Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2651

Extinction Rebellion has shifted politics on the climate

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
A new movement to demand action over climate change has changed British politics, argues Sarah Bates
Issue 2651
Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge in London last week
Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge in London last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Direct Action called by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) ­organisation has mobilised tens of thousands of people to demand climate justice.

The devastating impact of climate chaos has been highlighted by an “International Rebellion” ­coordinated by XR.

Last week saw climate chaos shoot to the top of the news agenda—extensive coverage has featured in every mainstream newspaper and TV broadcast. It’s being discussed in workplaces, universities, in ­supermarkets and on buses.

In central London activists occupied Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square and Waterloo Bridge from last Monday morning.

Each occupation was held by a dedicated group of activists, but many more people dropped in during the day or volunteered for night shifts.

Activist Lora signed up a month ago to help with admin, but soon found herself on an overnight shift in Marble Arch.

“It’s really uplifting to be here” she told Socialist Worker. “I was part of the wellbeing team until 1.30am handing out tea and snacks to people. I’ve never done anything like this before.

“I was nervous before I got here because it was out of my comfort zone. But as soon as I arrived I felt better, the atmosphere is great” she said.

Alongside existing XR supporters the week of action has brought together students, experienced environmental activists and those in the wider labour movement.

A trade union delegation organised by Campaign against Climate Change visited the Marble Arch and Oxford Circus occupations on Friday.

Campaign chair Suzanne Jeffery celebrated the “resilience and organisation” of rebels and said it was “hugely inspiring to see the movement make such an impact”.

“Climate change is a class issue,” she added. “The poorest in society will benefit most from action on ­climate change.”


XR reported that over 50,000 people have signed up to the civil disobedience group since the protests began.

All of XR’s demands are directed squarely at the Tory government.

This is a strength for the ­movement, as activists only have to agree with three central points to join in. This broad basis for supporting XR, alongside imaginative stunts, has stirred thousands into action.

To occupy Oxford Circus, one of London’s most iconic streets, is no small feat.

To hold the space for six days with a pink speedboat emblazoned with ‘tell the truth’ is quite something

But to hold the space for six days with a pink speedboat emblazoned with “tell the truth” is quite something. Fourteen year old Nissma was ­leafleting in central London when she told Socialist Worker, “This isn’t just about one person stopping using a car—we have to make it as large as possible.”

XR has a big challenge—how to ­translate the energy of the rebellion into something more long-term.

The organisation says it will keep occupying until the government agrees to negotiations.

The movement for the climate has to get bigger—and more diverse. It has to link the questions of ecological justice with concrete battles for green jobs, insulated homes and resources to deal with extreme weather.

Climate change is set to get worse, and quickly. It will begin to impact on ordinary people in Britain—more often and in an increasingly extreme way.

This means a climate change ­movement will have to continue to build and to fight against a capitalist system that threatens our planet.

State can’t be trusted to take the action needed

Much of the focus has been on the relationship between protesters and the police.

Cops seemed harmless at times during the XR protests

Cops seemed harmless at times during the XR protests (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Home secretary Sajid Javid saw a way of bolstering his claim to be one of the front runners in a Tory leadership election. He urged cops to use “full force of the law” against occupiers.

Other politicians were keen to call on the police to intervene, including former Labour home secretary David Blunkett and London mayor Sadiq Khan.

For the first three days of protests cops maintained a relatively hands-off presence to the occupations.

In dramatic scenes last Wednesday night, hundreds of cops flooded into Parliament Square and dismantled two of the four roadblocks of tents and banners that helped keep traffic off the road.

But activists called in reinforcements and by last Thursday morning had replenished the roadblocks.

XR has been very keen to portray the police as, at best, neutral.

This can appear plausible when cops have orders to be gentle with protesters. But the friendly veneer slipped once the Met decided it wanted protestors to clear out.

Last Friday afternoon Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge began to be emptied. The police became more heavy-handed.

Footage shared on social media saw cops drag people across the street. Another video showed cops push a black woman to the ground.

Tamara came to Oxford Circus after hearing about XR’s occupation. “It’s bad the police are arresting people” she said.

“If the government wants to stop it they know what to do—they’re not looking at the bigger picture.”

Edinburgh action against the climate catastrophe

In Edinburgh two days of action last week saw activists organise a festival.

On the following day around 700 people blocked North Bridge for five hours, bringing large parts of the city to a standstill.

Maggie Kelly is a member of XR in Scotland.

She told Socialist Worker, “We wanted to raise awareness of XR’s demands without fear of arrest.

“We had lots of difference spaces, training and talks on what climate change solutions might be.”

“There was a discussion about disrupting members of the general public,” said Maggie.

“But the issue is, for 30 years or more, they’ve been trying to press for change through normal channels and it’s not working.

“We feel there’s not enough debate, information and educative process in place to provide some sort of counterweight too current political debate.”

She added, “We need to keep up the pressure. We’re not going away, and this isn’t the end of it”.

An international movement

London has been the centre of activity in Britain, but there has been a global response to the call-out from XR.

The group reported actions in around 80 other countries.

In Oslo, Norway, activists dropped a banner declaring “the generation who will shut down Norwegian oil production have been born—it’s us”.

At The Hague, in the Netherlands, XR supporters occupied the International Criminal Court with a banner calling for action against “ecocide”.

In New Zealand activists held a dawn vigil on a beach. In Denmark, blood was poured over the steps of the parliament.

Kampala, Uganda, saw XR activists hold a school on organic agriculture alongside a choir show.

In New York some 62 people were arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge with a die-in, while two activists climbed lampposts to drop a banner demanding “declare climate emergency”.

XR Ireland reports that around 2,000 attended the “day of rebellion” in the capital, Dublin.

A “funeral for the future” march was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, finishing with a sit?down outside the parliament building.

Arrests as a political tactic?

As Socialist Worker went to press 1,065 people had been arrested as part of the International Rebellion—with 53 of these charged.

Activists’ willingness to be arrested means the act becomes a celebration, rather than something to be fought. When people are grabbed by cops, they are carried through cheering crowds.

One of many arrests made in London during the XR protests

One of many arrests made in London during the XR protests (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Three activists who glued themselves to a train last Wednesday have been denied bail and are set to remain in custody until 18 May.

Others have received bail conditions banning them from parts of central London.

Socialist Worker supporter Simon Assaf was one of those arrested last week.

“Cops made it clear they were trying to intimidate people,” he said. “The police just started picking on people.”

Some of the right wing media like to pretend that XR is made up of middle class activists.

But the movement is mixed—which presents challenges for the state.

For instance, Farhana Yamin—a lawyer who helped negotiate the Paris talks—was arrested outside Shell headquarters last Tuesday. And the streets have been filled with older people too.

Much of the mainstream media have been forced to report on the rebellion seriously partly because of the breadth of the movement.

But that must not be allowed to blunt its radicalism or deflect from blaming the rich and the corporations.

What are Extinction Rebellion demands?

  • Tell the truth – The government must tell the truth by declaring a climate emergency and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change
  • Act now – The government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Beyond politics – The government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance