Activist Dilemmas

by Anthea Lawson

I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to be arrested this week. That feels like such an odd thing to write. I’ve been on plenty of marches and done years of NGO lobbying, but I’ve never been involved in direct action protest before. By the time this post goes up on Perspectiva’s blog, I will be blocking a road somewhere in the middle of London, possibly with many thousands of other people who are heeding Extinction Rebellion’s call to fill the streets until the government acknowledges the climate and ecological crises we are in. By the time you read this, some of my hitherto law-abiding friends and neighbours might already have been arrested.

It’s not because it’s a complicated decision that I haven’t decided yet. The tactics, about which Extinction Rebellion is open, are very simple. There are three options to bring change, they say. There’s the kind of campaigning – lobbying, petitions, letters, meetings, marches – that for decades has failed to reduce carbon emissions and the rate of destruction of nonhuman species and habitats. I did many years of that sort of campaigning and became depressed about its limitations: that it can slowly change individual laws and policies but not make the necessary systemic shifts. At the other extreme there’s violent revolution, which as everybody knows does not end well. And then, as a third option, there’s mass nonviolent civil disobedience, which is what Extinction Rebellion is proposing.

If a small proportion of the population – 3.5% according to the research into previous nonviolent resistance movements that Extinction Rebellion is leaning on – rises up in nonviolent civil disobedience, change can happen. There are many things to say about the differences between the civil rights movement, in which people were mobilising and standing up against already-existing omnipresent threats to their lives, and the type of environmental and climate activism in developed countries where privileged and often white people are still only starting to realise that what feels like a looming existential threat to them has long been an existential threat to communities of colour and other less privileged people.

But as an alternative to the grinding work of policy campaigning or the disaster of violence, the XR route makes sense to me. It’s the first time an activist proposition has made sense for a long time, and it does so more because I know the other two won’t work, than because I’m particularly convinced that this route will: we clearly have to try it. My indecision about my arrestability is really quite boringly practical. We have small children, no extended family living nearby, my husband and I both work part-time in order to share earning and childcare duties, and if I end up having to travel three hours to London to attend court – or worse – when my husband needs to be away for work, we’re kind of stuck. We have reciprocal relationships with kind neighbours, but I wouldn’t want to impose my energetic three year old on any of them, nor deprive him of the company of those he knows best, for too long.

So in this dilemma I find myself weighing up two impossible-to-compare scenarios. The practicalities of childcare to cover a night in a police cell and court dates, against the possibility of halting the extinction of human and nonhuman life on earth. That’s what climate change and mass extinction do, once you take them seriously: they make everything else seem utterly ridiculous. And yet even as we’re trying to protect life in the future, we cannot entirely forget the life that we are living; I cannot leave a three and a six year old without care. Luckily there are many options for support I can give to others who are going to get themselves arrested, even if I don’t, so I will find a way to join in.

Activism is all about dilemmas. It puts its participants in dilemmas about how far to go, as I am currently experiencing. It puts its opponents in dilemmas about how to respond. The police next week will have to decide whether to let Extinction Rebellion bring London traffic to a standstill, allowing us to achieve our aims, or arrest us to clear us out, which will also allow us to achieve our aims.

Activism puts its audience, too, in dilemmas about whether to join in. I know people who are deeply worried by our ecological emergency, yet who cannot bring themselves to participate in Extinction Rebellion: they can’t see themselves behaving or looking ‘like that.’ The journalist and author Jamie Bartlett was talking about this unappealing side of activism in his book Radicals; the American activist and writers Jonathan Smucker despaired, in his recent book Hegemony How-To, of the clubhouse mentality which puts outsiders off.

I’ve been working on a project with Perspectiva called Beyond Activism and will be publishing a book at the end of this year, and a chapter of it online soon. We’re not beyond activism because it’s not needed: quite the opposite, in such a time of ecological and political breakdown. But I am hoping to get beyond some of the ways that we commonly think about activism. I’m starting from this observation that activists, by behaving as activists, can help to inoculate non-activists against wanting to take part, and am investigating what might be going on in the unconscious aspects of these interactions.

At the core of the Gandhian nonviolence that inspires Extinction Rebellion is the proposition that you can oppose and resist a system without dehumanising your opponents. Extinction Rebellion, a decentralised movement in which anyone can organise actions as long as they stick to the principles, is insistent on not blaming and shaming. Only by observing this principle can we avoid creating an ‘other’ on whom we end up projecting the unwanted, unacknowledged, perhaps less attractive parts of ourselves, since that route, as psychotherapists recognise, has always been the path to conflict. In Gandhi’s words, ‘It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.[1]

I have enjoyed holding and working with this idea since joining my local XR group, after years of feeling that my activist calling was to call out the ‘bastards’ who were running the companies and banks and tax havens I was investigating as an NGO campaigner and journalist. But even within Extinction Rebellion’s principles and values, we still find ourselves inevitably in positions of opposition across a divide: the divide being, in this case, the banner that we are holding in front of us on a roadblock.

My local group engaged in some deep soul-searching after holding up the traffic in Exeter last month and experiencing utter fury from motorists. We might have been nonviolent in our words and thoughts, but the people held up at several junctions certainly weren’t. So we are still wondering about the possibility of finding common ground in such oppositional situations, common ground on which we can all share our experience of being frightened humans who are worried for the future. No doubt we will be continuing these discussions somewhere on a blocked road next week. Perhaps we will see you there.


Anthea Lawson leads Perspectiva’s Beyond Activism programme

[1] Fischer, Louis (ed.), The Essential Gandhi: An anthology of his writings on his life, work and ideas, Vintage, 1962, p87

One comment

  1. Here in the US, Extinction Rebellion is just getting started. Madison, WI did its first banner drop over the expressway yesterday. There were 7 of us. Quite a small group next to the UK. I, too, have thought about getting arrested. Here in the US, there are bills that will make it easier to arrest anyone blocking anything. I don’t know if I am ready. It is clear that we have reached a defining moment and just protesting does not work. I will have to reach the point where I am ready to be arrested. I don’t have small children or a spouse. I have a cat, and as long as my neighbor knows what happened to me, he will make sure he is fed. We are faced with the future of humanity. Some people just won’t let go of the money.


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