Extinction Rebellion activists have returned to Australian streets for several actions this weekend as they build up towards major shut downs of cities across the country to sound the alarm about the climate emergency.
Voice of Action spoke to key players in Extinction Rebellion Australia, who explained how they walk the line between causing “maximum disruption” and strict non-violence, which has won them tens of thousands of active supporters across the country and even moved police to tears.
The rebels came out of their COVID-19 hibernation to launch three actions under the theme “Disruption Against Corruption” in the Melbourne CBD on Saturday. There were three arrests.
One of the activists hitting the streets this weekend was Violet (pictured top), 29, who joined Extinction Rebellion in Melbourne a year and a half ago at its inception.
“It has been a rollercoaster of a year and a half, i’d never been in trouble with the law before but i’ve now been arrested 6 times,” Violet told Voice of Action.
Rebellion is necessary because politicians refuse to act on the climate crisis and are racing to the edge of extinction.
The world’s top climate scientists say we are already crossing key tipping points that will send us to the collapse of civilisation unless drastic and urgent action is taken to reduce emissions.
Jane Morton, 68, is one of the people who started Extinction Rebellion in Australia a year and a half ago; she is still attending actions, including this weekend’s in Melbourne.
“We’re going to lose everything unless we gather together across the whole world and deal with the fact that our political system is broken, with way too much influence of vested interests,” Morton told Voice of Action.
“We’re just totally out of time. We’re risking collapse and the death of billions of people. The trillions that will be spent staving off depression as we emerge from this pandemic are our last and best chance to make the changes that we have to make to survive.”
The head of the International Energy Agency this week warned the world only has six months to change course on the climate crisis or we will have missed the window to act.
This issue is not even being discussed by the government, which instead wants to return to business-as-usual with huge public investments in fossil fuels. Last summer’s bushfires, the worst in Australian history showing the climate crisis as being literally on our doorstep, have been virtually ignored.
Extinction Rebellion’s three key demand are that governments tell the truth about the climate emergency, act now to commit to net zero emissions by 2025 and institute real democracy in the form of citizens assemblies to decide on the path forward.
‘Long and intense period of disruption’
Morton told Voice of Action that Extinction Rebellion had been working hard to strengthen its organisation during the lockdown and would soon be “ready to do major nationally coordinated periods of disruption like they did in the UK”.
In Britain the conservative government was forced to declare a climate emergency after Extinction Rebellion activists shut down five locations in London for over a week, and Morton said “that’s what we’re working towards”.
Extinction Rebellion in Australia now has “tens of thousands” of participants following the success of the Spring Rebellion at the end of last year, which shut down parts of major cities for several hours a day.
For this weekend’s actions, for the first time rebels have adopted the “swarm” tactic from the Hong Kong protests, splitting up into groups of no more than 20 to temporarily block intersections around the city.
Other rebels rode bikes around the city with XR flags and chants about the ecological emergency, while an art installation placed dozens of pairs of shoes on the steps of state parliament to symbolise the mass mobilisation necessary to solve the climate crisis.
Morton said this weekend’s actions were “just a practice” and when social distancing laws loosened they would be launching “a long and intense period of disruption” in Australia’s major cities.
“That’s the only tactic that’s going to work, we haven’t got time to stop Adani, stop Narrabri gas fields, there’s no time for that,” said Morton.
“It’s incredibly hard to defeat multinational corporations trying to pick them off one at a time so we have to actually disrupt cities because in the end that’s the most powerful tactic, and it’s not a matter of disrupting them for an hour or two because they couldn’t care less.
“You’ve got to cause maximum disruption but you’ve also got to demonstrate a willingness to self sacrifice. It’s partly people seeing that you’re willing to sacrifice [being arrested] that makes people sympathetic to join you.
“If you just run around the city you don’t get the public support because they just see you as a nuisance like annoying mosquitos. Whereas if they see old people, young people just sitting in the street being carried off one at a time, that’s when public sympathy comes your way and more people join you.”
Political corruption leaves us no other option
Vested interests in the oil and gas industry are driving Australia’s economic recovery from coronavirus and are unsurprisingly making recommendations to suit their commercial agenda. Environmental groups have complained they have not even been consulted despite public statements to the contrary by the government.
The government is hopelessly corrupt and continues to block the establishment of a federal corruption watchdog despite promising to create one in 2018. Reliant on fossil fuel barons for donations, public support and jobs after parliament via the revolving door, the government continues to spruik fossil fuels despite renewables being commercially the more logical choice.
Rebellion is seen as the only way to effect change as the major parties are both in the pocket of mining companies.
Labor is likely to join with the Coalition to weaken environmental protections even further to speed up mining and infrastructure projects. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese is adept at mouthing the words of climate action but also supports fossil fuel development and exports which will undo any attempts to reduce emissions.
Morton said “we have to change absolutely everything very very fast” and join together to “bring down these very few that have so much power”. The pandemic had shown that rapid change was possible when there is a “personally relevant threat paired with a proportionate response”.
“The personally relevant threat is collapse and the deaths of most people on Earth within a generation, and the proportionate response is rebellion,” said Morton.
“There is no other proportionate response. We have to bring this whole thing to a halt like the virus did, and then you will see everything that now is said to be impossible will be possible.”
Violet, a philosophy student, had always been morally engaged but previously felt it was not her role to solve the climate crisis. Attending a talk by Extinction Rebellion radicalised her because she realised the urgency and seriousness of the situation as well as the lack of action being taken to address it.
Even though the Earth system is crossing tipping points and in some countries people are dying from the climate crisis, for many people it is not yet visible in their day to day lives.
Violet describes a “bystander effect” whereby even though we are in extreme danger we carry on as usual because everyone else is acting like everything is fine. This is why it’s important for people like her to “sound the alarm”.
Why non-violence is a key strategy
Violet explained that the completely non-violent approach from Extinction Rebellion is a strategic and tactical move, as scuffles with police takes the story away from the climate emergency and also allow the media to portray the protestors as troublemakers.
If rebels are completely non confrontational it is a win win, because either they are left alone to block the road and spread their message, or they are manhandled by police to break up the protest, exposing the repressive system for what it is.
Police have to make a choice about what move to make because if the rebels are not violent they have no justification to use force to break up the disruption.
Video of police in Paris using pepper spray on a group of about 30 peaceful protestors seated on a bridge was beamed around the world last year and attracted millions of views and countless supporters for the Extinction Rebellion cause.
“By encouraging violence at the protest the story becomes ‘violent protestors’ because people who have not been on the front line don’t understand that the police can and will antagonise to the point of violence, and so if an outsider came and just saw a clip of there being a scuffle between police and protestors, they’re more likely to believe that police would be the ones keeping the peace and the protestors would be the ones instigating the violence,” said Violet.
Violet and other activists would much rather the story focus on the fact that corrupt politicians and mining executives are destroying the planet and driving us to extinction. She said it was “really unfortunate” that the only way to get the message out was to be a nuisance and sacrifice themselves, as being arrested six times had been “a very traumatic experience”.
Violet’s first arrest was a year ago when she and four others glued on to the ground outside the office of the Institute of Public Affairs and spray painted “climate emergency” on the steps.
She said causing disruption to business as usual was the only way to show how serious the issue was, as the ruling elite only understand the language of economics and only respond when capital is threatened.
“We shut down the city day after day because when you start causing economic disruption, all of a sudden their ears prick up and the only way to cause economic disruption is to do illegal things,” said Violet.
“Our whole goal is to cause enough disruption to meet our 3 demands which is the government must declare a climate ecological emergency and work with institutions to communciate the urgency for change; move to zero emissions by 2025 and halt biodiveristy loss; and the third is to implement citizens assemblies as we don’t trust the government to be in control of this.”
‘Showing this element of sacrifice’
Violet explains that escalating to the point of being arrested is a crucial step in the rebellion because it showed potential recruits that the issue is so important that these young activists are willing to sacrifice their freedom.
She compares this to the Gandhi Salt March, a non-violent civil disobedience campaign in colonial India.
“They just went in one after the other and got themselves beaten up. We’re showing this element of sacrifice to show we’re not just on the street being a nuisance, we understand breaking the law and taking consequences for that, but it’s about showing people how important it is,” said Violet.
Rather than fight police as an institution of state oppression the goal of the Extinction Rebellion activists is to appeal to the moral values of the individual police officers, who often have kids themselves and are just as worried by the climate crisis.
The activists have a “police liaison” who they negotiate with in advance. As a result, despite blocking off streets for a week and causing significant disruption during their Spring Rebellion late last year, Extinction Rebellion activists said the police did not react with much brutality aside from pushing them around a bit.
Morton said the activists were not friends with police but it was a “tactical decision” as they are building a movement for the 99%, many of whom are not down with violence.
“I’m old, I’m 68, I’m not going to get myself involved in something that involves fighting, but even if I was younger and fitter i’ve always had an absolute principled position against violence … and there’s lots and lots and lots of people like me,” said Morton.
“The thing is the police are actually part of the 99%, they’re not part of the 1% they’re just salaried people like other public servants, and they have kids. We’ve had extraordinarily sympathetic support from police.”
Police officers moved to tears
When they’re disrupting the streets such as blocking the road, XR activists sing a chant to police along the lines of “we’re peaceful and united, we’re here for your chlidren too, we want to be non violent, how about you?”.
Violet said “there’s just a different energy at our protests that activates the heart”, and as a result not only do police treat them more gently, but at one of the last actions several police had to fall back from their line because they were moved to tears.
“Rather than being ‘fuck you ACAB’ to the police we say actually we’re here for you and if you’re going to be violent you’re going to have to do that to very peaceful people,” said Violet.
“When you remain extreme non-violent it exposes the violence of the oppressors, and so the moment that you take on violence in your own side what that does is it justifies any violence [from police].
“I expect that for us to be successful that violence will be thrust upon us, absolutely, I’m not saying that we won’t experience violence, but I am saying that the more that we remain non-violent, the more empathy and sympathy that we attract from potential supporters.”
Violet hopes that as the movement builds and becomes more disruptive, individual police will refuse orders to ratchet up the brutality and violence because they’ve been moved by the protestors.
“It’s not a naive view of the police, it’s that we win either way,” said Morton.
“If we’re sitting there peacefully in the road, obviously not threatening, obviously not violent, obviously just normal people who are concerned for future generations, and they come and pepper spray us in the face or ride their horses over us, I would think that would be very worthwhile … because that is the thing that will bring thousands of people into the streets the next day,” said Morton.
‘Trying to save the world for your kids’
Morton, who is a psychologist, has been particularly critical of environmental NGOs and scientists who have downplayed the level of emergency we are in, under the false belief that “fear doesn’t work” to motivate people (“fear works all the time that’s why they’ve got the gory pictures on cigarette packets”).
Morton, who went into semi-retirement 5 years ago to have time to work on the climate emergency, began her activist career in 2007 when she saw the Arctic ice had begun to melt much faster.
“It was hearing that the scientists privately were panicing that was the decisive thing for me,” said Morton.
“My kids are 30ish, they’ll live to see the end of human civilisation, or at least a horrible decline unless I do something – so what’s more important as a mother than trying to save the world for your kids?”
While the science is dire, Morton uses the analogy of the burning building.
“There might be almost no chance of success but you’ve got to run up and down the stairs and try to smash the windows right up until the bitter end,” Morton told Voice of Action.
“We’re programmed to try to survive. You don’t need a guarantee you need a little tiny glimmer of hope. Make it about courage. If you do everything you can and it still turns out bad, well you can rest easy in your bed because you did absolutely everything you could.”
Violet said the science as well as events around the world showed that “the ecological and climate collapse has already begun”, but “the question is what can we save?”.
“If we start now, then rather than leaving a completely dead and uninhabitable planet there might be a spark of life left,” said Violet.
“If we give up then we guarantee it’s too late … imagine if we succeed and we overthrow the oppressors and build a better world.”
There have been scary moments for Violet, such as when she and a group of five female activists were glued on to the road blocking Melbourne’s Kings Way singing Hokey Pokey, and a man called her mobile after finding her number on a Extinction Rebellion press release. He threatened to run them all over but it ended up being an empty threat.
She said the rebels have an extensive support structure and those in the movement who don’t want to be arrested or glued on the road contribute other means of support. Violet has been charged a few times by police for her activism and is currently out on bail but there are rebels who are providing all of her legal and other support.
“When you’re on the road together everybody becomes family,” said Violet.
Beyond the left and right political divide
While many leftist groups try to win supporters over with a vision for how the new world might look under a system such as socialism, Extinction Rebellion believe this approach is divisive and so they don’t promote any particular solution, beyond implementing a proper democracy in the form of citizens assemblies.
“The idea is we all agree that shit’s fucked and we all agree we need a better way to deal with that rather than the people who are corrupt and have vested interests who are currently running the country,” said Violet.
Morton does not like to talk about politics in a left vs right framing because she believes the 99% have to be united to have any chance of bringing down the establishment power structures. The climate emergency threatened everyone’s lives, not just the working class, so it was not useful to alienate people with too much class politics.
Morton said the only positive vision of the new world that people needed to rally around was the fact that unless we make drastic changes we will not survive.
“If you say you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet 99% of people actually agree with you, you say you want to smash capitalism you get 20% of people that agree with you, but you’re basically saying something very similar,” said Morton.
She said while socialist groups were no bigger than when she was at university, Extinction Rebellion had spread to 68 countries in just two years.
The activists have faith that if normal people can get in a room free of corporate interests and be provided with the right information, they will make the right choices.
“We’ve held 12 citizens assemblies in Australia so far and there have been quite a few held around the world through very contentious issues, like abortion in Ireland, and people always come up with really fair and reasonable responses when they’re given the time to deliberate,” said Violet.
She said Darebin council in the northern suburbs of Melbourne used a citizens assembly to decide on how to spend money earmarked for a park upgrade, but the residents decided the money would be better spent as a donation to a disadvantaged children’s home one suburb over.
Violet does not believe these out of the box solutions could come from career politicians who are too focused on getting re-elected and appeasing corporate interests.
Violet said this weekend’s protests in Melbourne were not too disruptive as they were “just dipping our toes back in” post-lockdown, but this was the first time they’ve used the decentralised “swarm” approach, inspired by the Hong Kong protests.
She said that with social distancing rules still in place the activists had to be careful about congregating in one spot for too long, but the swarm method using decentralised teams would “revolutionise how we protest moving forward”.
“In Hong Kong they say ‘be like water’, they used an app where you can vote on certain locations and as soon as a location hits peak, they swarm into that location.”