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Thu 18 July 2019
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Stephen Colegrave argues that the media is both uninformed and underestimating this radical new activist movement.

After more than a week of activity in London, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has already established itself as the most exciting activist movement for decades. I say ‘activist’ because XR aims to be much more than a protest movement. The way it has used mass arrests as part of its activism has confounded the police and the public. The image of a pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus will be an inspiring image for years to come.

Tell the Truth boat in Oxford Circus, London, in April 2019

When I interviewed grassroots activists from XR earlier this month, it became clear that its founders had studied civil rights and resistance movements and learnt from their successes and failures.

XR itself is like a living organism and much more sustainable than previous activist groups.

Typically, much of the media has begun to focus on what it sees as splits in XR or signs that it is running out of steam, but this shows a lack of understanding of its resilience and strategic rigour.


Resilience and Resistance

Much of its resilience is due to its decentralised collection of autonomous Affinity Groups of about 12 activists, based on the Spanish Civil War model. They follow a three-stage process of action, reflection and rest.

Extinction Rebellion’s Three Demands: TELL THE TRUTH – Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change. ACT NOW – Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. BEYOND POLITICS – Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

In practice, this means that activists can create their own groups and decide their own actions as long as they follow XR’s Ten Principles and sense check with another group. Of course, these groups do work together for larger actions, but they do this as equals. This means that XR itself is like a living organism and much more sustainable than previous activist groups.

Also, XR has carefully planned for the scale of activity by ensuring that thousands are trained in activism and are ready for any contingency such as arrest. One of the largest of these training sessions took place in Bristol in March, when several thousand new activists were familiarised with a festival atmosphere.

The media are desperate to find discrepancies in the views of the group’s leadership as to what they should do next, but, again, that is to misunderstand and underestimate them.

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Although there is overwhelming and unanimous agreement of the dreadfulness of impending extinction, there is also a belief that XR’s next steps should not just be the decision of its few leading members, but come from a broader People’s Assembly in keeping with its demand for a Citizen’s Assembly.

This might be a bit messy for the media, but it is not a sign of weakness or impending collapse of the movement.


Glued to Jeremy Corbyn’s House

Paulo, the grassroots activist who I interviewed for my last XR article, is a great example of the resilience of XR. When we talked, his group had taken part in an action at the BBC. This week he was photographed glued to Jeremy Corbyn’s house.

Paulo on the fence, wearing a white cap

Paulo, in his late 50s, has experience of being part of many previous activist and protest groups. He feels that XR is very different: “It is a more strategic and much kinder and more caring organisation. The caring aspect is really important.”

This aspect of XR is very evident in the way that it cares for people who are arrested, a critical part of its direct action. As well as training, everyone arrested has someone to help them and provide support.

The media are desperate to find discrepancies in the views of XR’s leadership as to what they should do next, but, again, that is to misunderstand an underestimate them.

Paulo doesn’t know exactly where XR will go in the future: “It’s early days. We are certainly shaking trees. But, cultural change is important and recognised by XR. Many ecological problems are produced by social problems.”

However, his determination to do whatever it takes is impressive as he is expecting to be arrested and spend time in prison to ensure XR’s success.

Although he is only one of many XR grassroots activists, Paulo encapsulates the strength, thoughtfulness, caring and resilience of a direct action movement that looks likely to prove much of the media wrong.

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