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.
Banners in the temporary XR headquarters
“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.”
The temporary XR headquarters
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.
The temporary XR headquarters
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.”
Next week thousands of Kiwi students will leave school in a strike for climate change action.
In a suit and tie, retired fund manager Charles Drace is not your typical rebel. California-born, he was once a theatre and film actor, with bit parts in the spaghetti Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ and war movie ‘Patton’.
Now, from his neat town house in central Christchurch, the 74-year-old is plotting how to get arrested.
“For years and years now, we’ve been playing nice. And I think one of the things that has been recognised in the last year or so is that it’s not working. We just can’t be nice anymore.”
Drace is a climate activist, a member of the global movement Extinction Rebellion. It began in November, when thousands of protesters paralysed London by disrupting traffic. Since then, it’s caught fire across the globe, with around a million members in 35 countries carrying out acts of civil disobedience.
They’ve glued themselves to buildings and spray painted “frack off” graffiti, closed five major London bridges, swarmed Fashion Week and gone on hunger strike outside Westminster Palace.
In New Zealand, ‘zombies’ have paraded through Wellington airport, held a funeral for Planet Earth in Nelson, and shut off the water supply to Environment Canterbury’s headquarters. Last week, 35 activists banged on the glass windows of BP’s Auckland office, chanting “liar, liar, pants on fire.”
Next month, they’ll join groups across the world in a week of civil disobedience and attention-grabbing stunts.
It’s bigger than just a march. Extinction Rebellion’s goal is to trigger an enormous political and cultural shift, big enough to save the planet from certain doom. They say they need 3.5 per cent of the population on board to make radical change. Numbers in New Zealand total about 2000, so about 165,000 short.
“We are declaring rebellion against the government for criminal inaction and what Extinction Rebellion sees as a climate and ecological emergency,” Rowan Brooks, 29, says.
“One of the core things which XR is saying is we need to tell truth and start acting like it.
“We need to stop pretending that we will sort some things out, and that we’ve got 50 years. Disruptive protest is a way of motivating politicians and the powerful to do things.”
Athlete and small business owner Gene Beveridge, 26, joined the BP protest, the first time he’s ever got involved with a political movement.
“Personally, I’m not really that interested in marching around but if that is what we need, then I’ll do it … I want policies to be a better reflection of science and public opinion.
“Over the past three or four years, with the Trump phenomenon and Brexit, I’ve just realised that the discourse is quite heated. That’s what woke me up.
“I couldn’t rely on other people, there isn’t enough goodness in the world for things just to work out. I had to get involved myself.”
Until now, climate activism has concentrated on pollution, plastics, the impact on animals and forests or the melting of ice-sheets. Extinction Rebellion goes much further, warning of the collapse of civilisation, famine and the extinction of mankind.
“We have to be dramatic, we have to make the point so strongly that the Government is forced to listen, instead of listening gently and coming back with platitudes,” Drace says.
Their message might be extreme, but you won’t find more polite subversives. They are non-violent, against damage to property and use graffiti paint that washes away.
Brooks, a community garden co-ordinator, frequently interrupts himself to make sure others in the group get a fair say.
Drace likes formal dress for protests, because environmentalists are often stereotyped as “hippies.”
“I have tried to break that mold,” he laughs. “I guess I would be described by most people as being in a fat cat type of occupation. But there are an awful lot of professional people who really care.”
The Christchurch branch, with around 150 members, is planning their first ‘swarming’ road blocks in the city. They’ll last ten minutes each, and volunteers will hand out water, snacks and explanatory pamphlets.
“We are going to be doing really short stints just around the place, to practice and to start little moments of disruption,” Brooks says.
“It’s not about the motorists. It is about saying maybe we need to stop what we are doing for a second and look at the gravity of the situation.
“Once traffic isn’t moving through a city, then that has a flow on effect which is economic. People aren’t managing to do their things as well. And then people start saying [to] council, government: ‘what are you going to do about these people who say there is a climate emergency’?”
A group called Extinction Rebellion turned off water at the ECan offices and chained themselves to the water mains in protest to the way ECan has been dealing with Canterbury’s water.
Aren’t they worried about frustrating people?
Brooks says Kiwi cities won’t suddenly grind to a halt, largely because the movement is in its infancy.
“In New Zealand, with the two degrees of separation, once you have people who are willing to put their bodies on the line, then everyone who knows them, trusts them, maybe starts to believe that action is actually legitimate.”
Brooks was one of five protesters arrested after the group turned off the taps at ECan. They were all released with a warning.
“We opened the thing on the street and turned the tap off,” Brooks says. “Some people sat on the cover … a plumber came and turned on another tap. We went and borrowed some tools from some workers down the road, turned that off and sat on top of that one.
“We are deliberately doing things which we are not supposed to do, because we are saying the government is not doing what it is supposed to do,” Brooks says.
He and Drace are fully prepared to go to prison for their actions.
“We are talking about a dying planet … we face mass extinction, including human extinction. If, tactically, me being in prison is going to help [prevent] that, then lock me up.”
Drace agrees it is “his duty.”
“It is the only honorable thing to do. To get out and fight.
“I don’t believe there is any chance we can stop global warming, but I think there is a big chance that we can delay it and let the next couple of generations at least have some kind of decent life.”
In England, members have described meditating and performing yoga in holding cells after protests. Co-founder Roger Hallam said: “The action itself is not as important as going to prison, which has cultural resonance, you might say.”
Not everyone in the movement feels that way. Marine scientist Sea Rotmann runs a consultancy and her work involves international travel.
“It would be career limiting if I was … arrested or convicted because all of my work is with international governments … for the work I do – which I think has a lot of benefit in terms of finding solutions – I need to be able to travel.”
New Zealand police say there is no ‘national operation order’ for Extinction Rebellion.
But a spokeswoman added: “Our role is to ensure the lawful right to protest while allowing members of the public to go about their daily business safely, and we will respond appropriately to any issues regarding disorder or public safety that may arise.
“We urge anyone planning or undertaking protest activity to keep the safety of themselves and others at the forefront of their minds.”
Rotmann says joining Extinction Rebellion’s Wellington branch has been empowering.
But she says it’s unusual for a scientist to join a direct action campaign.
“Science is a profession which forces us to be overly conservative with how we describe our data and our facts and our modelling. We are not meant to be catastrophising, to be emotional, or show our frustration, anger and grief … I am a research consultant – not an academic. So, I am able to speak out.”
Rotmann says her scientific knowledge has left her distraught.
“I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief for many years. I have what many environmental scientists call pre-traumatic stress disorder which is the same as PTSD except you are having it because you know what is coming and you can’t do anything about it. You feel powerless.”
Like many of Extinction Rebellion’s key players, Rotmann has a background in activism. She is involved in court action over the extension of Wellington airport’s runway. Simon Oosterman, the group’s media liaison, is a seasoned campaigner and trade unionist who organised the first Starbucks pay strike, and was arrested for taking part in a naked bike ride to protest vehicle emissions.
Brooks and Drace campaigned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, with Brooks organising protests.
Rotmann, Drace and his fellow Christchurch team member Torfrida Wainwright, are all Green Party members.
But even though they are pushing the Government to do more, they don’t see a conflict with their party. Especially as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called climate change her generation’s “nuclear free moment.”
“It’s great leverage,” Wainwright, 68, a veteran feminist and climate campaigner says. “It is something we can use. We can say to her: ‘You are saying this and now act on it.’
“You couldn’t say that to John Key because he and Bill English denied there was a problem anyway. All you could do is beat at the walls.”
Rotmann has twice stood as a candidate for the Greens.
“Extinction Rebellion is completely non-partisan and I think it is really important that it stays that way. But, in a lot of ways, the New Zealand Government is not as anti-environment, and is promoting climate change [action], in a way other governments aren’t.
“I mean, it would be different under a National government.”
Despite this affinity with the Government, the protests are demanding carbon neutrality by 2025, not the 2050 timeline proposed.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the rebels aren’t alarmists, and he gets their frustrations.
“They are deeply concerned that we do everything we can to limit global warming to help limit the impacts of climate change,” he says. “I share those concerns … Our aim is to be carbon neutral by 2050. That goal is consistent with the science outlined in last year’s IPCC report about what’s needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
“We may find that solutions and the momentum of change to low emissions options enable us to meet that net zero goal sooner than 2050, in which case I hope future governments will want to move faster.”
He says he is concerned about public safety and property.
“I understand the organisation’s depth of feeling about climate change and their commitment to ensuring the issue of climate change is not ignored. Civil disobedience is a longstanding means of drawing attention to issues of public concern. All I would ask is that they do not put themselves or others at risk of harm through their actions.”
Drace remains frustrated and wants the Government to immediately halt all oil exploration – not just new permits
“The Government will say ‘oh, we are doing all we can’ and yet nothing significant, nothing effective is happening,” he says. “And so there is a widespread feeling that is growing dramatically – and the students’ strike is part of this.”
Next week, school children across the world will go on strike, part of a growing international youth movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Extinction Rebellion Christchurch members have been working closely with local kids.
Drace ran a half-hour workshop for the junior demonstrators, taking them through planning and advertising, dealing with police, avoiding trouble and even which spray paints and stencils to use on their placards.
Twelve-year-old Lucy Gray is organising the March 15 rally in the city’s Cathedral Square. About 1000 students are expected to ‘strike’ in 20 cities – joining millions of children across 51 countries.
“The strike is a campaign for kids to be able to share their voice with the rest of the world because although we can’t vote, we still have a voice, and we need to be able to use that to get the government to realise this is our future, it’s matters to us and we want to stand up for our future,” the Beckenham pupil says.
While Extinction Rebellion’s message is doom-laden, Gray and her friends are much more positive.
“I am worried but I try to convert my anxiety and fear into action because the more action we have, the more we can do.
“I try and stay positive because if we let it drag us down we are not going to have energy to do the things we need to do, we are not going to have that fire inside us that we need to keep burning.”
It’s been a strange week, unplanned and unexpected. It all started when Louis and Niaomh (my children aged 21 and 30) came home, so I guess they have some responsibility for it all. As always they bring life, friends, dogs, food, stories and fun with a little bit of chaos in the mix.
On Saturday they all set off for Rebellion Day. I stayed home with Sylvie and big dog Bagheera. I felt really torn, I wanted to be there but wasn’t sure if either me or my daughter Sylvie (aged 12) could cope with seeing them arrested. Niaomh wrote my number on her arm with a Sharpie before she left.
We had talked on the Friday evening. I knew the plan was to block the bridges but had no idea how the police would respond. Protests in the past have often become violent and I wondered about kettling and brutal removal.
I watched the day unfold on various different media sources as bridge by bridge was occupied. And finally they did it! I was amazed. And the footage showed peace and humour and positivity. I felt proud of them all and moved and thankful.
Then came the text that I had been both expecting and dreading “Heya Im, Niaomh got arrested and is at Charing Cross. She’s all good and with a friend but we might be back a bit late….” (13.01)
I was surprised by my initial reaction. Calm. What can I usefully do?
Tried ringing Charing Cross police station but there was no-one answering. Tried the Metropolitan Police non-emergency numbers and choosing the ‘in custody’ option got a recorded message saying they don’t give out any information about people in custody ‘for legal reasons’. Baffled, surely they are in custody for legal reasons and families and friends have a right to know? Then thought with all the cuts they probably just don’t have the resources to deal with this anyway.
The thing I felt most assured by was that Extinction Rebellion have Wellbeing Volunteers, but more than this, they look after each other. So, there were about 100 people outside Charing Cross police station waiting for Niaomh and other protestors (they were in police stations across London) to be released. They had a small sound system (playing amongst other tracks ‘sound of de police’) and kept each other buoyant.
So, the best thing I could do was walk the dog and make food. Do the Mum thing.
“The tiny comrade is released!” (21.21)
“Hooray! Xxx” (21.22)
They got back after midnight by which time I was in bed, so I had to wait until the morning for their tales.
Niaomh and Adam were on Southwark Bridge. The police were arresting people slowly but surely. At some point someone shouted out that they were only arresting men. They looked round for the ‘gobbiest’ women. Niaomh and her friend Roz were prime candidates. (If you know Niaomh this will not surprise you). My best description of her is she’s big on the inside.
She said she didn’t even know she had been arrested. She thought she was just chatting with the policeman and then he said that she had to go with him as he’d actually been reading to her, her rights. She asked if he was going to put handcuffs on her and he said no not unless you’re violent. Are you going to be violent? No, she said.
She decided instead to use the weapon of charm. All in all, she said the police were great. When she was released they were chatting and laughing with her and fascinated by the piece of turf with the XR logo that she had been wearing and they returned it to her. She said perhaps this is the best way to reach people, to get them to at least consider what you are trying to say.
I have been thinking for a long time about our relationship with the planet and with each other. The IPCC report in October was a wake up call, but to what? I didn’t know what to do. I had fantasies of running off to join Greenpeace (if they’d have me), but I have home, work, a 12 year old and a small dog (Betty), friends and a community. Commitments and responsibilities, but also things I love and care about.
I have never been a joiner, but nothing in my life has ever made more sense to me than this, now. We either have to find ways to change, to evolve, to live better, to care more, to share, or we will become extinct, and in our death throes we will take out the living planet and the myriad of beings we share it with.
As a species we are irrepressibly curious, creative, caring, innovative, experimental, active, social and yet our flip side is destructive, brutal, fearful and greedy. But we have a super power – choice. I don’t believe that any being could truly choose global destruction but I could be wrong (any Darth Vaders out there?). It’s time to wake up and it’s time to choose and the clock is ticking.
Yesterday the news was more Brexit. Theresa May spoke of ‘a brighter future’. The disconnect is criminal. What future?
I’ve always been skeptical toward the idea of non-violent social change. Don’t the people who resort to violence always come out on top? Anyway, this short essay is about me realizing it’s not about coming out on top.
I read an article by Douglas Rushkoff describing a conversation he had with a group of super rich hedge fund managers. Faced with a shrinking global human habitat, these high flying individuals were only concerned with finding the best methods to continue dominating their fellow humans. At this point in history, dominated by this mentality, it looks like our future will be a brutal hellscape dominated by strongmen and war lords.
Then it occurred to me. This won’t be a very good outcome for them either. The whole reason we are in our current crisis is because of our failure as humans to support each other. Domination creates conflicts and divisions, which in turn creates renewed struggle for supremacy. Anyone fortunate enough to survive the current ecological impass will not survive long if they still fail to realize this is the problem. If humans go through the now unfolding climate chaos without learning that we are all in this together, all the cleverness and ingenuity in the world will only further doom them. When you use half your energy and resources competing, dominating and fighting each other, there is never enough to go around. The result is a habitat turned battlefield. Climate change is only a by product of the real force that is driving us to extinction: each other.
It’s time for the poor to stand up to the rich, and for the rich to step down. We’ve always known that community is vital and important. Now we see that species survival depends on implementing real community as quickly as possible. Our chances for long-term species survival start to rise as soon as we commit to this. We may end up having to drag the rich down from their pedestals kicking and screaming, like the spoiled adult/children they have become. But it will be a huge mistake to seek revenge against them, or threaten to kill them. That will only make them more determined to keep fighting us, while simultaneously seeking delusional escape routes, like replacing all workers with machines, colonizing Mars, or downloading their personal brains into computers.
They are searching for freedom in a place it can never be found: outside reality. They are literally trying to escape their own human nature. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We have deep feelings of interdependence, sometimes we call it spirituality. Believe it or not, the rich share our common feelings of separation anxiety, or alienation from each other. They are the ones who invented consumer society, after all –filling the emptiness in your soul with stuff.
It seems likely that the rich and their descendants will be the only human survivors left on planet earth. Ironically, the people most responsible for the current mayhem and destruction, will be the ones left to carry forward our legacy, assuming we have one. It may be that we have to set our aspirations even lower than this. Maybe all we can hope for now is to slow down the freight train of mass extinction to where a few simple organisms can make it through the bottle neck and begin the process of regenerating life on earth. It’s still a worthy fight.
We have to get through to the rich, that even if they succeed with their current plan of leaving us all behind, the game is not over. If they manage to shed themselves of the rest of us, they will not only be poorer for it, they will decrease their overall chances for survival. Our enemy is not the rich any more than it is the poor –it’s the fact that we have rich and poor. Our lack of community (democracy and equality) is tearing us apart, physically, mentally and spiritually. We are now literally locked in mortal combat as we drive ourselves over a cliff. Half measures are no longer possible. Until we fully realize and implement the foundational wisdom of community our course is set for doomsday.
Our message to the rich should be this. You’ve done a great job taking us this far. Thank you very much for your service, but we’ll take it from here. Unfortunately, we’ve spoiled you, and your manipulative behavior and violent tantrums have gotten way out of hand. We are not here to destroy you. So please just relax and let it go. We are here to welcome you back into the warm embrace of your family.
A final quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” This optimistic vision of the future is dependent on our human faith in each other. If we fail now, there will be no one coming to save us.
How do you get from those walking en masse from poverty and repression in Honduras to the US border to the effects of climate change in Bangladesh and back again? What do these two seeming unrelated situations mean for acts of non-violent, civil disobedience? For us?
Well, let’s start with this little observation; “With the rise of sea-level up to one meter only, Bangladesh could lose up to 15% of its land area under the sea water and around 30 million people living in the coastal areas of Bangladesh could become refugees because of climate change impacts.” As recently as last year over 800,000 Rohingya were forcibly expelled from Myanmar into squalid camps along the coast of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. These camps are places they are now going to have to call home for a very long time.
Now turn to Honduras where the US president has used the mid-term elections to vilify the approaching 7,200 person strong caravan as a threat to national security. The idea of the caravan was developed as a direct action response by activists working on migration issues seeking ways to delegitimise the current right oriented government. The organisers are probably overwhelmed at what the caravan has become, possibly even shaking their heads in disbelief. Those walking the 2446 kilometre route are fleeing poverty and violence at home and dreaming of better, safer lives for their families in the US. The response from the US has been a threat to cut international aid to Honduras, as well as reinforcing military units at the US border.
The EU experienced its own wave of irregular migration in 2015 and almost fell apart at the seams trying to stem the flow of one million plus asylum seekers and migrants to its shores. The EU and its constituent countries have tried multiple methods to keep people away, for example by attempting to introduce a quota system to ‘manage the burden’, by doing suspected bilateral deals with Libyan militias to retain migrants in countries leaving them open to risks of abuse, kidnapping, torture and being sold into slavery, and through the much-vaunted but ethically dubious EU Turkey deal, which ships back one Syrian refugee who entered Greece irregularly for one who has legally entered the asylum process in Turkey.
All these people have faced repeated hardship and exposure to violence and abuse at all stages of their journey. They are marching because the range of options facing them at home span from limited opportunities to generate an income to fear, torture and war. If we add the effects of climate change into this toxic mix, we can rest assured that the numbers on the move will only grow. There is already a body of thought directly linking climate change to the migration flows into Europe. Time Magazine quotes the Centre for Climate and Security as saying the “drought (in Syria between 2006 and 2011), in addition to its mismanagement by the Assad regime, contributed to the displacement of two million in Syria. That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe.” Having worked in humanitarian aid, I have seen that agencies are already planning for this contingency and have been doing so for a number of years now. The humanitarian analysis is not alone. The US Defence Department in 2014 labelled climate change a “threat multiplier” saying, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”
The Honduran caravan is a great example of non-violent, civil disobedience in action. Just 7000 people who moved collectively garnered (a) sustained media coverage of their plight (b) a number of governments scrambling to manage and contain public opinion, including the Honduran State, and (c) public sympathy to a greater or lesser extent depending on which country you are sitting in but either way they have polarized the issue in people’s minds. That’s a lot of power granted to very few people, who are often travelling with little more than the shirts on their backs. The caravan is disruptive and testing the ability of opponents to function, this we can clearly see in governmental responses. The large scale migration flow into Greece and Italy severely tested the supranational EU’s ability to function and still does. That said, these movements are very high risk and can fail, in many cases ending lethally for the participants, but activists can draw significant lessons from witnessing how the actions of a few people, who in this case are the so-called dispossessed, can shake the systems of the mighty.
Marches like this can work to shift public opinion on the thorniest of issues if those involved remain committed to the principles of non-violence. Those working to support all refugees and migrants on the move would do well to start building the case for the impact climate change is having on their reasons for leaving home in the first place. They should also seek to build alliances at all stages along their route with the broadest range of actors possible, not just the usual suspects like civil society organisations, legal groups and religious leaders but also municipalities, local business owners and small to medium enterprises, even taxi and truck drivers who often know smuggling routes and the dangers within them better than most. A broad coalition of support can protect activists from harm, motivate others to join and counter negative and alarmist arguments by those who seek to control a situation through division and fear. A broad coalition of support will legitimise civil disobedience. Some have equated the caravan with the spirit of the 1930 salt march in India and though this may be a stretch it is a comparison that is not without merit.
One of the key principles of non-violent direct action is unity. Successful campaigns require the participation of a diversity of political, social and economic and groups and sectors of society, because by definition a movement’s legitimacy and strength lies in its mobilization of large numbers of civilians, this usually requires a coalition of groups and organizations. That is the unity of people. The Hondurans are marching because they also have a unity of purpose that allows them to make sacrifices for goals that are meaningful to their daily lives.
Climate change will push more people to collective actions of civil disobedience in order to provide what they believe is best for themselves and their families. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that in the 6 years between 2008 and 2014, an annual average of at least 22.5 million people were displaced by the direct threat or impact of floods, landslides, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. If the sea levels rise as is being predicted in Bangladesh, the Rohingya, unwanted, stateless and unloved in their former and current homes, have little to lose in getting on the road and marching too. I, for one, hope it does not come to that and that through the actions of Extinction Rebellion, others are marching for them so they may never have to.
”What I stand for is what I stand on” Wendell Berry
Since I last wrote, #ExtinctionRebellion has gone boom! Shared by Mr Monbiot to Mr Sanders who tweeted it to the World – what we do now on 31st Oct Declaration Day and in the subsequent direct actions, really matters. Just like everything we do that has consequence on the future – though we are so far removed in time and place, we barely need to think about that – only this time, how this plays out will be replayed to us on a very short feedback loop, over and over again, and the consequences will be deeply present.
I look out on a cloudless sunset skyscape, where contrails blaze across the darkening blue like dragons, beautiful and dangerous. I have thought a lot about what this rebellion is asking folks to sacrifice. Holiday flights. No big deal, surely. But what about those whose family are in distant lands? Maybe growing old and dying. Are they to deny each other a last chance to clasp hands and hearts? Supermarkets. I think of the empty shops in high streets and lack of community hubs across our towns. I think of the vast over cultivated expanses of tree-barren agricultural land no longer growing food for human consumption. I think of all our concrete gardens. Pharmaceuticals. I get real to the fact that many of my dearest friends’ lives rely on a daily dose of drugs. And those so close to my heart, who have choices about how they live because of Big Pharma. There is so much more. Individual car ownership. Home heating as winter is coming. Pure Water preservation.
Remorse. I swim in an ocean of it.
And still, #ExtinctionRebellion appears utterly necessary to me. It is not that these privileges will disappear from our plate immediately. They are the kinds of policy re-evaluations that will be taken to the People’s Assemblies. Decision-making will be distributed among real people who have to live with them, with a firm commitment to living within the means of the planet . A commitment to assuring there are other than human beings still available to sustain those generations, already born, who will be dealing with the exigencies of life on a planet in deep trauma.
And so, Declaration Day approaches and now has a life of her own. The laughter of gods echoes through the corridors of our plots and plans. Where my focus goes now is nonviolence and de-escalation. I have been arrested for civil disobedience – grabbed from behind and face-planted in the dirt by police protecting a lorry from my oh so slow walk. It is not pleasant. It is not nonviolent.
My mind goes to the nonviolent direct action training Rising Up are rolling out to support volunteers. I took the role of a police person in role play and felt the frustration and irritation grow as the activist in front of me refused to move, in the face of all my cajoling and persuasion and even my rising ire. The one next to me cried, and still did not move. It was hard to keep calm and rational. I listened to the sharing of experiences of my affinity group – how they stayed grounded and calm and held their positions – deep breathing; rooting to the Earth; flowing like water; repetitive statements; songs.
Ah, songs. I am resonant to the power of songs – the way these magically manipulative mouths of ours have been gifted capacity to carefully shape sacred sound into words layered with meaning and history. This is a tactic I used to great effect when I spent 24 hours in a holding cell after the slow walk arrest. Cells have incredible acoustics and I would sing for an hour – not always songs, sometimes tones or mantras, til the vibrations were bouncing round the tiny plastic room. Then, in the silence after the sound, when every cell in my body was resetting itself to the highest vibrations resonating around me, I would lay down and sleep – for hours. Deep, nourishing , restorative sleep. When I woke, I began the whole process again, until hours later, I was released, calm and wide awake, to the welcoming arms of the wellbeing team who met us with food and tobacco and music to shake to.
Song. What a powerful tool in the armoury of nonviolence. We will have songs on Declaration Day. Songs to bind us together in nonviolence and connectedness. Songs to raise our energies and songs to help us calm each other. Songs to voice out loud our commitment to make a stand for where we stand.
So, bring your singing voices, rebellioneers. Leave behind the system tools of anger and aggression. However many come, we are a small minority of people who will sing our way back to a world that works for all life on Earth.