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Rebelling against the system

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As Extinction Rebellion takes to the streets of London, Manchester and Cardiff, Sarah Bates looks at the movement demanding urgent action on climate change
Issue 2721
Capitalism is the best that will consume us all
‘Capitalism is the beast that will consume us all’ (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Clowns dancing through London, over 200 cyclists arrested for blocking Lambeth Bridge and ­animal rights activists ­locking themselves to a truck. 

It’s hugely refreshing to see people on the streets fighting for urgent climate action. The numbers involved exceeded most people’s expectations of what would be possible.

This is rebellion—but not quite as we have known it before. Gone were the tents filling the streets of central London, kitchens dishing out hot food for rebels and there were no pink ­speedboats or giant octopuses in sight.

Thousands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) members flocked to London, Cardiff and Manchester last week to begin the latest phase of their mission to tackle the climate emergency. 

The mobilisations were much smaller than the rebellions that gripped London last April and October, which drew in tens of thousands of people at their height. 

Barbara had travelled from Somerset to be part of the week’s actions and said she’d been an activist since ­growing up in apartheid South Africa. She told Socialist Worker that this ­rebellion felt different, partly because there were fewer numbers on the streets. 

“Obviously there’s a pandemic about and people are nervous, some feel it’s more socially responsible to stay at home,” she said. 

“It’s still amazing—full of energy and we’re still inventive.”

Extinction Rebellion continue to fight for the climate
Extinction Rebellion continue to fight for the climate
  Read More

Instead of being spread throughout camps in central London, most activity was centred around Parliament Square, with smaller groups organising lock-ons, marches and rallies. 

“There’s a fantastic energy because people have turned up here in a pandemic,” said. Diana. “It includes lots of elderly people who feel strongly enough that they should be here because of the ­climate emergency we’re in.” 

She said watching older people get arrested “brought tears to my eyes—that they have to go through this”.

Arrests are at the heart of XR’s ­non‑violent direct action strategy. Filling jail cells, and therefore creating headlines, is part of what has grabbed attention.

But XR does not celebrate arrests in the same way it might have done previously.

Its press release last week said, ­“Following the racist arrest of a young black bystander in Parliament Square, repeated arrests without warning in Parliament Square, threats of conspiracy charges made against two men pushing a boat named ‘Lightship GRETA’, Extinction ­Rebellion has put the ­Metropolitan Police on notice.

“We condemn as grossly excessive the Met’s ­communications, their policy and their policing.”

And later the same day XR said, “A bridge party began after Critical Mass cyclists locked on to each other and their bikes, and now rebels are being arrested left and right. 

“Rebels were not given warnings and were not given the opportunity to leave.”


The state has shown it can step up its repression of XR when it deems it necessary. But XR has also won the right to be in Parliament Square, an area that is normally highly restricted for protesters.

XR has pushed the ­ecological ­emergency up the agenda and built on the anger and despair unleashed by ­inaction over climate change. 

In a matter of just a few weeks during 2018, XR went from being an organisation with a handful of members to ­drawing thousands of people into action.

In November, just two weeks after its launch event, thousands of people occupied five bridges in London. They shut them down for the day and caused huge disruption to the capital. 

Diana, who’s been involved in XR for around two years, said that in that time the direct action group has become “bigger, more sensible and more inclusive”. “I have friends in Africa whose harvests have been affected this year,” she said. 

“They’ve made 10 ­percent of what they expected and that’s because of the ­changeable rains.

“There are people affected right now and we need to hear their voices, and the ­movement has got better at including them. We can always do more, but we are ­hearing more about who is ­suffering now”.

“XR has become bigger more sensible and inclusive. There are people affected right now and we need to hear their voices, and the ­movement has got better at including them. We can always do more, but we are ­hearing more about who is ­suffering now”.

Protester Diana 

The Black Lives Matter movement was a key ­turning point for XR. 

In response to a ­growing movement against police brutality, the group apologised for its friendly stance on the police and said it would work harder to include black activists.

It was certainly a big mistake to pretend that the police could be allies of any radical movement. 

Sarah said anti-racism was often discussed in ­activist circles in the “language of privilege and of fragility” that she finds “quite Americanised and quite jargony. But I do I think XR want to take up questions of anti-racism—there’s a real desire to do that,” she said. 

This rebellion was clearly focused on parliament, and its failure to treat the threat of climate change like the ­emergency it is.


In particular, XR has thrown its ­support behind the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas last week. 

Rhiannon was at the London ­rebellion for the day and made a homemade placard blasting Boris Johnson for the occasion. She told Socialist Worker that she was hoping to get sympathetic MPs on board because Johnson was “in ­dereliction of his duty to the people of the country”. 

She added, “I have very little belief that Johnson is interested in my opinion. I come out here and do this sort of thing to make sure they don’t change who I am, and what I believe in, as much as changing who they are, and what they believe in.”

XR has always been strongest when it’s at its biggest.

Tens of thousands of people join big Extinction Rebellion march
Tens of thousands of people join big Extinction Rebellion march
  Read More

In October last year, it was hugely powerful when 30,000 people marched through central London on a “grief march”. And then when 2,000 people filled Trafalgar Square to defy the cops’ heavy handed protest restrictions, it showed the strength and confidence of the movement. 

What helps power this is its ability to consistently draw in new people. Even during the latest phase of action, even during a pandemic, new activists such as Saija were filling the streets. 

She told Socialist Worker it was “exhilarating” to be on her first protest.

Saija said a major draw for her was the peaceful nature of the organisation, explaining, “There’s no aggression—we’re just sitting here spreading our message.”

But nobody can ignore that the ­coronavirus crisis has confirmed that capitalism is a death-dealing system that ­sidelines the interests of the vast majority.

It’s a system of racism, recurrent ­pandemics, war—and climate chaos. 

That’s why it was wrong for one XR tweet to distance the organisation from a banner saying “Socialism or extinction”.  

“Just to be clear we are not a socialist movement,” it said. Why not condemn capitalism instead?

For all the wrangling within the ­organisation, which saw a split by founder Roger Hallam, XR is uniquely placed to push forward the climate emergency. 

This sense of radical, urgent action, is what helps keep XR relevant, and keeps new people filling their ranks. 

And Sarah, who had been part of the action in Manchester said XR was important because it was able to “mobilise young people motivated by climate injustices. It has this ability to bring all kinds of different people together,” she said. 

Being part of the rebellion—whether directing workshops from the treetops or making speeches outside the Treasury—solidifies rebels’ desire to do more. 

It’s a mobilisation to celebrate and be part of. For Ida, being part of the action “feels powerful, it feels like we’re part of a big movement and we can change things”. 

Business as usual is fatal
Business as usual is fatal (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Parliament won’t match urgency we need to tackle climate chaos

Key events in London during the Rebellion have focused on the action—or rather inaction—of the British parliament. 

Many climate activists are hoping that a proposed new law, introduced by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, will push parliament into action. 

But after its formal introduction last week the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill won’t even be debated in parliament for its second reading until 12 March.

It’s obvious that actions can’t be on hold depending on the parliamentary timetable.

Last Tuesday, when Lucas tabled the new law, rebels glued themselves to the entrances of parliament and called on MPs to back the bill. 

Climate emergency declared - now it’s time for action
Climate emergency declared – now it’s time for action
  Read More

Lucas argues the bill “strengthens existing legislation, patches the holes in the current law and provides a response at the scale and speed that the science demands.”

But, as a Private Members’ Bill not government legislation, it doesn’t have as much time to be debated and passed. 

And in the end whether it goes through would depend on the attitude of Tory MPs.

As the official parliamentary website puts it, “Very few Private Members’ Bills become law”.

Their main purpose is to draw attention to an issue, something that XR’s direct action and the school climate strikes have done far more powerfully than any bill.

Even if passed, laws are often toothless. The 2008 Climate Change Act commits the British government to reducing carbon levels so they are at least 80 percent less than 1990 levels. 


The 2008 Act didn’t go far enough—it ignored emissions from shipping and aviation.

To achieve the 80 percent cut, the government focused heavily on carbon “budgets” and carbon trading. 

Carbon budgets allow rich governments the opportunity to buy their ability to pollute more than poorer countries. 

And carbon trading means that pollution guzzling countries can claim to offset their emissions by installing natural carbon sinks, such as forests, in other countries. 

Despite the 2008 Act—and the 2015 Paris Agreements—emissions continue to rise and the government keeps pushing forward with climate-wrecking policies. 

Fracking was abandoned by firms last year due to a mixture of public pressure and poor harvesting of gas. It wasn’t because of the legal obligation of the government to limit emissions.

It will take more than climate laws to make governments act in the interests of the planet and people, rather than in their self‑interest and profit. 

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