I walked into the basement of a church with a lot of expectations that would leave me unsettled the whole night. For background, Extinction Rebellion is a brand new group which originated in the UK but is quickly spreading to the rest of the world. Based on their attention to detail through their branding on everything from art design to font choice I was expecting to see a young generation of activists attracted by a group that was upfront with the odds we were up against and had a plan for what to do about it.
This made me all the more surprised when I saw the makeup of the musty room. The chairs were filled primarily by older white men. While there were a few people in their 20s the average age was probably more like 45. I felt oddly out of place despite being part of an “activist” generation.
We went around introducing ourselves and explains how we had all gotten there. Who were were, what about nonviolent protest we felt we needed to learn, and what about the soon arriving apocalypse had inspired us to take action. Two members bonded over both being Vietnam veterans. Another member commented that in DC you can’t have an successful activism group without more people of color. Clearly this wasn’t what he was expecting either.
We then moved on to talk about the protest on the 26th. This is why I was here. Actually doing things about climate change is the whole reason I was attracted to the group in the first place. The plan was to have a funeral procession for mother earth, block an important tunnel with two cars and march into it. Then members would leave the tunnel dressed as recently extinct animals who had revived as ghosts to help us fight against climate change.
There was a lot of talk on the pictures, and image we were creating. It felt off. But I couldn’t put my finger on it so I didn’t say anything. Once we had a plan we began to practice mock protests. What would we say to police men? How would we interact with angry people in cars? Some people got into it. Others like me found it off putting.
That is when I realized what was weird about Extinction Rebellion. They had turned climate change activism into theater. While there is no leadership in Extinction Rebellion, (they call it a “wholeocracy” in which everyone has equal say and no one holds positions of power) the people who come up with the ideas for protests certainly are like directors.
They think about the experience of the audience and how the performance will be photographed, filmed etc. Plans are drafted based on how the protest will appear to media representatives or to the people sitting in their cars upset that they will be late for work.
I left with one thing in mind. The form here is the function. Activism as performative art. It certainly is an interesting way of doing it.