Why I support but can’t join Extinction Rebellion

By Toyin Agbetu | Sat 20 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion rally in Hackney, April 2019

Toyin Agbetu gives three reasons why despite admiring the actions of the Extinction Rebellion movement he hasn’t actively participated in any of its protests.

Ok, so I keep getting asked what I think of Extinction Rebellion. It’s not surprising. And I will admit now, as a scholar-activist currently studying activism for my PhD, watching the growth of Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been exciting. Instead of indulging in my daily fix of Brexit shenanigans (I don’t watch ‘Game of Thrones’ so this is my closest alternative) I can now fully engage my nerdy mode and observe a growing wave of people with the interests of everyone (hopefully including non-humans) at heart getting involved in a movement calling for global change. They literally want to save the world. What’s not to agree with? But before I go on, it’s here that I want to invoke the words of Jon Snow, not the Game of Thrones character but the veteran Channel 4 broadcaster who recently got into trouble for saying – “I’ve never seen so many white people” while referring to the homogenous nature of the unquestionably racist, [any] right flavoured Brexit movement.

Now of course, XR, an admirable climate change protest group made up largely of a multi-generational cohort of liberals, is hardly a movement for white supremacists. Does it lack diversity within its ranks? Yes. Is this deliberate? Making an educated guess I’d say no. So what’s my take? Why don’t I join? Well to understand that you need to ask yourself one thing. If the movement is not deliberately excluding others from minority communities, why are they not attracted it?

I mean, I’m one of those subversives that absolutely loved the Occupy movement. I facilitated teach-in sessions in occupied buildings and taught activist tactics to those interested in launching attacks on capitalism. In 2008 it really felt like we could inflict a serious damage on the system of global finance, if not even inflict a fatal wound. Sadly, we were wrong, the politicians (apart from Corbyn) and please note, it didn’t matter if they were Labour, Tory or Lib Dem, this privileged section of society who todays protesters are looking at to make change sometime in the near future, collectively inflicted a decade of austerity upon the victims (us) of the criminals (them) in the corporate and public financial sector causing years of pain, suffering and ultimately death for those living and working in spaces without the means to guarantee their own physical, economic and emotional security.

Despite the scale of their transgressions, there was no justice, no reparation for those of us that lost everything including a healthy future. That’s why an appeal for change from these same narcissistic toffs without a forceful threat of sustained social dissent is like hoping that they will just stop filling their troughs from the public purse because it’s the right thing to do. But perhaps that’s an easy complaint, apparently what else can any ‘responsible’ activist do apart from making passive, begging appeals to power. Now of course I can only speak from my perspective as an assertive Pan African activist but I’d like to suggest three reasons why the XR movement is unappealing to some of us who are not middle class and European, although there are several more.

Extinction Rebellion announces - This is an emergency

Three Reasons

1. Most populist campaigns are all talk with no endgame!

We’ve been here before, Band Aid and ‘Feed the World’ (1984), Make Poverty History (2005), Abolition (2007), Occupy Wall Street (2011) and Grenfell (2017) to name a few. The British public is a generous if not fickle body. Once it finds a cause that it collectively resonates with, for a short duration of time it typically gets its knickers/y-fronts in a twist and contributes full gusto to the trending campaign. There is then oversaturation in the news, mass donations and huge events offering virtue signalling opportunities on a national scale (think of the half billion in donations offered to rebuild the Notre Dame in under 24 hours as a rich folk version of the same thing). And then, as quickly as the passion flared up, a fog of collective amnesia descends. Within months every one forgets the issues (apart from those directly/most affected, in this case the Global South) and then a new topic becomes flavour of the month leading to the cycle starting all over again.

I don’t mean to sound overly cynical but we’ve seen this all before, XR protestors literally want to save the world, but before this point, and I’ll reassert that I’m talking from a Pan African perspective, the British public wanted to make poverty history, and before that - feed the world. Only a few years ago they were supporting Black Lives Matter until that became ‘all lives matter’, they wanted to address misogyny with #MeToo but stopped looking at the gender gap when people started to ask about the ethnic dimension (i.e. the ‘race’ gap) or about women who were working class. I tire of the use of such hyperbole – yesterday XR announced that today’s young people may be humanities last generation. Such statements haemorrhage credibility.

There is this disturbing trend to see these laudable movements emerge, attract a groundswell of attention and resources in ‘solidarity’, then those of us that have been committed to these causes for many years get to witness opportunity after opportunity for tangible change vanish as our new comrades to the struggle become bored, agree to a concession, celebrate it as progression, then jump off board, returning to a comfortable existence under capitalism and thus allowing essential, critical energy to dissipate before the mission is completed. Let me be clear here, this is a critique not aimed at XR who in making the attempt are absolutely doing the right thing, but our wider society as a whole.

2. Working with the police when arranging protests is not civil disobedience, its privilege!

I get it, peaceful protests can still be disruptive. Baring arses in Westminster, sticking oneself to buildings, trains, railings, setting up beautiful blockades on bridges are all forms of ‘sticking it to the man’. Only they’re not. The system is designed to accommodate levels of dissent and pat itself on the back for being a good sport while doing it (for more info read Machiavelli’s - The Prince). XR’s use of non-violent tactics to drive its direct action, is a brilliant strategy that permits families to gather at assemblies, police officers to dance at performances, high profile ‘celebrities’ to endorse the movement and some politicians to nod their head in sympathy of the groups concerns. But in today’s climate, it’s façade of respectability is progressive posturing, not transgressive action.

To get a better understating of what I mean let’s study the action of the African people who fought historic and perilous civil/human rights campaigns in both the UK and US. To make this a fair comparison I’m going to exclude my personal favourite movement - The Black Panther Party. Now let’s examine how when Martin Luther King (MLK) spoke of using non-violence as a tactic for revolutionary change, he qualified it by referring to ‘militant nonviolence’ (I use MLK as it is either he or Gandhi that tends to be invoked in the discussions).

MLK knew that fighting for a just cause was a sacrifice that involves risking one's liberty and life. It’s why so many people facing political, ecological and social injustice in their day to day lives can’t prioritise worrying about their families living long enough to be threatened by existential threats caused by environmental problems. This is not some game of cops and activists, nor is it a party.

So why is this relevant to the opening query? Well I love the fact that XR has built the arrest of its protesters into its strategy (currently at over 600) thus defanging the very weapon the state typically uses to dis-incentivise dissent. But I’m answering the question why people like me, who belong to minority communities, are routinely portrayed in the media as criminal or terror suspects irrespective of gender or religious faith, targeted by growing movement of mainstream enabled white supremacists, and are currently experiencing intensive racial profiling based stop and search – why are we resistant of joining a movement that welcomes a stay in police custody and the resulting criminalisation that follows. Hmmm… what do you think?

3. A diverse leadership, breeds a diversity of tactics, attracting a diversity of supporters.

When the BBC director general Greg Dyke once said that the BBC was “hideously white” he was chastised in the media for daring to utter an uncomfortable truth. The BBC which was once a model of excellence for public service broadcasting has today self-mutilated into a rating seeking, elitist institution dedicated to serving the needs of the UK’s ethnic majority – forget the rest. When it comes to diversity - tokenism is the order of the day. I tire of seeing the African presence in the media and during ‘activist’ events reduced to the role of entertainer, passionate political agitator but never strategist. Many of us are literally the living definition of ‘Rebel for life’ yet there is still a failure for those that fail to reciprocate with our issues on our terms, to recognise that limited inclusivity on the streets is not enough. Yet, if change is ever to happen in this world we need people willing to speak uncomfortable truths from the perspectives of those prepared to deliver uncomfortable solutions. Being told in no uncertain terms “This is an Emergency” only wants me want to respond – I agree, but this is todays’ emergency – to you.

My experience as an African activist who believes in community education, consensus building, and driven by strong socialist, anarchist type leanings, teaches me that it is diversity of thought and opinion in leadership that leads to truly radical strategies for potentially revolutionary change. Why would anyone follow a movement that claims to act for you, but is not of you? I think the quote from that police officer who revealed that he “struggled to arrest someone who could be his mum” said it best. Think about it.

Change I could believe in

Now I could conclude by being facetious and suggesting its futile arguing over whether we should use plastic or paper drinking straws while ignoring the plight of ecological disasters fuelled by fossil fuel extraction, the true cost of cheap clothes and high priced technology consumption produced by people locked into systems of economic servitude and the lack of universal health care, universal education, poverty not only across the globe but also in front of our very eyes in wealthy nations often fuelling violent crime. But one movement can’t (and for strategic reasons shouldn’t attempt to) address all these issues. Nonetheless, I do wish these larger social movements would work collaboratively with other, smaller activist groups, upskilling them, sharing resources, not just cash but more importantly – labour and influence in order to work on the interrelated links via informal structures. We need sustainabilty in grassroots activsm, and sadly we’re not there yet. So I am going to close by saying that if Extinction Rebellion had not adopted an MLK-lite model of resistance and respectability politics but instead the countercultural empowerment philosophies of the Panthers, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the nation) I would have been more inclined to have joined.

The risks would have been worth it.

In the meanwhile, I will watch cheering from my armchair while getting involved in causes that others, well… watch and observe from their iPads until the next episode of Game of Thrones comes on and it’s suddenly time to switch off from real-world politics. ;-p)

May the Ancestors guide and protect us. Ase.

Toyin Agbetu is a community educator, artist-activist-anthropologist, independent film maker and Pan African community worker of Yoruba heritage, Ogun spirit. He was born in Hackney, London UK

Toyin Agbetu

External Links
Climate activists and police tussle for control of Oxford Circus
Extinction Rebellion

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Had Extinction Rebellion adopted the countercultural empowerment philosophies of the Panthers, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe I would have been more inclined to join.

Toyin Agbetu, Ligali

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Ps. The annual Emancipation Day Reparations March that has been held on 1 August for many years have placed the issue of ecocide squarely alongside genocide long before the issue was trending. As have the annual African Remembrance Day event and as well as the annual Slavery Remembrance event held at Trafalgar Square, which all incorporate the topic of fighting for environmental justice alongside reparations for Maafa.

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