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Drawing on elements of performance art and courting arrest, Extinction Rebellion protesters this week took to the streets around Australia, calling for urgent action on the climate crisis. By Luke Buckmaster.

Extinction Rebellion protests

XR protesters stop traffic on Russell Street, Melbourne, this week.
Credit: Darrian Traynor / Getty Images

The tone was somewhere between a music festival and a Halloween party. Biohazard smocks and masks; people in floor-length red velvet robes, their heads adorned with cloth roses and veils. Fairy costumes and freaky Mad Max-esque respirators. Workers at the Brisbane offices of fossil fuel giant Santos had never seen anything quite like the crowd massing outside – at least those game enough to observe the commotion for themselves.

Extinction Rebellion’s global week of civil disobedience, dubbed “Spring Rebellion” in Australia, brought a spectacle to the doors of the country’s second-largest oil and gas producer. “All I want from Santos for Christmas is a future for our kids,” read one sign in the sea of placards.

There were flags everywhere, emblazoned with the symbol of the Extinction Rebellion movement – a picture of an hourglass, meant to signify that time is running out for action on climate change. The atmosphere was electric and the mood ebullient, despite the ring of police surrounding the protesters and blocking the entrance to the building.

The crowd chanted: “The seas are rising, no more compromising!” Then, they staged a “die-in” – a visual spectacle in which participants lie on the ground, pretending to be dead. Like many activities embedded into the culture of Extinction Rebellion, a nonviolent movement rapidly growing around the world, die-ins have been used over many years for many causes – including anti-war rallies, AIDS awareness and the gun control debate.

Since its launch in Britain last year, Extinction Rebellion has marked a step-change in environmental activism in many countries, to put it mildly. Its supporters now offer themselves up to be arrested for disruptive protest – at Santos, seven were arrested. These include three activists who simply held a banner reading “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” on the road outside and were carted away by police as soon as the pedestrian light turned red.

I know, because I was one of them. The police put me in a holding cell for almost six hours, charged me with causing a road obstruction and issued a summons to appear in front of a magistrate later this month. It wasn’t really a surprise; we had a good inkling that we were going to be nabbed. Generally speaking, the more arrests, the bigger the story and the more the general public is pushed to contemplate the defining issue of our lives. Extinction Rebellion, or XR for short, encourages those like me – whose white and middle-class privilege allows us to choose when to get arrested – to weaponise our privilege in pursuit of climate justice. Hundreds of protesters were taken into custody this week around Australia – including the seven outside Santos – and many more around the world.

For months, XR’s Australian supporters have been working in small groups to prepare for this week’s series of rolling protests across the country, with many others transpiring across the globe. By design, the protests were meant to attract attention, sometimes spectacularly so.

One of my holding-cell buddies, Paul Jukes, 49, suspended himself from Brisbane’s Story Bridge and lay on a hammock, attached to flags reading “climate emergency”. In Sydney, a group locked themselves inside a pink water tank; in Tasmania a mock funeral was held for future generations. There was a costumed “bee-mergency” in Sydney, a die-in on the Commonwealth Avenue bridge in Canberra, a spectacular photo shoot of the XR performance troupe the Red Rebels at Dove Lake in Tasmania – to name only some. Each event is organised with an understanding that modern protests are, in part, works of performance art.

To a passer-by, Extinction Rebellion protests may look, at first blush, to be amorphous and vague with no specific framework. But the group has three very specific core demands. First, that the government declare a climate and ecological emergency. Second, that it act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. And, finally, that this process be overseen by a citizens’ assembly – a selection of citizens similar to a jury in a legal trial.

The first demand is seen as the most immediately possible. Similar declarations have already been made in the parliaments of Wales, Scotland, Britain, Ireland, Portugal, Canada, France and Argentina. In Australia, more than 50 local councils and state jurisdictions have declared a climate emergency, including parliaments in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. A parliamentary petition for the house of representatives in Australia to declare a climate emergency has already garnered more than 290,000 signatures. The minimum number of signatures required for it to be presented to the standing committee on petitions is one.

As the week stretched on, Spring Rebellion’s dramatic daily activities and ongoing arrests stirred debate and media controversy. On Wednesday morning, Studio 10 presenter Kerri-Anne Kennerley encouraged drivers to use the XR protesters “as a speed bump”. Elsewhere though, the protests garnered strong support. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 140,000 people had responded to a poll run by the Nine newspapers, with 84 per cent saying they supported the Extinction Rebellion protests.

“We’ve been delighted that we’ve managed to get the full attention of the Australian media,” said an XR media spokesperson, James Norman. “We have been successful in shifting the narrative by placing the urgency of the climate crisis at the centre of media attention, right into people’s lounge rooms.

“During the Spring Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion has become a household name in Australia. Of course, there’s been some disappointing coverage, but on the other hand, some of the more fair and balanced coverage within Murdoch outlets indicates we may be seeing the first signs of a rebellion within News [Corp] ranks.”

On Thursday morning, dozens were arrested in Melbourne after two separate actions – the first outside Southern Cross Station, where eight protesters blocked the major intersection of Spencer and Collins streets. Lying on the ground, with their arms linked together by piping, they encircled a small garden of plants on a green platform. All around them, a crowd chanted. Meanwhile, around the corner, outside the city’s aquarium, more than 20 people were slowly arrested one by one as they sat on the road. As some were placed into police vans, the crowd looking on shouted, “You’re a climate hero.”

Critics of XR often argue that citizens are free to protest, as long as they are not disruptive. But the very point is to be disruptive. “The key lesson about all structural political change is this: disruption works,” wrote Roger Hallam, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion. “Without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care ... You have to hit them where it hurts: in their pockets.”

Hallam explains that disruption creates “a serious dilemma” for authorities – “let people continue to party in the streets, or opt for repression”, which risks triggering more people to rise up and take to the streets.

A key piece of research, cited in XR’s recruitment presentations, draws on a study conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, which found that change can be achieved when 3.5 per cent of the population actively participates in protests. In Australia, that would mean about 900,000 people. In September, more than 300,000 people marched during the global climate strike.

 

In Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens, XR members have set up a village-like shantytown, with hundreds of activists seeking to occupy the space for the week. A carefully organised community quickly coalesced with yoga classes, free meals three times a day, an “XR families” area, focus groups and information sessions canvassing topics such as legal rights and the ethics of nonviolence. “We are all in this together,” read a sign stretched along the footpath. A list of rules was written up on a whiteboard: talk through disagreements with taste, use positive language, no personal attacks, footballs and frisbees away from the main camp area, and others in a similar vein. Young and old gathered – students, grandparents, families with their kids. The movement places a strong emphasis on what it calls “regenerative culture” – an environment that keeps protesters feeling happy, safe and supported.

No one I have met within XR believes every part of the movement constitutes a perfect strategy. But there is a prevailing view that this is all there is left, a last roll of the dice. “We’ve tried everything else,” protester Joseph Borellini told a Channel Nine camera crew who had come to the Carlton Gardens village. “We’ve tried asking nicely. We’ve tried advocacy. We’ve tried petitions. And nothing has worked. This [civil disobedience] is all we have left.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "Rebellion with a cause". Subscribe here.

Luke Buckmaster
is a film and TV critic, and the author of the George Miller biography Miller and Max.