Commuters at Canning Town tube station watch as Extinction Rebellion protests atop a train, London, October 17, 2019 (Ben Gillespie)

Originally written for the Social Sciences Birmingham Forum:

The recent wave of protests organised by the movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) has succeeded in drawing significant attention to the environmental degradation that has become a feature of the modern world. With leaders seemingly unwilling to take responsibility for the environment, a global social movement has emerged, determined to force governments to act.

Recent XR protests in London began good-naturedly. Images of peaceful non-violent protesters being taken away in handcuffs generated some public sympathy. However, since a video of XR protesters being confronted and attacked by angry commuters went viral earlier this month, questions have been asked about the effects of XR’s tactics on ordinary people.

The movement says it is engaging in “contentious politics”, defined by Sidney Tarrow as “collective activity…relying at least in part on non-institutional forms of interaction with elites, opponents, or the state”. There is a rich history of this contentious politics bringing together individuals with shared interests, making a collective claim against a governing authority.

However, in their ever more extreme struggle to cause maximum disruption, seeking to compel the government to take action, XR are now in danger of harming sections of the British public — and in appearing elite and out of touch with citizens. This is a fatal error for a movement that claims to be a grassroots organisation comprised of “ordinary people”, which stresses the importance of “laying down our differences [to] find our common ground”.

XR’s deliberately antagonistic actions affecting the lives of commuters is not just a bad tactic. It’s also oppressive. The group’s protests now appear to be harming people and community.

Whilst non-violent direct action is an important tactic it must be targeted at the powerful rather than the powerless.

The XR Problem in Two Images

Two images from the recent wave of XR protests help tell the story of where the movement has gone wrong.

On October 8, a Tory Peer, Lord Andrew Fraser, was photographed in his starched white dressing gown, standing outside his Westminster house shaking his fists at passing XR demonstrators.
This image presented the out-of-touch privilege of the political elite, with Lord Fraser’s entitled establishment anger and aggression contrasted with the smiling faces of the passing protesters. This was truth being spoken to power –– parrhesia as the ancient Greeks named it — and, as Michel Foucault once explained, taking a risk to speak that truth to power. This is Extinction Rebellion at its best, taking risks and reminding the powerful of their responsibilities.

Fast forward nine days. A demonstrator in a smart jacket stands atop of a London Tube train at Canning Town station. Below him. hundreds of people are standing around, delayed and prevented from going to work, from coming back home from work, from visiting relatives, from going to medical appointments — prevented from trying to live their daily lives.

The protester kicks out as a man from below tries to pull him off the train. The violence, from both the demonstrator and the commuters, is inexcusable.

But as the protester is dragged from his makeshift train roof stage, pulled towards the commuters, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a different version of people power – those fed up with their lives being put on hold by a privileged, elite group of protesters who care little about their fellow citizens. The wealthy could leave the station and jump in a cab; those who were left had no other options.

Contentious Politics Should Target The Powerful

This wasn’t Westminster with its million-pound houses. This was Canning Town, 22% of children were living in low-income families in 2016, where 19% of households were experiencing fuel poverty in 2017. This was not speaking truth to power; this was making the lives of some of the most economically and politically powerless in society that little bit worse.

XR was quick to release a statement expressing regret for the incident and explaining that they are a “broad and diverse movement with a wide range of views”, but this is not enough. Whilst a decentralized and prefigurative movement such as XR will always have rogue actors within it, the movement needs to be much clearer in its articulation of acceptable targets for direct action.

The people at Canning Town were not elites, the state, or opponents of XR. They were people with limited transport choices and little power to change governmental and corporate environmental policy.

Speaking truth to power is a noble and worthwhile political endeavor. This style of contentious politics is needed to achieve results.

But targeting commuter services in one of London’s most deprived areas is callous — and it is self-defeating.