Just Who Do You Think Is the Enemy Here?

Climate protesters glue themselves on the top of a Tube train on Thursday morning.
Photo: Extinction Rebellion

London has banned Extinction Rebellion protests, but that hasn’t deterred the climate activists from continuing to their actions around the city. On Thursday, they shut down parts of the London Tube, climbing on train roofs and in some cases gluing themselves in place.

In response, commuters at the backed-up stations yelled, threw things, and pulled protesters not glued in place off the roofs of trains. At least eight people are in the custody of British Transit Police. And honestly, they deserved it.

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Extinction Rebellion has done a lot to raise the profile of climate activism in the past year owing largely to its bold, controversial actions. And most of its arrows are aimed at the right targets: the large banks that fund fossil fuel companies and world governments that have done next to nothing to rein in carbon pollution (and in many cases sped it along). But the group has also been criticized for having a huge blindspot when it comes to class and race, and Thursday’s actions shown a blistering, bright light on it.

There are a number of issues with Extinction Rebellion’s transit shutdown. The first is that it almost certainly forced some commuters to walk out of the station and snag a taxi, Lyft, or Uber to their office. You know what emits more carbon than public transit and leads to congestion? Taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers. So the whole point of shutting down public transit as a climate protest is somewhat self-defeating.

Then there are the real issues of race and class. Everyone can relate to the annoyance of a delayed commute, but the people who suffer the worst consequences are society’s most vulnerable. In the U.S. at least, more immigrants, people of color, and low-income individuals rely on public transit, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. For those groups as well as students, public transit is a cheap, reliable way to get to work and school on time.

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In the case of people doing shift work paid by the hour, showing up late could be grounds for being fired at worst and a hit to their earnings at least. Yet snagging a ride share or taxi due to the Extinction Rebellion protest is, for many, either something that’s unaffordable or an unnecessary burden that will require them to save money elsewhere.

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Young adults and low-income people are also the ones who are suffering the most from the crushing weight of the climate crisis, rising inequality, and dirty air pollution (from too many cars on the roads among other things no less!). Fucking up their commute isn’t just kicking them while they’re down, it’s holding them down as all those things bear down on them.

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In response to the backlash against its London Tube protest, Extinction Rebellion published a statement offering a chance to “invite you to have a conversation about what happened today.” But the statement largely focused on a few violent incidents when angry commuters attacked protesters yanked off the roofs of trains, and at least one activist’s attempts to fight back (Extinction Rebellion bills itself as nonviolent).

“In light of today’s events, Extinction Rebellion will be looking at ways to bring people together rather than create an unnecessary division,” the statement continued.

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What might a more inclusive climate protest around public transit look like? Filmmaker Astra Taylor pointed to the 2012 Occupy Wall Street actions where members chained open subway entrances with signs excoriating New York’s MTA, allowing people to ride for free in a show of class solidarity. No property was damaged, no commutes were disrupted, and people got a message that the group sympathized with those who use the city’s worsening public transit system. It’s easy to imagine Extinction Rebellion doing something similarly subversive given the role public transit could play in addressing the climate crisis (after all, transportation is the largest chunk of the UK’s emissions).

The way today’s events have unfolded are in sharp contrast to the climate strike movement, which has taken strides to be inclusive and showcase leaders from different walks of life, races, and countries. In its demands, Extinction Rebellion calls for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice made up of everyday people to guide lawmakers in setting sound climate policy. The group says that assembly would be tasked with considering “how to mitigate the impacts of changes on the most vulnerable people.”

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It may want to look in the mirror first.

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