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October 12

Notes on Extinction Rebellion on the First Day of “International Rebellion” in NYC

A critical report back on Extinction Rebellion’s recent ‘International Rebellion’ actions in New York City.

The city woke to mild weather, the sky a bright, indefinite blue-gray. On the long subway ride to Battery Park, I thought about how just three weeks ago, 300,000 had rallied there for the #ClimateStrike. Thought how, despite everything, so little seemed to have changed since. In the park I could smell the salt in the air, feel the wind whipping off the sea. New York is a city of water that pretends as if it wasn’t, at least until the storm surge crashes across the avenues.

A crowd 200 strong was gathered in the park, dressed in shades of black. It was a delightfully macabre scene. There were protesters done up as skeletons with papier-mâché masks. Others carried mobiles of fish, paper bones picked clean. Signs named extinct and soon-to-be-extinct species. White deer soared overhead, antlers made of twigs. The puppets gave an eerie, ghostly charm to the proceedings, as we planned to bury not the dead but the living.

In front of the crowd lay two cardboard coffins draped in black fabric, “Our Future” scrawled on their sides. The funeral march has become an instant classic in the Extinction Rebellion repertoire, a grim procession repeated in cities across the world. Monday marked the beginning of XR’s International Rebellion, and I wanted to know how rebellious things might get.

I made the rookie mistake of trying to have a piss in Starbucks before the march began, so I missed the most dramatic part of the entire day. By the time I caught up to the march at Bowling Green, the deed was done. The famous Charging Bull statue was doused in thick, red blood. It was quite a sight. There was blood everywhere. Blood on the bull. Blood on the ground. In between the cobblestones. On protesters. On police. Before the morning was over, I would grow used to the sticky substance, the way it made my boots cling to the pavement.

A dozen blood-soaked protesters were sprawled on the ground around the statue, equal parts tourist trap and protest rite of passage. A die-in: another tactic resuscitated by XR. The dead lay among makeshift tombstones: “Drowned in my car in Superstorm Sandy.” “Died in war due to climate chaos” A young woman had climbed the bull, proudly waving a bright-green hourglass flag. I saw a kind of homage – intentional or not – to the glory days of Occupy Wall Street.

Next I headed a few blocks east to the New York Stock Exchange, which a contingent of the march had continued towards. On Broad Street I came upon another stage-set of gory pandemonium. Several dozen bloody protesters lay on the cobblestones. At first the sight was almost too lifelike. I thought less mass extinction, more mass shooting. The gruesome spectacle drew a huge crowd of early morning tourists. In front of the Stock Exchange, boasting American flags and banal advertisements, rebels held a banner: “Stop Funding Climate Death.” The silent dancers of the Red Rebel Brigade slipped through the mayhem, touching the chests of the dead. It was good theater.

An organizer from Puerto Rico spoke of the tragedy of Hurricane Maria and of the island’s summer uprising. “We should take their example,” he declared. Another organizer told of his family in Bangladesh, where rising waters are already pushing people into overcrowded slums. “There is no looming apocalypse… It’s happening to them right now.” A priest decried “the temples of global capitalism,” implored resistance to their “culture of death.” Teenage rebels climbed scaffolding to watch and listen, their faces covered by masks with hourglass symbols and the word RESIST.

Both at the Charging Bull and the Stock Exchange, anti-capitalist rhetoric was more pointed than I had heard at other recent climate actions. “Let the corporations burn,” rebels chanted. The blood is on their hands. As it is on the rich and the government which protects their interests. If an open critique of capitalism is becoming a more prominent aspect of the new climate movements, that’s a welcome development.

Police pushed the march onto the sidewalks, but couldn’t decide what to do with all those limp bodies. Paddywagons pulled up and White Shirts filtered into the street, prompting expectations of imminent mass arrest. A handful of protesters were led away. But to everyone’s surprise, the cops suddenly called off the operation and retreated. The march slowly retook the street, bloody rebels rising zombie-like to rejoin their comrades in a bout of confused celebration – unsure if relieved or disappointed to not have been arrested.

The march took off again through narrow streets, emerging back onto Broadway. I saw the next maneuver coming from a mile away. I’m sure the police did too. As the crowd spilled into the intersection, the zombie-protesters locked arms and stood stock-still. While the police had been somewhat reluctant to crack down on the pedestrian-only Broad Street, they reacted swiftly to the new situation here. They again pushed the march to the sidewalks, separating us from the protesters now lying down in the middle of the road. A double-decker sightseeing bus was stopped right in front, giving passengers an inside look at a methodical, hour-long NYPD operation. As the protesters were arrested one-by-one, remaining rebels held their coffins and black banners in front of the wrought-iron fence of Trinity Church’s old cemetery. Traffic was more still than a grave.

Waiting on something else to happen, I sent some pics of the morning’s actions to a friend. They responded, less than impressed: “They come packaged with their own perfectly staged photo ops.” This is one of the many frustrations people have with XR. All style, no bite. They talk about shutting the system down, but resort to the most symbolic of protests. They target infrastructure like roads and bridges, but the disruptions are largely superficial. However sincere their motives, XR actions wind up feeling more like performances than popular revolt.

Beyond a confusion between the material and the symbolic, XR’s tactics strike me as immature in other ways. The whole movement bureaucracy – pre-registered affinity groups, mandatory “nonviolent direct action” trainings, crowd marshalls – exists to channel collective energy into safe, predictable outcomes. The obsessive division between arrestable and non-arrestable protesters is a step backwards from previous waves of unrest where disruptive tactics were more generalized, for instance during Black Lives Matter. There were 93 arrests on Monday morning, each and every one of them voluntary. Whatever tactical intelligence XR embodies, they restrict it to a specialized class of trained activists while discouraging anyone else from stepping out of line.

Contrast these staged arrests to the unauthorized “swarm” I witnessed shortly afterwards. While everyone was distracted at Broadway, I followed a small band of young rebels as they stormed a different intersection and draped banners across it, to the confusion and frustration of buses, taxis, and Ubers. The swarm lasted only a few minutes, but it was enough to draw onlookers and back up traffic for as many blocks as I could see. When the cops finally arrived, the group dissolved into the mass of gawking tourists. These more spontaneous, nimble tactics may point the way around XR’s self-imposed limitations.

“The whole movement bureaucracy – pre-registered affinity groups, mandatory “nonviolent direct action” trainings, crowd marshalls – exists to channel collective energy into safe, predictable outcomes.”

Later I took the subway up to West 4th Street. XR had called for a week-long “Rebel Fest” to take over Washington Square Park in a kind of soft occupation. They aimed to remake it as a space of rebel encounter, a staging ground for their upcoming week of action. Infrastructure would be set up each morning and taken down each night. There were tents for information and art-making, food and well-being, a full schedule of workshops and trainings. Rebels passed out flyers to anyone who would take them. They covered the ground with chalk art, some messages serious, others funny (“Fuck me, not the earth”). The mini-occupation was small but well-designed, and it established itself quickly. Like it or not, XR has their shit together.

On my phone I saw headlines from the International Rebellion in other cities. XR had taken eleven sites in London. Occupations were ongoing in Berlin and Amsterdam. In Paris, they had apparently joined with some Yellow Vests to occupy a plaza. Washington Square Park was tame compared to all that. But while it lacked antagonism, a temporary festival didn’t necessarily seem like a bad approach. Since the eviction of Zuccotti Park, the NYPD has been hellbent on preventing any serious occupation from gaining ground. I was willing to cut XR some slack on this tactical point at least. It’s the use of space that’s radical, not how much it’s fortified.

By mid-afternoon, the day had turned hot and muggy. The anticipated rain seemed to be holding off. I sat with a group of rebels for a “climate cafe” – a loosely-facilitated discussion meant to open people up about the fears and anxieties induced by climate crisis. It might not be everyone’s thing, but I found it worthwhile. An honest exchange with strangers about what normally goes unsaid, what we hide behind daily facades required by school, work, and social life.

An older gentleman told how his dreams had turned dark, the more he meditated on coming “annihilation.” A young, soft-spoken girl who described herself as ever respectful to authority had finally said “fuck that” and begun hitting the streets. A middle-aged woman recalled her Jewish grandmother, spoke of her own deep-seated fears that climate change will breed new fascisms. An organizer described her exhilaration and her terror at the stakes of our historical moment, situated at the precipice of catastrophe. It can be easy to write off XR’s performative brand of protest. I found it much harder to write off the people I met, as they shared the truths which led them to join the movement.

Some have criticized XR for being overly apocalyptic. I don’t think that’s so much a political failure as it is a sign of the times. The devastation dealt by capitalism has been so thorough, so deep that many people today feel spiritually broken. In its over-the-top way, XR speaks to this sense of existential disarray, inner despair reflected by a planet in tatters. Oftentimes such grief can lead to a kind of paralysis. But within the movement, grief is becoming a mark of resistance. For many rebels, revolt has taken on intimate dimensions.

The slogan “Rebel for Life” (rebel as a verb, not a noun) is another example of this. In mobilizing the idea of “life,” it evokes something vital that outdated languages of politics, law, economics, and even identity don’t capture. Here too XR is onto something, whether they know it or not. Follow the slogan to its conclusion and it looks like this. In the 21st century, revolution is no longer about particular issues, certainly not an abstraction like “the climate.” It’s existential, full stop. It’s about life and the conditions for life to continue. Those are now the stakes of rebellion.

When I left the occupation in the early evening, the crowd of rebels was small but lively. The wind was picking up, spraying mist from the fountain in the center of the park. As dark clouds rolled in, organizers began to tarp up before the storm hit. The lights under the arch came on, barricaded behind metal rails and a line of police. An hourglass flag hung in the half-light, as Day 1 drew to a close.

It’s the end of the world out there. No need to hold back tears anymore. Fight like hell, for life and the living.

Update: A lot happened in the time between the events described here and when this reflection was published. After Monday, the only day I was present, rebels conducted actions at City Hall, Fox News, and Columbia University. Most spectacularly, they blockaded Times Square by driving a sailboat into the streets and locking themselves to it (63 were arrested). As of Friday night, the occupation of Washington Square Park was reaching its peaceful conclusion, as rebels threw a dance party and planned to disperse into the night. So ends the International Rebellion in New York City – a Friday like any other.

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