Processing the media and political response to this week’s Extinction Rebellion protests, you could be forgiven for concluding that many of our journalists and politicians have never heard of the American civil rights movement or Gandhi’s satyagraha, which inspired its methods of non-violent resistance. Even the ABC seemed confused. On Radio National, Patricia Karvelas fixated on the movement’s supposed potential for violence while quizzing Dr Christine Canty, the co-ordinator of Extinction Rebellion Families, about ‘your cause’ (as if the climate crisis shouldn’t be everybody’s concern). Meanwhile, on the national broadcaster’s news website there was the suggestion that the rallies have been ‘marred’ by arrests when, in fact, the arrest of activists is not an aberration but a core part of XR’s methods.
In the American south during the 1950s and 60s, such tactics were used often – most famously during the Montgomery bus boycott – to draw attention to segregation. When ministers like Peter Dutton, Michaelia Cash and David Littleproud call for climate protestors to be imprisoned, to be publicly shamed and to have their income support cut off, they are also condemning by extension the tactics of the people who turned the tide on racial inequality in the United States, or British imperialism in India. Yet their deeply illiberal rhetoric, aired through the usual tabloid and talkback channels, shows no understanding of this history.
Nor does it show much knowledge of Extinction Rebellion itself. Contrary to cliches about ‘dole bludgers’, it is precisely XR’s heterogeneity that unnerves the political class into such authoritarian chest-beating. If you have been to a climate rally or XR action you will know that it is not just long-haired students in harem pants who show up. How could they, given rally numbers around the world are now routinely in the tens of thousands? There are children, doctors, working mums and dads, whole families. Remember this when you hear the likes of Dutton – who, let us not forget, lied to parliament for the sake of his mates’ nannies, spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on parties and coffee tables, and joked about rising sea levels – lecturing the public on ‘community expectation’.
As Dutton and his fellow ministers know, what the community expects is for the government to do much more to address the climate crisis. Poll after poll has shown that the overwhelming majority of Australians accept the evidence for anthropogenic climate change and view it as a critical threat. In line with one of the movement’s key demands, 64 per cent of Australians want net-zero emissions by 2050 (XR’s deadline is the more ambitious 2025). With emissions having risen each year for the past five years, despite the near-exhaustion of every avenue of resistance imaginable, it would be good to know exactly which tactic would convince our government to act on the climate crisis without the need for traffic disruption and lock-ons.
The response of Australian authorities to such actions is becoming increasingly authoritarian. More than thirty activists were arrested this week in Sydney, including by riot police, with elderly protesters dragged along the road on their knees. Absurdly for what are, in effect, low-level traffic obstructions, draconian bail conditions have been imposed on those arrested including bans from the Sydney CBD and non-association with other members of Extinction Rebellion. As I write, at least one protester is still in custody twenty-four hours after her arrest. These are the actions of a police state, not a modern democracy.
None of this, of course, is worthy of comment by Australia’s free speech warriors, who in the coming days will no doubt double down on the government’s demonisation of protestors. Prepare for endless, unsubstantiated claims that traffic blockades put people’s lives at risk and divert precious resources from more important matters. As though the failed war on drugs doesn’t represent an infinitely greater waste of police and legal resources. As though the climate crisis itself is not already killing people – at a rate, according to the World Health Organisation, of more than 150,000 deaths a year, to say nothing of the mass extinctions we have unleashed on the world’s flora and fauna.
The increasingly oppressive forces of the state will continue to be marshalled against Extinction Rebellion and its supporters – not because of its tactics but because they know that those tactics are working. After all, the movement did not emerge from nowhere, but rather the careful study of what has made civil rights movements successful in the past – namely, non-violent economic and civil disruption to raise awareness and challenge regressive political orthodoxies.
Western liberal democracies have made virtual foundation stories of the achievements of the American civil rights movement, and Gandhi and his followers. To reduce them to inconveniences would, rightly, be considered by most people to be preposterous. And yet, with the future of humanity and countless non-human species hanging in the balance, this is precisely what our government and conservative commentators would have us do with the current wave of climate crisis protests. If there was a time for quietly signing petitions and writing to our MPs about this, it was thirty years ago. It is not now.