As people who read this blog on a halfway regular basis will have noted, my photo work on the Extinction Rebellion protests have been a fixture. At time of writing I’ve covered seven of their protests (or affiliated protests) in five cities, and all things being equal that’s going to continue into 2020. This then seemed like an opportune moment to take a look at what’s changed in the time I’ve been covering them.
Well they’ve gotten larger and they’ve attracted a lot of interest, not all of it good. A few weeks back XR was included in a Police issued guide to extremist groups, finding itself mentioned amongst a gut churning parade of Islamic extremists and Neo-Nazis. The various agencies involved were quick to state that they don’t consider XR in these terms, but I’d say that their inclusion in something like this would seem to indicate a degree of concern in government circles. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/10/xr-extinction-rebellion-listed-extremist-ideology-police-prevent-scheme-guidance
Why so? Well, they did shut down large parts of London. Twice. Once in April, once in October. And these things do cost money to police. Is it worth it? Who can say. On the other hand I turn on the news to discover that Australia is on fire, Russia isn’t getting snow in winter etc. And no official group seem too interested in doing much about any of it.
So much for the establishment. What does that old standby, the man in the street, reckon?
That’s actually very hard to tell. I’ve written about this before, because when you’re at one of these things everyone else there is likely to be in favour of what’s happening, that being why they’re there in the first place. I’ve seen and spoken to some people who disagreed. One in particular in London back in October sticks in my mind. I spoke to him at the Lambeth End of Westminster Bridge, and he was lamenting the knock on effect. He’d have been more than happy for people to protest outside the Palace of Westminster. Unfortunately blocking the bridge had an inevitable effect on St Thomas’ Hospital.
How else do you get the everyman’s opinion? Unfortunately one of the more popular methods involves diving into the well of seething bile that we refer to as social media. But, taking a quick scan down the results of a twitter search, I found the Daily Telegraph’s headline “Extinction Rebellion is a primeval anti-capitalist cult” so that seems a good place to start. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/10/12/extinction-rebellion-primeval-anti-capitalist-cult/
Anti-capitalist? Yeah, I’d say that describes quite a lot of them. It was one of the first issues I raised with a steward back in April in Trafalgar Square, shortly after I’d see some banner saying that communism was a solution (it didn’t actually say that, but you get the gist). I have to be honest, I don’t see communism as a solution to anything. We’ve tried communism, it doesn’t work. The former Sov-block wasted seven decades and untold millions of lives proving that simple fact. Even in purely environmental terms Communism gave the world Chernobyl, the Aral Sea and at least two of the world’s current most polluting states. It’s not an ideology that’s going to help the planet. On the other hand, neither is the current system, so there we are. Personally I like to think capitalism might help –that maybe we’ll all cut our carbon footprints by following Elon Musk rather than Al Gore. Will it work like that? Who can say – right now our existing political and economic models seem incapable of getting out of the mess we’re in, and yet workable alternatives are thin on the ground. And in any case, my personal wishes on this are largely down to the fact that I quite like late-stage capitalism in terms of what it can do for me – fast cars, cold beer, hi-tech cameras, constant pornography, well done steak – you may call all this bread and circuses, but it’s more than I’d have gotten back in the USSR.
No. Cults by definition are monomaniacal groups closely controlled by charismatic leaders. Right now I couldn’t name one of XRs leaders or founders off the top of my head, and the umbrella which is XR shelters a huge and growing number of smaller local groups who go to make up a whole. It’s not a cult, more a loose alliance of smaller tribes. Which is comforting on one level, because it means that if someone in the leadership has an incredibly bad idea, most of the people involved can go ahead and ignore them. Unfortunately it also means that when someone in a small group has a really bad idea, as long as it’s not violent or against the XR mandate the leadership aren’t able to disavow them or make them stop. Which is how you get idiocy like this –
If I have to choose one event that’s rather coloured my opinion of XR as a movement, this was it. Generally speaking I agree with what they’re trying to do, and the methods they use aren’t hurting anyone. I don’t see how yoga or the other new age business is going to help any of their stated aims, but if that’s how people want to approach this then it’s no skin off my nose. But I don’t see how any rational thought process would lead someone to pick a tube train in London during the rush hour as a smart target for a protest like this. It’s not the fact that the underground is fully electric and has the potential to be completely non polluting with a little green electricity. It’s not the fact that it’s a mass-transit solution which is used by millions every day thus keeping untold numbers of cars off the road. It’s not even the fact that the people you’ll be inconveniencing are the exact same people who you will need on your side if you’re going to get any kind of real change accomplished. No, it’s a combination of all of those things. But because XR is not a centralised organisation, and because it was a non-violent protest (at least at the beginning, and I’ve no sympathy for the protestor getting beaten up by irate commuters) all XR were able to say was that it would “take stock” and “have a period of reflection” a form of words also beloved of opposition leaders after historic election defeats.
I believe that was how our current Prime Minister described the rank and file (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49967784), so we should probably examine that as a statement.
Is it true?
To a degree yes – there are certainly people involved who fit that image. And I’d hazard an informed guess that you’re more likely to see an image of an extravagantly dreadlocked protestor with extensive tattoos and a relaxed attitude to personal hygiene accompanying a report on an XR protest, rather than a picture of a retired teacher with a cardigan and a flag. That’s both because it’s a more impactful image (trust me, I’m a photographer) but also because it’s the image people have been taught to expect in connection with the environment, climate protest and civil disobedience.
Is it accurate?
No, not really. Yes, you’ll find people who fit that description at many of the larger protests. And they’re likely to feature prominently as arrestables or lock-ons. But there aren’t enough of them to make up the ground-swell of a movement this size.
So the rest? They’ve been dismissed as white, middle-class, dilletantes. Well, a lot of them are indeed quite middle class – that varies from protest to protest, and I suspect it’s mostly down to simple economics. Who can afford to take time away from their work to go to one of these protests? I can apparently, but I’m a full time student with no dependents and a healthy disregard for material possessions. Were I self employed with two children then I’d find it a lot harder to justify. White? Well yes, many of them are. A lot of people in Britain are white. I’ve seen plenty of people at these protests who aren’t. Dilletantes? Depends on how you look at it.
While we’re discussing demographics, I should mention the retirees in the ranks. I suspect that’s largely down to practicalities. You get your pension whether you’re in a tent on Waterloo Bridge or sat at home watching Midsummer Murders. And it removes a major hurdle to being arrestable – if you’re not going to be applying for any jobs in the future, then a disqualifying criminal record holds no fear. I can think of far worse ways of spending my twilight years.
Well protests will continue. The first of the year that I’ve yet found will be in Cambridge in February. There will presumably be further mass protests of the kind seen in London in April and October of this year. The likely result of those? Well since October a new government has been elected. London has seen large parts of itself shut down twice in the last year, and whatever the public appetite for this, the police and central government are most likely loosing patience with it. The second protest in October saw the use of sweeping legal powers to detain those involved in the process. Many of these powers and injunctions were later deemed illegal, (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-50316561) but that’s rather beside the point – by the time they were deemed illegal they had already been used. If I were guessing, and it seems I am, then I would say this could be a sign of things to come.
I would also say that with each protest the surveillance of previous ones will come to the fore. In addition to the huge numbers of uniformed police at October’s protests, there were plain clothed officers present. They weren’t making an effort to be inconspicuous (the Metropolitan Police lanyards and liveried van were a giveaway) but I saw the same half dozen faces over several days. By extension that means they saw me, and somewhere a computer program will be trying to figure out where the guy with the old Nikons fits into all this. But I would guess that surveillance may lead to more of the pre-emptive arrests seen shortly before the October protest – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49946821 That’s just a guess, and probably an ill-informed one. I rather look forward to finding out. Credit where it’s due, the police I’ve seen and spoken to at these events have been great – professional, approachable and succesfully keeping everyone safe. That might not sound like a big ask when dealing with an avowedly non-violent organisation, but any event where you get a large number of people in an unusual environment has the potential for issues if only from a crowd control point of view. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of tense moments I’ve seen between police and protestors, and frankly I take comfort from that.
What’s next for me? Well I’ll keep covering the protests as well as I’m able. For a photographer it’s got several re-deeming features. The protests are big, bright, colourful. The situation is fluid, and you have to react to it as it happens. And after spending so many years as a street photographer walking around in the hope of seeing something worth photographing, to have something like this where you know when and where to start is a definite plus.
This will be my project.
All images used in this post are my own work, and I retain all rights to them. They are used as illustrations, and no direct link should be made between words and images unless specifically stated.