Core to the Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, is a demand for urgent, drastic action on climate change. To get there, they are using non-violent direct action calling on the tradition of the suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders and more recently, the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter.
Is the Extinction Rebellion a small rump of radical activists with extremist views – or the birth of a genuine mass-movement? While it aspires to the latter, it is early days – especially in Australia.
If Sydneysiders haven’t yet encountered the Extinction Rebellion in person, that could soon change. The Spring Rebellion kicks off on October 7, a NSW public holiday. Events planned for Sydney include a family picnic day with a human chain at the Botanic Gardens, a reclaim-the-streets march, a bee-themed “die in” at Hyde Park (where protesters dress as bees and pretend to die) and a human hourglass on Bondi Beach to emphasise the urgency of climate action. There will also be disruptive protests.
The ‘extinction’ in Extinction Rebellion doesn’t just refer to the extinction of all the plants and animals around us. It means us.
The Extinction Rebellion was born over a year ago when British academics got together to figure out the best way to effect social change. They drew on research suggesting protest movements succeed once 3.5 per cent of the population campaigns actively and consistently for change, and that non-violent campaigns are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.
The movement vaulted into public consciousness over 11 days in April when XR actions disrupted an estimated 500,000 people in London. The activists blocked bridges, glued themselves to roads and generally caused a nuisance, while also disarming frustrated motorists by handing out cake.
The scenes that made the television news that night were not angry protesters chanting and waving placards, but ordinary people including senior citizens submitting to arrest, and the colourful Red Rebels dressed in red robes and white masks like a Greek chorus. The theatricality is no accident – one of the aims of the movement is that “the rebellion will be beautiful”.
The Extinction Rebellion and its core symbols – including the logo of the stylised hourglass and the Red Rebels – has since spread internationally. Here in Australia there were rolling disruptive protests and arrests in Melbourne and Brisbane throughout the winter and early spring, with protesters gluing themselves to roadways, train tracks and bridges, and being willingly arrested for their actions.
The Extinction Rebellion in NSW is sustained by a few donations from crowd-funding and members. In the US the likes of Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Robert Kennedy, and Aileen Getty – granddaughter of J. Paul Getty – have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One of the principles of the Rebellion is to mitigate against power and to that end, there are no central leaders. When people join they find “affinity groups” of like-minded people – whether they live in the same area, have children, want to be arrested or not, or the sorts of events they want to be involved in.
Michele Radinovic, 33, says anyone can act in the name of XR as long as they are following the principles of the movement, so if someone feels strongly that something should happen they are empowered to go and do it.
The main unresolved issue in Australia is the involvement of the Indigenous community and whether the movement should add Aboriginal sovereignty to their demands. Some have raised concerns that the concept of “die-ins” – where people pretend to be dead to represent the looming extinction of life on Earth – is disrespectful to Indigenous people who would prefer to be known as fighters and survivors than victims.
There have been similar concerns raised in the US where Vice ran an article titled “Stop Asking People of Color to Get Arrested to Protest Climate Change” that said: “Extinction Rebellion is overwhelmingly shaped by the concerns, priorities, and ideas of middle-class white people. If it doesn’t tackle white supremacy, it doesn’t serve us.”
The Rebellion aims to create dilemmas for the police – do they shut down a protest and arrest people, which might create sympathy for the protesters, or do they allow the protest to continue, which provides more time for the activists to make their point. For the activists who want to draw attention to the cause, it’s win-win.
But does disrupting ordinary people going about their business really win converts, or does it put them offside? Not all Brisbanites were sympathetic when repeatedly stuck in traffic because of XR protests. The city’s Liberal-National mayor has tried to change the law to prevent peak-hour protests, while Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has flagged laws against the use of lock-on devices such as handcuffs or chains and described attempts to block rail lines on the coalfields as “sinister”.
There have been attempts to discredit XR with fake news and memes. Photos of rubbish in London’s Hyde Park after a pro-cannabis event were re-circulated with claims they were from an Extinction Rebellion protest – prompting Royal Parks to officially correct the record. The same photos circulated in Australia last week with claims they depicted the Domain after the Global Climate Strike.
Radinovic says the purpose of the disruptions is to make people stop and think, and to make the point that we can’t go on with “business as usual”. She says it is nothing compared with the disruption that’s coming if the climate crisis is not halted.
The Extinction Rebellion seems to draw a large number of first-time activists. Many of the most-committed Sydney organisers have never been involved in a protest movement before.
A former corporate marketer who was living in New York, Radinovic joined the Extinction Rebellion after becoming chronically ill, moving back home to Sydney and reassessing her life. She was drawn to the “theatricality and playfulness” of the XR events in London.
“I feel like we’re not radical enough for the radical activists,” Radinovic says.
Christine Freels, a 60-year-old strata manager from Blacktown, says she had never been an activist before, “unless you count sitting on the couch and donating to Greenpeace and clicking on petitions”. Now she is one of the Red Rebels.
David Kohn, 28, a data scientist from Coogee, started volunteering for various groups such as Stop Adani and GetUp before the election and joined the Extinction Rebellion in May.
“I came to the realisation that I care about this stuff a lot, but I haven’t been involved in sticking up for my values,” he says.
“I haven’t been an activist before this year. The movement is made up of first-time activists, which is a really cool experience and it’s difficult at the same time, because sometimes we don’t always know what we’re doing.”
Kirk Alexandra, 49, is the convener of the Red Rebels in Sydney. She saw their role at the London events: silently emoting, grabbing attention, but not being arrested themselves. Given her background in theatre, she knew that was something she could co-ordinate here.
While Alexandra has been an activist in the past, she grew disillusioned with the power of protest until she saw the Extinction Rebellion in Britain and joined former Greens leader Bob Brown’s Stop Adani convoy.
“For quite a few years, I felt like there was absolutely nothing that I did that would make the slightest difference to the trajectory that we’re on,” Alexandra says.
She says Extinction Rebellion is “inherently radical”.
“The movement is radical in that it wants to be a mass movement … and because we require a radical change in our in our systems in order to ameliorate the worst of the climate catastrophe and mass extinction that we’re in.”
At the welcome event last Thursday, a young woman in the audience sums up the mood when she says: “I yo-yo between feeling hopeful and hopeless about things on a daily basis.”
Radinovic says it would be “irresponsible” just to shock people with how dire the situation is without providing not just hope but an opportunity to act and community to care for each other.
The Extinction Rebellion has an emphasis on “regeneration” to ensure the protest can be sustained and activists don’t burn out.
“It’s not just doom and gloom – it’s doom and bloom and the ‘bloom’ part is what I love,” she says.
The Extinction Rebellion’s 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.
Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.