By Cai Parry
"We must appeal to the public, and to those with the power to change things. Virtue signalling to those who already agree with you will not achieve that."
Climate action group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has hosted their ‘rebellion’ in several cities around the UK at the beginning of September. I’d never been to the epicentre of XR action before, but as someone who liaised with them in my local Youth Strike 4 Climate group, and is very sceptical of their action, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and spend a few days in London to witness the events.
Arriving on the first day of the London actions, I saw that dozens were already sat in the road around Parliament Square, and throughout the day until late, the Police made their way around the square arresting anyone who would not move. This made me, like most viewing from the outside, quite uncomfortable. Those being arrested seemed quite proud of themselves, but the fact is that sitting in the road has only managed to enrage many bystanders. Speakers at an event included Caroline Lucas and Nadia Whitmore, however little was to be seen of the protests in the media, where they sought to promote and gather support for Lucas’ Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill, which was being submitted to Parliament but required cross-party support.
The second day brought much the same kind of action as the last, but as this was the day that Boris Johnson had to make the trip up to Whitehall for PMQs, the police got far more aggressive. Anybody who has taken to the internet to accuse Extinction Rebellion of being ‘out of touch’ will surely note the samba bands that accompany any XR action of moderate size, however, police started arresting any who dared play their musical instruments in the area. This was followed by some protestors climbing the trees on the square, which the Met certainly did not approve of.
Around a year ago, when Extinction Rebellion was first gaining notoriety in Britain over their ‘October Rebellion’, many pointed out the hypocrisy in one demonstration, where some members attempted to climb on a London Underground train departing a busy Stratford station. XR members insist that this action was not approved by the national organisation as a whole, but part of the problem lies with the fact that the group’s decentralised structure encourages many to make irrational and damaging actions that harm the reputation of the movement for action on the Climate Crisis.
The third day brought, what I see as, a more universally acceptable form of direct action. A critical mass cycle, where a large group of cyclists flooded and overwhelmed the streets, causing a mobile and short but profound disruption for bystanders, started from Buckingham Palace. I was disturbed by the police’s response to this. They managed to forcefully contain the cyclists on Lambeth Bridge and arrested all those contained whilst confiscating bicycles and refusing to allow any protestors to leave the area. All without warning, and an act that the Met Police may be facing a legal challenge for.
"Part of the problem lies with the fact that [Extinction Rebellion's] decentralised structure encourages many to make irrational and damaging actions that harm the reputation of the movement."
Yes, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that Extinction Rebellion represents a unique problem in the present movement for action against climate change. However, without the upheaval they caused in previous ‘rebellions’, we would surely not recognise the widespread belief that we must deal with the crisis now. In the realm of public opinion, XR do themselves no favours by sitting in the road and disrupting our daily lives, but many of their demands deserve universal merit because they are simply common sense, such as the CEE Bill that was presented to Parliament and is supported by many groups that don’t have such a tainted reputation. We cannot define a movement by its most controversial acts.
Many of those who were arrested are young people, and it deeply concerns me that the next time there’s a climate-related protest, the headlines will say something along the lines of “Climate Protestors Radicalise Children” or worse, if our own Youth Strike groups spearhead arrestable action any young activists will forever lose their credibility in the media. An entire demographic would be branded as ‘Marxist’ and ‘extreme’. Terms that at any rate are not welcome ones to the masses we seek to appeal to.
"We cannot define a movement by its most controversial acts."
The time has come for climate youth activists to change their methodology. No longer will a simple show of numbers in a monthly march attract the eyes of anyone in power. I fear that more and more, the activists who lead the agenda of the Youth Strikes in England and Wales in the higher echelons of the UK Student Climate Network, seek to decentralise the movement to the point where it provides local groups, like echo chambers, too much deference of the kind of protest takes place. We must appeal to the public, and to those with the power to change things. Virtue signalling to those who already agree with you will not achieve that. This means lobbying politicians who love the PR, getting serious about evidence to Parliamentary committees at both a national and devolved level, and showing to the media that we are not just little kids. We know what we are talking about, and we’re firm enough to have our voice treated like anybody else’s.
The Youth Strike movement has a real opportunity to be the professional voice of young people in the UK, we can’t let it go to waste.
Cai Parry is a 17-year-old Labour activist and Director of Communications & Outreach at Youth Strike 4 Climate - Cardiff and UKSCN Wales. His local activism has focused on environmental policy and education, having recently organized a successful protest into the Welsh Government's A-Level grading during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.