The eerie silence following Extinction Rebellion’s Canning Town protest should be a warning for us all.
Three months on and it feels that the dust is still settling from the infamous Extinction Rebellion stunt at Canning Town station: scenes of a ferocious, angry crowd dragging corduroy clad protesters from the top of trains. An eerie silence has been left over the future direction of the movement. XR have began to review its strategy: questioning whether the image perception of their protestors as middle class and privileged has been an issue when preventing working class Londoners from getting to work. Its undeniable that their targeting was dumb. Why not form a human chain around BP’s headquarters instead? However, at least they succeeded in gaining attention… since this is an emergency. The central strategy so far has been that since decades of conventional climate-focused protest has failed to achieve any reduction or even slowing of carbon emissions, that non-violent civil disobedience be adopted to force change. Undeniably this strategy has been successful. XR now dominates the headlines and people are talking – rightfully so, since scientists predict we have as little as eighteen months to take action to avert imminent climate catastrophe. Its therefore also not surprising why desperate stunts, such as those seen on the morning of the 17th October have become increasingly adopted. However, this action has seemingly turned the finger of blame against the protestors, but with all the attention on XR, none has been given to the actions of the London commuters who had initiated the violence.
It has been intensely frightening to me how the violence of ordinary working class Londoners has been condoned by my friends, coworkers and family. Terrifyingly, what this is is a damning inditement of our society. Looking at the footage from that morning at Canning Town station, overwhelmingly the majority of the platform were cheerleading the assault – with the spontaneity of the incident making it all the more chilling. This attack happened not because those targeted were terrorists or criminals who posed a threat to their safety, not because they were reviled politicians who had deceived the public, or because they were one of the many bankers on the train that morning, bound to depart at Liverpool street that morning. It was because the protesters threatened to make them late for work. That’s physical violence folks. Whether you like it or not, that is a criminal offence, which is why the Met is now hunting down the perpetrators from CCTV footage.
The argument in essence went that because the protestors were obstructing the commute of working Londoners, it threatened them with losing their jobs and thereby impacting their ability to earn for their families. The ugly reality of work today is that many jobs are offered on insecure, precarious, and hourly paid, temporary contracts whereby any lateness of absence is punished with immediate docking/loss of wages and job termination. Initially it had come to mind that if I had found myself on the platform, providing I was on a salary, I would have simply videoed it and whatsapped it to my boss in the hope of getting the morning off work. What could be a better alibi? Granted I would be doing my nut if it was me in such a position: standing on a platform starring up at some tweed blazer clad uni grad atop a train carriage. However, it’s one thing to be angry, another thing to rip someone down from on top of a train, drag them to the floor, and along with a mob of others, kick and beat them against the concrete relentlessly. Someone could have been killed – what about that person’s family?
If the angry commuters really were the guardians of common sense and family values, I’d like to know where they were during recent anti-austerity protests: where very angry but considerate workers were attempting to fight back against the Government’s attempt to reduce public sector pay, benefits and public services for ordinary families. What even is this argument? So now we support mob violence against ponsy looking hippies but not bankers? In World War Two the word was ‘keep calm and carry on’ – in the face of bombs, war and rationing. Today, at the risk of being half an hour late to work the public have rallied around the application of mob violence. Listening to the screams and football crowd like baying of middle aged men one can only wonder what the predicted climate change induced food riots will look like in the next few decades.
Upon dissection every argument in favour of the commuters boils down to an argument for pure, ignorant self-interest: the decision to use violence against a person who is protesting peacefully is placing their life below your own convenience and self interest. If anything the protesters are supporting the interests of the commuter’s families; for instance, how do they expect to support their families when they’re submerged two and half meters underwater? When told to be quiet, sit down and think before you speak, the only conclusion you could reach is that violence was only prosecuted because the outnumbered, limp looking protesters were easier to confront than your boss, or reality. This isn’t to mention that if XR went anywhere near using violence they would be shutdown and locked up immediately, and condemned by the public even more than they have already by simply enabling it by acting as human bait.
More importantly though is the fact that the use of violence against non-violent protest was de-facto condoned in the national discourse – if only momentarily. That is terrifying. Once you justify the use of violence in this way you open up the potential for its use against any other non-violent peaceful group or people in a spiraling escalation of scope and severity. I wouldn’t like to know what Tommy Robinson deduced from his viewing of events.
Saying that, we are all mentally ill victims of this psychosis. The idea of job-loss, bankruptcy, divorce and social ridicule is far more pungent than the concept of ecological collapse. ‘Climate change’ in my mind seems more like the title of an upcoming science fiction disaster movie – it’s just so inconceivable. It’s hard to believe the science over the seeming permanency of day to day life. On top of this is the fact that for many people, work itself is just so exhausting. From clawing myself towards my alarm clock in the morning to sweating in my suit on the tube home from work. The last thing I’d cheer for is for someone who appears to not need a job to jump in-front of my car on the way to work, whether they were holding an XR banner or not. But this would be human weakness, not reason.
“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”
― Yuval Noah Harari
One of the most profound conclusions in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens was that humans are essentially weak. Of all the genocides, atrocities and calamities prosecuted by various human civilizations, only another ascendant, rival civilization was ultimately capable of bringing the former to boot. Internal opposition and self restraint from citizens was nearly always too insignificant, thereby heavily implicating that humans were always too subservient to authority, prone to mob-mentality, and ultimately too weak to avert disaster. Tendencies that since WW2 have been well noted in experiments such as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Perhaps this is why we are finding it too hard to change the way we lead our daily lives, instead of waking up to the objective reality that the world’s ecosystem is about to collapse.
We now find ourselves on the precipice of one of the great crises of civilization. What lessons can we learn from the past? Surely the first step is that at moments like these we at least pause to question our own instinctual responses.
Of all disasters the most prominent is the Jewish Hollocaust and Second World War. Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time researching my family history and I’m very lucky to still have a Grandfather, and even luckier that he is a veteran of WW2. On my visits to him we both enjoy his tales from the army: his favourite being when occupying a German castle on the Danish border he used his half-track to rip the lock off a cellar full of forbidden captured Nazi rum, allowing the entire battalion to plaster themselves. During his tour he had a German girlfriend and met many Germans, so I asked him what he thought about them, and whether they were responsible for the disaster that befell their country and Europe. He couldn’t say, but it got me thinking. National Socialism distinguished itself because it claimed to seek a utopia for the superior Aryan race, to the exclusion of all others, by destroying individual rights in order to serve the German Nation. Today without doubt what unites the culture of our globalised world, distinct from recent history, is the supremacy of individualism over the communal. Has the pendulum now swung too far in the other direction? At the Nuremburg trials at least the defendants had the excuse that they were just following orders. What will our excuse be to our children when they ask us who ordered us to destroy the planet, and drag climate protestors from train carriages, and pummel them into the pavement.
Words: Alex Ant