Sometimes you write and the words connect. Last October, I was genuinely surprised at how a post I wrote, explaining my frustration at the lack of empathy from some campaigners from Extinction Rebellion (XR) about the nature of policing in London, was so widely circulated and at how many positive responses I received to it.
The trigger was a bunch of flowers and a thank-you note for officers left by a phenomenally ignorant XR detainee at Brixton police station, a gesture so mind-bogglingly lacking in any awareness of the building’s long oppressive history that it felt, for personal reasons I tried to explain at the time, like a punch in the stomach.
What was worse, however, was the subsequent and incomprehensible attempts to brush aside or offer wholly inappropriate (and in some instances, downright racist) excuses for this action. It seemed too like another tiny piece of evidence in an on-going debate about whether Extinction Rebellion has a “race problem”
I know (because people told me) that one of the reasons why the post I wrote was so well received was because it ended on a note of optimism, about the possibility of learning from what happened.
I have tried my best to embrace that idea of looking at a deeply uncomfortable experience in this way: only ten days ago, I even spoke at an event organised by XR activists at the Vault Festival in London on the tactic of “love-bombing” the police and how painful it feels to hear members of the movement singing their praises.
I am sorry to tell you that this follow-up post does not contain the same confidence and hopefulness.
On Saturday, a group of horrendously ignorant XR activists marched through central London with a banner that said the Metropolitan Police and Extinction Rebellion were “both working for a safer London” (see above).
My first reaction, like many people, was to assume the photo circulating on social media was a fake — and then to wonder, when it became obvious someone had actually taken the time and expense to manufacture this cursed object, why other people on the protest had not demanded its immediate removal. Equally offensive banners have, after all, been removed from protests by decent, principled people on numerous occasions.
Let’s leave aside for a moment— if we must — the fact that the Metropolitan Police simply does not make a significant number of people in the capital feel safer, because of the fivefold increase in the use of stop and search powers in the last year or the fact that black people are nearly ten times as likely to be stopped and searched as white people.
Instead, let’s look instead at the “degrading and humiliating” treatment of Extinction Rebellion’s disabled campaigners at the hands of the police, which led the Met’s own disability advisers to contemplate their resignation.
Let’s look at a report published last November, which said the police had gone far beyond a minimum level of force when making arrests of XR protesters, despite their compliance and commitment to non-violence.
I know all the case studies in that report extremely well: I should do, I was its co-author.
Far from learning anything since last October, however, the response within XR has been horribly predictable: brushing aside complaints, making excuses, insisting that the parading of a truly appalling banner through a multicultural but class-divided city was “ironic” (for fuck’s sake), or arguing it probably should not have happened but pointing to XR’s decentralised structure to lay the blame at the feet of others.
Like last year, there has been much talk about learning but nobody prepared to either condemn or take responsibility. That’s ‘not what XR does’, apparently. What is missing from any of the bullshit that has emerged is any sense of proper accountability — or indeed, yet again, any sense of empathy.
The overall impression all this has left, for me, was sudden and revelatory: the realisation that a significant portion of XR has no capacity whatsoever for placing themselves in the position of others.
The massively contrasting experiences of policing for black and working-class Londoners remains so far removed from the frame of reference of most XR activists that it simply does not matter, certainly not as much as its proselytising about the climate crisis.
Last October I wrote about how Netpol, the organisation I work for, has strived to encourage “a greater understanding between protesters and community organisers about why oppressive policing… can and should find common ground and shared solidarity”.
I now realise that that there are completely confrontational priorities here. What many of us have tried to argue is for people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to find common ground on the basis of shared class solidarity.
What Extinction Rebellion essentially wants is for its members from different cultural and class backgrounds (but let’s not beat about the bush, not that different) to find a shared interest in ignoring any issue other than their particularly apocalyptic version of the future,
Nothing else — no matter how tin-eared or offensive — could ever possibly matter, even if it acts as an obvious barrier to the growth of their own movement.
Faced with a Home Secretary who is positively gagging to crack down on environmental protests, it remains obvious that we all need to take a stand against police brutality and oppressive tactics at future Extinction Rebellion protests, such as the one coming up in May.
But for now, supporting XR in a spirit of cooperation and friendship is no longer extraordinarily difficult. It is an actual, emotional burden.
And it is one that I am no longer entirely sure I wish to remain part of.
Kevin Blowe is the coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), writing in a personal capacity | Twitter: @copwatcher