to describe the other end as weak. Particularly, the alt-right use it as a derogatory label to describe far-left individuals with a strong reaction to situations of social inequality, sometimes also known as ‘social justice warriors’.
Most of the group seem aware of the meaning and the irony of calling the most radical group of activists in the room fragile ‘Snowflakes’. Others, like Veteran, don’t seem to care. Everyone but me seems happy with it and the name sticks. I guess we’ll own it.
We exchange contact details and arrange to meet at a separate location, just us, to get to know each other better and begin making plans. Little did we know, we were also about to have our first close call with the police…
More to come soon on this blog. Keep watching to hear the inside story of the Snowflakes, and what happened next in the pivotal first weeks that the Rebellion captured the world’s imagination.