Extinction Rebellion: 21st century civil disobedience


01 april 2020
Auteur(s): Anita Lombardo
How far would you be willing to go to defend the environment? For Extinction Rebellion the answer lies in non-violent civil disobedience.

By Anita Lombardo 

Contributing Writer

“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humour.”

John Lennon, The Beatles

John Lennon’ s powerful quote is a mantra of the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR). To them, non-violent civil disobedience is the ultimate and desperate method to compel governments to take real action against climate change, when all other forms of climate claims to take action against the current climate crisis  have seemed to fall on governments’ deaf ears. 

The movement was launched in May 2018 by a group of activists that had already been part of the social movement “Rising up”, and for its first, spectacular non-violent action a group of British activists blocked 5 major bridges in London, letting only ambulances pass through. The movement has since then gained momentum across Europe and is now active in 56 countries. The core idea bringing all these activists together seems radical and yet uncovers an inconvenient truth: the sixth mass extinction could be closer than we expect after the tipping point of climate change is reached. 

Since its formation XR has put forward three fundamental demands to governments: tell the whole truth about the ecological crisis we are facing today, act upon it in a drastic manner and involve citizens in the design and implementation of such radical measures.

It may indeed seem a bit utopian, as XR members themselves acknowledge during their info sessions, but an extreme situation calls for equally extreme measures and ideologies. In this “utopian” reality a direct democracy would rule, where citizens’ assemblies design and implement policies to tackle climate change and ecological degradation, less inclined to serve individual interests and freed from external influences. 

XR celebrated a couple of weeks ago its first birthday in Belgium. I met one of the coordinators of XR’s political circles in Belgium, Tobias, to delve deeper into the movements’ motives and struggles.  “The linguistic fragmentation of Belgium certainly makes it harder to coordinate across the country” , says Tobias. Nevertheless, groups sharing the same ideas and coming from different Belgian cities manage to organise national gatherings and protests, converging mostly in Brussels. XR made its debut in Belgium on the TV show “De Zevendedag”, when a few activists appeared during a debate wearing elephant trunks, throwing confetti and pamphlets in the air and then performed the movement’s typical “die-in” by laying on the floor. Many more actions came after that across the country, the most recent ones being the protest against the Motor show in Brussels and the occupation of the royal square in Brussels in October 2019.

“The Royal rebellion was a good action, which attracted a lot of media attention”. Yet the activist raises a valid concern: the focus is still too much on the number of arrested people and on  police violence, rather than on what makes them willing to go that far with their protest. “Instead of wondering how many people got arrested or pepper sprayed, public opinion should be directed towards different kinds of questions, such as ‘Why are these people willing to spend a night in jail?’”

Tobias has a background in biology and over the years has tried many different ways of doing activism and of putting his knowledge to the service of the causes he believes in. “After all the activism and professional commitment to the cause of nature conservation, I realized that overall, species were still declining, and that all my efforts were but a tiny drop in the ocean”. He was then willing to go beyond peaceful marches in order to voice his frustration and ecological concerns, and Extinction Rebellion offered an “alternative” way of doing climate activism. The ecologist movement indeed aims to draw public attention to ecological degradation through disruptive public actions and when the police intervene, its supporters allow themselves to be arrested without resistance.  

The only code of conduct that always applies is avoiding any use of violence, and to just resist passively instead.

If you ever find yourself in one of XR’s info meetings in Brussels or Leuven, the face of Gandhi and Martin Luther king will certainly appear on the presentation slides at some point. These leaders of civil disobedience are sources of inspiration for the ecologist movement, and as they succeeded in breaking long standing walls within society through their powerful actions, so does XR hope to stir a sense of urgency for collective action within our current society and governments.

The movement is now looking for points of convergence and potential collective actions with other group that are fighting different facets of the same problem with more or less radical attitudes, Jilets Jaunes, the Anarchists and Fridays for Future being some of them.

Active members of the XR community are scattered across Leuven, and organise initiatives to talk about themselves and what they believe in (well displayed by the chocolate vegan cake they serve at the end of the presentation!). Extinction rebellion recognizes its currently predominantly white composition, and therefore strives to reach and include a more diverse community in what they perceive as an universal struggle. An info café takes place every third Thursday of the month at Pangaea. Being part of the movement does not necessarily mean openly protesting in the middle of squares: the team is very diverse and its members can contribute in many ways with their skills to organise and coordinate outreach activities. Even for those curious to witness an action but concerned about being arrested, there often exists a “safe area” set up by the team where the likelihood of police intervention is very low.

As XR may seem to some as just one more group of “hippies” whose ideas will remain unheard, its strong stance demonstrates that there still exist courageous groups of people that are raising the stakes for what they believe is right.

Although it may seem like the members of Extinction Rebellion are the only ones with something at stake by breaking the rules, what it really is at stake is an environmental collapse for each and every one of us.

All photos in this article were taken by Karl Delandsheere, a photographer based in Liége, at the Royal Rebellion in Brussels on the 12th of October. The photos were published by The Voice with the kind permission of the author. More photos can be found on his website.