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XR: Climate militancy despite coronavirus pandemic

June 12, 2020

XR activists are labelled as rebels or fanatics. Provocation is their unique selling point and more major demonstrations lie ahead. But will people listen to their message at a time of coronavirus pandemic?

Deutschland Berlin | Aktion Extinction Rebellion | Spree gefärbt
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

Radical, provocative, spectacular. When it comes to climate protection, Extinction Rebellion has always pushed protest to its limits. XR, as it is called for short, has brought traffic to a standstill in major cities, dyed rivers green, and stormed semi-naked into parliamentary debates.

Now the German wing of XR has begun a new civil disobedience campaign, due to take place across Germany between 12 and 21 June, starting on Friday with the spectacular coloring of the Spree River that runs through the German capital, past government buildings (pictured above.) 

The protests target the government, ministries, lobbyists, and companies that the activists believe are not doing enough to prevent what they see as a climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity.

"We're blocking the blockers," XR Germany spokeswoman Annemarie Brotzki tells DW.

Read more: Germany unveils hydrogen strategy

Annemarie Botzki
XR spokeswoman Annemarie BotzkiImage: Annemarie Botzki

Referring to the peaceful Fridays for Future school strikes against global warming, Brotzki is at pains to emphasize that: "We are drifting towards climate tipping points – developments that can't be turned back. So, the demonstrations that have been taking place for the last 18 months or so simply don't go far enough." 2020, she believes, is a crucial year.

Will the politicians finally do what is necessary to ensure our survival as a species by avoiding the breakdown of ecosystems and climate catastrophe? The XR extremists clearly believe that the coronavirus crisis is going to give their cause a major boost. The time has come, they say, to break with old habits, with the established agenda.

Read more: Most Germans want climate protection, but not protests

 New strategies to beat the pandemic

"There is now a historic opportunity to begin the process of ecological transformation that we so urgently require. We are setting the course for decades to come. Now is the time to have an impact," says Botzki. But the pandemic, and the risk of infection, is forcing the activists to employ new strategies. There will be no central demonstration during the upcoming week of action, which will instead be "decentral and digital.” Expect the focus of the protest to be Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne, Essen, and the Internet.

The movement is planning a special Berlin exhibition featuring solutions to climate breakdown and ecological crisis: "But there will also be plenty of unofficial demonstrations of civil disobedience that I can't reveal anything about," says Botzki. When it comes to Internet activism, there will also be social media actions and fact-checking on PR campaigns used by companies wanting to give themselves a green image: the so-called greenwashing.

Does XR go too far?

"Energy companies, for instance, spend millions on greenwashing their business models. We want to show that we won't put up with that. And we're determined to win back the Internet," Botzki announces. But Extinction Rebellion is under growing pressure. Some of their backers are clearly beginning to ask themselves how far protest can and should go.

half-naked "Extinction Rebellion" activists in UK parliament
Half-naked protests for climate protection - in the House of Commons in April 2019.Image: Reuters/EXTINCTION REBELLION

Some critics label XR activists as young fanatics. Green Party left-wing politician Jutta Ditfurth says the movement lacks transparency, its activists blindly following gurus and promote esotericism — she says it is no more than a doomsday cult.

Read more: Opinion — Extinction Rebellion: Nothing matters to this doomsday cult

Extinction Rebellion says it rejects violence in any form and dismisses what it describes as dangerous action. So, what about controversial provocations like the roadblocks imposed in a number of cities? The doubters accuse the movement of eco-terrorism. 

Roger Hallam
XR founder Roger Hallam is a controversial figureImage: Imago-Images/ZUMA Press/A. Pantoja

XR co-founder Roger Hallam has been stirring up controversy of his own. In November 2019, he referred to the Holocaust as, "just another f--kery in human history," and said that genocides are like, "a completely regular event," in history.

Privilege and responsibility

Despite the outrage that those comments triggered, Extinction Rebellion appears to be a growing force. Founded in the UK in 2018, the movement says it has 140 local branches in Germany with a total of some 20,000 members. Across the globe, XR is active in 73 different countries on six continents, with more than 200,000 activists. Growth is above all strong in the global South, especially India.

"We network via messenger services and support each other," says Annemarie Botzki. The aim in the days to come is to spread messages from activists in countries where the right to protest is restricted: "We want to use the privileges that we have to make a difference. We have the right to protest. But as a rich industrial company, we also have a responsibility."