Between the 15th and 25th of April, two important and international civil disobedience movements took place in London.
Both having the same goal of holding political and economic leaders accountable for the present and future climatic and ecological crisis, the Youth Strike for Climate’s global school strike and the Extinction Rebellion’s international rebellion week took to the streets of London, in an escalation from usual protest tactics.
Young in their members and spirit, these civil disobedience movements come as a desperate tentative of civil resistance, in face of governments that since decades are not inclined to listen and change through more conventional and lawful protests.
They are not leaving any time soon.
Peacefully disobeying the law, for the thinker, comes as a necessary evil to curb a government’s injustices. Mid-19th-century philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau (whose civil disobedience acts inspired countless resistance movements from the US to India) affirmed in an essay that if the executive machine “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine”.
Alike the colonial regime of India or the racially segregated norms of the US, the new generations of today understand that in face of a political power influenced by a myriad of industrial interests, which ultimately aim to keep the status quo going, it may be time to ‘not be polite about this anymore’, in the words of Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam.
As the website acknowledges, “We don’t want to disrupt people, but our Government’s failure over the last 30 years leaves us no choice to bring this to people’s attention”.
Aware of the criticality of the issue and of the urgent escalation of actions needed to level down carbon emissions and understanding the stake of this question for their own and descendant’s futures, the youth as such increasingly showed itself in this first part of the year in a regenerated politicization and motivation. Because of their growing numbers and the escalation of their actions, politicians might be faced with no other choice but to listen to them, at a certain point. Despite and beyond Brexit, London became in many ways thanks to the YS4C and the Extinction Rebellion the epicenter of the worldwide ecological resistance to come.
The international school strike for climate was a phenomenal event that mobilised millions of youngsters and was held in more than a hundred countries. Made in defiance of educational institutions, this global strike set a historical record in regards to climate change mobilisation and more symbolically presented an energetic youth determined to not perpetuate the same world than the one of their elders. In London, the atmosphere was frenetic – as heard on Westminster bridge, ‘kids are controlling the city right now!’. The image is lovely and has a certain romanticism, the idea that the truth and the good comes from the words of children. On this day, the force relation between adults and kids, in terms of maturity, seems to have been reversed.
Exactly one month later, this time in a more inter-generational and radical fashion, the extinction rebellion internationally rebelled against governments they presently consider illegitimate to tackle the ecological challenges at hand. Illegally blocking circulation in key points of the British capital – waterloo bridge, oxford circus, parliament square and marble arch – and transforming them into area of artistic festival and political debate or reflection, the group transformed one the busiest city of Europe into a grandiose showcase of energy and willpower. For at least a week indeed, in the case of Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge, and ten days for Parliament Square and Marble Arch, the activists amazingly managed to hold the four sites, despite mass arrests by the police – totalizing more than a thousand.
From dances around electro music on a vegetised Waterloo bridge to deliberative assemblies and speeches in Parliament Square, passing by poems on a pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus and concerts at Marble Arch, the financial mega-hub has in a few days become rather unrecognisable.
Each time a rebel got arrested, a generalised applaud took place and the crowd cheered the arrestee as he was taken to a police van – those were soon replaced by motivated rebels, which sat on the road, ready to be arrested. The police, on the other hand, reflected the actions’ non-violence and politeness by the same attitude – some have even been caught dancing to the pink boat DJ’s 1960s’ music.
Only doing their job, they were categorically respected by rebels, which sometimes chanted “we love you!” to them.
Do these movements work?
While the climatic and environmental issue is a huge problem to grapple with – in many ways both systemic and structural – these actions do seem to shake world leaders and convince them to take action. A major illustration is UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ reaction to the global school strike (globally acknowledging and condoning) to which his decision was to create a special diplomatic submit on 23 of September.
He is, following the strike, ‘calling on all leaders to come to New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.’
One figure that seems to unite both of these very promising environmental movements of civil disobedience is the young Swedish girl of Greta Thunberg. On Sunday evening, in her London visit, she came to the Marble Arch site’s stage to hold a speech lauding the Extinction Rebellion’s actions and setting it as one united force with her Youth Strike for Climate. In very moving words, she affirmed that ‘we [eco-warriors, but more broadly anyone alarmed by the issue] will never stop fighting, we will never stop fighting for this planet, for ourselves, our futures and the futures of our children and our grandchildren’. As she argues, “The politicians and people in power have gotten away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis… but we will make sure they don’t get away with it any longer’ – we being, surely, the new, radical and young environmentalists to which numbers keep on growing.
Update: The Extinction Rebellion, which ended its London blockade last week, has gained support of the labor party which resulted in an unprecedented motion being passed by the UK Parliament declaring a climate emergency.