by Craig Wilson

This year’s War of Words – The Progressive Media Conference welcomed a panel of four activists to discuss direct action and concerns surrounding the current activist scene. While noting that the Extinction Rebellion (XR) is in some way appreciated, one major theme of the discussion was that XR is failing to take along vulnerable and minority groups. There’s a feeling that the movement is too white and middle-class, and is unsettlingly weak on climate injustice messaging. As someone on the radical left but also actively on board with XR locally, I wanted to write this piece to largely reaffirm those criticisms, but from an insider’s viewpoint. Far from being single-minded and unreflexive, discussions within the group show that XR is very much seeking to learn and grow.

Although Extinction Rebellion has been grabbing headlines, it’s still relatively fresh and many people aren’t familiar with it. So, for a briefest of brief introductions, the demands of XR in the UK are for our governing institutions to tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and to create Citizens’ Assemblies to guide changes needed to restore justice. Non-violent direct action is a large part of the strategy. One way to learn about the movement and its rationale is to watch Gail Bradbrook’s presentation. Also, not long ago the Norwich Radical featured reflections from local member Tina on her reasons for taking part.

An apology

On February 11th, XR’s occupation of the Norfolk County Council budget meeting took away an opportunity for people to speak against decisions that are deeply harmful for people with disabilities and their families. Our members are very sorry that the action had this effect and also created an uncomfortable atmosphere. A letter of apology was sent to Equal Lives. Aspects of the Council budget day action clearly went against XR values and the aim for a society that is compassionate and inclusive. I believe XR members should foster solidarity across other, and towards and within its own movement.

Against this action, councillors have said it’s wrong that others present were not getting a fair hearing. However, there has long been a complete lack of engagement from the majority of councillors in the face of repeated efforts raise the issue through all conventional means. The proposed amendments to save vital services on which many families depend were voted down by 47 Tory votes against 27. Meanwhile, consultancy and planning for a new road, which we hope will never be built, has continued to receive further funding.

Emphasising the lesser issue of local impacts

Fundamentally, the XR movement doesn’t focus on how climate change impacts rich white people. Messaging has been to rebel for life, against the extinction of humans and wildlife. The demands mean building an effective response to ecological destruction not on the backs of the poor. But, true, in some media coverage of local actions XR members have tended to speak about impacts such as flooding in Norfolk, or said in some words that a government’s primary duty is to protect its citizens. Whether or not that is meant as a strategic attempt to speak to rich people, it can be rather uncomfortable. That’s their choice to say but, even as a strategy, some members (myself included) would have responded with vehement and authentic support for the global justice narrative, to challenge the perceived common thinking.

Too white and middle-class

It may be that local XR groups don’t appear welcoming to a variety of groups, but we’d really like to address this. The meetings I go to have been small, often with new faces, and the way the group works is that anybody can come in with ideas and find support. We change the person leading each meeting, so that nobody should become a leader. We’d love it for new people to come along with their friends and have a lot of input into how things take shape. If that’s not so comfortable to do (for any number of reasons), it’d also be great to see new groups start up, which can be as separate or link up with other local groups as you like. The movement belongs to everybody who wishes to show support and embody the core values, and we recognise that XR has yet to establish clear guidance on dealing with potentially toxic or unwanted attitudes. I will personally seek to engage the national movement on this point through our East Anglia coordinators.

People struggling with financial hardship, or exhausted from the demands of their job are likely to find it harder to join some of the actions. I’d hoped to go to London from April 15th for the two-week International Rebellion, but just can’t afford to. From the right, we sometimes hear a contention that environmental movements are a middle class preoccupation, as a sly dismissal of urgent issues, which actually are the concerns of many marginalised groups who recognise from experience how backwards and exploitative the dominant social structures often are. Friends on the left make different arguments, such as that a transformation has to centre around the working class. The latter may be true, but right now XR is here, and we welcome your input, and any other critique you might have, for making the movement more effective and inclusive.

While you’re here, please check out our petition for the University of East Anglia to lead by example in responding to the emergency! Many of the members of the staff who’ve read it have also endorsed it. Local people and any other interested parties are all welcome to sign here.

All images via XR

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