When police drew batons and scaled a vintage open-top bus in London Bridge on Tuesday, it symbolised a dramatic shift in the state’s approach to Extinction Rebellion.
Police officers smashed windows on the bus and wrestled with those onboard, putting activists in headlocks and throwing punches at them.
A line of yellow-jacketed police encircled the melee, shouting at another group of XR supporters arriving at the scene to stay back. Protesters booed and chanted: “We’re non-violent; how about you?”
It was a mark of the desperation in which XR now hold their cause that they labelled their latest two-week campaign of civil disobedience in London “the impossible rebellion”.
Launched less than a fortnight after a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of unprecedented and irreversible changes to the Earth’s climate, now destined to rise by at least 1.5C, activists had coalesced around a single demand: “stop all new fossil fuel investment immediately”.
But as the rebellion comes to a close, questions are being asked about whether XR has lost momentum. Numbers on protests have been fewer, media coverage has been far more critical and, save for the Green party, politicians have paid little attention.
It seemed even the most committed activists were fewer in number. As of Thursday evening, 483 people had been arrested in connection with the protests – compared with a total of 1,130 held during XR’s action in April 2019, and 1,768 the following October. For a movement that placed being arrested at the heart of its strategy, the drop seemed sobering.
XR’s latest protest campaign had been designed in two phases. First, a week of “crisis talks”: protesters would occupy busy areas where they could talk to passersby and discuss solutions to the climate crisis. Then the focus would move to the City of London, to disrupt the financial institutions they see as the key instigators of fossil fuel projects.
But as XR took to the streets, police were waiting. On the first Monday, a pink table installation activists hoped to hold for days in Covent Garden was isolated and removed by the next morning, foiling plans to make it a centrepiece for outreach. It was a similar story throughout the fortnight. XR would strike with a roadblock, installation or a theatrical direct action, and police would be hot on their heels.
Where cordoning off protests entirely could not work, as in the West End or Oxford Circus, officers would surround protest installations. Without activist support, protesters who had chained themselves in place were vulnerable; police could get removal teams in, cut them loose and arrest them. Dispersal orders would be issued and officers would begin by targeting XR’s drummers and music: kill the vibe, the strategy seemed to be, and the protest would melt away.
Extinction Rebellion protesters gather in Covent Garden area on August 23, the first day of the group’s latest ‘rebellion’. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
“[Police] seemed intent to limit the time and the opportunity for the public to witness our protests as early as they can, so essentially not enabling a protest installation or the centre of the protest to become the focus for the public to interact with,” said Richard Ecclestone, a former inspector with Devon and Cornwall police who is one of XR’s police liaisons. The apparent urgency of police interventions – as at London Bridge – had led to safety issues, he said, with many activists hurt.
“They would charge into action, almost like going over the top from the trenches, and acting just so unsafely and then inevitably they use force – disproportionately, in my view – against non-violent protesters. And I think that’s a significant escalation.”
Challenged over claims of unreasonable force in the policing of XR’s demonstrations, the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner Matt Twist told the Today programme on Radio 4 on Friday that groups “have absolutely the right to protest and the right to assemble” but no right “to cause very serious disruption to the public”.
“Of course again, this [the climate crisis] is a hugely important cause,” Twist said. “But the police can’t take a view on the importance of the cause, we have to deal with this without fear or favour, we have to be impartial.”
As much as the police’s tactics had changed, so had XR’s. In 2019, the group seized control of major junctions and bridges, establishing campsites in the heart of London. This time actions were designed to be more fluid. Broadcasts issued via Telegram channels told supporters where to go each morning, with marches coalescing at pop-up occupations intended to catch police – who were no longer given advance warning of actions – off guard.
But without semi-permanent protest sites, XR could not draw passing crowds as it had previously. Committed activists could get involved, but fewer casual visitors could find a way to take part.
“It’s not the same as holding a space and really feeling like you are blocking and causing civil disruption,” said Jayne Forbes, 65, from north London, as she walked with a small protest march past Downing Street on Wednesday.
Forbes, a former chair of the Green party, felt the message – and the media coverage – was still getting out, and she still believed XR was crucial. But, she added: “It’s interesting how we are going to progress it now. I do think we will have to go to another level to get the government to notice.”
The XR protests have been heavily criticised by some commentators, but Sara Vestergren, a social psychologist at Keele University who specialises in protests, said: “Regardless of what you think about the tactics, I don’t think anyone can deny that they’ve done a fantastic job in raising awareness. If we didn’t have any active groups fighting for the environment, God knows where we’d be.”
She agreed with accusations the protests may alienate some: “But I don’t know if those people would be interested in environmentalism in general.”
Leo Barasi, a campaign consultant and author of The Climate Majority: From Apathy to Action, agreed XR had transformed the debate around the environment. “But they’re running into diminishing returns,” he said. “Climate change is already the second-top priority for the UK public, ahead of the economy, immigration and crime. Media coverage of climate change is more widespread than it was before the 2019 protests, and what XR are doing isn’t so novel now.”
XR activists at the demonstration outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock
There are also significant questions about how much XR has been able to influence real policy. Currently, as one protest speaker pointed out this week, the most significant XR-inspired piece of legislation making its way through parliament is a bill to severely curtail protest.
XR’s activists know change is needed. “There’s definitely been a contraction in XR,” Gail Bradbrook, the movement’s co-founder, told the Guardian. “But I see it stabilising and getting stronger.”
Support for the group remains strong in other ways. XR point out that ahead of the latest actions, they raised £100,000 from supporters in just 24 hours. A recent poll showed 81% of people in the now UK regard the ecological situation as a “global emergency” – the highest proportion the world.
Bradbrook sees XR as undergoing a shift in emphasis. “A really important pivot that we have done this year is from talking about there is an emergency and sounding the alarm to talking about why there is not an emergency response, that that pivot has been about focusing on the political economy,” she said.
Now it was time to get out into communities, she added. In the social interregnum of the Covid pandemic, local XR groups had morphed into mutual aid networks. “It’s what we build from that,” Bradbrook said. “What do you do that’s part of the change you want to see?”