The Return of Extinction Rebellion

4th September 2020

“XR’s Back – Sound the Alarm!” [1] Environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) have announced a return to protesting against climate change after months of lockdown. The group gained international recognition – or notoriety, to some – in 2019 as the group organised several small-scale and large-scale demonstrations in cities across the world, attracting crowds of thousands of protesters and causing major disruption to businesses and transport. London was particularly affected as activists occupied locations across the capital for ten days during April and again during two weeks of global action in October.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a stop to XR events earlier this year, but the activist group say campaigning against climate change is as important as ever. The group has planned two weeks of civil disobedience for “September Rebellion”, with events planned in London, Manchester, and Cardiff. [2] With the pandemic still ongoing, can their tactics be as effective as last year?

More than 1700 demonstrators in the UK were arrested during last year’s “International Rebellion” and already it seems the pandemic has not dampened the response to this year’s events. The first 48 hours of XR’s September Rebellion campaign has already seen over 200 people arrested in London alone. Hundreds of supporters gathered around Parliament Square on Wednesday 2nd September in the hopes of getting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attention as he arrived at the House of Commons. The specific aim of the September Rebellion is to “peacefully disrupt the UK Parliament” to try to pressure MPs into backing the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill.

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, or CEE Bill, was launched last month by the CEE Bill Alliance, a group including members of XR as well as members of the Big Ask campaign which successfully led to the Climate Change Act 2008. As outlined on XR’s website, the Bill calls for:

  • A serious plan to deal with the UK’s fair share of emissions and to halt critical rises in global temperatures.
  • Our entire carbon footprint be taken into account – in the UK and overseas.
  • The active conservation and restoration of nature here and overseas, recognising the damage we cause through the goods we import.
  • Those in power not to depend on future technologies to save the day; technologies that are used as an excuse for us to carry on polluting.
  • Ordinary people to have a real say on the right way forward in a Citizens’ Assembly with bite. [Source. The Bill can be read in its entirety here]

XR says that civil disobedience and disruption are integral to their strategy; economic and civil disruption is not only encouraged but necessary in order to get the message across to policy makers, according to their manifesto. However, despite what the initial number of arrests this week might suggest, it seems unlikely that XR will be able to achieve the same level of disruption as before. A hallmark of the 2019 protests, especially in London, was the major upheaval and significant delays caused to commuters and local businesses when activists blockaded major roads and demonstrated at transport hubs. In 2020, such tactics are naturally less effective given that a vast number of non-essential workers are still working from home, with many major firms postponing a return to office until 2021 or rethinking the structure entirely. [3] BP, for example, plans to adopt flexible working for their London headquarters which was heavily targeted by anti-oil activists in the demonstrations last year. It will of course prove difficult for XR, Greenpeace, and other similar groups to draw attention to their cause through the disruption of a business when employees can just as easily work from home.  [4]

In addition, the Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor told the BBC that the force has “learned lessons” from last year’s demonstrations and said this year’s events are already more easily managed due to lower occupancy in the capital. [5]

XR certainly seem to be aware of this, with the biggest events on the September Rebellion calendar focusing on blockading Parliament Square specifically. With these factors in place, it seems that businesses and commuters may not be as directly affected by protests as last year – which may even help the group’s cause after meeting criticism last year for doing more to hinder working-class people get to work than the politicians and policy-makers they intended to target. [6]

Of course, being a decentralised group there is always the potential for spontaneous events to cause unforeseen disruption, or for planned peaceful demonstrations to go awry, therefore, the level of disruption caused by this years planned protests is not completely foreseeable.