Radical climate protest group called Extinction Rebellion aims to disrupt dozens of cities
LONDON - Extinction Rebellion, the more radical arm of the climate-change protest movement, on Monday kicked off two weeks of planned protests designed to shut down dozens of cities around the world.
Demonstrators blocked roads and bridges leading to the Palace of Westminster in central London. They staged a "die-in" in Wellington, New Zealand. They obstructed a major roundabout in Berlin, parked a pink sailing boat outside of the prime minister's office in Dublin and splattered fake blood on Wall Street's "Charging Bull" sculpture.
The group's message is that climate change is an emergency that requires drastic and immediate action. They have already seen some success.
"Extinction Rebellion is widely credited with accelerating policy change in the U.K.,"said Robert Falkner, a fellow at Chatham House, a think tank.
But their tactics test public tolerance for social and economic disruption. Some say their specific demands are wildly unrealistic.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday people were free to protest "but in blocking people from being able to go and do their day-to-day job doesn't necessarily take us any closer to the climate action they are calling for."
By early evening in London, police said they had arrested 217 demonstrators. The last time Extinction Rebellion staged a protest on this scale, in April, more than 1,000 people were arrested in a police operation that cost nearly $20 million.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan conceded "bolder action" is needed to take on climate change, but he criticized the movement for potentially overwhelming an already stretched police force.
Anticipating police frustration, protester Paul Stephens, a 55-year-old retired detective sergeant, stood outside Metropolitan Police headquarters on Monday morning handing out fliers to officers.
"From their perspective, it's a waste of time; from our perspective, it's not," he said, explaining the strategy was to "create a dilemma for the police" so they either had to allow the demonstrations to continue or arrest 1,000 "otherwise law-abiding people" for committing low-level offenses.
The protesters are walking a tightrope - they want to spark enough disruption to effect change but not so much they alienate the public.
Extinction Rebellion has grown in parallel to the climate strike protests inspired by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. But Extinction Rebellion includes not just schoolchildren - it has attracted young professionals, parents, grannies and others concerned about climate change and habitat loss. And, pretty much from the beginning, Extinction Rebellion's strategy has been very different from that of the students skipping school on Fridays to protest peacefully.
The group was launched a year ago, in a small English town in the Cotswolds, by activists from an organization called Rising Up. Their first large demonstration took place last November, when activists blocked five bridges in London and police made 85 arrests.
Extinction Rebellion's headliners include Gail Bradbrook, a former biophysicist, and Roger Hallam, who is in prison for his role in "Heathrow Pause," a splinter group that planned to shut down Heathrow Airport with low-flying drones.
But organizers say Extinction Rebellion is not reliant on leaders. On the streets in London, protesters can join small "affinity groups," who support each other and communicate largely via encrypted mobile apps Signal and Telegram. Some crowdfund legal fees for those who want to be an "arrestable."
To get attention for their cause, protesters have glued themselves to roads, stripped naked in Parliament and staged a "die-in" in the central hall at London's Natural History Museum.
Within Britain, Extinction Rebellion has three demands of government: to "tell the truth" by declaring a climate emergency; to pledge to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025 and halt the loss of biodiversity; and to enlist citizen assemblies, or a group of representatives from the wider public, to guide the way forward.
Along with the student climate strikers and British naturalist David Attenborough, they have helped to change the content and tone of the conversation about climate change.
A day after Extinction Rebellion representatives met with government officials, the British Parliament declared a climate emergency. A few weeks later, the government pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, the first major economy in the world to do so.
"It's no longer a question of whether we should act. It's what's reasonable action to take and how fast can we go," said Bob Ward, a spokesman for the London School of Economics' Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Britain's 2050 target is much further out than what Extinction Rebellion wants. But Ward said the government's goal is already ambitious and will require massive changes to the transport sector and how people heat their homes. Extinction Rebellion, he said, was not "offering an alternative analysis that shows 2025 is doable."
Organizers are aware their demands are unlikely to be met as the result of the next two weeks of protests. They are unsure of what comes next. "We don't want this to become like Glastonbury, something fun to do every April and October," said one organizer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Clare Farrell, one of XR's co-founders, said there has been tension inside the group over tactics. The Washington Post spoke with her at Extinction Rebellion's office in east London, where the walls are plastered with posters that read "Rebel for Life" and others bearing the group's symbol, a circle to represent the planet and hourglass to show that time is running out.
Farrell recalled an April demonstration in which activists glued themselves to a train in London's financial district.
It was not an easy sell inside the group. "Some still thought it was radical, some are just getting to terms with the fact they can sit on a road. ... we need to make sure we don't push too hard, too fast, in one place."
This month's protests are the group's boldest - and most expensive - yet.
Andrew Medhurst, head of finance, said the group earmarked about $1.2 million for October in London to pay for entertainment, portable toilets and meals for around 20,000 a day. The group also pays about 190 of its activists, who can claim up to $500 a week.
Over the past year, XR has raised $2.8 million through a mix of crowdfunding and big donations from the likes of Radiohead and an American organization called the Climate Emergency Fund.
Medhurst's own story saw him quit his job in London's financial district, where he worked for three decades.
"I suddenly got a big kick up my backside," said Medhurst. "I realized that unless there were drastic changes, my kids won't need a stock portfolio, they will need food and shelter."
Many activists in the streets of London on Monday echoed that idea.
They included Vishal Chauhan, 30, who gave up his job as an emergency room doctor, where he earned around $80,000 a year, to devote himself to Extinction Rebellion.
"I love being a doctor," Chauhan said, "but it doesn't make sense being in hospital treating people for diabetes or pneumonia knowing that they or their children might experience TB, cholera, famine, food shortages."
He said part of him hopes a warming world is not as catastrophic as scientists predict.
"I hope one day I will regret leaving" medicine, he said. "I hope I will look back and say, 'you're an idiot, why did you believe what 99 percent of scientists believe?' '"
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