Sharp arguments have emerged after a group of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists tried to shut down the Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway (DLR) early on Thursday morning.
They were met by a violent reaction from some passengers at Canning Town with a protester pulled from the top of a train and badly beaten. Another was chased and removed from a train.
There are some very bad arguments being used against the stunt. One is that it was disruptive. But protests are often disruptive—does anyone think that the protests in Hong Kong or Ecuador or Catalonia recently weren’t?
Another is that it upset ordinary people. But so do tube strikes—and sometimes commuters are angry and could be violent. But it wouldn’t be justified to beat a trade union member on strike.
And the general context matters. Climate change means collapsing civilisation, societal breakdown, war, poverty, species extinction and catastrophe for every human being.
That’s more of a threat than an XR protest.
Protesters who were verbally and physically abused while undertaking direct action deserve solidarity and support.
Ruth Jarman glued herself to a DLR train at Shadwell station, and said she was only undertaking the action because “we are not being heard”.
“We are sorry for disrupting the lives of ordinary people—we are desperate and don’t know what else to do,” she said.
Julie from XR in York saw the action as “disrupting business as usual and that is what XR is all about.”
“We’re always going to cause disruption—that’s the whole point of the actions,” she told Socialist Worker.
It’s wrong for some of the left now to seize on this incident to parrot right wing criticism of XR.
But the action has deeply divided a movement that only days earlier pulled tens of thousands of people together to shut down Oxford Street.
Many rebels have raised concerns about the action via email and a poll on messaging app Telegram.
Some 72 percent of almost 4,000 rebels said they were against the action. And Wednesday’s people’s assembly in Trafalgar Square voted against disrupting the Tube.
One London rebel, who wished to remain anonymous, contacted Socialist Worker to talk about the “thoughtless and poorly conceived” action.
“It was so clearly opposed by such an overwhelming majority that it’s hard not to suspect that there is some sort of central group of rebels who have developed an elitist mentality, and who are disregarding other rebels.”
“It’s a structural problem with XR,” he said.
“It’s explained at inductions that actions that don’t have support don’t happen, because people listen to others. It’s hard not to see it as bloody-minded when people within our structure decide to go ahead anyway,” he said.
XR is at its strongest when it takes mass action—like when over 1,000 people congregated in Trafalgar Square on Wednesday in defiance of the police ban on protests.
The tube action is another illustration of the lengths that activists are willing to go to “sound the alarm” about the climate emergency.
But, for a movement to win, it will need to involve increasing numbers of ordinary people, and in particular workers.
And it will need to turn its fire at the polluters at the top of society, who depend on the system that’s polluting our world and hurtling us toward disaster.
Targets matter—and disrupting the rich and powerful is best. Instead of targeting tube lines, next time XR could target private jets or luxury car dealerships.
That would prevent the appearance of targeting public transport.
It is through mass action that consciously tries to win over working class people and disrupts the system that we can win.