Extinction Rebellion’s Summer Uprising Shows the Need for Increased Direct Action as the Establishment Fights Back


A screenshot of a video of Extinction Rebellion activists blockading London Concrete’s plant in Bow, in east London, on July 16, 2019.

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Last week, the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) held a ’Summer Uprising’ in five UK cities — London, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Leeds — theatrically installing painted boats emblazoned with key messages in all five locations, and engaging in various actions designed to continue highlighting their three core messages: to get the government to “tell the truth” about the unprecedented man-made environmental crisis that is already unfolding at an alarming rate, to “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025”, and to “create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.”

Since last autumn, when the group announced itself via the occupation of five bridges in central London, and followed up in April with the extraordinary and unprecedented occupation of five sites in central London that lasted for over a week, with the police arresting over a thousand people but refusing to respond with blanket violence to a movement that was resolutely non-violent, Extinction Rebellion has been one of two movements that have captured the public’s imagination in significant numbers regarding the unprecedented emergency facing life on earth  —- the other being the School Strike for Climate initiated by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg

With the steely resolve of an individual with Asperger’s who has chosen an implacable route, Thunberg relentlessly confronts world leaders about how they have known about the scale of the unfolding disaster for 25 years, and yet have done nothing about it. She is particularly scathing about the “fine words” they utter when confronted about it, which she correctly assesses as being completely meaningless without the necessary actions to fulfil them. Inspired by her message and her attitude, millions of schoolchildren around the world have taken part in — and continue to take part in — regular school strikes, showing adults the world over how much more clued-up they are when it comes to what should be society’s urgent priorities.

The unexpected success of both movements is not coincidental. Like many other people, I have been extremely receptive to their message because it has become impossible to ignore the scale of the emergency. A key development for myself and many others was the publication, at the start of October, of a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that we have just 12 years to avert an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man-made climate change. 

The resonance of that report was highlighted in an article for the New Yorker by London resident Sam Knight that was published yesterday. Reporting on the ’Summer Uprising’, Knight explained how “the founders of Extinction Rebellion have an extreme, anti-capitalist vision of what they want society to look like”, and quoted Gail Bradbrook, one of XR’s founders, telling a crowd of supporters last week, “I want to live in a beautiful, nature-filled world, and, if we get shot on the streets fighting for it, so be it. I’m willing to have that happen. I’m not calling for it to happen.”

As Knight explained, “The disconcerting thing about such radicalism, at this moment, is that it is the activists — rather than the state or law enforcement — who have the facts on their side. One of Extinction Rebellion’s favored tactics is to quote the first line of the executive summary of the 2018 report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.’”

Knight added, “On the day I visited, a study commissioned by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a research organization which dates back to 1754, set a deadline of 2030 to fundamentally redesign British agriculture to withstand the climate crisis and worrying trends in public health. ‘What we eat, and how we produce it, is damaging people and the planet,’ the report said. ‘This is not some dystopian future; this is happening here and now, on our watch.’”

Reflecting on XR’s achievements to date, Knight noted how, after April’s actions, in which “activists glued themselves to buildings, climbed on trains, chained themselves to company headquarters, and occupied key intersections”, representatives of the group ended up “meeting with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, and on May 1st, in accordance with one of their demands, Members of Parliament declared a climate and environment emergency, becoming the first national legislature to do so. In June, MPs agreed to another Extinction Rebellion request: to convene a citizens’ assembly, made up of a representative sample of the British population, to discuss the climate crisis. Although the assembly’s recommendations will not be legally binding, as the protesters wished, Extinction Rebellion’s language and its policy agenda have moved into the mainstream at remarkable speed.”

This is certainly true, but to revisit Greta Thunberg’s assessment of politicians, all of these pledges mean nothing if they are not followed up with specific actions to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis, and on this point, it seems to me, the main message from last week’s ’Summer Uprising’ was the need for increased direct action aimed at those responsible for the crisis.

Last week I was entertained by the boat that activists brought to the Royal Courts of Justice, which they named ‘Polly Higgins’, in memory of the lawyer turned environmental activist who died of cancer earlier this year, and who “dedicated her life to fighting to create ecocide law that would make corporate executives and government ministers criminally liable for the damage they do to ecosystems”, and I enjoyed hanging out in Waterloo Millennium Garden, where XR had been allowed to set up a camp that had the feel of a free festival, and that was a great place to meet other activists. 

However, while actions took place throughout the week, a coherent overview was lacking. A call for a “tax rebellion” that took place outside City Hall on Thursday, with Londoners urged to refuse to pay a fifth of their council tax payments (the portion that goes to the GLA) as a protest against the Mayor’s lack of meaningful action on climate change, is an intriguing idea, but it frankly has little chance of being widely adopted, and, in any case, it also rather lets councils off the hook for their own climate-related hypocrisy.

Instead, the most significant event of the week was the blockade, on Tuesday morning, of London Concrete in Bow, a company targeted for their involvement in the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel, a £1bn toll road under the River Thames, whose construction is insane from an environmental point of view — and shamefully hypocritical for a city whose Mayor has declared a climate emergency. In addition, although the tunnel’s supposed justification is to alleviate the congestion of the Blackwall Tunnel, the reality is that will only facilitate more traffic, and therefore generate more pollution. For further information, see the ‘No to Silvertown Tunnel’ campaign, and the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition.

This is exactly the sort of direct action that is required to highlight the hypocrisy of politicians, from central government to the Mayor of London and the GLA, to local councils, but it’s noticeable that, while the Metropolitan Police’s approach to theatrical occupations in central London has generally been peaceful, the protestors at London Concrete were dealt with far less gently, with six people – three men and three women, aged between 30 and 67 – swiftly arrested “on suspicion of aggravated trespass and obstruction of a highway.”

Back in April, the Met got into a bit of a pickle trying not to give XR protestors what they wanted — to get arrested — having correctly surmised that violently arresting demonstrably non-violent protestors was likely to provoke a backlash, and as anyone who has seen footage of French police aggressively pepper-spraying protestors on a bridge in Paris recently can attest to, their restraint was commendable. Ironically, it also led directly to XR campaigners finding themselves engaged in a week-long occupation of central London that demonstrated how much more pleasant life would be if the capital’s unfettered vehicle use was severely curtailed.

However, while the week involved a bizarre ballet of sporadic arrests, with over a thousand people arrested (only a handful of which were in association with specific direct actions, like the Christian climate activists who glued themselves to a train at Canary Wharf), the Met and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are now talking up the “threat” posed by protestors, and are determined to prosecute all of those who were arrested, prompting Mike Schwartz of Bindmans, one of the defence lawyers involved, to tell the Guardian that “the move by the police and the CPS appeared to be ‘a deliberate and expensive’ attempt to ‘browbeat those in society most motivated to do all they can, peacefully but firmly, to mitigate environmental collapse.’”

He added, “This is an extraordinary decision at a time of austerity, a creaking criminal justice system, rising knife crime and falling rape prosecutions. The proportionality and altruism of the community’s actions is in stark contrast to the face-saving short-termism of the authorities.”

Schwartz is right, of course, but as the London Concrete example shows, the real “threat” to the authorities doesn’t involve blocking streets and bridges and engaging in political theatre; it actually involves hitting “business as usual” where it hurts, and exposing the hypocrisy of politicians with their fine words that mean nothing.

If activists are serious about continuing to exert pressure on politicians, they need to recognise that targeting those most involved in environmental destruction is vitally important. After the London Concrete arrests, Commander Jane Connors of the Met said that the police were “aware that protesters [were] expected to target the construction industry” throughout the rest of the week. Apart from a protest against the “super-sewer” in Bermondsey, focused on the dangerous amounts of concrete involved, I’m not aware that any other actions targeting the construction industry took place, but there are plenty of targets that should be hit if campaigners are serious about forcing urgent political change, and getting politicians to understand that they will repeatedly be exposed as hypocrites for declaring climate emergencies and then doing nothing about it.

Across the capital, vast housing projects are underway, which are all environmentally ruinous. Some are on brownfield sites, and on a truly depressing scale (like the insanely huge building site at Nine Elms, stretching from Vauxhall Bridge to the absurd Battersea Power Station development) while others involve the demolition of council estates that can — and should — be refurbished if there is an iota of truth in councils’ claims that they recognise the urgency of the climate emergency. 

As I write this, contractors working for Southwark Council and Notting Hill Genesis, two merged housing associations that have turned into an aggressive private developer and colossal polluter, are knocking down Chiltern House, a huge concrete block of flats on the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, as part of the regeneration of what was formerly one of Europe’s largest council estates.

Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, being prepared for demolition, June 11, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

When I recently posted a photo I took of Chiltern House in 2013, as part of my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, I came across a fascinating article in the Journal of Green Building by Mike Kane and Ron Yee, two senior lecturers on the Masters in Architecture course at London South Bank University (LSBU), who wrote about the environmental cost of destroying the block, one of seven on the estate as a whole, and the second to be demolished. 

As they explained, “The carbon cost of constructing this building was extremely high. The reinforced concrete structural frame (excluding partition walls and internal elements) is estimated to weigh in excess of 20,000 tonnes which equates to approx. 1,800 tonnes of emitted CO2 for the concrete alone. This figure is significantly increased with the remainder of the construction process and transport emissions. Demolition of Chiltern House requires in the region of 800+ HGV truck journeys through London’s congested streets, and the use of heavy demolition machinery will greatly add to the figure again. Clearly, the CO2 emission cost of reaching just the cleared site (after only 40 years of housing use) is very high; moreover, if the replacement building is of conventional construction (with only 30 year warranty), then the overall environmental cost of providing additional homes is enormous.”

Chiltern House is the biggest block currently being demolished despite politicians’ lip service to the climate emergency, but many dozens of other estates are being demolished or are facing demolition across the capital, with no sign that anyone involved intends to acknowledge their hypocrisy, or to accept that refurbishment (for which zero funding currently exists at any level of our political life) is the only course of action that is acceptable from an environmental point of view. 

And elsewhere, of course, the many dozens of purely private developments also continue to rise up, with no regard whatsoever for their environmental cost. All of these projects involve a huge array of councils, developers and contractors, who all need to be told in no uncertain terms that they urgently need to rethink their entire business model.

Are you up for it, rebels?

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my report about the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Summer Uprising’ last week, and, in particular, the significance of activists’ blockade of London Concrete in east London, as part of protests against the Silvertown Tunnel. This led to immediate arrests, unlike most of the group’s more theatrical manifestations in central London, and my conclusion is that, although the most remarkable consciousness-raising and political engagement has taken place over the last nine months via XR and Greta Thunberg, much more direct action is needed against polluters; for example, against the hugely environmentally polluting housing industry.

  2. Damo says...

    Well done ER but expect the establishment to start a fightback. the days of passivity and non violence are coming to an end more direct action now…Andy I don’t want to seem alarmist but the violence that is on its way unless we act now you would be horrified to see as climate change starts to really impact people will become more crazy more feral more uber violent and murderous when people are desperate and frightened they will do desperate things and that means resorting to violence.. We are in a frightening era Andy and for the first time I’m starting to feel like abandoning society if I could planning an escape go and live in the wilderness somewhere thank god for this growing awareness now thanks to ER.. Andy I’m so glad you have filters on your site and FB page.. I’ve unfortunately dumped and blocked /unfolowed all left wing sites on FB because they are now overrun by rightwing trolls and bots and you get dragged into fights and they are always dim these trolls but it’s exhausting and I’m now just not prepared to take the bait or waste time and energy..Owen Jones and the left sites need to start monitoring their comments now

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Damo. Yes, I agree. It’s hard to think about, but the longer people don’t the worse the shock will be. But most people are still stuck in their bubbles, thinking how clever we all are, or how there have never been such wonderful opportunities ever in the whole of human existence, instead of seeing all the warning signs and realising that we need to act now.
    Your last comment about trolls chimes with me, as I’ve been aware for years that tech companies and the media should have done much more than they did to stop the anonymised vileness that has become the world of online comments. In the pre-internet era, you had to go to the pub to spew this kind of filth, and risk getting your lights punched out. Now the cowards and the bullies are everywhere.

  4. Damo says...

    The grotesque thing Andy is the trolls on the sites are a certain demographic and of a certain age and class over 60 the level of selfishness and stupidity is off the scale and your a waste of time I know exactly how a no Deal or Boris will affect them and here’s an example from poor owens page after I’d explained to this halfwit how Boris hates him…. You clowns belive wot you want I’m still never gonna follow that poncy little gimp nonce boy Owen.. Owen Jones by now must have very thick skin I don’t know if I could take that shit day after day.. It’s become vile this country

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Those administering the internet have a lot to answer for, Damo, in allowing the proliferation of filth. People shouldn’t even be thinking these things, let alone making them public. Anyway, try and enjoy the sun. I’m off to WOMAD, back next week – and then we really should meet up!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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