Following The Guardian’s findings that the UK counter-terrorism police included Extinction Rebellion in their Prevent strategy, Lucia Posteraro explores how this poses risk to our society.
The Guardian’s findings that the UK counter-terrorism police included Extinction Rebellion in their Prevent strategy sparked outrage online. The document appears to have been circulated last November among teachers, government officials, and police officers in the south-east only. It’s meant to provide guidance on signs of radicalisation which may result in terror activities, and it mainly lists neo-Nazi, radical Islamic, and white supremacist groups. While officials confirmed its recall, one week later the paper revealed a new, longer guide for England which includes organisations like Greenpeace and has pushed the mentioned groups to threaten legal action.
No matter what your personal stance on XR and environmental civil disobedience is, the Home Office's definition is a problematic take on the ‘politics of naming’, which might push civil society and young people farther away from engaging with traditional politics. Last summer, Trongate was blocked off by a large purple boat, with around 100 protesters holding banners on the lack of action over rising sea levels. Classifying acts of non-violent, civil disobedience as extremism implies that protests of this kind equal a coordinated attempt at subverting the state and putting human lives at risk. Generation Identity and Al Muhajiroun, which both feature in the Prevent document, have a long history of breaking laws on hate speech and moving onto deadly actions.
In fact, one of the attackers carrying out the 2017 London Bridge attack belonged to Al Muhajiroun and was potentially connected to a man involved in the orchestration of the 2005 London bombings. Comparing XR and other groups to such a well-organised network of violence is a risky conceptual association. It assumes that disrupting a city’s transportation and playing limp to resist arrest is as dangerous as an ideologically motivated disrespect of human lives and liberal values. As much as one might consider the movement’s actions annoying for ordinary citizens, we should oppose classifications which crystallise an unfair power relation between the state and exponents of civil disobedience, for they certainly do not undermine the state’s constitution in the same way.
Home secretary Priti Patel declared that, despite not being an extremist group under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, XR could still pose a risk to public security and deserves police attention. Labelling disobedience as a security threat, in a world in which definitions of terrorism and extremism are hardly agreed upon, is a huge (and reckless) step. Moreover, the language of the pamphlet suggests that young people, in particular, are vulnerable to XR content and need to be defended from it. The emphasis on such vulnerability is out of place, considering that neo-Nazi groups overwhelmingly recruit supporters among youth members with difficult family and personal stories.
I was a participant in Fridays for Future during my year abroad, and the sense of belonging I experienced among thousands of people with my same age and concerns was far from
extremism. It was a middle finger to a generation of politicians who signed off several deals at the UK-Africa Summit in January - 90% of which were connected to investment in gas and oil. It also continues to be a sign of despair at the rejection of social justice values, which are now crucially embodied in the green movement. 95% of casualties related to climate change events are found in poor and underdeveloped territories such as sub-Saharan Africa. The UK's continued engagement with the root causes of degradation, as well as its denigration of groups who peacefully criticise a reckless mindset, are not just a badly crafted lie.
Why would green advocacy be a sign of vulnerability or more distressing than interacting with any other group on the list? As the new generation deals with the consequences of bad politics, interpreting its agitation as neurosis is the worst decision a government could make to engage it with the traditional political process. As much as one would love to be directly involved in environmental policy in any public office, the government's rhetoric surrounding the green resistance makes it difficult to accept official offers. In the same logic, it is not surprising that Greta Thunberg recently called out leaders at the Davos Forum. The general attitude surrounding climate action is one of passiveness and outright distaste for those who are disillusioned with the current results and channel these feelings through staged die-ins, or a massive purple ship anchored by Gallowgate. From international students to 66-year-old weegies, we are all in trouble and the high-level politicians consciously continue to ignore why.
Everything suggests that the systemic discourse on climate change is lacking in strength, from Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement to the failures of COP to agree on more ambitious targets. Rather than understanding why an XR-style trend resonates with people to the point of justifying a London lockdown or a Glasgow traffic jam, it seems easier for authorities to ignore the problem and treat it as a disturbance. If the Home Office dislikes its police being diverted by XR protests, it is about time that politics be aware of how much it has failed to address a crisis of this magnitude. Only then can labels be assigned in a balanced manner by both sides of the argument.