I don’t want to piss on anyone’s parade, I really don’t. But watching the protests by the climate revolutionaries Extinction Rebellion, I feel uneasy. It’s not their methods. I know that direct action and street politics work; after all, I have done very similar protests and street action. The uneasiness here is the hierarchy of worthiness.
Bridges and Getting Rid of the Rich
In 2015, just twenty class warriors stopped the traffic and held Tower Bridge as we marched from the Aldgate East poor door over the Tower Bridge with pitchforks and burning torches singing “We have got to get rid of the rich”. We were protesting the new Qatari Royal family’s development that aimed to build up market millionaires’ weekend pads right behind City Hall, where they would landscape gardens as an oasis in Bermondsey -but the people that lived directly next to the Qatar oasis in the council flats would be locked out.
Working class movements and protest during 2015 were leading the way in direct action and street politics. We wanted to make sure that people understood and knew that class inequality was getting out of hand, and working class people were being forced out of London, and into homelessness, or forced into humiliating situations of accepting that parts of London would no longer be accessible to them simply because of their class status. This came to a head through several direct action, grass roots campaigns, like the Focus E15 campaign that started because young and vulnerable working class mothers and their families were being forced to accept properties hundreds of miles away from their families, and if they refused, were being threatened by local officials that their children would be taken into care.
The Poor Door development at One Aldgate East was the focus of a year-long picket by working class activists that forced the disgusting practice into the public domain of separating social housing tenants from private leaseholders, even when they shared the same building . We called this social apartheid, and used every manner of direct action tools that we could get away with. Even though some weeks there were only 6 or 7 of us at the picket, there were often 30 or 40 police officers protecting that property, plus private security guards. Over the year several of us were arrested on a range of charges, from causing alarm and distress with a banner, to causing criminal damage with a credit card sized sticker.
Life for working class people in London over the past five years has gotten harder. Women and children are being cleansed out of the city at an unprecedented rate, and mothers’ fear of losing their children in the process of becoming homeless is real. I have met many women who have been threatened with this, and, even more harrowing, some have actually lost their children because of their homeless status. Social cleansing and social apartheid has become normalised to the point that only a few weeks ago we learned that working class children living in a social housing development in Lambeth were being denied entry to a playground that their schoolfriends and neighbours in the private, for-profit development adjoining had access to.
This is why I feel uneasy about Extinction Rebellion, because for years some of us have been trying to bring attention to inequality, homelessness, and the rationale of a neoliberal system that values nothing else but wealth. These are interconnected issues around a capitalist system that uses up and discards any resource it needs to create wealth for those winning the game.
For years I have watched climate and environmental campaigners show an utter lack of empathy for the everyday issues that working class people face, and instead focus only on one issue: stopping climate change. This is honourable and important and I have never met anyone amongst ordinary working class people who doesn’t see this as a major problem, but they realise there is little they can do about this when their lives are already precarious. As much as people don’t want to see the planet being ruined, their immediate needs will always take priority. This is how capitalism works. It forces us into its chains.
Therefore the uneasiness I have about this new incarnation of climate revolutionaries is the same I have always had. They see everyone as their enemy, where you are with them or against them, when life is so much more complicated than that. By focusing on carbon emissions that come from cars without putting in place real solutions to how people get around the place where they live, their protests become exclusive. I support lowering carbon emissions; since I have moved to London my asthma has become much worse. But I also realise that even though I would like to us live in a society where we all only work 3 days a week, that’s not the reality.
London, like many cities, is being swamped by investment from international vulture capitalists that are building in every single space they can fit in, and building only for themselves and the profit they are addicted to, while local and national government representatives are rolling out the red carpets for them. This is why the fight for housing is central to the fight against inequality and against capitalism after all people are also used and abused as nothing but resources for the rich, and the housing fight is about property ownership and what is fetishised as wealth.
I want to support Extinction Rebellion, although their tactics of getting arrested are really dangerous for anyone who is vulnerable to state violence. If you are black or working class you really do not want to be tied into that system. Only the middle class would think that playing games with the criminal justice system or the police is safe, or fun, or useful.
Stopping public transport while trying to persuade people to get out of their cars is also quite stupid, and it’s winning no one over. You are not the enemy if you are a cabbie and are now stuck with a diesel vehicle that is worth nothing. Cabbies are almost always sole traders or family-run businesses. And you are not the enemy if you are disabled and need a car to get around because public transport services are not public or affordable. You are not the enemy if you live outside of London where public transport is virtually non existent.
My last word to Extinction Rebellion is to ask why they are not focusing on those who really are the enemy. This week parliament is closed and there are no politicians there. The rich and wealthy have left London to go on their last skiing trip of the year. It is the working class Londoners who are left.
I want to see a movement as committed as Extinction Rebellion, but with millions of us on the street. But first we need to demand sustainable cities and towns and industries that treat people fairly and equally, and that we recognise each other’s real and everyday material struggles.
Lisa McKenzie is a working class academic, blogger and trouble maker and you can read more of her writings including here at lisamckenzie1968.wixsite.com.
All Images were kindly donated by LJ.