Extinction Rebellion Is Inspiring, But The Movement Risks Leaving People Of Colour Behind

When climate change already disproportionately affects communities of colour, protests like Extinction Rebellion's must prove it's more than a white middle class concern

Extinction Rebellion were splashed across the front pages this week, having both captured the frustration felt by the public who have seen little action on climate change in the last decade, and drawing ire from outlets like the Daily Mail.

Across the world there is a growing consensus, from bankers to first nation communities, that it’s long past time for urgent action. The stark warning of twelve years to save the planet were met with inspiration from the likes of teenaged activist Greta Thunberg and the Youth Climate Strikers, alongside the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US and the pursuit of a Green New Deal. We’re at a pivotal moment for the climate movement, but for it to be at its most effective it needs to bring people of colour and marginalised communities on board. I’ve felt inspired by this uprising, but also consistently uncomfortable at seeing a movement that simply doesn’t reflect me.

Extinction Rebellion relies heavily on non-violent direct action which pursues a high arrest rate, with the hopes that the ordinary person will stand part of the movement. There is no doubt their tactics are drawing attention to the climate movement in a way that simply hasn’t happened before – over 130 local Extinction Rebellion groups have popped up across the country. It’s incredible to see that so many are willing to put their bodies on the line to protect the planet. The pursuit of this tactic as central to their movement means that Extinction Rebellion has limited itself by leaving behind marginalised communities who are uniquely placed to propel the movement forward – and that the movement is predominately made up of the white middle class.

For people of colour and other marginalised groups, relationships with state power and policing are not to be taken lightly. Controversial stop and search powers are frequently misused and are disproportionately used against black communities and there have been numerous deaths in custody of migrants, people of colour and those with mental health issues. The government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies embed border enforcement within our public services resulting in cases where victims of domestic violence have been arrested when reporting a crime. What’s more, the courts have found that key “hostile environment” policies directly cause racial discrimination. The pursuit of an arrest by marginalised groups like these is far more than an act of disobedience – it can be the difference between life and death.

A core ethos of climate change activism is that wealth and ownership must be redistributed, that power and privilege are responsible for systemic injustices and that you cannot achieve climate justice without achieving justice for marginalised groups. This comes from the fact that climate change already disproportionately affects countries in the Global South, and that those communities are predominately communities of colour. What Extinction Rebellion is missing is a comprehensive acknowledgement that systemic injustice needs a place in the foreground.

Without a diverse message and strategy, the movement itself won’t be representative of the needs of working-class communities, people of colour and other marginalised groups who will feel the effects of climate change most acutely. These are also the groups who are most traditionally disenfranchised and lack outlets to express their views. Any movement which doesn’t empower these voices will be a movement that is easy for political leaders to ignore, and to dismiss solely as a “middle class concern”. Extinction Rebellion must practice what it preaches.

I offer these critiques in deep solidarity with Extinction Rebellion. The climate crisis demands so much that it is inevitable that we will get things wrong. But moving forward there are simple things they could change which would strengthen their cause – for a start by not celebrating arrests and not using social media to promote collaboration with police. They could also make every effort possible to empower spokespeople who are not white men – that means those men saying ‘no’ to requests, and letting other people step in.

And I would also like to see Extinction Rebellion be more propositional. The Green New Deal is an example of an approach which does this successfully by aiming to radically reduce climate emissions and transform our economy whilst also protecting, and empowering, vulnerable communities. The Green New Deal has been at the fringe of political discussion about climate change for many years in the UK and is now gaining huge support in the USA. It would be truly exciting to see the energy of Extinction Rebellion converted into support for a Green New Deal which holds solutions for systemic change.

In the words of Naomi Klein, “maybe we can change ourselves and the world too”. There is hope that Extinction Rebellion can change and broaden, that a diversity of tactics can develop and that a diversity of people can be placed at the forefront.

A first step should be for key organisers from Extinction Rebellion to proactively meet with groups like Wretched of the Earth, Black Lives Matter and Migrants Organise to think more creatively about broadening their reach and ensuring that they are bringing marginalised communities with them. If we’ve learnt anything from Extinction Rebellion, it’s that we don’t have time to waste.

Minnie Rahman is a migrants rights campaigner and climate activist


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