Niamh McNulty explains why XR Scotland has done what it’s done and what it will still do
In April 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a week of civil disobedience. It saw roads in major cities closed to motorists and turned into sites of defiance and community, operating as stages for the anger, grief and hope of thousands of people. Arrests reached the thousands. In Scotland, on 16 April, we blocked North Bridge in Edinburgh from traffic for five hours, contributing 29 arrests to the count.
North Bridge is a main route in Edinburgh, connecting the old to new town, therefore serving as a strategic point in the fight that XR takes on. Targeted actions can seem more obvious and more likely to engage decision-makers. Why did we not target government buildings or oil companies? Why disrupt ordinary people? The answer is two-fold. First, other actions, such as occupying the debating chamber of the Scottish parliament on 25 January, and disrupting the Scottish Oil Club’s annual dinner took on these tasks. There is no intention of slowing up or leaving it at that, as demonstrated by the parliament lock-ons on 4 June and the Holyrood Rebel camp set up outside parliament from where this is written. Second, the fight for climate justice does not exist solely at the doors of the powers that be. Rousing people into action and mobilizing a critical component of the population needs to happen because we win when we can’t be ignored and our interests are given greater credence than that of corporates. What this means, is that power, or rather agency, is ours for the taking. That the powerful act when the people lead.
A graph, recently published by YouGov, showed the varying levels of environmental concern in Britain, tracing people’s reactions and relationships to the natural and political events surrounding them. There were two key peaks of concern: the 2014 floods and the start of 2019 – not after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or World Wildlife Fund reports but, crucially, at the moment swathes of people taking on acts of civil disobedience made the headlines. Both, one natural and one political, inspired a sense of urgency that brought the issue to the fore of collective consciousness. The actions that XR Scotland has taken recently alongside XR internationally show how strategic points in the transport system can be used. It is about bringing the action to people. People do not hang out around parliament, business parks or oil rigs but, they are walking through town, where they work and live. They see us, the state, the issue. Their reactions vary, from folk enthused that something is finally happening to those who, unfortunately, really could not afford a delay. We never took this action lightly but with heavy hearts. In the end, whatever people think, they have thought about it. As more disruption is caused the more the government is forced to acquiesce to our demands. Aside from that, an action on your doorstep is an accessible way of demonstrating your discontent publicly.
It is essential to make clear that the success of placing the climate emergency into the national agenda is a preliminary one. It is crucial but, declarations of climate emergency aren’t enough. As the first XR demand goes: ‘Tell the truth and act as though the truth is real’. The latter isn’t happening yet but, now we have their words to hold them to, the atmosphere of urgency and the people to create pressure. This is where the strategy of arrest comes into play. It highlights the hypocrisy between the state’s rhetoric and its actions. While ministers and government officials nurture the line that Scotland is a world leader, committed to radical change, their response at North Bridge revealed their discomfort with truly adopting meaningful policy and desire to curb our relentlessness. Police were sent in from across Scotland in a display of strength as hundreds of police officers stood off with 29 sitting protestors; van loads of riot police sat around the corners in anticipation of rowdiness we’ve never given them any reason to expect. They made every attempt to intimidate, from following rebels between meeting points to attempting to kettle protesters. This only became more apparent at the time of writing as we attempted multiple roadblocks in the city centre on 17 June when horses and riot vans were deployed in a disproportionate response to actions and other meetings of XR folk. Somebody is feeling tetchy; somebody wants to silence us. When we put our bodies, reputations and livelihoods on the line during the legal process, we reveal the true colours of the state. We bring the state, not just ourselves, to court rooms in the face of government inaction as nothing short of ecocide. We ask: who is really breaching the peace?
XR Scotland want leaders to tell the truth about the climate emergency and act as if it’s real by setting a 2025 target for net-zero carbon emissions. To oversee this, and to rapidly transform Scottish society, we wish to see the establishment of a Climate Citizens’ Assembly. We are on our way to achieving this – our success always treads the wire between falling into obscurity or disrepute and heading onward to the ever more palpable goal of a decarbonized Scotland with a democracy fit for purpose. If we are to push through, we must not ease up the pressure. We must continue to bring the issue to the streets and crucially, we must always work to make our actions more accessible, safer and dig deeper down into issues of intersectionality to shape a truly just transition.
Niamh McNulty is part of the Actions Working Group of Extinction Rebellion Scotland.