Bob Dylan, when asked what he thought the 1963 March on Washington had achieved, famously replied: absolutely nothing. This was the same march where Martin Luther King gave his iconic ‘I have a dream speech’. It is difficult not to share this pessimism as Extinction Rebellion has to launch its second wave of protests after no changes occurred after its, seemingly only symbolic, victory earlier this year.
This brings into question the very essence of protest: does protesting on the streets ever work? Furthermore, with all the disruptions caused and the rising arrest numbers (Extinction Rebellion London Facebook page are now boasting about the arrest count of 1,237 in the first week) the recent protests seem to ask: is breaking the law to achieve a political aim justified?
To begin, can protesting work? In the example of climate change, when the main sources of emission are massive entities that seem to exist in a realm of international business far above the average citizen, it seems hard to have much optimism. After all, a climate emergency was called last year, but there seemed to be little urgency in the climate in Westminster that has not taken enough steps to prevent the incoming doom that climate change represents. There are of course moments in history that show protest can be effective: suffragettes helping women win the vote in the UK, protest growing the solidarity of the LGBTQ community leading to the movement we have today and crucially, despite what Bob Dylan thinks, the civil rights movement did lead to some key progress in the struggle for racial equality in the US.
However, for every successful social movement there are many more protests consigned to the dustbin of history. For every anti-Vietnam protest there are protests like those in defense of Julian Assange that failed. Change perhaps needs protest, but it is not true to say protest will necessarily lead to change.
What protest does provide is hope. While extinction rebellion may not solve the issue, there is something reassuring in knowing that there are people out there who are willing to fight for it, at the expense of their own liberty. The politics of hope born from groups of people (who privileged as they may be) seem to say: when it comes to the future of our planet we can never retreat, and never surrender because without victory there can be no survival. Having sat on Waterloo Bridge last year to protest, what became apparent is that protesters were not so much concerned with outcomes but rather on doing what they deem to be right. They do not claim they will change the world, they do however read a poem at 3am explaining they’re not there to fix everything, but rather are there because the ghost of their great-great-grandchildren would not let them sleep.
So instead of asking ‘does it work’, I pose another question: does it matter? If climate change is an inescapable reality, XR at least allows us to look our unborn grandchildren in the eyes and say we fought with everything we had. It gives us hope: at least some of us are trying; at least there is something we can do; and even if it does fail, it will fail only when last man, woman and child has been arrested for having the courage to dream. That seems as good a reason as any, to try.
However, it is still fundamentally breaking the law: why should we glamorize groups that encourage illegality. The mantra of ‘for the greater good’ has been used to justify the unjustifiable. As Albert Camus said; ‘the welfare of the people, in particular, has always been the alibi of tyrants’. Is the desperation of XR, not just an alibi for criminality? As reports that protesters like James Brown, glued himself to a BA plane, it is easy to understand why the disruptions XR causes may merely alienate them from the public. With the blockades stopping key emergency services and the disruptions caused by XR choosing to dig its trenches in the heart of London, one can understand the government’s frustration. As Met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said XR should ‘protest lawfully or go home’.
Yet the idea of a ‘government approved protest’ seems laughable. A government-mandated protest seems like an inherent contradiction, it seems to celebrate an oxymoronic toothless form of protest. The law is not intrinsically moral merely because it is the law: from slavery to genocide human history has countless examples of state-led brutality that was perfectly compatible with the laws of the day. It is, however, fair to be wary of breaking the law for its own sake, illegality is not moral just because it’s illegal the same way legality is not moral merely because it is moral. The question should not be if protests break the law, but if they have any virtue in their actions. Perhaps taking down air travel is not a productive way to seek change, it creates no positive value: there is no hope in seeing an individual glued to a plane. That is not a sustainable method and creates frustration rather than sympathy. However, there is something uplifting in seeing people come together and form almost communities around different cities in the world. Serving as a reminder that these streets, like the planet that XR is fighting for, belongs to the people (which is less the case in planes). While it is frustrating to have to alter your route to work or to school, it seems hard to find a moral betrayal in people who are at the end of the day only sitting on the road. It seems to be unreasonable to label people as ‘terrorists’ if all they do is sleep on a street. Whilst not every action XR takes is perhaps right, the core of their protest does not seem to try to justify more than peaceful protest, and peace rather than legality seems a more adequate measure for what is right.
Protest will always be difficult. XR is no different. Maybe it will fail, maybe it is but a shout into the oblivion. But the biggest achievement of XR is not its legal impact but its political impact. It did not give us a bill of environmental rights, it gave us something more powerful: it gave us hope. Take that Bob Dylan.
Image Credit: Sky News