Can protest groups like Extinction Rebellion really police themselves?

Accountability must come first, the movement says.

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This past weekend, French anti-tax rise protestors descended on the streets of Paris, where they tore up paving stones, hurled missiles at police, and set barricades alight.

By contrast, in central London, supporters of the Extinction Rebellion movement held a peaceful memorial service for extinct species in Parliament Square, sat in near-silence outside Downing Street’s gates, then marched to the Palace behind an elderly jazz quartet.

At first glance, this tale of two cities appears a win for the restrained British campaigners, who want greater political intervention “in the face of imminent ecological and climate emergency”. Their emphasis on music and creative spectacle made attending the march a delight rather than a danger. Police were even overheard praising the singing voices of protestors as they passed.

Yet the much larger Gillet Jaunes (yellow jackets) movement in France carries a warning. A week ago around 244,000 people blocked roads and airports across the country, with two people losing their lives in the resulting chaos. And while the movement also started out with peaceful intent, this past weekend its protests turned violent after they were reportedly infiltrated by ultra-right extremists and rioters.

The likelihood of Extinction Rebellion following a similarly violent path seems remote, not least since, at a press event earlier this month, the organisers placed great stress on participants remaining accountable for such actions. If someone graffitis a wall, for example, the group says they should remain next to it so they can be easily identified by police.

And yet, questions still remain about how well the UK’s new direct-action movement can internally police itself, especially as it grows.

Acts that push the boundaries of public acceptance are already arising at its events. During last Saturday’s protest in Whitehall, an unnamed individual spray-painted the word “MOTHER” on to a sculpture dedicated to the women of World War Two.

When I passed by the memorial during the march, it was being guarded by a line of police and two demonstrators holding up a “Declare Emergency” banner. The Metropolitan Police later announced in a press statement that one person had been arrested for causing the damage.

In many ways, this act feels more thoughtless than malign. Attempting to include the dead in such an event is no bad thing: past generations would surely also have felt strongly about the risk of climate collapse. Plus, it is possible that the individual may intended to have added further words, such as “Earth”. Either way, it creates a very different tone from the incident in May 2015, when activists protesting the election result sprayed “F*** Tory Scum” on the same monument.

Perhaps for these reasons like these, the Extinction Rebellion movement takes an open-minded approach towards such incidents. “We’re very clear that these actions must be non-violent and those taking them must hold themselves accountable, be honest and own up. When someone takes action and does not own up to it, we don’t support their actions,” said a spokesperson.

But encouraging people to commit civil disobedience inherently risks stretching the limits of public offence. And the crude defacement of war memorials, especially those dedicated to women, undermines Extinction Rebellion’s other, more creative efforts. As the national policing and crime advisor for Historic England said of the new rules against vandalism in 2015, “The value of England’s heritage can’t be judged in pounds and pence.”

Other participants in the Extinction Rebellion movement were quick to recognise the harmful potential of the graffiti on Saturday, and remained behind to help wash the writing off.

Without a clear hierarchy or leadership, the movement says it cannot condemn or condone this individual act, but it can urge an attitude of forgiveness:

“We are all imperfect beings with our own shit, shadows and pre-programmed oppressions. We can splash these about the place of course without much conscious realisation of our effect. When things like this happen, we try not tear at ourselves or each other with blame, but instead to learn, create and grow,” said the same spokesperson, “Yes, accountability is important but so is learning how to do these things differently and learning that mistakes are an inevitability.”

Peer-to-peer intervention and accountability seems like a thin line of defence against the chaos that the French protests have unleashed. But if they can prevent thoughtless acts of graffiti from descending into more dangerous mistakes, then they may yet win the protest peace.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.