(In and out of) XR

This year Extinction Rebellion became an unmissable phenomenon, since the ‘April uprising’ in the UK, during which they occupied several central London locations for up to 3 weeks, employing strategies of mass arrests (and keen marketing on the streets and via social media).

Founded as an offshoot of social justice organisation Rising Up!, XR are a self-organised, cell-structured non-violent civil disobedience movement. Anyone can declare themselves to be part of the Rebellion as long as they adhere to their list of principles and demands, and XR groups are organising as far and wide as Reykjavík, Dunedin, Goma (Congo) and the Solomon Islands. One of the movement’s aims is to bring around 3.5% of the population, a figure that is required to bring social change, according to their research.

Charly, and XR organiser from Mexico speaking at Cumpre Social por el Clima, Madrid 2019.

Following criticism earlier this year, notably by the UK BPoC organisation Wretched of the Earth, who wrote in an open-letter:

XR says that “The science is clear: It is understood we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. We are in a life or death situation of our own making. We must act now.”  You may not realize that when you focus on the science you often look past the fire and us – you look past our histories of struggle, dignity, victory and resilience. And you look past the vast intergenerational knowledge of unity with nature that our peoples have. Indigenous communities remind us that we are not separate from nature, and that protecting the environment is also protecting ourselves. In order to survive, communities in the Global South continue to lead the visioning and building of new worlds free of the violence of capitalism. We must both centre those experiences and recognise those knowledges here.

The XR Camp in Berlin last October was also met with some skepticism by the local BIPoC community. On the first day of the blockades a BIPoC group staged an intervention in the campsite opposite the Reichstag. A banner-drop announcing the names of murdered environmental activists in the ‘Global South’, was dismissed by camp organisers who attempted to remove the counter-protestors.

BIPoC activists banner drop the XR Camp Berlin 2019.

I’m told that when a representative of this group tried to make a statement on XR Berlin’s Facebook page, it was not approved. Soon after XR posted this graphic:

Such acts and incidents reinforced opinions in Berlin that XR is a movement by and for privileged white people.

XR were a significant presence in Madrid 2019. Organising as their own distinct group, they undertook a series of interventions and ‘creative’ actions. For me these were reminiscent of the activities undertaken during the Climate Games at COP21, but with a different energy and focus.

XR were a notable presence in Sound Swarm #5, a protest sound performance and choreograpy organised by Grey Filastine, a verteran activist and musician. Sound Swarm was first produced by Filastine and the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination for a bike bloc at COP15, Copenhagen 2009.

Having filled out Sound Swarm’s ranks for the December 6 Manifestacíon in the streets of Madrid, Grey furthered the exchange by drumming in XR’s funeral parade for the rising and dying ocean, ‘Marcha de los Mares Muertes / The March of the Dead Seas’.

XR are a new and relatively young movement who are openly working things out as they proceed. Certainly some aspects of their organising and actions make me feel uncomfortable, such as their group chants of ‘Extinction Rebellion’. I suppose this affirms a group identity, but reminds me of football hooliganism or blind patriotism—especially when it is done by a group of white people in public space. I suppose this has to do with the politics of taking space; who feels empowered to do so and the (aesthetic) means by which they generate and express this power (and thus the cultural signifiers that are deployed). XR is not the diverse multitude in which I feel more at ease, but rather a group on a mission to recruit and disrupt, and arguably blinkered by the tunnel vision such focus entails.

While I was once disinterested in XR, I am now hesitant to dive in. At Madrid XR impressed me with the ways they could engage emotions in public with symbolic actions and thus shift popular sentiments towards their cause. I have noticed that alongside young people XR have attracted a number of people who might otherwise feel alienated and disenfranchised in a precarious world.

The action that struck a chord with me in Madrid was Guardians del Bosque / Guardians of the Forest’ on December 9 for which XR installed a Rebels Beyond Borders boat on a street across from the COP on which was painted the name Paulo Paulino Guajajara an Amazonian ‘forest guardian’ murdered last month. It had been announced the previous day that two more Guajajara activists, Firmino Guajajara and Raimundo Guajajara, had been murdered and their names were also added to the boat. As one participant described it to me, rather the talking about themselves, for a change XR established a platform for Indigenous leaders in front of the COP who were being marginalised and compartmentalised inside.

Minga Indígena and Extinction Rebellion’s Rebels Beyond Borders outside COP25, Madrid 2019.

I was not there, but a participant told to me that around 1pm Indigenous delegates joined the XR demonstration to talk about their experiences and the work that they do—and have done for centuries—to protect the forest and keep them in the condition that supports life as we know it. They discussed their campaign, Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More, which they brought to Europe in 2019. A large group of activists, COP attendees and the media had gathered, and my source tells me it was a very emotional event. After the Indigenous speakers returned to the COP, XR made a quick decision to take the street and set up camp for the night in solidarity. XR Madrid’s Instagram is story here.

The white brigade chained themselves at the Retiro Park in Madrid, 2019. Photo from XR Unchained.

Given the global popularity and accessibility of the burgeoning movement/cult/brand/religion, I expect more and more Black and PoC will become involved in XR, and I am curious how their concerns will be voiced through the movement. In Berlin, I have heard of XR working groups organising around issues of race and gender.

Indeed, I am intrigued by the different Brigades that have emerged in the movement concerned with specific issues: the Blue Brigade for Oceans, the Red Rebel Brigade for whom the colour symbolises our ‘common blood’, the White Brigade and so on. It reminds me of Japanese teen cults or the colour branding of Thai political movements; Red, Yellow and Green. It also makes me wonder what form a Black/Brown Brigade might take in Berlin, if it were to operate both in and out of XR.

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