As XR prepares to bring activists together for the South East Rising event on 30 September, Thalia Griffiths talked them to about the group’s evolving strategy and what other environmental groups can learn from their experience

As public concern about the climate emergency grows after a summer of heatwaves, wildfires and floods, Extinction Rebellion (XR) is honing its protest strategy to engage a wider support base.

“What we want to focus on is working towards a longer strategy where we build alliances across the board with other environmental groups, but also beyond that with community groups, social justice groups, groups from minority backgrounds, and bring everyone together and work to deepen our connection within our own communities,” said XR South East’s Sarah Hart.

“A lot of the frustration that people feel is interlinked, whether it’s the cost of living, heating bills, food shortages. We want to bring everyone together to link that up and connect the dots for them because it’s all to do with the climate and ecological emergency.”

A similar strategy is being pursued by Friends of the Earth with its United for Warm Homes campaign, which also aims to reach out to groups that have not traditionally been part of the environmental movement.

Founded in 2018, XR hit the headlines with actions such as blockading London’s Thames bridges. In the early days the group’s dramatic actions drew public attention to the climate crisis like never before. At the end of last year XR said it was changing its strategy to move away from public disruption as a primary tactic. The protest landscape has changed, they argued, with XR spinoffs Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil taking on the radical protest role, but the task now was to mobilise people en masse. April’s The Big One gathered an estimated 60,000 people outside Parliament, according to the organisers.

Taking to the streets

In May this year, the UK government passed the controversial Public Order Act, which increased the police’s power to respond to protests and put new restrictions in place for those taking part in them. The government factsheet on the bill specifically refers to Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil and XR. The act introduces new and expanded use of stop and search, and introduces new criminal offences including locking on (where protesters make it difficult to remove them from protest sites), and being equipped for locking-on, tunnelling, being in a tunnel or being equipped for tunnelling, obstructing major transport works, and interfering with key national infrastructure.

XR’s legal experts have scrutinised the legislation to identify the forms of protest the Act specifically targets, such as locking on and obstructing roads, and the group has adapted its tactics accordingly. “There’s been a bit of a switch as to how we do our nonviolent direct action, rather than not doing it at all,” Hart said.

“One of the things we’ve looked at is more creative actions. One of the things XR has always been great at doing is just being bold and beautiful. There’s a serious but fun element to that which people respond to. And some of it can be quite haunting and hard hitting, we’ve done actions where we go to buildings and line them with lots of tiny little children’s shoes, or pram actions where we dress in black and push white prams.”

This makes protests more accessible for people who may have reasons not to take part in more confrontational actions. And XR has found that more targeted actions are delivering results.

“We are still very much doing direct action, but we are taking it to the relevant targets, whether that’s fossil fuel criminals, the media, or important enablers. One of our big campaigns at the moment is Cut The Ties, which is specifically targeting companies, corporations, lawyers, insurers, all those people who enable the fossil fuel industry to do what they do. We’re taking the campaign directly to those people — not public disruption but calling out the people involved and saying ‘stop doing what you’re doing and move to a sustainable future for your employees and for the world’.”

The campaign has had an impact on the East African Crude Oil Pipeline project in deterring commercial insurers from underwriting the scheme. The project, led by France’s Total, aims to build an export pipeline from oil fields in western Uganda to the Tanzanian coast, displacing communities and disturbing wildlife. Its carbon footprint is exceptionally high, even compared to other oil developments.

Hart said XR was highlighting the role of oil services companies that don’t have the name recognition of Shell or Exxon but are lining up for the actual construction work. “Nobody’s ever heard of them. They are the ones that are building these African crude oil pipelines and they’re here in the UK. It’s really been quite an eye opener to a lot of people. And it’s starting to get people to think more about how we can make an impact.”

XR has been engaging with staff at service companies, such as insurers and engineering firms, persuading them to push back against their employers’ involvement in environmentally disastrous projects. “We’ve had people reach out and contact us and say thank you for coming here, we do need to do better, and I’m going to start demanding better,” Hart said.

“It’s smaller wins, but it’s also durable wins. And it’s where we can have quite a lot of effect.”

Getting the message out

XR is very mindful of the need to get the right kind of publicity. The right-wing press will always jump on certain kinds of actions but it’s more helpful to seek out more rounded coverage elsewhere. Local media can be very effective, and Hart said her local BBC had given a lot of coverage to a campaign against plans to expand flights from an airport for private jets at Farnborough.

“The BBC have been very sympathetic, they’ve already done some really good reports on it and they’re going to come along to the consultation,” she said. “We’ve had reporters embedded in actions before, to make sure it gets out there. There’s a lot of work around staging things to make them look good and visually impactful. That can come down to who’s standing where, what the banner looks like, what colours you’re using, what building you’re standing outside – especially if those companies don’t necessarily want the publicity.”

When an action is being planned, specialists from several different XR “circles” feed into the planning process. “When we’ve got an action planning we’ve got someone from the Actions team in there, we’ve got somebody from Creative, we’ve got somebody from Media and Messaging, all working together to make it as good as it can be.” And afterwards there’s always a debrief session to discuss learnings, and check in with activists, especially if there have been arrests.

While local groups are autonomous, there are plenty of interconnections. XR South East holds Open Call Zoom sessions to share information and offer support, listening to people’s issues and giving advice and expertise.

XR is already looking ahead to the general election expected next autumn, with a strategy of engaging with Labour Party members such as trade unions to urge them to press their leaders for clear, concise manifesto commitments on climate and the environment. “It’s about getting real conversations going with the membership and if the party leadership can’t, or won’t, or dumb down, then calling them out on that.”

On 18 September XR activists scaled the Labour Party headquarters demanding that any future Labour government should take urgent action to cancel new fossil fuel licences granted by the current government, fund the transition to renewables, and end sponsorship from power plant operator Drax Group.

On 30 September, XR South East is inviting activists to an event near Brighton aimed at bringing people together to build new alliances, share skills and plan direct action. Hart said that after the Big One in April there was a sense of “what now?”, and this was a way to bring people together and energise them for the next phase.

The day will include speakers, live music, and workshops on topics including Community Assemblies, Non-Violent Direct Action, Know your Rights, and Rhythms. Overnight camping is available on the Saturday night.

All SECA members are welcome and tickets are available here.

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