Extinction Rebellion: We Need To Talk About The Future

Sam J Knights
27 min readOct 23, 2019


Dear everyone.

This is a love letter to Extinction Rebellion.

A movement that I devoted the last year of my life to. Lost jobs over. Got arrested with. Put everything on hold for. A movement that I believed in. A movement that believed in me. A movement that changed the debate. And that now needs to change.

It is also a letter addressed to those who have criticised us. An apology. A response. And, ultimately, an invitation.

Credit: Snowflake Foxtrot, Extinction Rebellion

I know that some of my friends will find this letter far too critical. Others will find it far too lenient. Either way, I don’t really mind. I hope, ultimately, it is honest. I am not writing it to appease or to placate anybody. Both sides are right about some things, and both sides are wrong about others.

But I hope we can agree on one thing. This year has changed everything.

The School Strikes. The Sunrise Movement. Zero Hour. The minority world has finally woken up to something the majority world has been trying to tell us for decades. The world is on fire. People are dying. Children are starving. The fossil fuel companies are refusing to change. And we need to fight back.

In April, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency, following a fortnight of continuous protest from Extinction Rebellion. A mass campaign of non-violent civil disobedience which saw roads blocked, roundabouts occupied, and bridges transformed into gardens.

It was, more than anything, a challenge. A challenge to the current system. A warning to our politicians and to our leaders that if they could not respond to the climate crisis with the seriousness it demands — if they were not prepared to imagine a future without death or destruction, without inequality or oppression — then we would.

Last month, the Labour Party made the first step towards answering this call for climate and ecological justice. It still has a very long way to go, but the changes in policy are incredibly encouraging. At its annual conference in Brighton, party members and trade unions worked hand in hand to pass a radical and progressive policy package to tackle the climate and ecological emergency: the Socialist Green New Deal. If enacted, this would mean the public ownership of major industries, a radical redistribution of wealth, the repeal of all anti-union laws, and a net zero emissions target of 2030.

A month later and Extinction Rebellion held its October Rebellion in London. For a huge number of different reasons, it did not have the impact of our protests in April. People knew what to expect this time round. Some of our actions were breathtakingly beautiful. Some of our actions were painfully idiotic. Our protests were banned. Our sites were cleared. It was a disappointing end to the fortnight.

Of course, it was by no means a failure. In less than a year, we had staged two of the largest civil disobedience events in the history of the United Kingdom. And, in October, we had grown once again. More people came down to the sites and more people stayed to defend them. But there was no pink boat in Oxford Circus. No beautiful garden bridge. And something definitely felt different.

At the same time, we were facing enormous critique from all sides. Internally, we were also engaged in a fierce and passionate debate about the future of our movement. In Extinction Rebellion, we have always called for system change. We have always talked about freedom, equality, and solidarity. But many of us now think we need to be more specific. We want Extinction Rebellion to become proactive in its anti-racism. We want the movement to develop a deeper analysis of capital and control, and to acknowledge more publicly the crises of capitalism and colonialism that are — in no small part — responsible for this crisis.

The School Strikes Movement and Extinction Rebellion have changed the way that we in the minority world think about the climate and ecological emergency. Inside every industry and every institution there are now hundreds of people who have been persuaded to do something. The British public consider climate change more important now than they ever have and the Labour Party has one of the most progressive and ambitious policies of any party in Europe.

This year, the debate changed. And we have to change with it.

Credit: Alex Fisher, Extinction Rebellion

As activists, we spend our lives thinking about how best to communicate with the outside world. We write articles trying to win people over. We give speeches trying to persuade people we are right. We go into your workplaces and your community centres. We organise. We mobilise. We hope we cut through.

In doing so, we are sometimes in danger of neglecting one another. Because we find those conversations even more difficult, don’t we? Because, ultimately, we all have very different visions of the future, different experiences of the past, and different understandings of the present. Because what’s the point in talking, anyway, when the ice caps are melting, and the oceans are rising, and people are being murdered in the rainforests?

But talking to one another is also important. And, right now, there is a very important question that we all need to discuss:

Do we continue with Extinction Rebellion? Or is it time for something new?

It pains me to write those words.

I joined Extinction Rebellion a year ago. I know that doesn’t sound like a very long time, but the movement was still in its infancy then. In fact, we hadn’t even started. We organised our first protest on the 31st October 2018 and, to my surprise, over a thousand people turned up. Among them was a fifteen year old girl named Greta Thunberg, who had come all the way from Sweden in an electric car with her dad. In the media, we were supported by Vandana Shiva, Noam Chomsky and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Since then, I have held a number of different roles within the movement. I have worked in the media and messaging team, the political strategy team, and — when it was functioning — the rapid response team. I love this movement with all my heart. Our activists are, without exception, some of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most passionate people I have ever met.

Whilst we may disagree on some issues, I want to acknowledge that nothing I write here is personal. Mass movements do not operate like reformist pressure groups. We do not have our opinions handed down to us from on high. Disagreement is natural. In fact, disagreement is essential. In this case, I simply have a difference of opinion.

For the last month, the movement has been engaged in a fierce debate over our collective future and it will, I am sure, continue this debate in the weeks and the months to come. I hope more people can join. I hope more people can join and push to be better. Because, right now, Extinction Rebellion really needs to change. And if it can’t change, it is finished.

Credit: Matthew Shearing, Extinction Rebellion

Unfortunately, I don’t think I can be a part of that change.

The last year has been one of the best years of my life. But it has also been one of the worst. I was arrested at the very start of this year and the trial has only just concluded, eight months later. In the meantime, I have lost work and been targeted by the police. I am thinking about climate change the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep and the effect on my mental health has been really damaging. I really need a break.

It is one of those old ironies of climate activism: that in fighting for a more sustainable way of life, we are often forced to live a totally unsustainable existence. I do not want to burn out completely. So I am taking some time now in order to be more useful in the future. Perhaps I will come back to Extinction Rebellion. I don’t really know.

But I still feel guilty for leaving. And so I wanted to say something before I do.

The critiques of Extinction Rebellion are right.

I don’t mean the right wing think tanks that call us terrorists. Or the tabloid papers that call us hypocrites. Or the conservative columnists who refuse to even engage with the science. Obviously, they are all batshit. We know that. We can discount them and we can move on.

But the critiques we have received from the left. Not all of them, of course. But most of them. Most of them are right. In their reasoning. In their analysis. In how we need to change.

If Extinction Rebellion is going to be a long-term political project, then it needs to put climate and ecological justice at the heart of everything it does. It needs to proactively defend migrant rights and to stand in solidarity with those on the frontlines of this crisis. It needs to call for reparations and for further conversations around climate debt, land rights, and ecocide. It needs to better articulate how we extend and reform our broken democracy. It needs to reimagine our global finance system and, in doing so, provide a nuanced critique of our current economic system. It needs to understand how the climate crisis intersects with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. It needs to stop putting out such stupid messages about how prison is lovely, and being arrested is fun, and the police are all great. This is the most important social justice struggle of all our lives. And we have to start acting like it.

Credit: Ruth Davey, Extinction Rebellion

Having said that, I also recognise the scale of this challenge.

The role of the activist is to reimagine the world. We need to rewild the world, but first we need to rewild the imagination. We must attempt to articulate our dreams for the future and, in doing so, we must acknowledge that those dreams do not always come fully formed. That process is long and it is arduous. Ultimately, we need to take everyone with us. With love and with empathy. With a generosity of spirit.

Extinction Rebellion needs to change. But anybody who thinks that change can happen overnight is taking you for a fool. Meaningful solidarity and effective political education do not happen in the blink of an eye. The work ahead is going to be slow. It is going to take time. It is going to be hard.

One of the biggest questions we now face is how that deeper, slower, more vital work is able to still take place within an emergency response to the climate crisis. The environmental movement has always been a balance between running too fast and walking too slow. Our slogans read: “act now”, “tell the truth”, and “we’re running out of time”. But how are we meant to “tell the truth” if we never stop to consider it? To check our own privilege and to listen to the experiences of others?

We cannot continue to think of these two things as contradictory, or as somehow in competition. Understanding the climate crisis and imagining a more progressive future goes hand in hand with the need to act now. One influences the other. Indeed, it enriches our activism. It makes us better.

So, let’s talk about the movement today.

Mass movements are messy. It’s the best thing about them and it’s the worst thing about them.

Extinction Rebellion is a decentralised mass movement made up of thousands of different people. Academics, politicians, schoolchildren, scientists, grandparents, doctors, nurses, postmen, teachers, lawyers, priests, rabbis. There are now Extinction Rebellion chapters in over sixty different countries and in every continent except for Antarctica. We all act autonomously. There is no central line of command. There are no leaders. And our critics often forget that.

There is no denying that the April rebellion managed to alter the public perception of what is and what is not possible, not only in the wider green movement but in every activist group up and down the country. In every town, street, and home. Together, we created a space for debate. We proved that non-violent civil disobedience works and, in doing so, we created space not only in a figurative sense, but also in a very literal one.

Credit: Azo, Extinction Rebellion

Occupying five iconic locations in central London, we transformed the streets of the city into public stages on which democracy could flourish. We held talks, debates, rallies, assemblies, performances, gigs, poetry readings, and everything in between. We talked about economics, politics, science, race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, capitalism, colonialism, power, growth, degrowth, protest law, ecocide, reparations, climate debt, anarchism, socialism, democracy. We talked about everything we could with everyone we knew. We dreamt together. We attempted to imagine the future.

Of course, this work was not done alone. It worked alongside other emerging movements, like the School Strike movement in Europe and the Sunrise Movement in America. It learnt from the justice movements that preceded it and it paid homage to activists in the majority world. It learnt from the people on the frontlines of this crisis who have been leading this movement for decades and regard us — quite rightly — as relative newcomers. We often talk in the climate movement of the disproportionate effect we in the minority world have had on the majority world. We are responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, and yet it is people in the countries least responsible for this crisis that are feeling the effects of it most. But we talk less about the disproportionate response of our activists. For too long we have allowed indigenous communities and activist groups in the Global South to do the vast majority of our resistance work for us, before we then step in at the last moment and claim all the credit.

Extinction Rebellion has certainly fallen into this trap. Some of the people in our movement have allowed their egos to run away with them. But I think that is changing. And I think it will continue to change, for the better. The last week saw protests in more than sixty cities across the world, from Mumbai to Cape Town, Dublin to New York, Banjul to Islamabad. Every iteration of this movement is different to the next. A group in Ghana, for example, cannot use the same tactics to a group in France. Of course, the core essence of the movement remains the same. But everything else is able to change. In fact, the ability to change, and change quickly, is a key part of our success.

Extinction Rebellion changes with every new person that joins us. Our decentralised structure means that so long as you are abiding by our key values and principles, you can start organising an action or planning a protest or writing a speech without seeking permission or having to be mandated to do so.

This is what allowed us to grow so rapidly. It encouraged a huge diversity of tactics to naturally emerge as people felt empowered to take action in whatever way that made sense to them. It meant we worked quickly and never allowed ourselves time to get stuck. For those of us in the central office, we knew things were working not when we had organised everything ourselves — but when things started happening that we didn’t know anything about.

Of course, there are also various problems with this organising model that warrant a much longer conversation. A structure that relies on empowering people to go out and act often then struggles with its own internal decision making. It also struggles to mitigate for power and to sensitively respond to questions of privilege or conflict.

It also means that occasionally people do something stupid. Like send flowers to a police station. Or jump on top of a train.

I am, by the way, not blaming individual people for these actions. Although individuals do need to take a portion of the blame, these mistakes cannot be dismissed as simply accidental. They are part of our movement. They are manifestations of an idea. Or a tactic. Or evidence of our ignorance.

Like all good movements, we need to look at them and we need to learn from them.

Credit: Joe Twigg, Extinction Rebellion

The infamous train action is, I think, a good case study in the limits of decentralised activism. It was planned by a tiny faction of the movement, opposed by the overwhelming majority of our activists, and yet it was still allowed to happen under the banner of Extinction Rebellion. It soaked up all the media coverage that day, distracting from more thoughtful actions and altering the public perception of our protests. Yet it was only about ten or fifteen people who were ever convinced it would work.

It is worth saying that this same group tried to do the exact same thing during the April rebellion. At the time, we still had a more hierarchical way of organising; we established a body that had oversight over the entire rebellion called the Rapid Response Team, which was supposedly representatives from different subgroups across the organisation but was basically just fifteen people from the central team. I was in the meeting when this action was finally put to bed and I can tell you that had a couple of us not threatened to publicly quit if this action took place, then it would have happened in April.

There are certain groups in Extinction Rebellion who believe that economic disruption is the only strategy worth pursuing. This was deeply ingrained in the genesis of the movement and a strategic view that many of the original members cannot be dissuaded of. They are intent on disrupting transport networks and getting people arrested en masse . This view is sometimes presented as the main view of Extinction Rebellion, because it is loudly championed in the media by some of the founders, but in fact it is now a relatively fringe position. Most activists have a much more nuanced theory of change, one that relies on a vast multitude of tactics.

We need to find different structures if we are to achieve different victories.

In a decentralised mass movement, those with the loudest voices reign supreme. The challenge therefore is to build a progressive movement that does not fall prey to these voices.

I think the time is now right for us to ditch our undemocratic ways of working. Our movement has been exceptionally efficient in mobilising thousands of people, but now it needs to think long and hard about the principle of accountability. At the present moment, there is no accountability whatsoever.

We need to think very carefully about what our purpose is going forward and what we hope to achieve. When I was arrested in February for peacefully protesting outside of an oil and gas conference, I had organised the action on my own terms. I am, to be perfectly honest, not that prepared to get arrested for sitting in the middle of a road. I see the necessity of it and I admire those who do it, but personally I wanted to do something that was more significant and sent out a clearer political message. The psychological strain of being arrested, then charged, and finally having to stand trial is immense. As a young person, I am not going to make that sacrifice on a whim. The action I organised was different. It was a targeted protest with a very specific purpose. It had messaging around the neo-colonial practises of fossil fuel companies in Africa.

In other words: if I was going to rebel, I wanted to do it on my own terms.

Credit: Thomas Katan, Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion has always relied on symbolic actions to build the movement. When we first started, we mobilised people by picking politically astute targets, dominating the news coverage, and then finding ways in which people could be instantly enfolded into the group. This is something, to be blunt, most activist groups are not very good at. With an emboldened movement, we then turned our attention to mass participation actions which were designed to maximise economic disruption. Some of these worked better than others. Most, to analyse them objectively, failed on our own terms: they did not cause much economic disruption and they did not hold our vision either. But they succeeded where others have not: they brought people in.

With every new activist comes a new theory of change. They multiply. They coexist. They are not particularly easy to pin down.

It is not often acknowledged that those of us at the heart of Extinction Rebellion are generally a lot more radical than the people who support us. In the same way, the wider movement is often more cautious or more liberal than the people in the central team. There are people who think the word “rebellion” is a neat rhetorical flourish, and those of us who think it is absolutely essential.

What attracted me to Extinction Rebellion was the call for system change.

Contrary to what some commentators would have you believe, Extinction Rebellion was pretty much the only group in 2018 that had a systemic critique of the climate crisis and was prepared to shout about it. Of course, there were and are other groups. But I think it is worth being honest here: their message did not cut through and it was not matched with the same drive and ambition for action. Crucially, Extinction Rebellion also has the first step to a rational and coherent solution: non-violent civil disobedience on a scale we had never seen before.

Credit: Francesca E Harris, Extinction Rebellion

I think the criticisms of Extinction Rebellion for being too liberal or lacking in any class analysis are largely overblown. Extinction Rebellion is, after all, a natural successor of the Occupy movement. I am always surprised by how infrequently this connection is made. Most of the coordinators of Extinction Rebellion were involved in Occupy. I wish we talked about this more. I wish we had learnt from it more. But they do have a good analysis of capital and control. Don’t get me wrong, the messaging still needs to improve a lot. But we have been very clear about the need for system change. In a recent report for Policy Exchange, we were described as “an anti-capitalist movement that envisages no possible accommodation with a free market economy”. I was singled out, as were some of my friends, for our class based analysis of the current situation.

In the October rebellion, the police banned all Extinction Rebellion activity — in a move we do not yet know was legal — after we disrupted the financial district with a series of roadblocks. We have consistently challenged the rich and the powerful and been targeted as a result. If the police response was unlawful, it would not be the first time. Two months ago, I was banned by the police from the Labour Party Conference, despite having no criminal record whatsoever and being an elected delegate to conference. The police later admitted they had behaved incorrectly.

We have to remember that meaningful resistance to the current system will always be suppressed by a violent and censorious state. Our critiques of capitalism have brought us into direct contact with the violence of the state. But we cannot let this dissuade us from doing so. In fact, in a strange sort of way, it is a sign that our protests our working. It is imperative that at the heart of the movement we have a coherent critique of the current economic model and — most importantly — an idea of what a greener and more sustainable economics looks like.

It is also important to acknowledge our own privilege when talking about class. The right-wing have consistently attacked Extinction Rebellion for being a “middle class” movement. It is true that many of the people who protest with Extinction Rebellion are middle class, as many people in the wider green movement are. This needs to change. But the central team is not overwhelmingly middle class and neither in fact are the founders. The problem is our messaging. Our messaging appeals to a certain type of person, whilst inadvertently excluding others. Thus, we are not mobilising people in the deprived areas of London, we are mobilising largely middle class people who live in the countryside. It cannot be this way round. We need to be listening to the working class and educating the middle class. Not trying to run before we can walk.

However, it is also worth applying some context. Extinction Rebellion has been very successful at mobilising a huge number of different people very quickly; the first team I ever led had people who had just quit their lucrative jobs in the city and people who were coming to the office in between appointments at the job centre. To be blunt, many of the activist groups that routinely criticise Extinction Rebellion are not as inclusive or as diverse. Many of them are run by Oxbridge educated activists who operate in a particular way and communicate with a specific vocabulary. I have always felt at home in these groups, but we cannot pretend that everyone does. Extinction Rebellion has not been successful in mobilising the working class, but neither has anyone else. It is important we all acknowledge that.

I am a member of the Labour Party and I have been since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015. My politics have always been rooted in class struggle and so has my climate activism. It is, of course, true that not everyone in Extinction Rebellion shares my politics. People are attracted to this movement for many different reasons — we need to hang onto this ability to mobilise people and bring people together, carefully and compassionately, on a journey towards class consciousness. How the climate movement talks about class is one of the most important conversations that we all need to have in the weeks and months ahead.

We should, of course, never shy away from talking about system change.

Extinction Rebellion is based on revolutionary modes of activism. It aspires to peaceful revolution, not in the conventional sense of the word, but in a deeper, more reflective, and more empathetic way. We are not set up to be a reformist activist group. We want to transform every aspect of our society. And we believe in the people — in the power of ordinary people like you and me — to do that for ourselves.

In transferring to the second phase of Extinction Rebellion we must not lose the radical heart of our movement.

Non-violent civil disobedience is one of the most important tools in the struggle for climate justice. Indeed, it has been one of the most important tools in the struggle for justice all across the world — from the civil rights movement to the suffragettes. In recent weeks, I have seen people argue that all forms of disruption are wrong. Some of these arguments have become frankly surreal. In an unequal and unjust world, modes of resistance will obviously be complicated and compromised by the reality of organising. But the answer is not to ditch civil disobedience, it is to do civil disobedience better.

Credit: Sarah Cresswell, Extinction Rebellion

However, we should not get confused between revolutionary tactics that work and revolutionary tactics that do not. Much of the research that originally underpinned our organising is based on revolutions and rebellions under repressive regimes and dictatorships. Whilst there certainly are some wider lessons to be learnt here, we would be foolish to think they can be easily transposed to a different political context. Our arrest strategy is deeply flawed. As I have said already, it has in fact been a relatively fringe position for a while now. But we have not been able to articulate what our new strategy is, if in fact we have one.

We also have to acknowledge the huge criticism our past strategies have received. In particular, much of this criticism has come from people of colour. And rightly so.

So, let’s talk about race.

Extinction Rebellion has a race problem.

In fact, most activist groups do. The green movement especially. But, just because this problem is not particular to us, it is absolutely never something we should be complacent about. Indeed, we have to put the struggle for racial equality at the heart of everything we do.

In 2015, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth described the climate movement as “a white middle class ghetto”. Study after study has revealed the shocking lack of diversity within climate NGOs and climate justice organisations. Of course, there are some notable exceptions and some good progress has been made over the last decade. But it should never have been like this in the first place. Climate change is a racialised crisis. To fail to recognise that is tantamount to white supremacy.

Anyone who tells you that this is a problem solely of Extinction Rebellion knows nothing about the history of the climate movement in the United Kingdom. But that does not absolve Extinction Rebellion of its complete and utter failure to engage with issues of race. In fact, it makes it all the more damning. This is one of the most important issues in the British climate movement and our voice has been notably absent.

Again, it is worth pointing out where our critics have sometimes simplified their criticism. There are many people of colour in organising roles across the movement. I remember talking to one of our most active coordinators about this last year, when these criticisms were first made. She said: “when they say there are no black people in the movement, they are the people who are whitewashing my contribution as a black woman, they are the people not recognising my leadership”.

But there is a big difference between having black people in your movement and being proactively antiracist in everything you do.

When I first joined Extinction Rebellion, I was told not to talk about capitalism or colonialism on our social media accounts. Obviously, I still did — but the advice did surprise me. The logic was that it put people off and that we should be utilising a more universal and accessible rhetoric. Obviously, what constitutes as universal is in itself a racialised decision. And if you do not talk about power and privilege, then you are making a political decision to direct your messaging towards some groups at the exclusion of others. It is worth saying, for the record, that this advice rarely came from people within the media team itself. It was from coordinators in other parts of the organisation and couched in terms of strategy and identity.

Credit: Francesca E Harris, Extinction Rebellion

I have also witnessed the exclusion of people of colour from activist spaces. Recently, a young woman of colour had to leave an organising group after she shared her experiences of racism within the environmental movement and was told that she, not the people who had made her feel unwelcome, should consider her place in the movement. Censorship on this level is not only a form of exclusion, it is a form of violence. I don’t think these attitudes are prevalent in Extinction Rebellion, but they certainly are there. And at the moment we do not have the procedures or the structures to deal with them. This needs to change.

Last April, my friend Farhana and I coordinated our political negotiation strategy. This involved constructing a campaign that we hoped would force politicians to meet us and ultimately end in the UK Parliament declaring a climate and ecological emergency. In the end, our strategy was successful — the day after we met with Michael Gove and John McDonnell, the United Kingdom became the first country to declare a climate emergency. It remains the largest victory that Extinction Rebellion can legitimately claim.

But my leadership (as a young person) and Farhana’s leadership (as a person of colour) was routinely challenged. Farhana is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in Extinction Rebellion; she is a former lead author of the IPCC and has been working in the UN for decades. The fact that someone like her quit her job to join us should be a story we champion, not somebody we marginalise. During the April rebellion, Farhana and I were seen as political reformers merely for meeting with politicians, as we were mandated to do. A conflict resolution process was triggered against us and we were also the subject of an open petition which called for Farhana to be thrown out of the movement. There is no doubt in my mind that much of this distrust, whether conscious or not, was borne of racism.

Everyone — particularly those of us on the left who purport to stand up for justice — has a responsibility to decolonise our thinking, our theory, and our activist practises.

Some of us have been talking about climate justice from the very beginning. It is not true that there has been no work done on climate justice issues, or to advance this strategy in the wider movement. Extinction Rebellion Youth have worked very closely with Extinction Rebellion’s International Solidarity Network to raise the voices of the Global South and to stand in solidarity with the indigenous struggle. Many of the people joining now have a much better political analysis and are helping to change and reshape the movement in their own image. Similarly, local groups tend to be better at talking about climate justice. And maybe it was best summed up by Extinction Rebellion Scotland, who brought a big banner to the October Rebellion which simply read: “Decolonise XR”.

Generally, the problem is not that there aren’t people talking about climate justice within Extinction Rebellion, because there are. The problem is that climate justice is not deeply imbedded into the values and principles of the movement.

Credit: Gareth Morris, Extinction Rebellion

At the October Rebellion, a site called the Global Justice Rebellion called for the addition of a fourth demand focused on climate and ecological justice, loosely based on the fourth demand of Extinction Rebellion in the US. This important site was organised by a large coalition of groups, including many groups formally affiliated with Extinction Rebellion. This fourth demand should now be formally adopted by Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom. But climate justice cannot just be something we tack on at the end of our demands, like an afterthought. It has to be deeply imbedded in everything we do.

The messaging around arrests have proved particularly problematic. In part, this criticism has focused around the strategy of mass arrests and here we have to recognise that our experiences of the justice system are always going to be different. Earlier this year, we wrote in the Extinction Rebellion handbook: “Extinction Rebellion is clear that the police continue to be structurally racist, unjust and violent, particularly towards oppressed groups”. We have not done enough to mitigate or to protect ourselves against that.

As with all of these critiques, the reaction can of course be overblown. Martin Luther King understood well the tactic of mass arrests. In Alabama, the civil rights movement won one of its most significant victories when it decided to fill the prisons with protestors. In 1963, six hundred children were arrested in a move that many other civil rights leaders felt deeply uncomfortable about. Thousands of black men and women ended up in police cells, as did Martin Luther King. And, ultimately, the campaign was successful. The city of Birmingham rejected segregation and the protests arguably led to one of the most significant victories of the civil rights movement: the adoption of the Civil Rights Act.

Mass arrests have been an important tool of black resistance for a very long time. But let’s face it: there is a big difference between Martin Luther King telling you to get arrested and some white guy from Wales. The civil rights movement was a movement designed by black people for black people. Extinction Rebellion is not and therefore the strategy needs to change, or — at the very least — adapt. And so do those in positions of power.

And so we go towards that change. With courage and with love.

Now is the time to be brave.

And sometimes the bravest act is not an act at all. It is to stop. To reflect. To listen. To learn. And to change.

And if this last year has taught us anything, it has taught us that now is the time for change. Meaningful change. Radical change. System change. And we all need to talk about changing. We need to accept that this will be slow. We need to recognise that there will be many more mistakes still to come. That this is the nature of resistance. But that, together, we can get there.

We need to talk with one another, stand alongside one another. We need to show people what a more loving vision of the world actually looks like. We must transform this movement into a movement with justice at its heart. With love and compassion deeply imbedded in everything we do.

In April, we sounded the alarm. Now we need to point towards the fire exits.

The road ahead of us is longer than the road we have already travelled. There is no denying it is going to be difficult. After all, we are attempting to transform every aspect of our current society. To reinvent the world. And to do it at pace.

Credit: Ronnie Hall, Extinction Rebellion

The debate over the future of Extinction Rebellion is a debate that all of us need to participate in.

So, how is that change going to happen?

Well, here are some suggestions we can implement right away:

1. Adopt a fourth central demand on climate and ecological justice, calling for reparations, land rights, ecocide law, and a renewed focus on racial and economic equality.

2. Elect all central role-holders and establish democratic ways in which the entire movement can decide on the most important issues. If something is particularly contentious, there needs to be a process for triggering a vote.

3. End the ridiculous messaging around prison being a fun place to be. Similarly, end the simplistic messaging around policing. Work with other activists to amplify other social justice causes now.

4. Establish trainings for all activists and organisers on climate justice and racial equality. Hold public discussions on the politics and ideas of the green movement. Provide ways in which activists and members of the public can educate themselves.

5. Focus on building relationships with other activist groups and making the link between climate change and other important political issues. I don’t wanna be part of your revolution if it ain’t intersectional.

6. Involve everyone — including the wider climate movement — in open discussions about the future of the movement and where we all need to go now. Remember that the future is going to be humble. The revolution will not happen under any one banner or any one flag. It will require all of us to work together. To rise together. For justice. And compassion. And love.

And beyond that? Well, I don’t really know. But I suppose it’s about time we had the conversation, isn’t it?

In the meantime, if you are still thinking of joining Extinction Rebellion, then please do. Now is the time for fresh new activists with fresh new ideas. What happens next is going to be hard won and bitterly fought over. Now is not the time to criticise from the sidelines. Now is the time to transform it. To change it. To have a hand in shaping its future. Support the International Solidarity Group. Get behind new groups like XR Liberation. Amplify the voices of young people, of working class people, of people of colour. Join the Global Justice Rebellion.

I know this may sound daunting, but it will definitely be worth it.

After all, this is what real activism is all about.




Sam J Knights

writer, actor, activist, clown | writing about imagination, revolution, and the end of the world