Following the Extinction Rebellion protests across the world and the school climate strikes, Ellie McDonald discusses the use of civil disobedience in these movements 

In European cities and across the world – although predominantly in London – the movement known as Extinction Rebellion (XR hereafter) have been coordinating civil disobedience en masse. As part of a series of ‘shut-downs’ of major London sites, organisers encouraged supporters to take (illegal) non-violent direct action, with some volunteering to get intentionally arrested to draw attention to the climate crisis. In the words of one of the organisers at the time of their first action – “arrests aren’t happening quickly enough.” 

 At the same time, young folk across Europe continue to make tremors through a series of youth climate strikes. In Belgium alone tens of thousands of young people have skipped school and taken to the streets, school bags in toe. Greta Thunberg, the teenager responsible for the first school climate strike, addressed XR activists this week, proposing – “we are the ones making a difference.

XR branded their latest actions as an ‘International Rebellion’ and there has been considerable join-up between the activists and school climate strikers. These movements speak to one another – there are similarities in the ‘movement DNA’ or messaging of both groups, particularly in the use of moral urgency and climate crisis in their call to action. XR is distinguished by its use of outright civil disobedience, but this strategy has been replicated throughout history and in recent acts of climate activists throughout Europe. In light of these insurgent movements, is there a right to rebel? 

The DNA of the movement and the use of civil disobedience

Undeniably, the school climate strikers and XR have injected new energy into the climate movement. Both movements, in their unique ways, have acted as vital amplifiers of the depth of feeling  of ordinary people, confronted by the realities of the climate change emergency. One cannot think of a more powerful messenger than a young woman such as Greta Thunberg, most recently addressing members of the European Parliament and compelling them to fulfil their moral responsibility and act.

 XR activists and the school climate strike have, expertly, channelled grief and despair into their activism as providing the moral obligation to act, with the scale of the  crisis providing the impetus to act disruptively. This is a powerful tactic in the arsenal of any social movement, and one which is being used to great effect by both groups in the current moment.

There are clear similarities in the ‘movement DNA’ or messaging of both groups. Both centre the inadequacies of the action that has come before and to the failings of ‘climate incrementalism’. This is both a European and global shift.

 What should also be noted here – if briefly – are the criticisms of XR. XR has received several important critiques – alongside tremendous praise for coordinating an unprecedented whirlwind of activity and mobilisation. These criticisms hinge on the (partial) blindness of XR to the important, direct and non-violent work already being undertaken by people of colour worldwide, the failure to develop an entirely intersectional analysis of the problem, or to fully incorporate climate justice within its central movement DNA. This is what has led to the lack of diversity in its activist base – noted one nuanced and helpful appraisal of the XR movement. 

Photo: Joël de Vriend (Unsplash) 

The right to rebel and the struggle for climate justice in Europe

Non-violent, direct action is not new. From the examples of the US civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, to much more contemporary examples in aid of climate justice (Elin Errson in Sweden, the fifteen activists referred to as the ‘Stansted 15’ in the UK, or some anti-fracking protesters throughout the UK) – non-violent, direct action has long provided coherent theory and practice in change-making. 

Why the recourse to civil disobedience?

 Civil disobedience intends to disrupt. It is positioned purposefully outside the boundaries of the law – but rightly it finds protection within the scope of human rights law. While acts of illegal disobedience may lawfully be policed and prosecuted, that policing and prosecution must also fulfil a three-part test of legality (actions taken by the police/ state to police/ prosecute the protest must be legally defined), pursuit of a legitimate aim and proportionality in order to be ‘legal’ in human rights terms. In essence – the response of the state must be proportionate to the harm committed. This is why the prosecution of the 15 activists in what has been known as the ‘Stansted 15’ case was so draconian, and totally unlawful by human rights standards, and frankly, weird.

For this reason, prosecutions in the wake of XR – and during expected upcoming actions – will be telling, and indicative of the success of the XR strategy. XR intends to unseat and shift the moveable middle; the movement aims to sensitise a proportion of politicians, mainstream media and police to its aims through an empathetic and polite protest strategy.

Why rebel (when we are in a climate emergency)

 We are rapidly running out of time and yet nothing is happening.”  

What XR and school climate strikers have done with excellency is to show the urgent and moral need for direct and immediate action. This action is required because, in the words of Canadian environmentalist Tzeporah Berman – “we can no longer smile in face of incrementalism.”

The success and novelty of the school climate strikers, XR and all of those campaigning in the name of climate justice across Europe, speaks in part to the inadequacies of big NGO campaigns and climate incrementalism. Both XR and the school climate strikers have voiced a sense of anguish with the old ways. It is no longer acceptable to simply hold a place at the table (as NGOs have previously sought to do), and “managed defeat” is not an option

 Speaking personally, I think the recourse to civil disobedience and direct action speaks to one of my favourite quotes about human rights by Richard Wilson, and what they can and cannot do – “rights seek to constrain the flow of power like bottlenecks, by framing power as fixed, confinable and normative, but power leaks out, and flows around rights…”

To me, this speaks precisely to where the blurred boundaries of advocacy and incrementalism end and where non-violent disobedience and rebellion begin. It speaks to the limited use of human rights and the law – in their minimalism and conservatism – and to their value as constructs to be dismantled and reformed through social justice movements (…and all that said by a human rights student!) 

Let’s hope they can be so, and let’s all get in on the dismantling while we still can (with the small caveat that we pay a little attention to perfecting the movement as we go). 

Cover photo: Greta Thunberg in Stockholm. Ulricaloeb (Flickr). Licence CC BY 2.0.

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    Ellie McDonald is currently a student on the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She also works at ARTICLE 19 — a human rights organisation that works to defend freedom of expression and access to information — in the Law and Policy programme. Social movements (and why they succeed or not) and the right to protest are some of the things Ellie enjoys writing and thinking about.

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