Extinction Rebellion North East: “We need a free press, but our press isn’t free”

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Extinction Rebellion North East is a local group within the decentralised international movement Extinction Rebellion. Since its establishment in 2018, the movement has significantly impacted dialogue around the climate crisis, including pushing for the Climate Emergency Bill to be debated in Parliament. Palatinate spoke to three North East rebels about the recent phase of protests in September, their relationship with the media, and the importance of student activism.

Individuals in the Movement

A collection of eco-activists from Durham, Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, and Teesside make up Extinction Rebellion North East. Chris, 19, coordinates the Newcastle University group, and said, “It’s the only climate change movement that I think is having an impact at the moment. It’s the most effective group I’ve seen. I’ve always been interested in social justice movements, and climate justice is social justice at the same time.”

Jess, a college student, is part of the Tees Valley Affinity Group for Extinction Rebellion, and is a National Spokesperson for the movement. She has just camped out at HS2, as part of a protest campaign against the construction of the high speed railway.

Jess has been involved with Extinction Rebellion for over 18 months, and explained, “I decided to join because I had been an animal liberation activist for a number of years, and through that I was aware of the effects that animal agriculture has on the climate. Then I found out the real extent of the climate crisis through travelling, and decided that this was the only option.”

The climate and ecological crisis is the greatest existential threat that mankind has ever faced

Kevin, 74, volunteers with the Durham branch and has been a leader on a number of local projects, including the recent display of 1,000 pairs of children’s shoes on Palace Green. He felt initially out of place at his first Extinction Rebellion meeting in February.

“When I got in, I looked round and it was all students. I felt like the grandad and they were all looking at me wondering if I was in the right place. But of course, I was, and I was made very welcome, and from then I became a member.”

Since then, some more professionals and retired people have joined the Durham branch, which has made Kevin feel more at ease. “We have a group called ‘Grandparents for XR’. That was a good thing for me, as I was worried that I was cramping the style of the young people.”

The ‘XR Stereotype’

A common criticism of Extinction Rebellion is its poor diversity and accessibility, while members are sometimes stereotyped as “middle-class meddlers”. Chris and Jess both acknowledge that there were diversity problems in the movement, at least at the beginning.

“This claim that we’re a middle-class, white Rebellion was in some respects true,” Chris admitted. “If you went to a protest, you would see that the majority of people there were middle-class. This is something that we tried to address in September. There was more of a focus on using our funds to pay for those who didn’t have the money to travel. The majority of the budget this year was spent on getting people there in the first place.”

Chris also explained that some People of Colour might not go to the bigger Rebellions, because they are afraid of how the police might treat them if they were to be arrested. In the phase of protests in London, over 300 people were arrested on the 3rd September alone. During this Rebellion, Chris was one of six rebels who ‘locked on’ to Lambeth Bridge.

Of course it is going to cost money. But what’s the cost of not doing it?

Jess herself does not fit the stereotype of a typical Extinction Rebellion member. “A lot of people will use that criticism and then stop in their tracks because they realise I’m not white. Not everyone in Extinction Rebellion is white. I think in the beginning, it was a stereotype that was true, but they are doing a lot of intersectionality work at the moment.”

“They are really trying to diversify. There is an Extinction Rebellion working class group that helps and supports people so that they can get involved as much as possible, and acknowledges the struggles that they might face. Within the movement, there are a lot of demands for social justice, so that really helps marginalised people, People of Colour, and Indigenous peoples.”

Student Activism

The North East rebels emphasise the essential nature of student activism, and urge young people to get involved in the Rebellion wherever they can.

“It is absolutely imperative,” Jess said. “There are so many young people that feel disenfranchised and subsequently become apathetic about these issues. But it’s the students’ future that is being messed with and ripped from beneath their feet. We really need as many people as possible to get out on the streets with us. Even if it’s just donations, or coming and helping where they can. Honestly, we need all the help we can get.”

It’s the students’ future that is being messed with and ripped from beneath their feet

Kevin explained how the limitations of his circles make it difficult for him to talk to different people about the climate crisis. “I think it’s up to the younger people in the group to find people in their circles who will want to become members. That is one of the biggest difficulties.”

“I’ve got eight grandchildren ranging from 13 to 21 years old, and so they’re right in the front line for me. I think, in around 15 years – I don’t think it’ll be much more than that – we’ll be in serious trouble with global warming. So, they’re the top of my agenda. And not just them, but other young people of their age.”

Chris shares Kevin’s concerns about the uncertainty of the future. “When I joined the movement, I was expecting it to be the future of the next generation that I was fighting for. But now, it’s most likely going to be our future. A lot of the older people in the Rebellion say they are doing it for the young people, but at the end of the day, we young people need to do it for ourselves. This is one of the most important things to fight for, otherwise I don’t know what could happen.”

Protests and the Pandemic

Chris, Jess, and Kevin have all attended multiple rebellions around the UK, but have recently had to adapt to a new form of protest in a Covid-defined world. While previously Extinction Rebellion’s focus has been on ‘site-taking’ (holding a location for as long as possible), the Pandemic has meant more rolling road blocks, rather than permanent ones. 

The movement has most felt the impact, however, in its dwindling active numbers, as Chris explained, “Because of coronavirus, a lot of the older members of Extinction Rebellion are shielding and can’t travel. Also, some people have more urgent things to deal with, as a lot of them have lost their jobs.”

One solution to this issue has been a digital rebellion, which attempts to disrupt companies’ phonelines, and avoids the risk of members being out on the streets in their numbers. Chris is hopeful, however, that this period will have increased awareness of the climate crisis among the public, as lockdown has shone a light on the detrimental impact that humans have had on the planet.

“There is a campaign in Northamptonshire opposing the building of a series of warehouses in a wood. This campaign grew because the activists put signs up in the wood, and since people were going on loads of walks during lockdown, they saw the signs and have joined the campaign. So, eco-activism has grown in some ways during this period. Come the end of coronavirus, we will see a big increase in numbers.”

Coronavirus has shown that the government do not care about us

Jess agreed that the pandemic has definitely changed the movement. “But I think that Extinction Rebellion is constantly changing and adapting anyway. I don’t think anything is really permanent for us.”

“In the beginning, our focus was on our three demands: tell the truth, act as if that truth is real, and a citizens assembly. We got the first demand, which was a declaration of a climate emergency, and we really got Extinction Rebellion into the public eye. Since then, we have listened to criticism about disrupting every-day people. Now the focus is more on targeting companies and the government. Things that we did in the past were really radical, and we are going to continue to do radical things, but the target and the audience has changed.”

The ‘Free Press’

On the 4th September, rebels blockaded printing presses, preventing papers from being delivered to newsstands all over the country for the following morning. While this was only one within a series of coordinated country-wide actions, it garnered significant media coverage due to being perceived as a threat to the freedom of the press. How do the North East rebels justify this action?

“It’s because the media is refusing to report the truth on the climate and ecological crisis,” Jess said. “Obviously the media has a duty to report significant events, and they’re not doing that. The newspapers that we blocked don’t report the truth about anything. They twist things. It’s definitely necessary for the media to change because they’re so imperative in getting the message across to people.”

Chris emphasised, “We all agree we need a free press, but our press isn’t free. That was the whole point of the action. Five billionaires own the majority of newspapers in the country. That’s not a free press, they are protecting their own interests and they don’t say it how it is or what actually happens.”

If the media think that what we’re doing or saying doesn’t go along with their principles, they won’t run it

One example Chris uses to illustrate this point are crop yields. This year, crop yields were down 20-50% in the UK because of changes in seasonal climate. “I didn’t see that anywhere, I had to find out for myself. No one sees that as actual news.”

Kevin pointed out the contradiction in the concept of billionaire-owned ‘free press’. “We are talking about very rich media moguls and the government, who stick together because they’re not prepared to operate for the majority of people. It wasn’t an attack on the free press at all, it was to show that we’re concerned about the media moguls.”

“We don’t get much media coverage. I suppose we have to be really high profile if we want to do anything. If the media think that what we’re doing or saying doesn’t go along with their principles, they won’t run it. And that’s a big problem we have.”

Chris, however, is relatively optimistic about Extinction Rebellion’s relationship with the media. “When Extinction Rebellion is on the news, it’s usually because they’re saying bad things about us, but at the end of the day, people can see past that. I don’t care. We’re not here to be liked, we’re here to protect life. And change is happening, not nearly enough as it should be but the public opinion is changing for sure.”

The Future

The overwhelming message of Extinction Rebellion is clear: while this phase of protests may be over, “the Rebellion doesn’t stop here!” The North East rebels are also hopeful for the future of the movement, but stressed the importance of immediate and urgent action.

“Coronavirus has shown that the government do not care about us,” Chris said. “They’re literally just protecting themselves and their pockets, which is why nothing gets done about climate change. Because, of course it is going to cost money. But what’s the cost of not doing it? Human lives. We need to understand that people are dying right now, and we will be next if we don’t do something about it.”

There’s a massive tsunami building. It’ll swamp everybody and take no prisoners

“Two words: act now. It isn’t any good waiting any longer,” Kevin urged. “To students – I’m an elderly guy but I’m very interested in the future of my grandchildren, and students like yourself. You have to act now, because your future is very delicate and dangerous.”

Kevin considers Coronavirus “small waves on the shore” in comparison to the climate crisis. “What people can’t see it that if you look out further on the ocean, there’s a massive tsunami building. It’ll swamp everybody and take no prisoners.”

Likewise, Jess emphasised the urgency of reversing climate change. “The climate and ecological crisis is the greatest existential threat that mankind has ever faced. If we choose to act, it must be now. If we choose to change, it must be drastic. If we choose to live, it must be in harmony.”

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