The first of a three-part critique of Extinction Rebellion, focussing on their attitudes towards the police, legal system and prison.
Content note: police brutality, institutional sexual violence, incarceration
Out of the Woods are utterly convinced of the need for action addressing ecological crisis by any means necessary. But not all means are necessary.
Across this three part critique we aim to show that the tactics, organisational form and strategies utilized by Extinction Rebellion (XR) are not just unnecessary, but are deeply damaging. They endanger those participating, other groups using direct action to struggle for political change (both now and in the future), and frame ecological crisis in ways that leave the door open for dystopian 'solutions'. We make these critiques not to denigrate those who have taken part in their activism: we admire the commitment and bravery frequently evident, and we stand in solidarity with those who face state repression as a result.1 So severe are these concerns that we discourage participation in XR actions.
We are not alone in criticizing XR. While we feel the criticisms outlined here are distinct, we acknowledge the work of others who we build upon, and who we hope to be read in dialogue with. 2
Our concerns about XR’s praxis operate across three fundamental levels: their tactics (how they carry out their actions), their organisation (how they are structured), and their strategy (their longer-term plan for action):
Tactics: XR’s positioning of the police and security forces as tactical allies, and their method of seeking as many arrests as possible places those who participate in their actions in unnecessary danger. It provides a propaganda service for the police and prisons, who will only ever be enemies in the fight for ecological flourishing. It also creates significant dangers for other groups involved in direct action and collective struggle, including those who work with XR and those who may form in the future.
Organisation: those who take part in XR’s actions do so at considerable personal risk, yet the gains from this are accrued by its leadership. Furthermore, despite nods to non-hierarchical modes of organising, XR remains a top-down organisation with little space for dissensus.
Strategy: the manner in which XR leaders intend to take forward the momentum and influence accrued by its actions are deeply flawed. They misunderstand the nature of the crisis, the role of the state, the role of capital, and frequently repeat eco-nationalist ideals. They will lead not to ecological flourishing, but at best to a green dystopia.
We do not expect any organisation to emerge perfectly formed, of course. This is particularly so at our current moment, with little historical memory of direct action in and as collective struggle. This is in no small part due to the violent actions of the police and the state, who have deliberately and diligently worked to destroy previous collective struggles aimed at ecological flourishing. Yet the severity of our concerns, particularly in light of XR’s anti-democratic structure, means that we do not believe it is worthwhile seeking to reform XR from within (as some of us have attempted to do).
Below we provide our critique of XR’s tactics. In the coming weeks we will publish the second and third parts of our critique, focussing on XR’s organisational form and its strategy, in turn. Whilst XR is establishing groups internationally, our primary focus across the three parts of our critique is on the UK, as this is where the group is currently achieving the greatest amount of traction, and where the knowledges and experiences of the OotW members involved in writing this piece are grounded.
An Introduction to Extinction Rebellion’s Tactics
Extinction Rebellion seek to get their supporters arrested, and hope for some of them to be imprisoned. In a now-famous video shot at the London bridge blocking protest in November 2018 (which launched XR into public consciousness), founder Roger Hallam is seen organising protesters on London’s Lambeth Bridge. After corralling protesters into the centre of the carriageway, he tells a Police Liaison Officer that ‘we don’t really want to block the roads’, and complains to this cop that ‘the arrests aren’t happening quickly enough’. He even suggests the police hire buses so they can ferry arrestees away (a tactic gladly adopted at XR’s April 2019 protests). Hallam makes clear the logic behind this tactic in an article for The Guardian:
...only through disruption, the breaking of laws, do you get the attention you need....only through sacrifice – the willingness to be arrested and go to prison – do people take seriously what you are saying. And...only through being respectful to ourselves, the public and the police, do we change the hearts and minds of our opponents.
XR leaders are more than respectful to the police. They actively assist them in making arrests and the courts in securing convictions. For example, they spread word of Section 14 orders placing limits on protest: people can only be prosecuted for breaking one of these if they were aware of its existence. Such tactics seem to be working: the Metropolitan Police arrested around 1,100 people at XR’s April 2019 protest, announced it was looking to pass details of all of them to the Crown Prosecution Service, and these cases are now being brought to court.
Such a model of social change (which we will focus on in our subsequent piece addressing XR’s strategy) leads Hallam and XR to position ‘[t]he security forces [as] something you want to subvert, not denigrate.’ This is an astonishing method for anyone with experience of protest in the UK, but it is central to XR’s (mis)understanding of power. The police are positioned as antagonistic facilitators, rather than enemies, of struggle. Incredibly, Hallam claims that the Metropolitan Police ‘are probably one of the most civilized forces in the world’, employing a ‘professional team of guys who go to social protests.’ Accordingly, XR ignore decades of experience to argue that refusing to talk to the police ‘is more likely to provoke police violence’, and suggest that participants in actions should talk to officers about their motivations when protesting and, if arrested, at the police station.
For XR, the experience of being arrested by these ‘professional guys’ is likely to be civilizing too. An advert for their ‘Non-Violent Direct Action Training’ notes that it covers ‘how much fun it can be being locked up’, whilst another XR founder, Gail Bradbrook, has stated that [article behind FT subscriber wall]:
there is no better place to confront the heartbreak of climate change than a custody suite. In her experience, being arrested has a “spell-breaking” quality, transmuting society’s deeply ingrained pressures to conform into a new-found sense of personal power. Several other Extinction Rebellion volunteers have reported similar epiphanies: one underwent an emotional catharsis as — alone in her cell — she finally felt safe to weep her deepest tears; another sensed a powerful connection with a lineage of freedom fighters past.
It’s not just the police cell which XR claim provides empowering epiphanies: for them prison can be 'a moving and maturing experience', albeit one that requires 'a certain amount of self-awareness and detachment'; a 'form of "transcendence" to realise that it is not about "you".' In their now deleted guide to prison, they made the astonishing (and plain wrong) claim that if you ‘maintain a low profile and listen to people - there is plenty to learn from this environment.’
The Police are not for Subverting3
There is, indeed, plenty to learn. But XR’s leaders are not listening. Instead, they obfuscate the role that the police and prisons play in society, and lie about the dangers they pose to arrestees and protesters. In response to criticism, they have now acknowledged the ‘structural racism’ of the police and legal system and noted police 'lies, assault, the spy cop trauma and worse', but the fact that this is the function of the police is overlooked. Indeed in that same text they do not just whitewash the police and prison service but repeat their propaganda. They are even happy for supporters to ‘express gratitude and love towards police officers’, despite ‘understand[ing]’ that this may ‘be difficult and alienating [for some] to witness’.4
This is not the naivety of a new organisation, nor simply of those whose privilege has previously sheltered them from the realities of the police, CPS and prisons. It is willful and malicious manipulation that comes in the face of repeated warnings from other groups and XR activists absolutely committed to using (sometimes illegal) direct action to avert further ecological crisis. In a statement that makes clear the impunity with which XR leaders believe they operate, the mutual aid legal support group Green and Black Cross (GBC) have said that, 'at least for now', they are 'stepping back from providing support to Extinction Rebellion as an organisation'.
As GBC make clear, the consequences of this extend to other organisations who work with XR, and to those who also seek to use direct action to force action around ecological justice outside or after XR. These misunderstandings and misrepresentations also reveal the position of privilege from which XR operates, and assumes those participating in its actions share. One of their ‘10 Working Principles’ may be to actively mitigate power, but this is actively facilitating its abuse.
For his part, Hallam claims that opposition to the police is based on “ideological reasons”. We don’t disagree per se, but whereas for us ideology is a way of understanding the world based on experience and critical understanding (and something that no-one can operate without), for him it is a dogmatic set of assumptions that hinder true insight. He claims, for example, that ideology prevents too many people from understanding that “the police can be cooperative in a particular set of circumstances”, and “taking advantage of [the] new possibilities” that arise from this understanding. The only evidence-detached dogma here is his.
Police violence primarily takes two, closely related, forms: the repression of mass movements that threaten the divisions of wealth and power in our society; and daily acts of harassment, intimidation and more explicit violence that are mediated by and through class, race, gender, mental and physical health, (perceived) migration status, (dis)ability, wealth and sexuality. Whilst the former of these is more directly relevant for a critique of XR and so is what we focus primarily on here, we believe their inattention to the latter speaks to their failure to develop a movement for ecological flourishing open to and driven by those disproportionately facing the sharp end of ecological crisis (i.e. precisely those people most open to police violence, both structural and physical). It is also important to understand the manner in which these two forms of violence are intimately related: for the police, ‘threatening’ individuals are always seen as members of a broader collective that challenges the status quo. Black ‘suspects’ are never just suspects, but potential members of larger criminal enterprises. The goal of policing, then, is the collective discipline and punishment of these threatening collectives (real or perceived). This can be seen in Sam Swann’s report of XR protesters reporting ‘a couple of young men’ to the police for suspected pickpocketing: they were then subjected to immigration status checks.5 This process of racialisation and criminalisation is exemplary of how the police categorise people in order to exert social control, and form part of a taxonomy of violence connecting everyday policing to the more extra-ordinary methods used to deal with protest. That XR fail to understand this is evident in their lament that cuts to police budgets are hampering the fight against knife attacks. The tactics the police use to ostensibly tackle this problem - stop and search and other forms of intimidating, harassing and assaulting Black youths - are, in fact, part of the problem and do not work. Why are XR not instead offering solidarity and support to groups such as London Campaign Against Police and State Violence, who are hosting community workshops to explore issues of youth violence?
The repression of mass movements itself takes a number of forms. It played a significant role in ending the UK’s last sustained mass movement for ecological justice, revolving around a series of ‘Camps for Climate Action’ between 2006 and 2010. There is nothing in the history of policing to suggest that this can be mitigated by being ‘polite’ and talking to the police about your aims. Rather, such a response will aid the police in achieving their end: the maintenance or intensification of the status quo. This is clear in the police’s gleeful talk of higher arrest numbers at future protests, their desire to see XR arrestees charged and their agitation for more draconian anti-protest laws. Support for this approach has come from the influential 'centre-right' think tank Policy Exchange, who advocate [.pdf] treating XR as an 'extremist anarchist group' and ending the current 'soft touch' approach.
One of the most prominent Camps for Climate Justice took place during the 2009 protests against the G20 Summit in London. During these protests, the police used 25 undercover officers, at least some of whom acted as agent provocateurs, instigated brutal and illegal kettling, assaulted numerous protesters, and 'unlawfully' killed Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller walking through (but not participating in) the protests. He died of a heart attack after being attacked with a baton by police officer Simon Harwood, who had already committed acts of brutality that day and had previously been subject to ten complaints about his conduct in twelve years of policing. That he was allowed to continue policing in light of these complaints - one of which had lead to his resignation from Surrey Police prior to joining the Met - makes clear that he was not simply a ‘bad apple’, but a violent thug enabled by a violent system. The police continued to defend Harwood after Tomlinson’s death, which they blamed on ‘violent protesters’ until video they attempted to suppress showed otherwise.
In the wake of subsequent bad publicity, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary (supposedly independent, but close to the police and at the time led by a former police officer) produced a report advocating that the police take an ostensibly more friendly approach to policing protests. One element of this was the introduction of ‘Police Liaison Officers’ (PLOs). To protesters on the ground, these often appear as friendly, chatty cops who are genuinely taking an interest in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Indeed, it’s one of these officers Hallam talks to in the Lambeth Bridge video referenced above, and to whom we assume he refers when he speaks of a ‘professional team of guys who go to social protests’. Yet as Netpol note, the primary function of PLOs is to gather information on protests, which is then used to help the police plan their (often brutal) response. They will also often spread disinformation designed to reduce the effectiveness of or end a protest, or get protesters arrested. At the 2014 protests against fracking at Balcombe in Sussex, police admitted that evidence gathered by PLOs helped them repress the escalation of protest. PLOs have also been used to harass activists at their homes. Effective Legal Observers on the ground at protests can inform people about their true role, but XR’s ‘inadequately’ trained Observers are passing information to the police themselves and are potentially ‘worse than [there being] no legal observers’.
It is worth noting, too, that XR’s ‘professional’ and ‘civilized’ police have devastated the lives of many fighting for ecological flourishing through the use of spycops. These undercover officers have infiltrated numerous activist groups around the country (often through sexual relationships with activists), where they have played a role in organising protest and encouraging violence, and fed information back to commanders in order that spectacular mass arrests can be made (and widely publicized, scaring people out of activism). Through the spying of undercover cops and these arrests, the police gather extraordinary amounts of evidence about individual activists, networks, tactics, strategies, targets and funding sources.6
Police harassment of activists takes a number of other forms. The Blacklist Support Group recently revealed that activists have been harassed by the police as they prepare for a new public inquiry. 'For some time now the Metropolitan Police have been visiting activists’ homes unannounced and sending letters asking people to contact them in regards to the undercover police officers who kept us under surveillance', they write. The queer anti-austerity organiser Beth Granter has written of harassment she experienced by Sussex Police between 2012 and 2014: this involved them speaking to her boss over the phone, and threatening to hold her accountable for ‘crime and disorder’ at events she had nothing to do with. The families of school-children announcing their anti-fascist sympathies are today facing similar bullying tactics by anti-terror police.
Experiences of arrest, meanwhile, are often far from the monastically epiphanous experience touted by XR. Arrestees are frequently held for as long as possible without charge, with hours of isolation and discomfort in a cell broken only by an interview. These interviews are used both to gather intelligence on the protest and to see if information can be extracted which might lead to a prosecution. In encouraging arrestees to chat with officers about their intentions, XR are placing them and others at serious risk of prosecution: far more sensible advice is offered by Netpol and GBC, the latter of whom note that there is ‘no such thing as a friendly chat with a police officer. Everything you say can and will likely be used as evidence’.This is backed up by this important twitter thread by Ben Smoke, who was charged with a Terror offence after halting a deportation charter flight in 2017. The police will also gather further evidence from any electronic devices you have on you at your time of arrest, often refusing to return them without good reason for months at a time. This will include contacts, meaning that the police gain information even about people who have not been arrested. XR’s refusal to use encrypted messaging services when discussing actions will aid them in this significantly.
The state’s weaponization of time is then extended where bail is granted (often with ludicrously draconian conditions attached), when activists are released far from home in the small hours of the morning and, where prosecution follows, in awaiting trial and court proceedings. At the time of their last action, XR were claiming that if you plead not guilty to any charges on a court appearance you can only be held on remand for ‘about 14 days at the maximum.’ This is wrong: you can be held on remand until trial, which may be months away. Their advice on prison is also dangerous: it is not, of course, a pedagogical retreat, but a violent and dehumanizing place.7 We would urge anyone sceptical about this to read this excellent article by former prisoner D Hunter in the Independent [trigger warning: rape]. Like us, Hunter agrees that direct action is needed to confront climate change, but state that they ‘cannot fathom an analysis where the prison system is used as a tool to defend the environment’. For them, as for so many, prison was a space producing trauma, sexual assault, poverty and violence.
Astonishingly, XR’s publicly available information contains no reference to ongoing support for those charged or convicted, and an internal XR bulletin has revealed that XR’s leaders have, to consternation from local groups, decided not to spend any of XR’s (considerable) funds on providing legal support. This is an astounding dereliction of duty, and - as we will expand upon in the final part of this critique - raises serious questions about XR’s decision-making processes and structures of power, which allow central figures to leverage power on a national scale through the risks undertaken and costs incurred by grassroots members.
Even where no charge is made, the police will have gathered significant amounts of data from each arrest: additions to ‘domestic extremism’ databases, the storage of DNA, and the sharing of information with forces around the country. Not only may this lead to intimidation of the kind detailed above, but it will also make the policing (and pressing of charges) of subsequent protests easier: ramifications for the long-term future of mass protest in this country are thus threatened.
Not the Struggle we Need
These are not the tactics of an institution that can be ‘subverted’. The police and prison service are not going to be won over by polite chats, nor come out in a rush of sympathy with ecological protesters. The odd individual officer may be curious, or even sympathetic, but even where such sentiments are not simply a pretence offered in the service of intelligence gathering, unless and until they cease to be police/prison officers they will be powerless to effect any change for the better. Rather, they will continue to be part of institutions that, for their entire history, have used violence, intimidation, trickery and sexual violence to prevent change for the better. They will continue, in short, to be the enemy of the struggle we so desperately need. By working with them, Extinction Rebellion show themselves not to be that struggle.
Our concerns do not end here. In Part Two of our critique we’ll argue that the dangers detailed above bring significant benefits to the leaders of Extinction Rebellion, who look to preserve this power structure through a lack of accountability and democracy. In Part Three we’ll explore the broader goals of XR, arguing that through their embrace of the state and capital and their mobilisation of nativist tropes they risk entrenching, rather than alleviating, the uneven impacts of ecological crisis.
Many thanks to the comrades and friends who contributed to this piece, including @bunnyrabble and many more.
- 1We also note that many involved in XR have offered their own critiques (see Gill Wescott’s letter), though some have felt it necessary to leave Extinction Rebellion altogether and join groups like Green Anti-Capitalist Front.
- 2This includes the widely-read open letter and list of demands produced by a range of groups led by Wretched of the Earth (though we find its political horizons somewhat limiting); Leah Cowan’s excellent essay for Gal-Dem, which focuses on XR’s whiteness, and Minne Rahman’s more sympathetic critique along similar lines; Ben Smoke and D Hunter on XR and prisons [trigger warning for rape in the second link]; and Ben Smoke and Punk Academic on the police (we are particularly opposed to the use of Fisher’s entirely unhelpful ‘Vampire Castle’ metaphor in the latter of these); and Doerthe Rosenow on the need to engage with the coloniality of ecological crisis rather than declare an undifferentiated imminent ‘extinction’.
- 3XR gestures towards different approaches to the police in other countries, writing in their FAQ that ‘We are making the strategic decision in some countries (including the UK) to liaise with the police, believing this will be more likely to support our goals. This is for specific countries to figure out, taking into consideration their own circumstances and the potential strategic opportunities that have been described.’
- 4 This speaks to XR’s concern for optics, and their desire to appeal to ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ people, which we criticize in the second part of this critique.
- 5Any mass protest is likely to attract people who, at best, have a limited understanding of the roles, functions and methods used by the police, and so we reference this not to condemn XR once-and-for-all, but rather to point to the dangers their attitudes to the police place people in.
- 6 It should absolutely be assumed that this undercover police are active within XR (though this is not in itself a criticism: it will be used in and against any group which appears to threaten the status quo in even the mildest manner), though the willingness with which XR encourages arrestees to pass on information may render them less of a necessity than might otherwise be the case.
- 7 It’s also wrong, ludicrously so: XR have stated that ‘most...prison officers are black’ (of the 65% of officers who had recorded an ethnicity as of March 2018, 94% are white).