We went to the radical climate group’s offices to hear their plans for civil disobedience.
A coffin inside XR’s temporary headquarters. Photos: Jake Lewis
On Tuesday, as temperatures in London spiked at 21.2C – the warmest winter day on record – Extinction Rebellion (XR) gathered national media to lay out their next steps.
At the climate activism group’s temporary headquarters near Euston railway station, members spoke to the audience as brilliant February sunshine poured through the windows, as if to serve as a troubling reminder of why radical action is necessary. In XR’s case, that means mass civil disobedience as a way to force the government into actually doing something about our rapidly degrading environment – and if that ends in them being arrested, so be it.
XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook was fresh from an appearance at Westminster Magistrates Court. She and five others had been charged with criminal damage – Bradbrook allegedly spray-painted “frack off” on a government building – and all had pleaded not guilty. It had been an emotional day, not least because the judge was, coincidentally, sending them for trial on the 16th of April, a day after XR begin their full-scale international rebellion with coordinated actions on the 15th.
At times, Bradbrook appeared upset as she delivered an abridged version of XR’s frank and profound talk on the appalling state of the climate. We heard how when it comes to damage control, all we have done to date is “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic”, and were repeatedly reminded of how “fucked” we all are. But Bradbrook offered nuggets of optimism too, and issued a call to arms to help restore our world.
Hope at XR comes in the form of action. “We can’t just leave it to the COP, we can’t just leave it to the Climate Change Committee’s review of the UK’s long-term target to sort it out,” insisted Farhana Yamin, a climate change lawyer and XR activist. “Because the entire system is out of kilter, out of touch, and it is certainly not working fast enough.”
XR is planning a relentless campaign of disruptive yet peaceful civil disobedience ahead of the dawn of the sustained rebellion in April, when it is expected that tens of thousands of people will shut down London indefinitely, until the government takes meaningful action over what XR call the “environment emergency”. Multiple actions over the coming weeks will serve as a means to “normalise” mass uprisings, but are also designed to educate and entertain. Some, however, will perhaps trigger shock and even alarm.
A torrent of symbolic, artificial blood will flood Downing Street to create “a sea of red” on the 9th of March, when hundreds of XR members say they are prepared to be arrested as part of The Blood of our Children protest. The idea is to make the gravity of the climate crisis viscerally clear.
“There will be parents and children, as well as people taking on arrestable roles, like me, who want to make a point about intergenerational injustice,” said Paolo, an XR member. “The idea is to find that sweet spot where the police are obliged to arrest you, but it’s totally non-violent and peaceful. The people who’ve committed criminal damage will sit on the ground and wait to be arrested.”
Young people who have “inherited” the climate crisis are also mobilising among themselves. An XR youth faction was formed just days ago and now has eight members. Robin is 24 and a founding member of XR Youth. He joked that it’s his mum’s 60th birthday soon and that he might not be around for it if he’s arrested.
“We want to represent the youth voice,” he told me outside XR HQ, where he was about to lead a non-violent direct action training session for a group of young people. “If you were born in 1990 or later, you’ve never experienced a normal climate, so we’ve set that as our age range. We are the generation of fucked up climate, and we are the generation that’s going to take it forward.”
Training people in peaceful rebellion is key to XR’s mission. Workshops are held most days of the week in local groups across the country, but next month will see the movement stage “mass rebellion training for thousands, with a festival atmosphere” at its Spring Uprising in Bristol.
More than a dozen music acts are confirmed, and there will be an art factory, a regenerative sanctuary and solution-focused talks. Alongside the training, this party element of the weekend event is key, said XR member and festival organiser Tiana Jacout, who was introduced to me as the “brains behind the bridges occupation”, i.e. the action in November of 2018 when thousands of XR members blockaded five bridges in central London.
But perhaps the most effective way to seize people’s attention is by going after the very thing that is consuming the nation: Brexit. Although XR does not take a view on leaving the European Union, it is gathering hundreds of people to block the motorway out of Dover as part of its No Brexit on a Dead Planet event on the 30th of March. The action is designed to demonstrate that we could be looking at rioting on the streets if food supplies collapse, not because of Brexit, but climate change.
“It’s phenomenal that while your house is on fire, all the government can do is squabble about getting a slightly shittier trade deal with their closest allies,” said Jacout. “People are squabbling over how food will get to England and not looking at the larger picture of whether there is food available to come to here in the first place.”