Climate Change

Extinction Rebellion needs to build solidarity and work on its race problem

But it shouldn't be on a government watch list

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Monday 13 January 2020
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Headlines this week noted that the environmental group Extinction Rebellion was on a counter-extremism watch list, based on leaked documents from the British government’s Prevent programme.

This, in itself, should not have been news. Governments across western Europe and the United States have unleashed their intelligence services on environmental groups since at least the 1970s. Most famously, Greenpeace’s ship Rainbow Warrior was sunk in 1985 by the French while on its way to protest a nuclear test in French Polynesia.

In the UK, it has emerged in recent years, undercover police officers not only infiltrated environmental groups but went so far as to marry and have children with the subjects of their investigation.

Created in 2003 by the Tony Blair government, the Prevent programme places a statutory duty on schools and other local institutions to report individuals perceived to be at the risk of radicalisation.

The recently leaked documents reveal that one of the criteria for identifying such individuals is opinions expressed in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”; specifically mentioning those who neglect to attend school to participate in the school strikes.

With the leak, the government has scrambled to (officially, at least) delete Extinction Rebellion from the list, but no explicit statement has been made about the more worrying injunction on general expressions of opinion about the climate emergency.

The fact that a direct-action protest group with largely white participation was dropped from the list, but no explicit recall was made of the injunction to watch out for more general expression of sadness and outrage about climate change highlights yet again the extent to which the Prevent programme is really about racism and stifling dissent.

For the scheme has become a key source of tension between the British government and its long-settled Muslim communities. Those threatened with being reported include a toddler who drew a picture of what he called “cooker bomb”. He meant cucumber.

Extinction Rebellion managed to shut down parts of central London for several days last year, and was subject to near unprecedented measures such as 1,500 arrests as well as an unprecedented London-wide ban (later ruled illegal). Even in the absence of the climate of fear engendered by Prevent, the group’s presence on a government watch list would not be surprising, however unjust and iniquitous the very existence of such a document may be.

Indeed, instead of quietly letting the matter lie after the police claimed Extinction Rebellion had been dropped from the list, the British Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the initial inclusion as based on legitimate assessment of the risks to national security and the general public."

Extinction Rebellion responded to the leak in characteristically self-indulgent fashion with a Greta Thunberg-esque “How dare they?” In merely defending itself and not even saying anything about the more general issue of emotive opinion about climate change, the group has not acquitted itself well.

And in not taking the opportunity to challenge the Prevent programme more generally, Extinction Rebellion's response sadly justifies criticism that the group has a race problem; indeed some have gone so far as to accuse it of dog-whistle politics.

It goes without saying that the surveillance state’s efforts to stifle dissent must be fought. But Extinction Rebellion needs to fix its race problem and build solidarity with other less-privileged movements and marginalised groups. For climate justice will be social justice in the twenty-first century.  

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