Thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists took to the streets of Australia’s major cities this week in a display of peaceful civil disobedience. Across my social media feed, I’ve seen countless messages of support… Then there’s the odd comment calling them terrorists/militants/extremists because “why can’t they protest in a way that doesn’t stop people from moving around the city?”
The fact that the disruption is the point seems to be have been missed. It is supposed to be inconvenient because that’s the only way to force people to stop what they’re doing and take notice. Thanks to the inconvenience caused by protestors, Extinction Rebellion — and thus the climate emergency — has been talked about at length all week. That is their objective.
When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson labelled the group “uncooperative crusties… (with) heaving hemp-swelling bivouacs”, there was a crushing sense of deja vu. It was only a generation ago that the young people who rallied against the Vietnam War were dismissed as “radical louts”, after all. Governments always criticise those who are trying to upend the status quo.
As I write this, the Queensland state government is fast-tracking new laws to justify mass arrests that will target climate change protestors. This is not the first time the state has passed laws to expand police powers against activists — they were in full force in 1972 when the Anti-Apartheid Movement sought to disrupt the Sprinkboks tour under the draconian Bjelke Peterson regime. The only difference is that this time, it’s a Labor government.
While conservatives and politicians are so busy lambasting the Extinction Rebels, and commuters are moaning because they can’t get to work on time, we forget how much we owe throughout history to people who were willing to make a public nuisance — and prepared to get arrested for it.
It was thanks to their actions that we have the vote for women, civil rights laws, modern working conditions, an end to the Vietnam War, and marriage equality — to name but a few. Every important social and political movement in history has begun with a handful of people who refused to be silent even if it meant condemnation and prison time.
It surprises me this week to hear people who are in favour of climate action decry the Extinction Rebellion movement as polarising and “putting people off side”. The people who are off side are already off side: the protests are not aimed at them because they were never going to take action anyway — regardless of whether they’re climate change deniers or believers.
Extinction Rebellion is a battle cry, it is a call for the rest of us to join them. The ones who are “on side” but not necessarily doing anything about it. Those who catch our trains to and from work each day until someone disrupts our evening commute.
When I was living in New York in 2011, I happened to be present at one of the early Occupy Wall Street protests where hundreds of people were arrested. At the time, it was a fringe movement led by so-called “dirty lefties”. But what happened as a direct result of those arrests was an outpouring of solidarity. By the next demonstration, Occupy had entered the mainstream — attracting tens of thousands of New Yorkers from across a broad demographic of ages and backgrounds.
Occupy petered out for a number of reasons, the main being its lack of a clear agenda. Extinction Rebellion can gain forward momentum, as long as the rest of us stop dismissing their methods and actually join the fight. When there are enough numbers, we can’t ALL get arrested. When there is enough disruption, politicians are forced to take notice for fear of keeping their jobs.
The world is literally on fire. Being late home from work because of a protest is hardly going to matter when you have no home to go to.