Do the Extinction Rebellion protests mark a move to a new era of anti-establishment action?

Eleanor Parsons - Writer

‘Extinction Rebellion’ (XR) are currently making their presence known on the streets of London. Their action began with a nude protest in Parliament on the 1st of April 2019, and has proceeded to civil disobedience across the City of London. The action is planned to continue until April 29th according to the group’s website.

Who are Extinction Rebellion?
As defined by the Guardian ‘Extinction Rebellion is an international protest group that uses non-violent civil disobedience to campaign on environmental issues. Demonstrations have included blocking bridges to traffic in London and a semi-naked protest inside the House of Commons.’ The group’s website lists three main ‘demands’ for the UK - for the Government to ‘tell the truth’ by declaring an emergency on climate change, for the Government to ‘act now’ by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and for the issue to be taken ‘beyond politics’ and be led by citizens input.

The action and media portrayal
For some, the action is frustrating and unfair - causing travel chaos, affecting holiday plans, and instigating widespread disruption to commuters simply trying to go to work. For others, their action is to be applauded, in a time of serious concern for the environment; arguably still played down in the traditional media outlets and by those with the power to instigate real change.

This is apparent in the headlines being used in the media, which focus on the relationship between the Police and Protestors rather than the message behind the non-violent action. At the time of writing, the action does not feature on the homepage of the BBC News app, even though there has been over 750 people arrested at last count, and the action remains ongoing. This goes to show how even during mass civil disobedience, issues relating to Environmental matters are not given the prominence or ‘newsworthy’ status that many believe they should have. These people are protesting because they feel their voices aren’t being heard by the media and government. The continuing oversight of the situation by these bodies may lead to further discontent and disillusion, and fan the flames of the action, inciting it to continue for longer.

This can be highlighted further by headlines featuring the celebrity names that have been involved, such as Emma Thompson, making it into even the ‘Red-top’ newspapers. Again, by reading through a selection of different articles across various outlets, it is clear that mentions of the ‘criminal’, ‘police’, ‘celebrity’ (all common ‘newsworthy’ focuses) far outweigh the environmental research and sentiment underpinning the action. This combined with an apparent lack of Government concern has led to a growing anger amongst the interested public about their apathetic view on climate change. For some, this further speaks to an ‘out of touch’ Government that no longer represents the views and concerns of the general public.

Civil Disobedience
Starting on the 14th of April, protestors took to key London areas including Parliament Square, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus. They have taken part in various acts, such as gluing themselves to DLR trains, blocking roads and transport links (55 bus routes are currently out of service), and most notably bolting a pink Boat to the ground of Oxford Circus.

Legal efforts have been made to curtail the disruption, by implementing the Public Order Act 1986 to attempt to force protestors to only inhabit an official protest site at Marble Arch. This Order has been further extended by the Met Police until Monday in areas such as Westminster Bridge. It has been due to the breach of this order that the majority of the arrests have been made. Of the 750 arrested however, there are reports that only around 20 have actually been charged with any offence.

Is the ‘XR’ action symbolic of a wider change in our society and how we express discontent with the establishment?
Some have highlighted this action as symptomatic of a wider change occurring in society. We live in disillusioned times, partially thanks to Brexit and the vast socio economic uncertainty that has resulted from it. Whilst the mainstream media are yet to link certain events together, it wouldn’t be a great leap to recognise much of the ‘citizen action’ ongoing recently has come in the form of civil disobedience. Other recent examples are the ‘rolling road-block’ attempts to disrupt the motorway network (in relation to unhappy Brexiteers) in March 2018, and the mass walk-out of schoolchildren in recent weeks pursuing their own Environmental protest.

It can be no coincidence that this form of raising issue with the establishment has appeared at a time of political instability, and a complete lack of faith in the Government of the day. Anger is high following the House of Commons failure to come to a consensus with regards to Brexit, with recent polls showing 68% of respondents disagree with how the House has operated in recent months. If we now live in an era where two thirds of public opinion can be against the establishment, it is little surprise that we are starting to see this discontent manifested in other ways.

This unrest could also be further used as another example of the Police Service struggling to handle large scale civil disobedience or anti-social behaviour. This has been a specific issue in the Austerity era of Policing since 2010, which has implemented drastic budget and staffing cuts. Commentators have highlighted how our Service can only operate on a basis of ‘consent’, and civil disobedience contradicts this notion entirely. On social media, debates are beginning to refer back to the Riots in 2011 when the Police were seen as unable to quash the civil unrest which came with great violence and fear to the public.

It would be unfair to fully compare this to the non-violent ‘XR’ protests, but the sentiment can be followed. If large numbers of the population take to the streets, and an underfunded and overwhelmed Police force cannot contain them, where will this leave our system of governance and control going forward? With future unrest relating to Brexit almost certain, and the continued willingness of the media to promote this agenda (unlike with the environment as aforementioned), it could be argued the XR protests are a warning of what is to come. It is possible that we have entered new era of civil unrest and disengagement with traditional forms of protest and political debate, with citizens feeling this is now their only outlet to get their voices heard.

Sources/Further Reading:


Popular posts from this blog

The Brutal Bashing of the Brummie Accent

The Human Cost of Modern Architectural Megaprojects

Sustainable solutions to Human-Elephant conflict: a coproductionist approach