Despair in Trafalgar Square
Like the Flower Power movement of the late 1960s, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) approach to rejecting the system is idealistic, and despite its inter generational, cross-party line image, none of the fan fair could wrestle the protests (when in comparison to the Hong Kong protesters/ Gilet Jaunes) from being what it will ultimately be remembered as- a wet dud.
After the fifth day of protesting, I can remember quite clearly the heavens crashing down upon our temporary Trafalgar tent village. It’s as if the rain was working seamlessly with the Met to encircle us in a moat of bureaucratic muscle. A painfully honest metaphor to what the live- in demonstrations in central London eventually became- a poorly planned movement which continues to use a pacifist approach to combat a political system so entrenched in corruption its seams are leaking BP sludge.
“But it’s ok, we did our best didn’t we?”
So I’m told by an XR rep, whose gleaming, overconfident smile made me believe in what he was saying for a fraction of a second. Till I surmised that it mostly just angered Londoners and created an even greater gulf between the eco- conscious middle classes and workers who, day by day, desperately scramble for funds. I cite the Canning Town incident as the key example. When a quick thinking rebel climbed on the tube at rush hour to hark the coming climate catastrophe, it became clear that this was to be a costly faux pas and an error which weakened public support- a factor imperative to the continuation of the movement.
Seeing as Canning Town is indeed one of the poorest areas in the city, and which has been hit by Tory austerity hard, it would be wise for XR to rethink their stratagem. If they don’t then there will be plenty more protesters ripped from the train a-la ‘Joker’ style.
However, there is method in their madness. Freak demos displaying our need to act immediately can be a sure-fire way of raising awareness fast. Yet at the same time it’s a lottery and in our Neo-conservative times the drive for survival trumps all else, even if we are conscious of our destruction.
XR is riding a wave of hope currently and this will eventually reach its crest if they aren’t pragmatic with their upcoming protests. The risk of splitting public opinion even further is not worth taking; for the longevity of the organisation and for the survival of our planet.
Nonetheless they have done an incredible job thus far and have quickly become the most influential environmental movement of the 21st century. Their convictions are exemplary and have inspired millions around the world to think about the earth in a more conscious manner. However, their actions are ill thought out, some would even say lacking backbone. As a legitimate opposition to fossil fuel companies it falls horribly short and fails to live up to its name. Simply put, a rebellion means “the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention”. Some definitions go further and define it as “an act of armed resistance to an established government or leader”. Either way they are doing neither effectively, which is especially frustrating in the narrow time frame we find ourselves in. A rebellion should involve illegal actions, not deals made with the state (as I found out whilst there that the occupation of London, like the protests in Edinburgh, was already coordinated with the police). It’s more similar to a hot dog vendor negotiating with the New York City council to set up shop in Times Square than a revolution capable of, essentially, stopping capitalism in its tracks.
In short, XR needs to be much, much more rebellious and say goodbye to their tried and tested methods. Of which include; silent vigils, spoken word poetry and art installations- “which challenge our perceptions about the relationship between humans and the ecosystem.”
It’s almost as if we, collectively as humans, have seen enough. Perhaps we are lethargic from decades of supporting the disadvantaged at fun runs. We’ve run out of f**s to give and have been lulled to sleep by a devious and materialistic culture which cites ‘PROGRESS: CONSTANTLY, ALWAYS’, as its hallmark slogan. The impetus to put our freedoms on the line has dwindled, to the point where we watch in horror as our personal liberties, privacy, clean air and land are raped by the rampaging force of free market capitalism. Essentially, we have developed a cosy ideological cocoon in which to hide. A self-righteous, self-protectionist shield which puts the blame on the pawns, leaving the kings and queens unscathed.
The movement’s convictions aren’t the problem, rather, a self-perpetuating, uniquely 21st century dogma somewhere along the lines of “someone will fix this, it’s not my fault.” And though I sympathise with activists in the movement, it’s also true that the majority of the people turning up to protests are not the traditional working class. For it’s not economically feasible for the average worker to participate in the protests, even if they do support XR. Which is exactly why XR needs to invigorate, not demonise those who aren’t ‘woke’ enough to show up to a virtue-signalling mob.
If they continue this act of self-sabotage then we will be left with a naïve branch of progressives to rally against a government systemically designed to prevent community action. We need unity, not division in these late phases of capitalism.
Which is exactly what the Gilets Jaunes did exceedingly well, and regardless of your own personal opinions on them there is no denying they have been highly efficient. By utilising people power across France they were able to force the French government to its knees and create a dialogue with Emmanuel Macron. Although XR is a non- violent organisation it should be looking outwards for inspiration, and not stagnate like the Flower Power movement of the 60s. Unfortunately, governments don’t cower in fear in the midst of compassion workshops and grown men jumping on pogo sticks.
So when talking to one of the police officers, on day one, outside Downing Street, it soon came apparent that this protest was like most others, perhaps even easier to control.
“This year alone I have enforced or been involved policing more than 100 protests.”
I could see in his eyes that this was going to be a simple siege operation and compared to the dangerous work the London Met carries out, this was to be a labour of love.
From my perspective right in the middle of the throbbing mass it was plain to see we were trapped and that it was going to be very easy for police to dismantle the protests. Whilst the arrestees sung chain gang songs, the weather continued to play its role as the operatic soundtrack, thunder crackling as the police horses slowly moved forward. The Met had learnt from their previous cock-up in April and begun sweeping away the many gazebos and costumed vigilantes blocking the road, with consummate ease. Come day two, all camp sites from St James’ to St Paul’s had been forcibly removed under Section 4, leaving only a few straggling rebels to man the defensive wall.
By day three everyone had been funnelled into Trafalgar Square and with police vans blocking entry for food donated by the amazing volunteers, it seemed that the fire was beginning to fizzle out. Now with extra back up from police forces from as far as Norfolk, protesters only outnumbered the met 2:1, perhaps even 1.5:1, such was their size.
Lying in my plagued tent I wondered if I would ever get any proper sleep. The combination of drum circles, concrete pillows and possible police raids made sleep a rare and precious commodity. Since being in London I had been extremely ill and this feeling of disgust was only compounded by the negligence of XR to come up with any sort of tactics to withstand the Met’s onslaught.
So for the first few days I felt utterly hopeless, accepting that we had well and truly left it too late. By day four I had begun to see the opportunistic light and so figured I may as well apply for a drilling apprenticeship at Shell, buy some raw palm oil and throw some plastic into the sea, for old times’ sake. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Even an illustrious group of guests on the main stage from all corners of the political spectrum (including Stanley Johnson and George Monbiot) couldn’t stop the inevitable, yet surprisingly quick demise. The battle was lost.
Albeit, the victory is in the struggle, and if XR can make some key structural changes, then there is still a faint chance of governments adhering to XR’s demands. Leaders of XR must bite the bullet and understand that protests must simultaneously strike as one, across the globe, for this to truly work. Only a minimum three month push can put the necessary pressure on multinational entities to become carbon neutral. Governments are a different question and they will retaliate with increased police powers and even military force, but this is a risk which must be taken if we are to stand any chance of reversing the devastating effects of climate change.
A sustained protest would force the government to start a dialogue. Because as it stands, Boris and his Etonian yes men will continue to brush asides any criticism to his environmental commitments with impudent glee. Along with a compliant media intent on keeping big oil’s agenda paramount, the only real choice we have for survival is to strike back, with force.