Extinction Rebellion, the climate protest movement that brought London to its knees a year ago, is calling on the UK government to consider new climate legislation, as it wraps up its first public demonstrations since lockdown.
The climate group, known as “XR”, has emerged from its Covid-19 “hibernation” with 10 days of protests around the UK, including blockading several printing presses and repeated demonstrations outside parliament.
The much smaller size of the protests this year also reflects a movement that is trying to find its feet again, after the impact of the pandemic, the racial justice movement, financial difficulties, and leadership conflicts.
Gathering during a protest in Parliament Square, protesters chanted, cheered, heard speeches, and ate vegan pasta from the back of a bicycle cart. But the crowd was just a fraction of what it was last year, and flanked by a heavy police presence.
“There’s certainly been a contraction in numbers,” said Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of the movement, speaking by phone ahead of the event.
Christine Glossop, a protester from Cardiff, said she was demonstrating on Thursday because “the government are doing nothing”.
She held a small sign that read: “Extinction Rebellion: Breaking the law in a very limited and specific way,” a reference to the government’s statement on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. “We are in a climate catastrophe,” she said. “We need to take drastic action.”
Ms Bradbrook said that despite the smaller numbers, XR’s “September Rebellion” had been a great success. Shutting down the printing presses, a move criticised by government officials including prime minister Boris Johnson, was “an escalation tactic that had the impact one would predict”, she said.
Last weekend XR protesters blockaded three News Corp printing sites, impacting the printing of physical newspapers including the Sun, the Times, the Daily Mail, and the Evening Standard. Some Financial Times sections were also affected by the disruption.
“We’ve tickled the nose of the tiger, the establishment are frothing at the mouth,” she said.
After gaining prominence in 2019 with a series of eye-catching protests, XR rapidly gathered support from celebrities and society figures, but had to pause its activities when coronavirus struck.
Last year the influential movement helped propel the UK to adopt a net zero emissions target for 2050, a major landmark for climate legislation. XR’s demands also spurred six parliamentary select committees to form the UK’s first citizens’ climate assembly, which delivered its non-binding recommendations earlier this week.
However the group ran out of funding right around the time that lockdown began in March, and donations dried up.
In April, XR had to stop paying about 150 members who had been receiving stipends of up to £400 per week in “volunteer living expenses”, according to finance team member Andrew Medhurst.
“We kind of went into hibernation. It was a period of reflection,” said Mr Medhurst. “As we moved into February, it was clear we were living beyond our means . . . This cash crisis meant that we had to tighten our belts.”
The protests in the last two week have been run “on a shoestring budget” compared with last year, he said.
Donations have started pouring in again since XR returned to the streets, with more than £240,000 raised through a crowdfunding drive over the summer.
“When politicians are saying they are going to stop XR, that is a threat, but it is also an opportunity, especially from a fundraising perspective,” Mr Medhurst said, referring to reports that the government was looking to reclassify XR as an ‘organised crime group’.
“I think this week will definitely have buoyed the spirits of many rebels,” said Farhana Yamin, an active XR member who led its political strategy team until last summer. “I feel like, yeah, XR are back, and that is a good thing, and I hope there is more funding that comes through. It is a very tough environment to get funding now.”
XR UK is asking the government to cut carbon emissions to close to zero by 2025; to acknowledge the devastation of climate change; and to uphold the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly on climate action. It is also urging parliament to consider a new private members bill, the Climate and Ecological Emergency bill.
At the same time as dealing with the financial disruptions of Covid-19, the group has also been thrown off balance by the racial justice movement and the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in June.
XR UK, whose members are mostly white, has been debating whether to add a fourth demand about justice — including racial justice — to its list of three key demands. It has not formally done so, despite a poll of members in June that showed two-thirds of members would support this.
The tensions spilled out into the open on Thursday in Parliament Square, when a young man spray painted the statue of Winston Churchill with the words “is a racist”. He was taken away by police.
Nearby protesters tried to distance themselves from his action, and attempted to cover the words up. A spokesman said it was “not an XR action”.
The splintering of XR’s top leadership and its decentralised, “holacratic” governance style, have also been problematic at times, according to several leaders who spoke to the FT.
“One of the tensions in XR are people who want to slow down and be strategic and then people who think it’s an emergency, let’s get out on the street now,” said Ms Bradbrook. “There have been conflicts and disagreements.”
A former spokesperson for the group Zion Lights wrote an op-ed in the Daily Mail this week distancing herself from the group for what she referred to as their “scaremongering rather than inspiring” approach.
XR has tried to distance itself from its co-founder and former leader, Roger Hallam, who has founded a new movement called Beyond Politics Party that advocates “bringing down the government”, according to its mission statement. Its activities have included stealing food from supermarkets to give to the poor.
Mr Hallam is currently in prison on remand ahead of a court hearing later this month. He has been charged with conspiracy to commit public nuisance and conspiracy to commit criminal damage.
XR has encouraged social distancing at its protests, and has started live-streaming speeches and rallies on to Facebook. But there is no doubt that Covid-19 has cast a shadow over the gatherings.
Mr Medhurst said it was unlikely XR would hold further large protests in the coming months. But online activism is not quite the same, he added.
“Non-violent civil disobedience is impossible to do from the luxury of your front room, or your armchair,” he said. “It needs some action on the streets.”
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