For a week starting April 15, no cars or buses drove over the bridge adjacent to Parliament, only the occasional ambulance or bicycle. The environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion occupied the bridge, lining it with small trees and chalking artwork onto the asphalt, and staged a sit-in protest locking down the road and several other areas in central London. Last Wednesday, they disrupted train services at the station closest to the London headquarters of the oil giant Shell, gluing themselves to the roof of a train carriage, then later gluing themselves to the fence outside Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s house in north London, to attract press attention. They’ve also staged actions in Montreal, including chaining themselves to the office of Quebec Premier François Legault, blockading a store in Paris, a funeral procession in Norway, and several protests in New York.
The group has staged smaller protests in the few months since they started campaigning, but this is the biggest protest to date, causing the biggest and lengthiest disruption to London in living memory. Transport has been hugely affected, with some of the busiest bus routes unable to run. The police have arrested over a thousand protestors after initially stating they lacked the jail capacity to arrest enough members of the group to shut down the protest. After their release, many arrestees simply rejoined their friends at the sit-ins.
Reaction from some senior media figures has been highly critical: a clip of a protestor walking off set during an interview on Sky News went viral after the presenter Adam Boulton accused the spokesperson of sounding “like a right-wing fascist,” telling him, “you’re incompetent middle-class, self-indulgent people and you want to tell us how to live our lives.” Media commentator and agent provocateur Julia Hartley Brewer tweeted asking why she couldn’t drive her car straight across the bridge as she wished to, with hundreds of people pointing out that killing people intentionally with your car carries a life sentence.
Many have been critical of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics and the predominance of white and upper-middle-class participants. The group’s intention was to provoke mass arrests, and over a thousand have taken place following blockades of Oxford St., Parliament Square, and two bridges. Despite the criticism, it’s worth delving into the polling on the subject: a YouGov poll of 3,561 UK adults showed that 52 percent “somewhat oppose” or “strongly oppose” Extinction Rebellion, but a full 36 per cent “strongly support” or “somewhat support” direct disruptive action. A third of the country backing what amounts to the shutdown of the capital in defiance of the police and many politicians is a huge and unexpected result that few other campaigns have managed to achieve.
Not everyone who considers themselves on the broad left agrees, however. Any New Labour home secretary should spend their remaining days at home rethinking their life choices, and David Blunkett — who once called civil liberties “airy fairy” nonsense — should be particularly quiet. Instead he chose to write an op-ed for the right-wing Daily Mail that ran under the headline, “Why Hasn’t the Full Force of the Law Been Used Against These Eco Anarchists Who Fill Me With Contempt?” A former Labour minister successfully out-Torying a Conservative government is nothing if not a reminder of why it’s a blessed relief that that particular ideological wave has been consigned to irrelevancy. New Labour Home secretaries were all authoritarian nightmares, desperate to appeal to middle England by positioning themselves as “tough on crime,” using detention without trial and authorizing MI5 to secretly bulk-collect telephone data. Under Blair, we’d have no doubt seen the tear gas and batons out earlier and, if the cells were full, an election promise to build more.
The Labour frontbench, and some backbenchers, have been much more forthright in making sure climate change is on the agenda: Jeremy Corbyn’s team and others have been talking about Labour’s plan for a decarbonized economy and a new industrial plan that focuses on green energy and green jobs; MP Stella Creasy wrote an open letter to the Tory environment secretary Michael Gove, asking for a Citizens Assembly on climate change. Whereas Blair’s government would have clamped down hard on the protestors and Ed Miliband’s Labour would have condemned, or at least refused to support, the protestors, Labour now see the protests as an opportunity to nail the Conservatives for ignoring climate change and the environment.
Not all of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics have won them supporters, and they do conform to every stereotype of the traditional green activist. But they have made climate change a central topic, and have shown up the old guard in the media and politics as being as out of touch and rabidly authoritarian as ever. Luckily, most of those politicians have been consigned to the dustbin, though some of the worst figures in the media remain. The activists function as a litmus test, with the worst people driven mad by any small inconvenience or the mere fact that protest has not yet been criminalized, while others back their cause, however begrudgingly.
But they’ve also shown that public appetite for direct action is greater than we anticipated. So the next time journalists or politicians complain about such actions, they might consider just how many people disagree with them.