Are Extinction Rebellion Protesters Ruining Your Commute For Nothing?
It’s very easy to criticise the actions of activists from behind your laptop.
And that’s what I like most about it: the ease, as well as being inside on my comfy desk chair instead of being out in the pouring rain, yelling at them for supposedly blocking emergency vehicles in a vain attempt to change the world. Social media has created entire nations of armchair generals sitting ready to dismiss the tactics of groups like Extinction Rebellion as achieving little in the grand scheme of things.
But is it true?
For months now, my neighbourhood footpaths and walls have been marked with their stylised hourglass logo; a real-world Army of the 12 Monkeys. Smart branding, in an era where the only true cinema is made by Marvel and DC, to define yourselves by something that could be stamped on a superheroic chest, to have a name that sounds like a year-long crossover event starring Thanos and Darkseid.
Okay, so that’s phase one: we know they exist. What’s next? I wondered.
It turned out to be highly theatrical protests leading to the arrest of several activists, who had been instructed to “sing a peaceful chant at police”. Which, sure. It’s not the Spider-Man: Far From Home-level scheming I was secretly hoping for, but fair enough. Protests are a thing people do, and they tend to make for good optics on The Project. Better optics than kidnapping the CEOs of oil companies and simulcasting your demands on every channel, for example.
The trouble is, though, even when members of the general public agree with a cause, they tend to want protests to be polite. They’d prefer the hordes of true believers to march in some other street that isn’t part of their morning commute. They want action taken after hours, when school’s out, on your own time instead of theirs, so the police can chase down burglars instead. You can sum it all up in the words of one nameless man quoted in the Herald Sun: “I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I have stuff to do.”
But this attitude undermines the whole point of protesting in the first place, which is to disrupt the normal day-to-day running of society in order to draw awareness and bring more supporters into the fold. In a system where we only officially tell the government of the day how we feel about their policies every three years, and then only by rating them against their rivals in a binary sense (we have preferential voting, of course, but in the end it’s coming down to Labor or Liberal, isn’t it?), getting bodies out into the streets is still a powerful way of showing popular support for a cause.
It’s the action people take when their representatives aren’t listening.
And what’s the other option, anyway? Sharing feelbad Facebook posts about Indigenous South American leaders weeping at the destruction of their tribal forest areas? A legit coup against the Australian Government, replacing it with an eco-warrior collective? (That kinda worked in Bulgaria in the late eighties.) Hiring a super-high-tech team of SFX wizards to make Spider-Man look like a villain? (That’s a Spider-Man: Far From Home spoiler -- deal with it.)
And so, the most powerful tool we have for speaking up against power in common voice is the protest. Using our bodies, our peaceful chants and punny signs to demonstrate in pursuit of an ideal that is at odds with the current order. To rebel against extinction with our lives.
Of course, landmark protests didn’t stop Australia joining the Coalition of the Willing in the noughties, and it’s unlikely to change Scott Morrison’s heart and/or mind. I mean, it’s not as though his commute is being disrupted, is it?
If raising awareness is all we can do here, and if the alternative is to shrug and do nothing because it all seems pointless, that’s not really good enough. When people feel powerless to enact change through formal channels, they get out there in the world as a collective and demand it.
And you know what? In the end, I’m sure the government of the day appreciates what the protestors are trying to do.
But they have stuff to do.