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Extinction Rebellion were not veteran protesters, new analysis shows

Extinction Rebellion protest

An Extinction Rebellion protest in London on 22 February 2020

TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Extinction Rebellion activists who occupied London twice last year were largely white, middle class and highly educated – but many were first-time or inexperienced protesters, a new analysis has found.

In October 2019, UK prime minister Boris Johnson called Extinction Rebellion “nose-ringed climate change protesters” and “uncooperative crusties”, suggesting the protesters were veteran activists of the climate movement.

Now, Graeme Hayes at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, and his colleagues have found that Extinction Rebellion seems to have succeeded in mobilising new people.

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The team conducted more than 300 face-to-face interviews and gathered more than 200 completed questionnaires with protesters, along with observing court hearings of campaigners who were charged by police.

They found that at least 85 per cent had a university degree, more than twice the national average, while a third had a postgraduate degree. Two thirds of the activists self-identified as middle class and more than three quarters of those charged were from southern England.

Most were politically on the left, with 34 per per cent voting Green in the 2017 general election, 47 per cent voting Labour and just two people voting Conservative.

Criticism that the group wasn’t ethnically diverse seems to have been well-founded. Of 132 defendants observed in court by the researchers, only two weren’t white, and a freedom of information request revealed that 90 per cent of a thousand arrested activists were white.

Read more: The science behind Extinction Rebellion’s three climate change demands

“In terms of being white, middle class, highly educated, in terms of how they vote, these aren’t people who are from outside the natural constituency of environmental movements,” says Hayes.

However, Extinction Rebellion was successful in broadening its appeal in two key respects, the research suggests. Few protesters were veteran activists, with 10 per cent never having been on a protest and half having attended five or fewer protests of any kind in their lifetime.

The protests also reached a more diverse range of ages than the largely young activists that have characterised previous environmental direct action, such as that carried out by the climate camps of the 2000s and road protests of the 1990s, say the team.

That may be partly down to the safer nature of the road-blocking tactics Extinction Rebellion pursued, says Clare Saunders at the University of Exeter, UK. “The idea of standing in the streets is nowhere near as vulnerable as putting yourself up a tree,” she says. Brian Doherty at Keele University, UK, adds that the movement was new in its scale and influence. “In that sense, it has to be seen as success,” he says.

A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion says: “It is hugely gratifying to know that our intention to reach people who do not consider themselves activists came off.  We are also deeply aware of the limitations of who we have made space for in our movement and continue to work to make Extinction Rebellion a good place for working class people and people of colour to fight for climate justice.”

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