Current Affairs

XR: Do protests risk becoming the story?

A fresh wave of climate protests by Extinction Rebellion, including a blockade of newspaper printers in Merseyside and Hertfordshire, has provoked polarised responses.

Delivering the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Police Superintendents’ Association on Tuesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel described Extinction Rebellion protesters as, “eco-crusaders turned criminals,” utilising “guerrilla tactics,” and aiming “to disrupt our free society.”

This came after XR activists blockaded newspaper print works over the weekend with bamboo structures and vehicles, disrupting the distribution of newspapers including the Sun, the Times, and the Telegraph. By Saturday morning, police stated that approximately 72 activists had been arrested for their participation in the protest, which included 46 campaigners locking themselves onto concrete structures and vehicles, before being removed by police.

Extinction Rebellion branded the demonstration a success, declaring that they had thrown “a spanner in Rupert Murdoch’s business as usual.”. The group justified their actions, stating: “what we read in the papers is controlled by a handful of powerful billionaires who feed us stories that suit their interests.” Specifically, XR criticise the failure of the press to properly report on the climate and ecological crisis, and on the need for urgent and effective action to tackle the climate emergency.

However, in his criticism of the blockade, Sir Keir Starmer noted the irony that the protesters had denied “people the chance to read what they choose – including an article by David Attenborough.” In an article for the Sun, Attenborough warned that “humanity is at a crossroads. The natural world is under serious threat and the consequences could be apocalyptic,” urging readers to take immediate action to help the planet.

Speaking in defence of the blockade on Good Morning Britain, Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, suggested that, although the protesters had not known about the inclusion of Attenborough’s article in the Sun, the impact of the protest on the national conversation about climate change would nevertheless be more profound than a single op-ed.

Those who criticise the controversial actions of XR will question whether this increased ‘conversation’ will focus more on the legitimacy of the methods used by the organisation, rather than the rebels’ end goal of prompting politicians to take more fundamental steps to tackle the climate and ecological crisis.

This effect has perhaps been realised in the debate as to whether the press blockades constituted an attack on free speech and the freedom of the press. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, declared  that “a free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change,” and that “it is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.”

Other politicians registered their support for Extinction Rebellion’s tactics, with former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott stating that direct action is a legitimate “legal tactic.” Abbott described the campaigners as “protesters and activists in the tradition of the suffragettes and the hunger marchers of the 1930s.” In a similar vein, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted in response to Patel’s condemnation of XR that “whatever your views on tactics & targets [Extinction Rebellion] are not ‘organised criminals’, UK has proud history of peaceful direct action – democracy depends on upholding it.”

The responses to the blockade are deeply polarised, as seen in Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s branding of Diane Abbott’s comments as “perverse,” and his description of XR’s activities as “hijacking” the cause of climate action with “a militant agenda to disrupt the very heart of democratic debate.”

The future of Extinction Rebellion appears uncertain. Trevor Neilson, one of the philanthropists behind the US-based Climate Emergency Fund, which has so far given £269,000 in support of the group’s efforts, declared the blockade was “not a useful strategy in the fight against climate change,” calling into question whether some of XR’s more combative tactics might jeopardize their continued funding.

In addition, XR’s conviction that their goals cannot be properly realised within the current system of representative democracy in the UK raises questions about the long-term viability of a modern political movement that refuses to conform to, and utilise, the ‘ordinary’, and more established methods of political change. It is these ‘mainstream’ methods which XR claim have so far failed to induce the far-reaching action which the IPCC ’12-years’ report in 2018 stated would be needed to avert a 2-degrees rise in global average temperatures.

The Extinction Rebellion website declares that “Over the last 40 years, [the current] system has proved incapable of making the long-term decisions needed to deal with the climate and ecological emergency. Politicians simply can’t see past the next election.”

This attack on the efficacy of representative democracy in the fight against climate change demonstrates why Extinction Rebellion’s preferred tactic is direct action, as epitomised in the press blockades. Whether such an approach has staying-power within the UK today, particularly given the current primary focus of the press and population on the coronavirus pandemic, remains to be seen.