In the last week, two widely-shared images have summed up deep-rooted problems at the heart of the Extinction Rebellion movement. One, a white man wearing a suit jacket being pulled off the top of a Tube train by people needing to get to work. In Canning Town, a mostly working class area of London that has been hit by years of austerity.
The other, a card and a bunch of flowers sent to police officers by an XR arrestee, thanking them for their ‘professionalism’. Brixton police station, where black men have died in custody.
These scenes have shown nothing new—XR has long been criticised for failing to connect with marginalised communities. But they have shown how urgently XR needs to openly address these issues.
A core message of XR has been ‘we are all in this together’. That climate catastrophe is coming for everyone, whatever class, race or creed, we can all be united by a common cause in the face of a shared threat.
– People in the Global South are already experiencing floods, drought, famine and unbearable heat that won’t affect the North in same way.
– They have been robbed of the resources to be resilient to climate change by the economic system that benefits the richest 1%.
– People living in poverty, in both the Global South and North, due to structural injustice (often people of colour and disabled people) are and will be adversely affected in ways the rich are protected from.
– Migration caused by impacts of climate and ecological emergency is met by hostile border policies that leave people to drown and keeps them in indefinite detention.
Yes, the crisis will come for everyone. But there are massively unjust ways this is damaging some people more than others. And when we erase that, when we ignore the voices of those on the frontlines and who have the most at stake, when we focus only on ‘our children’ and not the people who are dying now, we risk leaving space for eco-fascism. By refusing to name the causes of both the climate crisis and other social injustices–colonialism and capitalism—XR will continue to alienate the people who are already living at the sharp end of the system that is ultimately killing us all.
In the run-up to the October International Rebellion, members of XR Scotland chose to highlight these issues, and to respond to the concerns of women of colour in our group being dismissed by key figures in XR UK, by creating banners reading ‘DECOLONISE XR’ and ‘CLIMATE STRUGGLE = CLASS STRUGGLE’. Many people, and other groups in XR such as Extinction Rebellion Youth, Global Justice Rebellion and XR Internationalist Solidarity Network, applauded these banners. Others in XR UK questioned this ‘messaging’.
At last week’s roadblock action targeted at the Government Oil and Gas conference, protestors from groups other than XR Scotland began singing the chant ‘police, we love you, we’re doing this for your children too’.
A woman who was with the XR protest started to shout: ‘Say that to Stephen Lawrence and Mark Duggan’s family; say you love the police to the people of Tottenham. Say that to my friends whose lives are ruined by this system. Listen, if the people on that road were all people of colour they would be getting charged at with riot gear. My black and brown friends get stopped and searched EVERY DAY’. Other XR members told her off for raising her voice and talking about something that was ‘unrelated’.
While some Scottish rebels went around asking people individually not to sing that chant, another XRS rebel—a young woman of colour—took the megaphone to ask ‘please don’t sing that—it’s really alienating to people from marginalised communities’. A middle-aged white woman then took the megaphone away from her, to say that she does love the police, that she is doing this for their children, and her own children. A woman of colour’s critique was very literally silenced by the concerns of the white woman.
Narrating this incident is not to individually blame that white woman—her actions were a symptom of something systemic in both XR and wider society. But what it reminds the white, middle-class people that dominate our movement is to stop taking the megaphone. To be quiet, and listen.
After listening, what comes next is more difficult. How can XR use its resources in genuine solidarity? How do we shift from being an overwhelmingly white and middle-class movement to centring those who have been excluded? And without tokenism, or requiring disabled, working class and people of colour to do the work that those with more privilege should have done long ago? But taking the time to listen, absorb, and reflect, is the essential first step.
Recommended recent critiques of XR:
– Athian Akec, ‘When I look at Extinction Rebellion, all I see is white faces. That has to change’ https://www.huckmag.com/…/you-cant-have-true-climate-justi…/
– Minnie Rahman, ‘You can’t have climate justice without migrant justice’ https://www.theguardian.com/…/extinction-rebellion-white-fa…
– James Poulter ‘Extinction Rebellion’s Tube Protest Isn’t the Last of Its Problems’ (including interview with XR Scotland’s Mikaela Loach) https://www.vice.com/…/extinction-rebellion-tube-disruption…
– May Fraser, ‘The Police Line’, https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2019/10/16/the-police-line/
– Kevin Blowe, ‘It’s Not Just a Bunch of Flowers’ https://medium.com/…/it-is-not-just-a-bunch-of-flowers-bc50…
– Hannah Dines, ‘The climate revolution must be accessible – this fight belongs to disabled people too’ https://www.theguardian.com/…/climate-revolution-disabled-p…
– Kuba Shand-Baptiste, ‘Extinction Rebellion’s hapless stance on class and race is a depressing block to its climate goal’ https://www.independent.co.uk/…/extinction-rebellion-climat…
– Bae Sharam ‘What are you doing to dismantle your middle class white privilege when participating in XR protests? https://medium.com/…/what-are-you-doing-to-dismantle-your-m…
– Karen Bell, ‘A working-class green movement is out there but not getting the credit it deserves’ https://www.theguardian.com/…/a-working-class-green-movemen…
– Sharlene Gandhi, ‘Extinction Rebellion need to focus on the fact that climate displacement will largely impact communities of colour’ http://gal-dem.com/extinction-rebellion-need-to-focus-on-t…/
– Aranyo Aarjan, ‘It’s time to add global justice to XR’s demands’ https://www.redpepper.org.uk/xr-global-justice/
– Damien Gayle, ‘Does Extinction Rebellion Have a Race Problem?’ https://www.theguardian.com/…/extinction-rebellion-race-cli…
– Wretched of the Earth Collective, ‘Our House Has Been on Fire for Over 500 Years’ https://worldat1c.org/our-house-has-been-on-fire-for-over-5…
This text first appeared at XR Scotland FB page
Photos: XR Scotland