The scene at Canning Town underground station this morning, where irate commuters dragged an Extinction Rebellion activist off the roof of a train and then beat him up has led to further accusations that the group is out of touch with working people.

With trains stopped in Canning Town, a predominately working-class district of East London, angry commuters decided to take action. The activists who were standing on top of a train with a banner that read “Business As Usual = Death” soon had abuse and other objects hurled at them by an angry crowd. A commuter then grabs one of the protesters on the roof by the heals and drags him onto the platform. The activist is then wrestled to the ground and his only saved from further violence after station staff and other passengers intervene.

The activists at Canning Town, as well as others at Stratford who stopped a DLR train, were operating against the wishes of many of the leaders of Extinction Rebellion, who are warry of upsetting the public who rely on public transport in the capital. It has also led to accusations of hypocrisy as the electric trains of the London Underground and the DLR are one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel.

Irvine Welsh, the writer, and broadcaster, tweeted that Extinction Rebellion can’t be seen as a “movement of yet more bourgeois narcissists heaping misery on the working class. Has to be inclusive and strategic and not about exhibitionists acting out.”

Other twitter commentators question the wisdom of doing this in Canning Town, a predominately working-class district.

Out of Touch with Protest

Kevin Blowe, the coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol), who has spent 30 years campaigning against police brutality and racism, wrote an oped in Medium, saying that working with Extinction Rebellion protestors has at times been difficult.

Blowe refers to their “invariably tin-eared insensibility about the nature of policing and the state.”

Blowe was particularly incredulous about a thank you note and flowers left for the police by a protester from Extinction and Rebellion who had just been released from Brixton Police Station. Blowe argues that such an action is not only wrong and patronising, it is also, without knowing it, insensitive to the countless young people, most of them black, who have died in police custody in Brixton because of violent policing directed at London’s black communities. 

“If someone who has been campaigning for as long as I have can learn something new from a bunch of flowers left at a police station, then so can Extinction Rebellion,” writes Blowe.

Photo from Medium @protestencil

Posh Environmentalists Nothing New

Since the 1980’s when it really got going, mainstream environmentalism has been associated with the white middle classes.

Even some of the Extinction Rebellion protesters themselves admit that they have a problem on their hands, in terms of their image and admit that “racialised black and migrant communities cannot afford to get arrested,” Kofi Mawuli Klu, a Ghanaian political refugee who co-ordinated Extinction Rebellion’s international network, told the New Statesman.

Klu believes Extinction Rebellion must do more “to reach into black, racially marginalised and working-class communities – to people who don’t have the middle-class privilege of risking arrest.”

Roger Hallam, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, agrees and has spent a lot of time in impoverished leave voting cities in the UK, like Scunthorpe and Swansea, trying to promote what Extinction Rebellion stands for.

Davinder, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion in Stoke on Trent, a poor working-class city in the North Midlands, said that the groups’ lack of diversity is hindering him from recruiting working-class members.

“It’s a definite obstacle, if we only get people from a certain social background, then people from outside will come in and they’ll feel unwelcome,” he told the New Statesman.

Edward Cowley