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Presenter Ben Zand looks towards an Extinction Rebellion protestBBC Three

'My six months with Extinction Rebellion'

A new BBC Three documentary follows Extinction Rebellion in the run-up to their April protest in London. Presenter Ben Zand describes his time spent with the movement

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"Criminal inaction."

That’s how Roger Hallam, the co-founder of the now-notorious Extinction Rebellion, described the British government’s stance on climate change. It was early 2019, and I was with Roger and other members of Extinction Rebellion as they planned the mass protests that would disrupt central London in April.

I was filming a documentary with the activists, having become intrigued by them when they stated their aims last October: to tell the truth about climate change, create a citizens’ assembly and go zero carbon by 2025. I’ve got to be honest – I didn’t think anyone would listen to them then. They weren’t the huge movement they are now; it was Roger, the archetypal climate warrior with his ponytail and enduring pessimism, and about 30 core members, trying to think of ways to expand. The first time I went to their office in December last year it was pretty crazy, they seemed really disorganised. I didn’t think they’d achieve much.

Maybe it was their absolute dedication to the cause that made me want to see how far they could go. So, despite my misgivings, we started filming in January this year, and I followed them as they orchestrated April’s protests.

HQ TeamBBC Three
Inside the Extinction Rebellion headquarters

"If thousands of people get arrested, it'll be a major political event, like the civil rights movement of the 1960s," Roger said. He had huge, grandiose aims from the start – at one point he said to me, "My role is to persuade the government and the nation that the next generation is going to die unless we make these radical changes."

Other members I spoke to have issues with capitalism – they think climate change is a result of the consumerist system we live in. They talk about it very openly. Many people I spoke to are dissatisfied with the current system. They haven’t said what they want instead, though.

Extinction Rebellion say mass global extinction is imminent if something isn’t done, and when I read the report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last October, my attitude began to change. It states that we have only 12 years to ensure that global warming is kept to a maximum of 1.5C, and that any warming beyond this would have potentially catastrophic consequences. I was terrified – that’s really not a long time, and I hadn’t considered before that things were so imminently bad. But at the same time, I felt quite frustrated that their solution was to ‘take over London’ – what difference was that going to make?

I had to eat my words. They brought central London to a standstill with a mass demonstration, that pink boat, and days of non-violent action – all they did was sit in the road, but suddenly everyone was talking about them. I remember thinking. ‘Wow, they have managed to get complete and utter public attention.’ In July, they came back for round two, blocking roads again in London, as well as Bristol, Leeds, Cardiff and Glasgow. Like the London protests, these weren't universally popular.

But who are they? Extinction Rebellion was formally launched in October 2018 with the announcement of their aims. Their primary tactic is civil disobedience, with many activists pledging to be arrested in order to generate attention for the cause. What struck me was how well-planned it all was – it might look like chaos when they’re blocking the roads and being carted off by police, but it’s all part of a strategy. 

Protest Oxford CircusBBC Three
Police struggled to move protesters after blocking Oxford Circus during the April protests

The activists have arrest training so they know what to expect if they’re apprehended. They’re briefed either by other members, or people from other activist groups that specialise in giving legal advice. Would-be protesters are told what police are likely to say, and advised to calmly assert their rights and aims. They’re prepared to be arrested, and everything they do if it happens is pre-planned. They’ve also got press officers notifying media of what they’re planning – it’s a very well-oiled machine.

It’s remarkably effective, the amount of publicity you can generate by sitting in a road and blocking traffic. Despite the angry commuters shouting at them, horns beeping as traffic piles up around them, and heavy police presence, they remain strangely calm, which I think also gets them attention. The government might not have been brought down, but parliament has taken notice: it declared a climate emergency in May, in the wake of the April demonstrations.

For Roger, things are only just beginning. During one of our conversations, he told me, "We’re going into the most dramatic episode in human history."

ER Team RogerBBC Three
Roger Hallam, Extinction Rebellion co-founder

There is real organisation there – they have numerous branches across the country who all coordinate with one another. And they have some pretty intellectual individuals now. Because they've managed to attract so many people, there are members from all over the intellectual spectrum – economists, scientists, doctors, people who have worked on mass protests before. It’s a far cry from the disorganised bunch I met last November, with lofty aims but not much idea of how to make them happen.

Sam Knights, 23, who features in the documentary – really sums up Extinction Rebellion as a whole. When I first met him, at the start of February, he was very normal – just this guy interested in the environment. And then, as they got more and more coverage, he became more confident in himself and what he believed in, because he knew that they had a lot of support. It culminated in him standing in the middle of Oxford Circus, on a pink boat with Emma Thompson, on TV. 

We filmed him having a meeting with Claire Perry, the Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth – the first time that a member of Extinction Rebellion had been granted a meeting with a government minister during the rebellion, two days after a House of Commons debate on 23 April. He was unfazed, and clearly prepared. He’d grown, just like the group.

ER Team SamBBC Three
Sam Knights was arrested in February

In my experience, a lot of people understand why Extinction Rebellion are doing what they do. People see their point, but some oppose of their tactics. After all, the protests are disrupting people's lives. Some people were angry because they were blocking roads and standing in front of cars, but I didn’t hear the overall motive being questioned.

One police officer told me, "We feel quite sad to be arresting these guys, because we do understand where they're coming from." At the same time, I felt sympathy with the police, because it was a difficult situation. You have people sitting in the middle of the road, they weren’t being violent, and this is why the tactic is so effective. If the police come and do anything, it looks disproportionate. But if they don't, they look weak. So the police are in a bind, and tried to handle it as best they could.

One thing that did concern me was the young people involved in the movement, and whether they’d really thought through the implications of being arrested. Sam was one of nine Extinction Rebellion members arrested in February gluing themselves to the doors of a hotel while an oil industry conference took place inside . I asked him what he thought.

“I spent 16 hours in a cell. You’re in this tiny metre-wide space, and you go slightly mad,” he told me.

“I met 16-year-olds who are incredibly dedicated to the cause,” I replied. “But it could have lifelong consequences for them, if they’re arrested.”

Sam said he thought I was “underestimating their intelligence”. “They’re incredibly educated about the crisis – they’ve had to educate themselves about it because the systems in which they exist don’t.”

During the global climate school strike on 15 March, in which young people in their thousands bunked off school to protest climate change on the streets of London (as well as hundreds of other cities around the world), I watched 18-year-old Jack being taken away by police. I was concerned about how far young people were prepared to go for this movement. The ones I met seemed, as Sam had said, dedicated to the cause, like 16-year-old Dani, who told me she’d even be prepared to put her education on hold for Extinction Rebellion.

School Protest trafalgar squareBBC Three
School kids gather in Trafalgar Square during the school strike

It's always difficult seeing kids in dangerous positions. In order to take action it was implied that being on the front line and being arrested was the purest form. That made me nervous – I worried the kids felt pressured. I didn't want anything to happen to them and it felt like some of them may have been racing to get arrested for the sake of it and to show their commitment. I'm not sure they thought of the potential consequences should they get arrested or even jailed.

I’ve asked members of Extinction Rebellion what’s next for them all – how are they going to top the demonstrations that made them famous? The answer is always to go bigger. In April, the premise was that they were not moving until they get what they want, but that didn’t quite happen. The government did eventually declare a climate emergency, but it still hasn’t adhered to zero carbon by 2025 and that doesn’t seem possible. The government is all talking about 2050 as the figure.

Once the April demonstration was over, life went back to normal. Both for Londoners, and for members of Extinction Rebellion themselves. The majority of them went home and carried on their lives. A lot of people had taken holiday off work while the rebellion was happening, so they had a time limit in the first place. There are a handful of Extinction Rebellion staff that are full time and get money from their fundraising pot to subsist, but it is really just the core team.

The demonstrators might be united under their aims, but there are divisions in the camp. There were debates over whether they should target the tube in the April Rebellion – some were behind it, but others though it was going too far, and could make the public lose support for them. They want the public behind them, because they need that in order to achieve their aims. They’re constantly having to ask themselves how far is too far.

HQ MegaphonesBBC Three

Something I kept asking myself was whether Extinction Rebellion should have the answers to the climate issues they’re raising awareness of. At first I thought: ‘These guys should definitely be giving us the answer’. But, as my time with them went on, I started to think ‘well, how could they possibly give us the answer, when it is such a difficult thing?’ Maybe them simply drawing attention to it is going to start making people and companies think about how they affect the environment.

I think Extinction Rebellion have made the government see how many people care about the climate, but I'm not sure how much more they can do. I wonder whether public support might decrease if they keep bringing cities to a halt. Would that mean a complete change in tactics for Extinction Rebellion, like disrupting air travel as some members have suggested? I know they're willing to keep upping the ante to stay relevant – how that will manifest, and what it'll mean for the young people in the movement and the wider public, I don't know. Honestly, that worries me.

As told to Dave Fawbert

Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World? is on BBC iPlayer now