Extinction Rebellion ‘own goal’ shows why climate action needs working-class people at the forefront

Ed Sykes

During the Thursday morning rush hour, Extinction Rebellion (XR) scored a massive “own goal”, according to critics. Because by targeting a Tube train in east London with a protest, an XR activist revealed an apparent disconnect between the movement and ordinary working-class communities. And the situation soon turned ugly as a result.

“Own goal”

The global climate crisis is a massively important issue, and requires urgent action. Business as usual is most certainly not an option. But XR’s protest tactic on Thursday was a big misstep that only did harm to the cause.

After climbing on top of a train at the busy Canning Town station, an activist had drinks thrown at him by furious commuters, before being yanked from the train to the platform floor, much to the apparent delight of the cheering crowd.

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One man yelled “I need to get to work, I have to feed my kids”, while others shouted insults at activists. Critics were also out in force on Twitter, angry that the “most sustainable form of travel possible” had been targeted. They also said the action had ‘alienated’ working-class people, and that activists should focus their efforts “on politicians & the top of big corporations & banks” (i.e. “those who create the problem” of climate breakdown):

Others highlighted that, for meaningful change to happen, activists very much “need” working-class people’s backing:

A wrong turn for an important movement

Since last week, XR protesters have targeted London City Airport, shut down areas around parliament and the Bank of England, and blockaded Google’s HQ. But many posts on the XR London Facebook page expressed concerns that the Tube stunt was counterproductive and should not have gone ahead.

XR spokesperson Howard Rees told the PA news agency: “Was it the right thing to do? I am not sure. … I think we need to take stock of it.”

The action is the latest in a series from XR, which police have controversially banned from protesting in London. A legal bid to overturn the order is expected to reach the High Court on Thursday afternoon.

British Transport Police confirmed eight people had been arrested on suspicion of obstructing the railway on Thursday, and also urged commuters not to “take matters into their own hands”.

From bad to worse…

That wasn’t the end of the controversy, though. Because XR then apparently compared the Tube protesters to civil rights activist Rosa Parks. In a now-deleted tweet, the official XR Twitter account wrote: “Rosa Parks refused to move from the white section of the bus and our rebels refused to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to #ActNow. Our #InternationalRebellion against the complicity of our governments in the climate and ecological emergency continues.”

Rosa Parks was an African-American activist in Montgomery in the US. She was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger after boarding a segregated bus.

For many, XR’s tweet added insult to injury:

 

Others have criticised the comparison for being made during Black History Month.

We desperately need “working class solutions”

When Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party officially made a bold ‘Green New Deal’ its policy in September, trade unionist and Labour for a Green New Deal spokesperson Lauren Townsend stressed:

Environmental breakdown is a class issue which requires working class solutions. The Labour movement has voted to take leadership on the climate emergency with a response which puts people and planet before profit.

Backing the motion, meanwhile, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said:

For too long, big businesses and corporate polluters have allowed our planet to burn… Only a comprehensive programme of government and worker-led action can bring us out of this climate emergency…

we need democratic public ownership of not just the national grid, but the big energy companies too…

working class people are the crucial agents to tackle climate change. This is a pro-worker agenda – for working class communities and for workers’ jobs…

Unlike XR’s “own goal”, Labour seems to recognise that the climate justice movement needs working-class communities and organisations on its side – and in a leading role.

Because elitist ‘solutions’ have done so little to deal with the climate crisis, revolutionary change for working communities is essential. And that most certainly does not mean targeting the green public transport these communities rely on.

Featured image and additional content via Press Association

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  • Show Comments
    1. Let’s protest against people polluting the environment by inconveniencing the ones that are using the most energy efficient form of public transport.

      Maybe it’d be better to go and hassle people directly burning fossil fuels on the surface.

    2. Either the spies have infiltrated the XR protests or the organizers are incredibly stupid. Or both perhaps. I have no sympathy for the guy being brought down from the roof of the tube. He even managed to launch a kick before brought down. What a peaceful response!!!

    3. At least one guy was seriously and violently kicked and punched to all parts of his body and would have suffered even more serious injury if a black woman and train staff hadn’t intervened. The new is how the general public turn into a pack of dogs in 2019 not the poor little working class epithet. Your children and grand children are not going to have a future and may endure a fight for life for many years the type only seen on war footage and a few people are made late for work. I don’t care if it was the wrong target and I hope the thugs involved are prosecuted. You may find they are mid level management.

    4. Maybe targeting the relatively ecological tube was not the best idea, but all the tweets and comments about having to have the “working class” on side are way off the mark. We are all responsible for our overconsumption, and we all overconsume here in our first world countries, and anyone who thinks that the average commuter is not consuming much doesn’t seem to be making much sense to me. Those commuters need to reduce consumption just as much as anybody else, and 99% of them are not reducing much at all beyond a bit of recicling.
      Yes there are some people that behave worse than others as far as being ecological in their lifestyles goes, but those who think they are better should guard against feeling “better than thou” and therefore doing nothing themselves. If you are going to point the finger then you should be putting your own house in order at the same time.
      One last thing: If all these “working class” commuters can’t do the protesting because they need to “feed their family” (no suv’s or foreign holidays involved for any of them?), and the existing “middle class” and “student” protesters are not allowed to because they are so privileged, then who is actually going to protest?
      I myself am very happy and grateful that these people are prepared to give their time and in some cases liberty to protest in my name while I work, and to be honest I don’t care what “class” they come from.

    5. Well meant commentary but wrong diagnosis and wrong solution offered.

      Labour is at a critical time for itself and the UK at large. At the next general election Labour must appeal to people from divers backgrounds if it is to make a mark on the future of our society comparable in magnitude to the 1945 general election. There are similarities of circumstance in 1945 and 2019.

      In 1945 the people had emerged from a period of uncertainty, deprivation, and suffering; the UK was bankrupt and one may posit that had a Conservative government emerged it would, in the unlikely event it had deep social reforms in mind, have reined in social spending as justifiable ‘austerity until the economy improved.

      The run up to 2019 differs with respect to the nature and extent of suffering but there’s no doubting, as evinced by food banks and so forth, existence of pockets of genuine absolute (as distinct from relative) poverty and decline in quality of life and expectations for the future among the bulk of the rest of the population. Whilst voters in 1945 had suffered ‘austerity’ to finance a war, so it is that those in 2019 have undergone nearly a decade of austerity to rescue the financial sector, particularly banks, from its neo-liberal inspired folly rather than doing the sensible thing of letting rotten to the core institutions go into liquidation.

      The challenge for 2019 is to convince a broad swathe of voters, many of whom, such as I, hitherto would not have dreamt of voting Labour in its Kinnoch/Blair/Brown manifestations, that the generality of people are burdened by poor public services, declining prosperity, reduction in plausible ambition for their children, and so forth, consequent upon de-regulation of markets, financialisation, unchecked greed, and a succession of governments corrupted by powerful vested interests. They need be persuaded of the root cause (neo-liberalism and the Ayn Rand ‘selfishness’ it spawns) and convinced that Johnson and his cronies, despite any tempting electoral bait (e.g. regarding taxation) they dangle, beckon down the road to worse.

      Yes, Labour ought stand for ‘socialism’ in the general sense of recognising the existence of ‘society’ as a mutually supportive arrangement rather than ‘may the Devil take the hindmost’ competition. That starting point does not necessitate lauding lowest common denominator expectations from life, manipulated trash popular culture, or belief that all opinions and life-style choices are of equal worth. It is about providing opportunities for the full sentience available only to those not dependent on subsistence living. Moreover, it entails ensuring even the least capable of availing themselves of opportunity may live in dignity. Its core belief is that everyone is entitled to a share of income/wealth generated by economic activity; how that is apportioned must rely on a mix of principle and flexible pragmatism; the latter entailing consideration of motivation and incentive but not in the ludicrous manner adopted following neo-liberal doctrine.

      Labour ought point out how active participation, e.g. creating goods and offering services, in a mixed economy of private enterprise (regulated) and public services is beneficial to all whereas rentier economics (e.g. land and buildings thereupon, and distributing so-called ‘intellectual property’) are a drain on individual resources and an opportunity cost for the UK as a whole. Consider the reduction in the cost of living for individuals and business should property rental costs be rendered negligible. Even the price of a pint in the pub is inflated by rental: that of the building/franchise and that gouged out for negligible effort by such as Premier League football live broadcasts. The man in the street will intuitively grasp rip-offs when pointed out to him.

      Language used is very important. People spouting on about the ‘working class’, ‘working class solutions’ ‘solidarity’, ‘class loyalty’, ‘class warfare’, ‘inequality’ (rather than variations), ‘inclusiveness’ and in the next breath ‘diversity’, and a host of other terms in the traditional but now anachronistic Labour lexicon, will help turn away potential Labour voters at time of desperate need. A lexicon based upon expressions of the underdog and derived from long forgotten political/social battles is unattractive. Ideas contained within some of the terms and retaining present day currency ought be expressed differently.

      The article prompting these remarks exemplifies how ill-chosen expressions can deflect attention away from matters worthy of consideration. Opting to portray confrontation of climate change protesters by discommoded commuters in terms of ‘working class’ angst is to misrepresent what went on and to lose sight of the key issue. Although in one sense almost everybody dependent on employment may be called ‘working class’ that means little and triggers suspicion of ‘luny left’ in people not brought up to treasure Labour mythology: ‘proud to be working class’, as if that portrays fulfilment of an ambition.

      A better description of the documented events would be of angry commuters drawn from divers educational, income, and cultural sources, working together to get rid of pests. The underlying point being that people disrupting the lives of others so as to make an ideological statement are arrogant and burdened by specious sense of entitlement. Introducing Rosa Parks into the discussion adds nothing of relevance. Neither does extensive quotation of ‘Tweets’ as if they were authoritative texts; a habit sadly endemic in what passes as journalism these days.

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