This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. After an intense maiden year, Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience tactics have been made redundant at the hands of Covid-19. After spending its lockdown soul searching, the activist group believes if the UK Government can do unimaginable things to stem this existential threat, then it can treat the environmental crisis with the same urgency.
“Movements tend to go up and then they dip. There was a bit of a honeymoon period that happened post-April when everyone was in this upsurge,” recalls Claire Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. “We’ve spent the whole of lockdown thinking about how we’re going to present the next time we get out there. How can we do things differently, how can we do things the same?”
Extinction Rebellion blockaded their way on to everyone’s radar back in April 2019, when the activist group took hold and occupied major cities across the world, demonstrating in the name of the environment. Beyond halting transport, the group transformed sites such as Waterloo Bridge into a proto-utopian paradise, where the smells of vegan food wafted through the air and everyone looked out for each other as the sun beat down. For 11 days straight, the bridge was encroached on by police officers doing their best to get the bridge back to its intended purpose, while the aim of the game was to stay put.
However, the movement wasn’t for everyone – commuters were enraged by delays, and some critics found it hard not to point some of the group's apparent hypocrisies. By the end of the second wave of protests in October – which resulted in 1,642 arrests, according to the Metropolitan Police – while 66% of Brits named climate change as the biggest global threat, a YouGov poll showed 54% of the public said they were opposed to the protests, compared to 36% in favour.
“When we go back out soon, it’s in the spirit of building back again. Social movements ebb and flow," Farrell claims. “We’ve had this extended break, because of Covid. For some people, it was very disorientating. But also, for people who are working full-time in the movement, it has given us an opportunity to address some of our organisational debt.”
Beyond using the outbreak as a welcome respite to reform itself inside and out, it has been keeping some momentum going through digital actions. Back in May, it unveiled ’#NoGoingBack’ – the first in a series of short films created to remind the general public to keep the environment top of mind when normal service resumes. A full-length feature film titled ’The Troublemaker’ is also due for release.
Extinction Rebellion has made it no secret that it thinks corporations are the root of all evil. In the aftermath of the April takeover, it wrote a strongly-worded open letter in The Drum to advertisers and their agencies urging them to use their powers of persuasion to tackle the global climate emergency. It mobilised like-minded marketers, creatives and comms staff to act on behalf of brands to drive sustainable efforts. Following that, its activists made their way to Cannes Lions to see their point made.
“In the earliest stages of Extinction Rebellion, people would say, why are you going to the government because the corporations hold all the power,” recalls Farrell. “It was hard to argue that point at the beginning of Extinction Rebellion because lots of people would say, well, it's business that does the damage and its business that's going to find the solutions, but it really requires the state to do its job well.”
With a soft relaunch date set for 28 August, the group’s focus in the UK will be on Westminster and the Welsh Assembly. There will be four days of regional actions happening around the UK, and from 1 September, protesters will accumulate outside parliament. Two weeks later, it will head to the Welsh Assembly as it returns from recess.
“It’s important that this is a simple plan. But the big focus on going to Parliament is very clear. I hope the simplicity of going back to Parliament again speaks to people in the wake of coronavirus because we've seen that if there is an existential risk to the population, the government can do unimaginable things like putting everyone in lockdown. So, arguably, this shows to the power of Government to enact serious rapid change if public safety is seen to be at a grave enough risk.”
Yet, with the ongoing pandemic stealing attention, are Extinction Rebellion concerned that people might be less focused this year? "I've heard lots of people saying that they're worried about that," admits Nuala Gathercole Lam, Extinction Rebellion’s press coordinator. "Although the climate has been pushed to the back of some people's minds, on the other hand, when the coronavirus hit and people couldn't get hold of like everyday items, people got a sense of our systems being fallible.
"I don't know if we sit in a better or worse position, but the potential for an allied movement of people who haven't been taken care of in various ways by this government is much higher than it was before Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests."
June’s Black Lives Matter protests highlighted the fact that people in the Black community do not have the luxury of being arrested, so where is their role then, in Extinction Rebellion's civil disobedience strategy? This time around, are they hoping to attract a more diverse audience of protestors?
After interviewing 303 protestors and attending court hearings of 144 activists charged with minor public order offenses, a study from the University of Exeter, Keele University and Aston University found the people who took part in October’s protests last year were overwhelmingly middle-class, highly educated and southern.
“One of the things that’s an issue for me about people describing our movement as white, middle class only, is that it erases the participation of Black people in the movement,“ claims Farrell. “And there are people of color in the movement who feel ignored because of the relentlessness of that critique.“
She acknowledged that environmentalism has always been seen as an issue for the privileged. “And that's because it probably is. You’re not as worried about other things that are more pressing to poorer people and to people of color, she continues.
Farrell said that it’s important to consider the critique – and admits that Extinction Rebellion needs to do better and work out how to bring people together. “I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine us partnering with other movements that do what they do well, like working with Black Lives Matter,“ she concludes.
Extinction Rebellion’s return to the fray this autumn will likely be affected by the severity of a potential ’second wave’ of coronavirus infections. Either way, after its soul-searching lockdown, the manner of its return will have a lasting impact on the future of the activist group.