Climate justice and extinction
19 November 2018
I rebelled this Saturday. The plan was to block five London bridges and get dozens of people arrested as a way of growing the movement against climate change. Thousands of people came out across London as part of Extinction Rebellion. People had travelled from all over the country and for many of them it was the first time they’d taken part in civil disobedience. It was an important "turning up the heat" moment for the movement. However these people were the same mostly white, mostly middle class people that come to every big climate march. But what makes a rebellion truly successful? A true mass movement, and for this we need joined up movements and joined up thinking.
Sitting as part of the occupation on Westminster Bridge we began to talk about the fact that there was an anti-racism rally marching down Whitehall at exactly the same time. It quickly struck me that we, as climate protesters, should have been marching with them. Not just to be in solidarity but because the issues of race and climate are so intimately interlinked. Interestingly the anti-racism march ended just short of the end of Whitehall and so just short of parliament. What would have happened if it had carried on to Parliament Square? It would have been met by the climate protesters leaving Westminster Bridge at 5pm. What would have happened if these groups had then protested together, shared banners, laughs, slogans, chants and insurrectionary ideas? This is exactly what the police and the state didn’t want to happen. But it is exactly what we needed to make happen. Violent racism is at the heart of climate change and we desperately need to start acting like it is.
The people who are hit hardest by climate change are those sub-divided by race or gender for the purpose of exploitation. As was attested to by activists from West Papua, India, Ghana and Bangladesh who took to the mic on the bridge on Saturday. This inequality is truest in the global south, but gender, race and class inequalities are also present in the global north. This was chillingly played out in Hurricane Katrina in the US, where the people of New Orleans were abandoned by their government in the aftermath. It was the poorest people and people of colour who were hit the hardest. The ones without health insurance, the ones without a place in the hills to escape to, the very ones who were labelled as 'looters' and shot at by the police for taking food from storm-damaged shops to stay alive. It’s these inequalities that turn extreme weather events into human disasters. The climate crisis is a racist crisis.
Environmentalists are rightly concerned about the mass extinctions which are happening throughout the animal kingdom but, in the climate struggle at least, this can come with a blind spot about how climate change is also a genocide of people of colour and an amnesia about its roots in colonialism. Its continued manifestation in neocolonialism weaves deeply into the struggles of people of colour. Those that fight for racial equality know that racism isn’t just about ignorance, it’s being wilfully reproduced by those at the top. Just as we know that climate change isn’t about it being impossible to change our ways – it’s the same institutions, oligopolies, corporate power and vested interests which perpetuate racism that perpetuate climate change.
Only by making this link can we make the fight against climate breakdown intersectional. We need to bring people in from across the whole spectrum of society. This means putting the voices of people of colour, women and the working class at the forefront. The same tactics which were used to grow Extinction Rebellion to this point can be used to expand it more in other directions. It also means we need to consistently take action in solidarity with these groups, so they are not simply added as an afterthought but embraced as part of a movement which we are in together. One option is to take actions like the Black Lives Matter protest I took part in in 2016. We occupied the runway at London City Airport in protest against the racism of a highly polluting industry which affects people of colour most, both locally to the airport and internationally through the effects of aeroplane emissions on the climate.
Ideally to build a movement which is truly intersectional you get women, trans folk and people of colour involved from the start, so from the beginning its messaging, its focus and its culture is led or influenced by these groups. We also need ideas which unite movements. After all, our issues share a common cause - put simply, extreme inequality and the economic and social system which breeds it. Focussing on the shared root causes also helps us not fall into the trap of becoming single issue and selling out on what we know to be right in order to achieve reformist ambitions. It's true we must have some demands which are reformist to ensure we have wins, but we must also have some that are revolutionary so that we can tell the truth - that we need a total overhaul of our political structures. We can’t just ask the government to simply 'do more' on climate change – this could mean we end up hitting our climate targets with new nuclear power stations, carbon capture and storage and pumping sulfuric acid into the sky. Let’s set our sights beyond neoliberalism and neocolonialsim. We need to shape this vision with people of every class, colour and gender.
We also need to not fetishise getting arrested, we know there are active movements against death in police custody so how have we created a culture where making light of police custody is humorous, but animal extinction isn't? The environmental movement risks appearing siloed if we continue to do this. They may appear friendly at first but the police have chosen a (often violent) side in the power divide and believe me it is definitely not the side of those who are most oppressed. Just ask the families of the 180 people that have died in police custody over the last 10 years. It goes without saying that if getting arrested is the only way to get involved in this movement then it won't work for people from communities who, unlike the privileged white middle classes, come face to face with police oppression on a far too regular basis. We mustn't forget the murders of Mark Duggan and Ian Tomlinson and the racism within the police forced which so tragically failed to bring justice for Stephen Lawrence and his family.
If we want a united diverse anti-racist rebellion, more than anything we need to listen to those who are most oppressed and create the movement with them. Is Extinction Rebellion able to make this happen? I don’t know. But in the words of the black and brown led climate justice group The Wretched Of The Earth “The climate movement will be decolonial or it will be nothing”.