A few minutes before Boris Johnson’s convoy swept past on his way to prime minister’s questions this week, around a dozen people stepped off the pavement and into the middle of the busy junction outside parliament.
As they hurriedly sat down and tried to glue their hands to the road, they were surrounded by scores of police officers. Within seconds they were lifted – or dragged – back to the pavement. The protest was over almost before it had begun and minutes later the prime minister’s motorcade sped past unhindered.
The action was one of scores of Extinction Rebellion non-violent civil disobedience protests – from a migrant justice demonstration outside the Home Office to blockading a slaughterhouse in Manchester – that have been taking place in major cities across the UK over the past two weeks to try to highlight the escalating climate crisis.
Unlike XR’s previous rebellions in April and October last year, which saw thousands of people blockade large parts of central London day after day, protesters have focused on what they say are some of the the key actors driving the climate crisis – from the UK government to rightwing thinktanks and media companies, fossil fuel corporations to big infrastructure projects.
Numbers on the streets have been smaller – mainly because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic – and the more targeted actions have caused neither the same level of disruption or gripped the public imagination to the same extent as they did last year.
However, XR organiser say its more focused campaign have given the movement a renewed sense of purpose.
“In the past we have raised a very generalised alarm which needed doing,” said Clare Farrell of XR. “But there are things that are structurally important to understand about the causal reality of this crisis and I think we have done a fantastic job of drawing attention to them.”
‘Free the truth’
A key target of the protests was rightwing thinktanks and lobbying organisations that campaigners say play a crucial role in downplaying the climate crisis. Last week, XR activists joined novelists, poets and playwrights, including Mark Rylance and Zadie Smith, to demonstrate outside 55 Tufton Street in London, a venue infamous for hosting meetings of thinktanks and lobbying outfits linked to climate science denial and the oil industry.
A few days later, XR upped the ante, using trucks and bamboo scaffolds to block roads outside the printing presses of a raft of national newspapers – including the Sun, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday – with banners reading “Free The Truth” and “5 Crooks Control Our News”.
The action not only blocked the printing presses of those newspapers, it also had a knock on effect of the distribution of other titles, including the Guardian. For the first time since the protests began, XR was high up the news agenda and once again the subject of heated public debate. The nature and target of the protests drew stinging criticism, with the prime minister and home secretary Priti Patel accusing XR of undermining democracy and a free press, and branding the group “criminals” and a threat to the British way of life. In anonymous briefings the government even floated the idea of classing XR as an “organised crime group”.
And it was not just the Conservative party who criticised the action. Labour leader Keir Starmer said the blockade was “an attack on the cornerstone of democracy” and the newspapers themselves, as well as media commentators and the Society of Editors, have since lined up to denounce the group.
But for XR – and many in the wider environment movement – the action was deemed legitimate and necessary. They argued that much of the rightwing press, owned by a handful of billionaires, have played a key role in downplaying the climate crisis and undermining the structural changes needed to address it – that much of our press, in fact, is far from free.
Angus Satow, co-founder of the leftwing grassroots environmental group Labour for a Green New Deal, told the Guardian: “We desperately need groups like XR to highlight the political and economic actors that are driving this climate crisis. Many of the big ideas that were being discussed in relation to the climate crisis when the coronavirus hit seem to have been forgotten by politicians who are scrabbling to get us back to a normal that will be disastrous.
“We need groups like XR and the school strike movement to keep the pressure on and drive the climate crisis up the agenda.”
Zoe Blackler, a journalist working in XR’s media team, said that despite the backlash from the establishment, the protest at the print works had been “really galvanising across the movement”.
She said that although it had brought a huge amount of negative media coverage – with journalists trawling through the private lives of those involved, contacting former members for information on the group and approaching funders to disown them – she hoped it had also opened up a space for important conversations about the climate crisis and media ownership.
“I can imagine there are conversations going on in newsrooms now about how they cover the climate and ecological crisis … I hope when things have settled down this will lead to real progress in the quality of the reporting.”
A criticism of XR ahead of its latest rebellion, especially from black and ethnic minority groups, was that its tactic of encouraging mass arrests ignored the reality of police racism, and effectively made the protests the preserve of privileged white people.
The September protests aimed to be different, with XR working more closely with other groups and recognising the connections between structural racism, inequality and the climate crisis.
Daze Aghaji, who has been involved with XR since the beginning of last year, said the last two weeks had been the most diverse rebellion so far.
“There is still loads of work to do on this but we are learning … we are having good conversations with other groups, listening and making sure we are much better at making sure everyone knows they are welcomed.”
Black environmental activists outside of XR say the movement was making some progress but urged the media to highlight the work of other grassroots groups who are focusing on climate and racial justice.
As XR wound up its latest rebellion on Thursday, it was already preparing its next campaign. According to those involved it will take the form of a “Money Strike” – with people encouraged to withhold debt or taxes from institutions deemed to be fuelling not only the climate crisis but also structural racism and wider inequality.
Launched less than two years ago, the group is still thinking big. Its actions over the past two weeks did not capture the public imagination in the way it had done in April last year. By attacking the rightwing media, they have made a formidable enemy – and according to some critics, may have distracted the press and the public from their core message about the climate crisis.
But as evidence of the climate and ecological emergency mounts – from melting glaciers in the Antarctic to wildfires in California and the widespread destruction of wildlife and the natural world – XR still believes it has a crucial role to play.
As Boris Johnson stood up in parliament for PMQs on Wednesday, 92-year-old Arnold Pease, from Manchester, was being arrested outside for his part in the protests.
As he was being led away by police, Pease said: “We’re here to continue holding them to account. They call 92-year-old great grandparents ‘organised criminals’ for doing what’s necessary to protect their grand kids? The government’s criminal inaction on the greatest existential threat we’ve ever faced is the real story.”