Extinction Rebellion have been in the headlines almost constantly for the last fortnight. The group, who are demanding that governments across the globe declare a climate emergency before it is too late are using civil disobedience and non violent direct action to disrupt and draw attention, with the aim of getting politicians to take immediate action on the environment. So far we have seen protestors using tactics such as stopping trains, blocking Waterloo bridge and gluing themselves to parliament and the stock exchange.
While the XR activists have gained a lot of support from the public, their actions have also drawn a lot of criticism, the main one I have heard being around them blocking roads and holding up public transport. This is because, they say, that inconveniencing “normal” people trying to go about their day to day lives will only make the public angry and automatically be against their cause. This is from people who I’d consider to be politically and environmentally informed too. Have we really become that self-involved and short sighted that we expect such fundamental change to not interfere with our routine at all ?
I understand some people fear that if they are late for work, there could be repercussions. But ask yourself this: If workers who are late because of disruption from the protests are disciplined so unfairly, is the enemy not their boss and the system that enables them to do that, rather than environmental protesters?
Percy Shelley arguably wrote one of the first calls to non violent direct action in his 1819 poem ‘The Mask Of Anarchy’ in response to his outrage at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, when the cavalry charged into a crowd of protesters demanding reform of parliamentary representation. It’s stanza ‘rise like lions from the slumber, in unvanquishable number, shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep have fallen on you: ye are many-they are few’ was made popular again when Jeremy Corbyn used it during a speech in 2017 and has since been adapted into a Labour Party slogan: For the many, not the few. The idea is that we interrupt the daily running of business and refusal to comply with certain laws, usually with the absence of aggression, in order to take a moral stance against the unreasonable actions of a government. Nowadays it is used to describe something more proactive than a simple march, but can involve anything from strikes, to refusal to pay taxes, to factory lock outs, road blocks, sabotage and occupying buildings.
But civil disobedience doesn’t even work, I hear you cry. No? It’s the only thing that demonstrably does work. Direct action has given us every civil right we have, they have never been willingly handed to us out of the goodness of the state. From the 8 hour day to the equal pay act after women working as machinists walked out of the factories because their jobs were downgraded to unskilled in 1968.
Martin Luther King was a famous advocate of civil disobedience who defied court orders and legislation he considered to be “unjust law” and said that non co-operation with evil was as important as co-operation with good. Arrest was expected. Resistance to the Nazi’s did not always mean taking up arms against them but passive resistance was still so powerful that those found guilty were imprisoned or killed. Sophie Scholl was murdered by Hitler’s regime for publishing leaflets teaching people how to passively resist, such as deliberately working more slowly in factories that benefited the regime . Similarly, Agnès Humbert, a museum librarian who was an early member of the French Resistance jailed for distributing anti fascist literature and scrawling slogans on banknotes found solace and defiance in small acts of sabotage in the factories she was sent to work as a prisoner, such as interfering with the dangerous rayon they were forced to make. Agnès would tie knots into the rayon, making the spools look normal when they left the factory floor but would make any machine they were put into break down.
Civil disobedience can involve thousands of people- From the singing revolution in the Baltic states between 1987 to 1991 where millions used song and formed human chains against soviet tanks in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania- to just one or two individuals. Last year, Elin Ersson, aged 21, attempted to stop the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker in Sweden by refusing to sit down on the plane carrying him when asked by cabin crew. She was taken to court and fined 3000 krona. Though the man she tried to save was still sent back, her actions resonated with many around the world.
Occupy ICE was another recent example of civil disobedience in the US, when activists obstructed the path of Immigration and Customs Enforcement office vehicles in protest of the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents and detaining them.
In the UK, Reverend Daniel Woodhouse and Quaker activist Sam Walton were acquitted from court after they broke into the BAE systems factory in Walton with the intention of causing criminal damage to typhoon fighter jets which were bound for Saudi Arabia. Walton said at the time “We really didn’t want to do this. I really did not want to go to prison. But there’s a moment when I saw a picture of a British-made bomb that had been used to kill children. The bomb was made after the war had begun. So we sold it in full knowledge that it would be used on civilian targets. I knew my country was complicit in that”
At the very end of the 19th century and onwards when the women’s suffrage movement began, they tried to forge change by using the system, only to find that the system was not going to allow them to do that. They were banned from attending liberal party meetings and banned from holding their own. They were loud and disruptive and artistically and mischievously obnoxious. One Irish suffragette Mary Maloney (born Dorothy James Malony) followed Winston Churchill around for a week in the 1908 Dundee by-elections ringing a large bell whenever he spoke. Churchill had made insulting remarks about the women’s suffrage movement, describing them as “hornets” and refused to apologise. It worked too, and an exasperated Churchill eventually backed down. An absolute pro at civil disobedience, La Belle Malony, as she was nicknamed after that, also once climbed the Richard the Lionheart statue in Westminster and refused to come down until she had finished her speech on women’s voting rights. Their actions did not make them popular with the public, and it wasn’t supposed to. Deeds, not words. Any support they did get was welcome. But for the most part they did not need your approval and 2019 Mary would undoubtedly be criticised for deplatorming Churchill.
Civil disobedience will not always get support of the public who say they want change but don’t ever want to be personally inconvenienced. Like the suffragettes and those fighting for better working conditions, they often were not appreciated by the public at the time, only being seen as heroes by preceding generations . You only celebrate them now as you benefit for what they fought for and didn’t personally have to see or deal with their disruption at the time.
No movement should be exempt from criticism, ever, and there will never be one that is perfect, which includes Extinction Rebellion. Honestly I have some concerns about some of those who have taken it upon themselves to be facilitators and the kind of information they want from activists and what they expect of them without always getting their own hands dirty. While it’s okay to question tactics or philosophies we find dubious, there does tend to be a sort of sneering at those trying to do something by those who share their concerns, but don’t take action themselves.
The beauty of civil disobedience is that there are an infinite number of ways to do it, and even those in the most oppressive situations have found strength and comfort in resistance, rebellion and sabotage. So maybe the next time we are stuck in traffic temporarily, held up as a colourful parade passes us by, the next time we sit discussing the finer points of political action from the comfort of the pub, we can switch our thoughts from ones of anger. Maybe instead of lamenting about why they should be protesting less inconveniently/more militantly/more passively/about something else entirely we can find our own ways to be resplendently and dutifully disobedient.
A bit of Chumbawumba for today. We still need to fight for a better world. Whether we think we can win or not.