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Extinction Rebellion: ‘Shifting the zeitgeist’ through mass arrests

XR’s non-violent civil disobedience is putting the climate crisis at the forefront of public awareness

EnvironmentSocial Movements

XR protesters march down Vancouver’s Main Street, September 25, 2021. Photo by Cole Schisler.

On Monday, October 25, a group of over 70 activists occupied an intersection to disrupt access to the Vancouver International Airport. Impassioned speeches were made about the climate emergency and the impending mass extinction of humankind and about Canada’s ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. After nearly 30 minutes, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that those who did not vacate the intersection would be arrested.

As most began to clear out, 18 people sat in a line across the intersection and refused to leave. One by one, each of them was arrested. Most decided to “go limp,” a form of non-compliance with arrest, requiring the police to carry them away on stretchers before being rounded up in paddy wagons and taken to the station for processing. Later, as those arrested were released from the police station, Indigenous elders greeted them with more singing, drumming, and the burning of sage, and bowls of chili were passed around.

This was day 11 of Extinction Rebellion’s “October Rebellion,” in which demonstrators blocked bridges and occupied major intersections across Vancouver every day for two weeks. Their goal was to call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and highlight Prime Minister Trudeau’s inadequate climate action in the lead-up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. Over the course of these 14 days, 54 demonstrators were arrested in Vancouver alone.

XR is a global environmental movement founded in the United Kingdom in 2018 that has since spread to every continent. Through non-violent civil disobedience, their aim is to compel governments to take action regarding climate change and put the climate crisis at the forefront of public awareness—even if that means mass disruption. “We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience that this causes,” their website reads.

The rationale behind mass arrests

Protest action that incurs the risk of mass arrest is a central part of the XR movement, whose guiding philosophy is rooted in previous grassroots civil disobedience models, such as the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. The rationale is that causing mass disruption in urban centres and overwhelming criminal justice systems is the only way to force the government to listen.

This summer, British Columbia experienced a scorching heat dome, which claimed nearly 600 lives. The same mass swaths of the province that were literally burning this summer are now completely flooded. On Vancouver Island, some of the last remaining old-growth forests are being destroyed for corporate profits. Meanwhile, the Canadian government is a major investor in oil and gas, to the tune of $18 billion in 2020, making it the largest per-capita public spender on fossil fuels in the G20.

“If you look at the past 30 years of campaigning, carbon emissions have gone up by 50 percent,” explained Zain Haq, a 20-year-old Simon Fraser University student and an organizer of XR’s Vancouver chapter. Due to the carbon lag, which refers to the delayed response between the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its subsequent effects, XR believes that immediate action is required for there to be a sliver of hope for a habitable future. “Even though direct action doesn’t guarantee success, we need to recognize that all other forms of advocacy and campaigning don’t work,” Haq asserted.

Haq has extensively studied the history and philosophy of civil disobedience and draws his inspiration from grassroots movements across the Global South. He pointed to Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, where he led a group of followers on a 386-kilometre walk to protest the Salt Tax, and, more broadly, British colonial rule in India. Along the way, 60,000 arrests were made, including Gandhi himself. This drew international attention to the oppressive colonial system and was a major catalyst along the road to independence.

During the US civil rights movement, at least 450 Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961 for protesting racial segregation in public transportation. By intentionally filling the prisons, they effectively overwhelmed the Mississippi state treasury. Within months, segregation of public transportation was outlawed by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Indeed, mass arrests have been a central feature of some of history’s most notable and successful civil disobedience movements. An organizer by the name Badger explained how, through mass arrests, XR is trying to “shift the zeitgeist” on climate change. Given Canada’s heavy investment in fossil fuels and the fact that the mainstream media routinely fails to report on the severity of the crisis, Badger argues that the issue needs to be “pushed into the faces” of the general public, and that “arrests are the only way to do that.”

Badger and other protesters awaiting arrest at the airport blockade. Photo by Dorothy Settles.

Individual sacrifices for the greater good

At the beginning of each XR action, a roster is passed around for people to literally sign up to get arrested. Organizers lead training sessions about what to expect during an arrest, including the legal consequences. Arrestees are typically charged with mischief and intimidation for blocking a roadway. While nobody has yet incurred a criminal record for partaking in an XR action in Vancouver, many activists have taken considerable personal risks and sacrifices by getting arrested.

Haq has been arrested ten times for his environmental activism, running the risk of deportation since he is residing in Vancouver on a study permit from Pakistan. Badger, on the other hand, had his first (and second, and third) arrest during the October Rebellion. Although he has been active in XR since April of this year, he was initially hesitant to get arrested, as he’s on a working holiday visa from the UK. Ultimately, he views the sacrifice and personal consequences in terms of his visa status as minimal compared to the sacrifices people are being forced to make because of the climate crisis. “It’s a minor inconvenience to me,” he said, “compared to life or death for millions of people.”

Badger explained that beyond knowing arrest is “the right thing to do,” people will generally be moved to be arrested if they know it will make a tangible difference. That’s largely why he decided that the October Rebellion was the right time for his first arrest—given that dozens of others were also getting arrested and the timing of COP26, he figured this was when his arrest would have the most concrete impact.

XR actions tend to attract people from a wide diversity of age groups (ten of the individuals who were arrested during the October Rebellion were over the age of 60). Andrea Miller, for instance, was arrested twice during the October Rebellion because she has “nothing to lose.” Miller, who is 77, has been active in the environmental movement for decades and has also been arrested for protesting the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline as well as the destruction of old-growth forests at the Fairy Creek blockade.

“I’m an angry old crone,” Miller shrugged, “and crones are supposed to give back to society. They are the wise women spreading their knowledge.”

Is it working?

The recent COP26 summit drew global attention to climate change. Although Trudeau has pushed for carbon pricing and a carbon-neutral economy and a cap on emissions, he has faced criticism for his pipeline policies and for failing to adequately address carbon production. Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Glasgow to demand climate justice and call for a greater international response to the climate emergency. At one rally, Greta Thunberg even pronounced COP26 a failure. Public scrutiny of the national and international responses to climate change is at a high point, partially due to global protests such as XR.

XR’s disruptive protests have been successful in winning the attention of the local media, especially when the number of arrests is high. For instance, the airport action on October 25, which had the highest number of arrests by far of the 14 days, received considerably more media coverage than other days.

The Vancouver Police Department has also drastically increased its budget for protests in recent years. In 2018, $478,460 was spent on managing them, and the police chief estimates that $3.2 million will be spent by the end of 2021. What’s more, it’s estimated there will have been a record of 840 protests by the end of the year, with high numbers of pandemic and environment-related protests.

Beyond arrests, XR has taken other forms of direct action to generate change. In January 2020, eight members of the University of British Columbia’s XR chapter held a 100-hour hunger strike to call for the university to divest from fossil fuels. This, paired with the advocacy of political climate action group UBCC350, pushed the UBC Board of Governors to commit to a full divestment from fossil fuel companies. Similarly, on November 2 of this year, Simon Fraser University committed to fossil fuel divestment after a group of students, including Haq, threatened a hunger strike.

Perhaps the most tangible testament to XR’s success was in May 2019, when the British Parliament declared a climate emergency—one of XR’s core demands. This decision was made only weeks after 1,130 people were arrested in XR-led demonstrations across London. However, XR involvement is vastly more widespread in the UK. That October, 1,832 more arrests were made in London alone.

XR demonstrations are effectively drawing more attention to the climate crisis and applying financial and political pressure to governments across the Western world, yet to bring about the changes XR is pushing for, more people are needed. Regardless, the thinking around climate change is shifting as Canadians are being forced to reckon with the climate emergency, and XR is arguably a driving force of that change.

A protestor being arrested at the Commercial-Broadway blockade, October 17. Photo by Dorothy Settles.

A woman drumming in front of the police during a demonstration at the University of British Columbia immediately before her arrest, October 27. Photo by Dorothy Settles.

Badger during the second day of the October Rebellion at Commercial and Broadway. Photo by Dorothy Settles.

Dorothy Settles is the co-founder and president of Spheres of Influence, a non-profit digital publication dedicated to explaining and analyzing issues in international relations and global affairs. She is based in Vancouver and holds a BA in International Relations from UBC, specializing in the relationship between armed conflict, human rights, and climate change.

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