Why is Extinction Rebellion protesting sexist feminists?

Tracking the activities of groups trying to “save the planet” is not an easy task these days. Since the summer of 2018 we’ve discovered Extinction Rebellion (XR), Animal Rebellion, Ocean Rebellion, Money Rebellion, Roads Rebellion, Youth Rebellion (there’s a bit of a theme here), Insulate Britain and the newest kid on the block, Just stop the oil. XR also has a network of local groups. Some of them are little more than a Facebook page, but others, especially those in some college towns, are much stronger.

Take a step forward Extinction Rebellion Bristol, which this week found its USP – by shutting down meetings of women’s rights activists. On Tuesday evening, the Woman’s Place UK event at the University of Bristol, titled ‘A woman’s place is with women: feminism, birth and motherhood’, was hosted by a counter-protest of about fifty militants. How did it happen? Earlier today, XR Bristol’s Facebook page posted a message to announce: ‘Climate justice = trans rights! Trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) are not welcome in our city. He added: “Note that this is not an XR event.” It had however been posted by the Facebook account of Extinction Rebellion Bristol, on its own Facebook page. In this message, protesters were advised to wear unidentifiable clothing and to cover their names and photographs on their students’ union cards, all in order to avoid “doxing” by the “TERF”.

Women’s Square UK is a feminist organization formed in 2017 to advocate for sex as a protected characteristic under UK law. In seeking to make women’s voices heard in contemporary debates, he has received support from public figures such as Julie Bindel, Pragna Patel and Joanna Cherry. Woman’s Place UK is causing strokes in some trans rights activists, who have picketed its events since at least 2018. The Labor Campaign for Trans Rights has also referred to Woman’s Place UK as a ‘trans-exclusive hate group’. Such claims provide the political backdrop for campaigns against JK Rowling and other women in public life who dare to hold once conventional views on sex and gender.

Why would XR want to enter this minefield? The group started with three nuclei requests: “tell the truth” about what its activists consider a “climate emergency”, “act now” to remedy the situation and create citizens’ assemblies to decide on the implementation of their demands. Political movements traditionally succeed by appealing to the greatest number of people in the broadest possible way. A generation ago, the anti-Poll Tax campaign flourished precisely because it opposed a tax seen as unfair. It tended not to get bogged down in detailed discussions of how to finance local government spending. Anti-fascist groups like the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s or Anti-Fascist Action in the 1980s and 1990s succeeded in physically disrupting the activities of fascist organizations, without necessarily developing a detailed program for politically defeating these groups.

For some time now, it seems that some XR groups have broader political ambitions and interests than these three initial demands suggest. XR Tower Hamletsfor example, added a fourth, tortuously written request that is unlikely to be found anytime soon whitewashed on the walls of the municipal estate in Stepney:

“The government must implement a just transition to an ecologically balanced society, prioritizing the needs and voices of the most vulnerable and redressing past and present global inequalities caused by centuries of colonial exploitation, gender and class, while respecting the life rights of all species.

XR Leeds takes it a step further by keeping the three existing requests, but inserting a “zero request” above them:

We demand a just transition to an ecologically balanced zero-carbon economy that prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable and redresses the inequalities in our society caused by centuries of colonial, gender and class exploitation.

XR Bristol is therefore not the only one to run after the other political causes of the moment. Whether picketing a feminist meeting fits easily with opposition to sexual exploitation is a moot point. So far XR itself, like its 2022 strategy document watch, careful to avoid contentious issues such as trans rights. But at the local level, some activists clearly have a different approach.

Grassroots protest gains momentum when campaigns are supported by people from a variety of ideological and political backgrounds, uniting like never before around a particular issue. By embracing other unpopular causes, XR does the exact opposite.

This week was barely the end of XR. But this potentially marks the beginning of the end.

Paul Stott is Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange. Follow him on Twitter: @MrPaul Stott

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