Content of March Newsletter

Here is the text of our newsletter for March, missing the exciting graphics because of my lack of skill.  But I have added a paper written by Margaret Okole who is secretary of Birmingham Green Party.  It reflects on some of the issues that we think about when we encounter colleagues who want to use disruption in their demonstrations.

John H.

Everybody out!
You may have recently seen the two environmental campaigns, Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes by pupils.
The first one is responsible for the blocking of bridges in London last year, and its stated aim is to get as many of its members arrested in non-violent direct actions as possible. So far this has failed, no arrests and no prosecutions, and a very annoyed public; what they will do next is any ones guess.
The school pupils strike is another matter, following on from the example in Sweden, problem is, Swedish education law is different to ours, in that in our country, even with parental permission, walking out of school in term time is truancy; and it is probably only a matter of time before the education authorities decide to take action.
Their sentiments are good, but the approach is troubling, and may have unintended consequences.
50 Kilowatts
The rules for aggregators (Companies that gather small generators or users together to get better prices via bulk purchase or sales) are changing, to lower the minimum level of renewable generated power to 50 kilowatts, which brings it well within the range of combining domestic renewable generation from customers together to get better prices from the energy companies.
Green Tips
Stop wasting food leftovers and garden waste, look up ‘Master Composter’ courses, It helps to reduce landfill, and provides compost for your garden, allotment, or even indoor plants.
In this issue:
• Welcome
• Everybody out!
• 50 Kilowatts
• TPIs
• Trains and Trees
• Contact Details
Spring is here—nearly! Which explains the snow, hail, cold and gusts of wind; get used to this, due to climate disruption, this is pretty much what spring will be for the foreseeable future.
In my role as Mystic Meg, I believe that we are slowly progressing towards a two season year, dry season followed by a wet season, rather than the present four seasons.
These companies sell energy to users, by buying from various generators, and by aggregating them together lower the costs to customers. Unfortunately, the TPI industry is badly regulated and accordingly there are several cowboys out there.
We are warning anybody that is considering to buy their energy from a TPI to take care, and check that the company is reputable, by speaking to either ‘Which’ or Citi-zens Advice.
Trains and Trees
The Transport secretary, Chris (Failing) Grayling, has asked the train companies to bring proposals to him by the end of March, to reduce and eventually remove diesel powered trains from the network.
You may have noticed the trees being removed by Network Rail, along side of the rail lines into Birmingham, which is pretty devastating to wildlife. The need to re-duce risk of damage to rails and overhead power lines is accepted, but the ap-proach taken is overkill, as they appear to be taking the ‘cut everything’ route.
We are approaching the authorities, both Birmingham City Council and Network Rail, to take a more pragmatic approach, in only taking down trees that are a direct risk to the lines, and leaving shrubs and trees further way intact. The Environment Agency has tasked Network Rail to reconsider their approach, and to provide guid-ance to the contractors to mitigate damage to widl life and trees.
If anyone has any ideas, suggestions, or has any questions they want answered in relation to energy or the environment, please contact the editor (Details below).
Contact Details:
Editor Roger Low
Chair Steve Lyne
Vice-Chair John Heywood


Extinction Rebellion: an example of mass action

Paper presented to West Midlands New Economics Group, 28 March 2019

Margaret Okole


Recent years have seen several cases of mass action in response to issues which people feel strongly about. Examples in this country are the poll tax riots, Stop the War, and the Occupy movement. The relatively small scale poll tax riots are credited with bringing down Margaret Thatcher; the Stop the War march of November 2003, despite involving a much larger number of people, failed to stop Tony Blair declaring war; the Occupy movement, which began in the US in 2011 and spread to many other countries including the UK, gained a lot of attention in the UK from 2011 to about 2014 but does not appear to have made any dent in the “capitalist” system (for want of a better word) which it blames for rising and intolerable inequality.

Extinction Rebellion seems to have a lot in common with the Occupy movement in its international focus and its organisation or lack of it. The interesting question is whether it can achieve any more than Occupy has done.

I will aim to first compare these different actions and consider why they did or did not succeed. Secondly I will look at how Extinction Rebellion is organised (clearly it has drawn from the Occupy template) and what methods it uses. Here I will give a subjective account of being involved as a member. Finally I will speculate on whether Extinction Rebellion can achieve its aims.


Examples of mass action in the recent past

So many examples of mass action exist that it might seem arbitrary to focus on just three. However I want to use these to illustrate some key points.


The poll tax riots (March 1990)

Estimated numbers 200,000 on 31 March. This began as a peaceful demonstration against the poll tax before rioting occurred in the later part of the afternoon. Both Government and opposition denounced the rioters, though a police report the following year suggested that shortage of officers and poor management of larger than expected crowds had caused the problem. However, the demonstration clearly reflected widespread public opposition to the poll tax.

Result: Opposition to the poll tax triggered a leadership challenge in the Conservative Party, which Thatcher lost. John Major as the new Prime Minister abolished the tax.

Key features:(1) The poll tax was opposed by all the opposition parties as well as a number of Conservatives. The parliamentary party could see that it would be extremely damaging to them electorally.

(2) The issue was one which affected the majority of the population in a negative way.

(3) The demand was very simple and not hard to implement: Abolish the poll tax.


The Stop the War Coalition (September 2001 and continuing)

Formed “to encourage and mobilise the largest possible movement against the war”on Iraq, the Coalition was initially very broad based, including communists, Quakers, Muslims and retired generals. The mass protest on 15 February 2003 against the planned invasion of Iraq was the largest so far recorded, at 750,000 by the most conservative estimate. Protests continued throughout the Iraq war, attracting crowds of over 100,000. Subsequently StWCcampaigned against British involvement in the Syrian Civil War(from 2011) and has joined with other groups such as CND in protests against warfare generally. There have been tensions and splits within the Coalition with accusations of bias in favour of Assad and the Russian Federation for example. It has been accused of being anti-west rather than anti-war and a number of prominent supporters have now distanced themselves.

Result: The Stop the War march on 15 February 2003 did not achieve its aim, despite receiving wide media coverage. Subsequent protests have attracted less coverage. Popular support has dwindled as the movement has come under fire for lack of impartiality.

Key features: (1) The Labour and Conservativeparties both supported the war, despite some Labour members opposing it. Blair could be assured that voters would not desert Labour and vote Conservative on this issue. Labour undoubtedly lost some support which went to the LibDems, but this was not enough to weaken Labour’s hold on power. If Blair calculated that he could safely ignore the strength of public feeling at the time, he was correct.

(2) The issue was one which did not directly affect the majority of the population.

(3) The initial demand not to go to war against Iraq was simple and easy to implement.


The Occupy movement (2009 and continuing)

This started as a student movement in the US, protesting against cuts in universities’ budgets and staff and fee increases in response to the 2008 financial crash. It developed into a movement of protest against financial and governmental institutions more generally, which were held responsible both for causing the crash and for ensuring that it was the 99% who suffered, not the 1% who had caused it. It was committed to nonviolence and maintained this in cases of physical assault by police.The numbers of people actually camping out in public spaces was not high (a few hundred at most at any one site) but their determination in staying put in adverse weather conditions and despite attempts to move them on gained them a lot of attention.Occupy Wall Street, set up in New York on 11 September 2011, attracted global media coverage and similar actions have taken place in countries around the world. Most recently (2018) in the US Occupy ICEwas set up in protest at the actions of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detaining asylum seekers at the US border, while Occupy Kalamazoo began an encampment to address homelessness.

While the movement was clear what it was against (rising inequality following the crash) it did not start with a demand. Local groups set out to achieve consensus by participatory democracy. Specific demands sometimes followed, e.g. Occupy London demanded measures to end tax evasion by multinationals.However the Initial Statement put out by Occupy London on 16 October 2011 was extremely wide-ranging and general:

  1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.
  2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
  3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.
  4. We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.
  5. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.
  1. We support the strike on 30 November and the student action on 9 November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.
  1. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
  2. The present economic system pollutes land, sea and air, is causing massive loss of natural species and environments, and is accelerating humanity towards irreversible climate change. We call for a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations.
  3. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.

Result: Beyond drawing media attention to issues and influencing public opinion, the Occupy movement achieved few results.E.g. In December 2012, the Corporation of the City of London acquiesed to one of the Occupy London demands, releasing information about a previously secret bank account called City’s Cash. This fund had existed for hundreds of years and proved to contain more than £1.319bn.However the broader demands for changes in the economic system remain unmet.

Key features:(1) In the UK, the movement predictably attracted opposition from vested interests and property owners. The Church was ambivalent. The unions were supportive but the Labour Party not noticeably so. While many members of the public were sympathetic others may have seen the occupiers as unrealistic anarchists.

(2) The issue (structural inequality) was one which affected a large proportion of the population in a negative way.

(3) The demands were mainly general and there was no suggestion how they would be implemented.


Extinction Rebellion


These are listed on the website as follows:

  1. We believe that the Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.
  2. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year.
  3. By necessity these demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not however, trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand aCitizens’ Assemblyto oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.


Organisation and Methods

Like Occupy, Extinction Rebellion is committed to nonviolence and participatory democracy, and aims for actions all over the globe. The initial group in London has developed a training package for anyone who wants to set up a local group, and will provide support (advice, not finance) and encouragement to local groups. Local groups are organised into four subgroups: Media and Messaging; Outreach and Training; Action Planning; and Regeneration (which can be understood as support for members so they don’t burn out/drop out). Each local group is responsible for deciding what actions it wishes to take and carrying them out. Any member is free to propose an action and if it is accepted by the group, to take the lead in organising that action.

Actions to date have included disruption to traffic by sit down protests (London bridges) and demonstrations at government buildings (Parliament, local councils), with the aim of being as eye-catching as possible (fake blood, die-ins, costumes).

A key feature of proposed actions is that they may lead to people being arrested. People who join are asked to consider whether this is something they would be prepared to do (no-one is required to sign up for this and the majority of members in Birmingham have not done so). An arrestable action should not be planned without legal observers in place and training for what is involved. However, arrests of people protesting peacefully, especially of numbers of people, are seen as an effective way to get media coverage and support. The experience of fracking protesters suggests this can work.


Birmingham Experience to Date

The first action undertaken by the Birmingham group was a public meeting at the Birmingham and Midland Institute on 20 March, where two members of the Outreach subgroup presented the standard XR talk on the climate crisis (which is also available on the website) and invited members of the audience to sign up to be involved. There was a good turnout (around 150 people I think) and a good proportion filled in the signup form. The whole group has been meeting every two weeks since then and is planning further actions, including a petition to Birmingham City Council to declare a climate emergency, a protest at the new Primark store when it opens, and a contingent to go to London for the week beginning 15 April, when a week of actions in London are scheduled. Some of the people who attended the public meeting have been coming to these planning meetings while a number are getting updates by email, so it’s hard to tell how many people are currently involved, but the group has certainly grown since I first joined it. As well as this some members are involved in giving the talk at other venues in order to grow the movement.

Positive aspects: many members are convinced of the urgency of the situation and prepared to be very active in organising events and disseminating information. There is a sense of caring for other members, respect for different points of view, consideration of people’s needs. Members are advised not to take on more than they can cope with or are comfortable with (sensible in view of how driven some people clearly feel).

Many members already belong to a group of some sort, e.g. CANWM, Friends of the Earth, Footsteps, various churches, and can publicise a proposed action through their networks.

Problematic aspects:I have found the planning meetings quite frustrating, as they haven’t always been very structured and some people who came along once decided to drop out again. It’s difficult to cope with a shifting attendance.

Each meeting now involves a whole group catch-up followed by subgroups discussing amongst themselves and a final summing up. It isn’t easy to find a room for meetings in central Birmingham which is large enough to allow for the breakout sessions for subgroups, and which is also cheap. We have sometimes met in the small downstairs room at the Warehouse which is decidedly cramped for the numbers.


Prospects for Success

Key features: (1) the public are sympathetic. Awareness of climate change and the need for action is quite high. In politics, talk of a Green New Deal has been revived, echoing the Democratic Party in the US, and the Labour Party is increasingly treating action on climate change as a key policy issue.

(2) the issue affects the entire population in a negative way.

(3) the demands are general and very wide-ranging.


For me, the demands are problematic. It may be cynical but I don’t expect the government to tell the truth on climate change, though pressure may make it harder to tell lies. I think it is up to us, the people, to communicate the urgency for change to government, and to start doing what we can locally rather than waiting for central government to act.I don’t think our current political class could contemplate being overseen by a Citizens’ Assembly. Again, with Brexit taking up huge amounts of parliamentary time for some while to come, it’s difficult to imagine all the necessary legislation being passed in time to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025. Much of XR’s action is aimed at raising awareness among the general public by eye-catching and dramatic stunts, similarly to the Occupy movement, which did not actually achieve very much. I can imagine central government ignoring these actions for quite some time while waiting for the movement to run out of steam.

At the same time XR has been active in supporting motions to local councils to declare climate emergencies and take action locally, which have been passed by a growing number of councils (47 at the last count). I think that the more specific (and local) demands become, the greater the chance of achieving them – I would say that broadly speaking the anti-fracking movement has been a success as I don’t anticipate the next government will continue to impose fracking. But specific demands have to be politically possible. Some of the demands suggested to be put to Birmingham City Council strike me as quite unrealistic, e.g. Ban all diesel cars; plant a million trees; do it in the next six months. BCC has already received a lot of opposition to its very modest Clean Air Zone, on the grounds that it would penalise people who have to drive into the centre and can’t afford to change their car. There’s no way it would contemplate banning all diesel cars.

It may be that it’s easier to succeed with a negative demand (don’t do, e.g. No to Fracking) than with a positive one (do do, e.g. free public transport to get people out of their cars). A positive demand will require a feasibility study, cost/benefit analysis etc. which XR itself is not in the business of doing, and which local or national government can kick into the long grass.

Another factor would be if this issue became a vote winner, e.g. if parties with a strong manifesto on climate change did noticeably better at the polls. It seems virtually certain we will have another general election well before 2022. If the Labour Party were to fight it on simultaneous action on climate change and social justice, this would be a game-changer.

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