Extinction Rebellion’s Long Overdue Reckoning With Race

Extinction Rebellion’s Long Overdue Reckoning With Race

Extinction Rebellion’s Long Overdue Reckoning With Race

After experiencing a barrage of criticism for its lack of diversity, has the climate activist group finally made inclusivity a priority?

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For the better part of September, thousands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate activists took to the United Kingdom’s streets en masse for the third time with three demands for the British government: Tell the truth, act now, and set up a Citizens’ Assembly to address the climate crisis. Now, as UK officials threaten to classify the British-born nonviolent group as a terrorist organization, XR is debriefing and planning future protests, including a “Money Strike.” The upcoming action, which will encourage individuals to withhold funds from institutions that are contributing to the climate crisis as well as economic inequality and systemic racism, seems to have been designed partly in response to a question that has been dominating conversations about the group for quite some time: Is Extinction Rebellion doing everything it possibly can to be inclusive?

Though they acknowledge XR still has a lot of work to do on this front, members say the latest protests have been the most diverse in its short history. Founded in 2018 by primarily white, middle-class climate activists in a rural English town, it perhaps comes as no surprise that XR has long been accused of lacking diversity. At the heart of this criticism is not just the fact that the majority of the movement’s participants represent a demographic similar to its founders’, but that its main strategy is civil disobedience with a stated goal of mass arrest. To Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) activists who had been active in Britain’s climate movement prior to XR’s debut, the approach callously endangers marginalized groups who are disproportionately targeted by police. XR’s tactics also illustrate a broader problem in the fight against climate change: Although people of color are most impacted by the climate crisis because of socioeconomic disparities that play out on both a local and global scale, BAME activists, climate scientists, and their communities are often slighted in or outright erased from the climate narrative.

XR members say internal discussions about inclusiveness began in 2018, but these concerns remained unresolved. As local Extinction Rebellion groups began to sprout around the world from the United States to Kenya, criticism of XR UK also seemed to reach a peak following a series of high-profile missteps. Several incidents of dog-whistling and public displays of affection for the police further alienated BAME climate activists in a country that has a long, often unrecognized history of racism rooted in a brutal imperialist legacy.

“As an ethnic minority within XR,” says Daze Aghaji, an XR spokesperson and former European Parliament candidate, “I never felt excluded, but I felt that, particularly at the beginning, there was a bit of ignorance. I don’t think it’s because people were racist, but they just didn’t understand how to address their own privilege.

“We became a bit too big too early,” she adds, “and we didn’t really have that time to mature.”

Many of the people who joined the group, Aghaji points out, were being politicized for the first time and had little experience with protest. Generational differences also factor in as younger participants seem more prepared to discuss intersectionality than their older peers.

Critics suggest XR’s “beyond politics” pledge hampers its ability to meaningfully critique the capitalist institutions that have wreaked environmental devastation and profited from the suffering of marginalized groups. To Suzanne Dhaliwal, founder and director of the UK Tar Sands Network, the way XR organizers borrowed tactics from the American civil rights movement and Indian anti-colonial leader Mahatma Gandhi is among the most problematic—if not appropriative—aspects of their strategy. Partly, she argues, there seems to be a profound failure among XR organizers to understand how the movements they invoke grew out of marginalized communities that were already targeted by the state—as opposed to groups inviting arrest merely as means to draw attention to their causes. As Dhaliwal and other BAME activists highlight, much of XR’s initial messaging also painted the climate crisis as a future catastrophe, whereas, for much of the Global South, it is already a devastating daily reality.

These failures seem to have been exacerbated by a reluctance to listen to the BAME activists within Extinction Rebellion—who had been pushing for racial diversity to play a central role all along. Although the group is decentralized, members point to a “core” of largely white, middle-class organizers who wield disproportionate influence. Two of the most well known are cofounders Roger Hallam, 54, a former farmer from Wales whose doctoral thesis focused on civil disobedience tactics, and Gail Bradbrook, 48, a molecular biologist from West Yorkshire whose ayahuasca experience in Costa Rica altered her perspective on climate activism.

When XR activists climbed atop a light rail train in London’s Canning Town station late last year, the direct action encapsulated what some see as Extinction Rebellion’s “tone deaf” approach to climate activism. Targeting public transportation in East London during rush hour primarily delayed working-class people of color on their way to often precarious work where they were likely to be penalized for tardiness. Dhaliwal says that BAME climate activists also directly felt the consequences of the Canning Town action and other XR protests.

During XR’s rebellions, “I was constantly flooded with messages from Black and brown activists who could not do the organizing they needed to do, who could not get the resources, who had been impacted by, for instance, their basic routes to work being disrupted,” she says.

Dhaliwal, whose research at the University of Brighton focuses on BAME representation in climate activism, points to “an ecosystem” of BAME-led groups and organizations that are given far less media attention than Extinction Rebellion. In response to the media blackout XR partly exacerbated, a new UK initiative called Climate Reframe is shedding a much-needed spotlight on groups that are not just BAME-led but also address the specific climate concerns of marginalized groups.

Within XR, last year’s wave of criticism finally brought to the forefront a long-overdue conversation about race, as did two of 2020’s major global events. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted yet another way that climate change, which is a factor in the rise of infectious diseases, already disproportionately endangers people of color. George Floyd’s killing at the hands of American cops additionally raised awareness about how police mistreat BAME communities in the UK. It has been known for some time that London’s Metropolitan Police, for example, are more likely to use force against Black people. A recent analysis by The Guardian also revealed that during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, BAME people were more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped and fined for breaching Covid-19 measures.

When Black Lives Matter protests crossed the Atlantic this summer, XR member Cameron Joshi says, XR discussions about adding a fourth demand regarding the intersection of anti-racism and climate activism gained a renewed urgency. Although the amendment, which was first added by XR US, has already been adopted by several local XR groups in the UK, the umbrella organization has yet to add it to its list.

“A lot of people over the last year saw the criticism that was levied at XR,” says Joshi, “and they slowly taught themselves about decolonization, anti-racism, the Global South, and climate justice. Then, over the course of the last six months, they became confident enough to start having these arguments about ‘the fourth demand.’”

When Global Justice Rebellion, an XR affiliate that Joshi also belongs to, carried out an informal poll of over 1,500 XR members, they found that nearly 80 percent were in favor of adding a demand about racial justice. While acknowledging that the survey has its flaws, Joshi points to the uproar it caused among the group’s core as evidence that XR UK still has a long way to go before it can truly build anti-racism “into the DNA of our movement,” as Hallam and others recently pledged in a piece for The Ecologist.

At the same time Global Justice Rebellion carried out its poll, XR UK released a long-overdue mea culpa regarding its relationship to the police.

“We recognise now [that] our behaviours and attitudes fed into the system of white supremacy,” reads the statement. “We’re sorry this recognition comes so late.”

The climate group’s acknowledgement isn’t merely an apology; it contains a detailed list of the various ways XR UK is attempting to “prioritise anti-racism.” These include a review of its training materials and workshops, development of more inclusive actions, and efforts to support groups dedicated to racial justice. Central to these efforts is XR’s International Solidarity Network (XRISN), a semi-autonomous offshoot of the broader movement. XRISN, which now receives 20 percent of XR’s crowdfunding, focuses on providing support to XR groups in the Global South and clearly sets out at its center the unique impact the climate crisis has on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.

“People like myself and others who have decided to work with Extinction Rebellion,” says XRISN organizer Esther Stanford-Xosei, “do so because we believe that there is no white-led movement in the Global North that has it all right on matters [of racial justice] and we believe in critical engagement and transformation from within, which we have helped catalyze as the XRISN.”

“We think that it’s also problematic to deny the contributions of communities not racialized as white who helped to shape Extinction Rebellion into what it is,” she adds.

Stanford-Xosei, who is also the co–vice chair of the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe, asserts that she’s seen a significant shift in the way XR has approached inclusiveness over the past year. She gives as an example XR members’ increased participation in a summer protest organized by the “Stop the Maangamizi: We Charge Genocide/Ecocide!” campaign that, among other demands related to racial justice, calls for reparations.

After joining the group last fall despite concerns regarding inclusiveness, XR press coordinator Ali Brumfitt has also witnessed several major changes. One of the most significant, says Brumfitt, is the way XR activists now approach law enforcement: Members are more mindful of supporting and safeguarding people of color during protests, as well as avoiding conversations with police who are collecting information that could jeopardize their BAME peers’ safety. Brumfitt also claims that “arrest has become less of a central focus” in XR as the “misconception that being arrested in itself is helpful to the cause” is slowly being dispelled.

During its latest rebellion, XR UK had a chance to assess whether its increased inclusivity efforts had been effective. Despite the adjustments in XR’s relationship to police, 600 XR activists were arrested in London during the first days of September, including a 92-year-old retired engineer, prompting civil rights experts to decry the government crackdown on peaceful protests. Hallam, one of the main architects behind XR’s arrest tactics, has also notably left Extinction Rebellion to start an “anti-political party” called Beyond Politics. The XR cofounder was preemptively arrested in late August along with four other Beyond Politics members ahead of several scheduled demonstrations and charged with “conspiracy to cause criminal damage at planned protests.”

“The biggest change has been in attitude and understanding,” concludes Brumfitt. “The change in terms of actually physically representing more diverse communities is slower, but that’s understandable because what [XR] has to do is change its understanding of how it’s making itself safe and open for marginalized communities to come in and have leadership roles, rather than say, ‘Come and join us, and you do the work of making us diverse.’”

While the group attempts to move beyond its white, middle-class roots, a difficult question looms behind their inclusivity efforts: As participation dwindles from rebellion to rebellion, is XR missing its shot to have the greatest impact on the conversation surrounding anti-racism and the climate crisis? Natasha Josette, a member of Labour for a Green New Deal, seems to think so.

An analysis the BAME activist commissioned from Jarrow Insights found that XR’s periods of direct action result in “giant spikes” in online conversations about the climate crisis. Unfortunately, Jossette explains, not only are the majority of the people who engage in these social media discussions white male Londoners, but the actual content XR publishes during these periods largely leaves out anti-racism and the Global South, as well as support for other climate groups led by BAME organizers. Josette once again saw missed opportunities during the recent rebellion when XR’s mentions of the links between the climate crisis, police brutality, and public health were few and far between.

“The climate movement has to be intersectional,” Josette says. “It has to have race and class interwoven into it. You can’t just look at the climate as the most important thing and say everything else has to wait.

“XR is doing a huge disservice to the movement,” she goes on, “by not using their rebellions and the spikes in discourse these create to get that message across.”

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