By John Sinha and Simon Assaf
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From direct action to mass civil disobedience

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
The Extinction Rebellion actions over Easter were a remarkable success. Climate activist John Sinha places the tactics of the movement in historical context and XR member Simon Assaf reports from inside the protests.
Issue 446

With its colourful and creative protests and the political background of its founders, Extinction Rebellion (XR) would appear to have a lot in common with previous movements such as Occupy, the Climate Camp and other direct action protest movements.

Certainly the organisers have learned a lot from what went before, but to leave it at that would be to overlook major differences in organisation, objectives, strategy and tactics.

Firstly, climate change is not the only issue which concerns the movement. Capitalism is presiding over the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth. XR is the first movement to address this, hence the name.

Previous movements have prioritised direct action, targeting the source of emissions head on, such as the many Climate Camps that camped outside power stations and airport runways. Others were directly oppositional in nature, such as protests at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen and Paris. Extinction Rebellion’s key tactical innovation is the organisation of mass civil disobedience.

So, what is the big difference between civil disobedience and direct action? Civil disobedience movements accept — at least nominally — that the state is a legitimate actor. XR’s key text, the Declaration of Rebellion, states that the social contract between state and citizen has been broken by the state’s inaction on climate change. There are not many anarchists or autonomists who could sign up to such a declaration, since they do not accept the legitimacy of the state to begin with. And since such an approach would never have been acceptable to a significant section of previous movements, they have eschewed it in the past.

In this respect XR has more in common with historic social movements such as the Chartists in 19th century England (who produced their own set of demands with a petition), the Civil Rights movement in the US and the early anti-nuclear movement in Britain in the form of the Committees of 100, which grew out of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1960s. In particular, it was the key tactic of mass arrests and the brutal response of the police in places like Alabama that enabled the Civil Rights movement in the US to foment a political crisis. Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR, has closely studied the tactics of this movement.

In taking this approach XR activists are breaking a number of shibboleths long held by Occupy and climate networks. Firstly, they have abandoned consensus process in decision making, so they don’t get bogged down in endless “process issues”. Secondly, they have a more transparent, if distributed, leadership structure. Activists knew the Rapid Response Team was responsible for making on the spot tactical decisions during the blockades. Finally, they are raising demands on the state.
XR’s demands have also been carefully crafted. They interlock and reinforce each other. Their first demand is for the government to declare a climate emergency in order to communicate the threat posed to society by the climate crisis — to admit the “house is on fire” as Greta Thunberg put it.


Their second demand is for zero carbon by 2025. It is something that cannot be realised under capitalism. Not even the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would put this in a manifesto. It has the flavour of what some Marxists would describe as a transitional demand. And their third demand is for a citizens’ assembly chosen by sortition (drawing lots) to realise the second demand. This means they can’t be accused of wanting to make the country go vegan, for instance. All such decisions will be made by a citizens’ assembly.

It is because XR has taken such an approach that it is able to recruit hundreds of ordinary, law abiding citizens — people who in normal times would never consider themselves to be “activists” or “political”. The Declaration of Rebellion provides an intellectual and ideological justification for people to participate in civil disobedience, as described above.

These thousand or so “arrestables”, as they are known, have been the rocket fuel of the protests. They allow the movement to go far and fast. But just like a rocket engine consumes fuel at a prodigious rate so the XR protest gets through arrestables quickly. So when they ran low they had to scale back the protests.

The big question now is how they can sustain this movement over the long term. It will be more difficult to repeat this action again now that the police know their tactics and will have counter-measures in place next time. Nevertheless, this is only the beginning, and the potential for XR to grow is enormous. The demands they raise and the Declaration of Rebellion could appeal to millions of people in this country.

Finally, timing is also important. The political stasis in parliament caused by Brexit makes the idea of a citizen-led assembly ever more appealing to millions.

Two tactics with different outcomes
Simon Assaf

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in central London were a turning point in the campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of catastrophic climate change. Over the course of ten days tens of thousands of rebels brought central London to a halt. It was a historic achievement.

XR activists were blown away at how successful the action was. Going into the International Rebellion we had few plans of holding on to the street blockades past the Tuesday, day two of the rebellion.

That the protest began on a Monday, rather than a traditional Saturday, was considered by many as a risky strategy, but it was worth a shot. But to hold on for as long as we did, and still be in control of key junctions when Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg came to London to address MPs ten days later, was beyond our wildest expectations.

Privately many in our in Hackney group assumed the police would sweep us off the streets in short order. But instead the protest kept getting bigger.

The success of the action revealed much about two tactics used that, although they seemed complimentary, had very different outcomes. First there were the very secretive actions, such as the storming of the Shell Oil building and the action that brought the Docklands Light Railway to a halt. These actions were planned and executed by small teams in secret, and many of the participants are still in jail many weeks later.

The second tactic was the mass actions involving hundreds and at points thousands of people, which were organised openly and designed to draw in as many people as possible.

The majority of our affinity group had been arrested by day three, but the sheer numbers who stepped forward meant that many others simply could not got arrested, despite their best efforts. This became a source of some frustration for many who waited patiently to be lifted, only to discover that police cells all the way to Brighton were full.

The mass actions meant that our Hackney group grew from an initial core of 15 people in February, to over 200 a couple of months later. The secret to this was that from the outset our emphasis was on “outreach” rather than secret actions.

XR members toured local shops to persuade shopkeepers to put up our posters, we held mass leafleting events to talk to as many people as possible, at roadblocks we made a huge effort to talk to motorists (who, despite some frustrations at the delays, were broadly supportive), we advertised our weekly meeting and designed activities that could involve as many people as possible.

A local teacher and union representative called a climate emergency meeting at her school that became the most successful meeting for many years. These modest successes strengthened our conviction that this approach was correct.

Part of our thinking was to put into practice a belief of XR that you only need some 3.5 percent of the population to become active in order to affect fundamental change. Whether this formula holds water or not is irrelevant, as it would still entail mobilising some two and a half million people, a bigger mobilisation than the anti-war demonstrations in 2003.

The secret spectaculars were effective media stunts, but by their nature they relied on individual acts of bravery. In contrast the mass actions proved the most effective, as they drew in larger and larger numbers in what became a battle of attrition with police.

To become an “arrestable” was a big step for many people, and a watershed personal moment. By drawing in a mass of people XR was able to survive the constant attempts by police to break the back of the blockades.

The International Rebellion proved that direct action works, but it also proved that actions involving as many people as possible is the most effective tactic.

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