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Extinction Rebellion controversial tube action
Extinction Rebellion activists disrupt London Underground services at Canning TownPhotography Ben Gillespie, courtesy Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion: tube action was ‘the wrong thing to do’

A spokesperson for the group tells Dazed that the group’s general consensus is that the London Underground protest was ‘misjudged’

Following two weeks of action, climate justice group Extinction Rebellion’s autumn uprising has come to an end. Now speaking with Dazed, a spokesperson for the group has said that the majority of XR activists believe the tube disruption was “the wrong thing to do”.

Demonstrations in London saw over 1,800 people arrested across the planned action, following a controversial city-wide ban on protests by police. The British treasury was hit in a failed fake blood protest, and a man dressed as Boris Johnson climbed Big Ben. The most contentious action was on the London Underground, where XR activists climbed on top of trains and caused major delays for commuters.

Liam Norton, a member of the actions group, tells Dazed that “the general consensus is that the action was misjudged”, revealing that many XR members expressed their disagreement with the demonstration before it went ahead.

“How Extinction Rebellion works is: you do non-violent action training, and then set up an affinity group of around 10 to 15 people. As long as (any action) complies to the ten principles of Extinction Rebellion – and it remains non-violent – then you’re basically free to do whatever you want.”

The tube protest was conducted by an affinity group established in November 2018, a month after the movement first launched. Ahead of the disruption, a poll was put to XR members via an app called Telegram Messenger – frequently employed to organise protests – with Norton revealing that around 72 per cent of people said not to do it. “Extinction Rebellion isn’t run on polls,” Norton explains when I ask why the action still went ahead. “Maybe it should be.”

According to Norton, many XR members were against the tube action because they’re increasingly “worried about the public image of Extinction Rebellion” that has been dominating online discourse. 

“One of the principles is that we reflect and we learn, so I think with some of the criticism levelled at us, we’ve really tried to acknowledge it and grow” – Liam Norton, Extinction Rebellion

The group has been particularly criticised for its fetishisation of arrest, something that relies on activists’ white privilege when it comes to police treatment. Though supportive of the mass arrest approach – he says: “it’s a historic moment in British history for public protest, and nobody is talking about it” – Norton acknowledges that the tactic may not be an option for everyone, and cites the police ban – which has now been lifted – as especially damaging for supporters who wanted to join protests, but were discouraged by the threat of jail.

When questioned about how XR is addressing the lack of diversity within the movement, Norton cites a recent Guardian article in which poet Benjamin Zephaniah “points out that change is not going to come without people of colour joining the demonstrations”.

“This is probably going to be one of the biggest struggles in human history. I think the key is to acknowledge that while this problem is affecting people in the global south right now – and has been for many years – it’s ultimately an issue that should unite us as one species who can stand up and fight it together.”

With no more disruptions planned as of yet, Extinction Rebellion will use this time to debrief on the autumn uprising. “One of the principles is that we reflect and we learn,” Norton tells Dazed, “so I think with some of the criticism levelled at us, we’ve really tried to acknowledge it and grow. But with other criticisms – while still acknowledging them – we have to accept them and say, ‘We hear what you’re saying but this is the way we think we’re going to create social change in this country, and we’re convinced the only way you’ll see it is by economic disruption’.”

While the police, activists, and the public may look back on the two-week Rebellion differently, XR is determined to keep growing and encouraging everyone to unite in solidarity. “It was a good rebellion, but it could have been better,” Norton concludes, adding that “we all need to work together, because we’re going to die together.”

Look back at our exploration of climate activism and class structures here.