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Extinction Rebellion Faces Backlash Over 'Self-Defeating' Disruption of London Public Transit

"Everyone can relate to the annoyance of a delayed commute, but the people who suffer the worst consequences are society's most vulnerable."

Two activists with the Extinction Rebellion movement stand on a train at Canning Town station in London on October 17, 2019. (Photo: Twitter/Screengrab)

Extinction Rebellion sparked backlash Thursday after a small group of affiliated activists shut down parts of the London Tube as morning commuters attempted to make their way to work.

"You know what emits more carbon than public transit and leads to congestion? Taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers. So the whole point of shutting down public transit as a climate protest is somewhat self-defeating."
—Brian Kahn, Earther

The decision to target public transit was opposed by many within the movement and those involved "did not take this action lightly," XR said in a statement following the demonstration.

Commuters' furious reaction to the protest appeared to validate concerns that the action would alienate potential and necessary working-class allies and fuel perception of the movement as out of touch with the material concerns of vulnerable people.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, several XR-aligned activists climbed atop an electric train at Canning Town station in London and glued themselves to one car. As commuters filled the platform, many shouted at the demonstrators and one man dragged an activist off the train.

"I need to get to work! I have to feed my kids!" one person yelled from the packed platform.

Extinction Rebellion has won sympathy from broad segments of civil society for disrupting the day-to-day activities of powerful institutions that are driving the climate crisis, from big banks to the U.S. Congress.

Supporters of XR tactics have argued that some measure of disruption and inconvenience will be necessary to fight the planetary crisis, but critics of Thursday's protest said it is crucial that demonstrations are as focused as possible on the powerful corporate and political enemies of climate action.

Earther's Brian Kahn wrote Thursday that while XR has "done a lot to raise the profile of climate activism" and "most of its arrows are aimed at the right targets," the London train action was a major misstep.

The protest "almost certainly forced some commuters to walk out of the station and snag a taxi, Lyft, or Uber to their office," said Kahn. "You know what emits more carbon than public transit and leads to congestion? Taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers. So the whole point of shutting down public transit as a climate protest is somewhat self-defeating."

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"Everyone can relate to the annoyance of a delayed commute, but the people who suffer the worst consequences are society's most vulnerable," said Kahn. "In the case of people doing shift work paid by the hour, showing up late could be grounds for being fired at worst and a hit to their earnings at least."

Kahn expressed agreement with filmmaker Astra Taylor's suggestion that XR activists look to the Occupy Movement for a form of public transit protest that assists rather than disrupts the lives of ordinary commuters:

Some local XR groups acknowledged the protest was a mistake.

"A difficult day, one testing the principle of decentralization and autonomous action," tweeted XR London. "Nearly all rebels opposed the action on the tube. But there is well-founded fear in the hearts of some and, of desperation, it was expressed in drastic ways. Urgent, but a mistake."

XR Croydon said the protest and the reaction to it represent an opportunity to "listen to our supporters and critics alike, reflect on our mistakes, and improve ourselves as a movement and as individuals."

Gaby Hinsliff, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote Thursday that the "ugly standoff at Canning Town station is a wake-up call, illustrating the risks to a fledgling movement that has so far enjoyed huge reserves of goodwill from the millions broadly sympathetic to its cause."

"Any political movement refusing to engage with the bread-and-butter concerns of low-paid, marginalized, or justifiably anxious people... cannot call itself progressive," said Hinsliff. "That the poorest will suffer most from global heating is no excuse for trampling them in the rush to do something about it."

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