Why something extraordinary happened after the XR protester was pulled off the roof of the train

The best of human nature can be found in crowds.

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I’m a Londoner, and I live at the northern end of the Victoria line. On the rare occasions I have to get a very early Tube into town, I notice that there is a different cohort of commuters to the one that travels just an hour or so later. Most strikingly, there’s a higher proportion of big men with broad shoulders and thick, man-spreading thighs. They wear heavy boots, paint-spattered trousers and hoodies. If they speak, it’s often in an eastern European language. They look tired.

Just recently we saw shaky video footage of Extinction Rebellion protesters disrupting early morning trains. There is one piece of footage in particular that I have watched and rewatched. It is, as critical theorists like to say, a dense text, striated with social significance. It’s of a Jubilee line train in London, standing in a station (Canning Town, I think), under a purple dawn sky. Two young men are dancing nervously on its roof, as an angry crowd on the platform yells and throws things at them in an effort to get them down.

The protesters (by which I mean the men on the roof, even though the people more obviously protesting are down below) look like they might work for a design agency in Shoreditch: white guys in natty jackets and slim-cut jeans. The people on the platform are more like the commuters I see on those early morning trains: an ethnically mixed group of construction workers and decorators; people who work in catering and hospitality. They are furious, because they want – need – to get to work. For people who work in offices with pool tables and espresso machines, getting in late has little or no consequence. For the people on that platform it means a loss of income, even the loss of a job.

A few seconds into the video, a man wearing a hoodie and a backpack succeeds in mounting the roof of the train, having been given a leg up by fellow commuters. The nattily jacketed protestor, startled, kicks him in the head. The hoodie is undeterred: he grabs the protester’s legs, and pulls him down into the jostling, seething crowd. At this point, you really fear for the protester. He is out of sight, on the floor, and surrounded by heavy boots. We all know what pumped up, angry crowds do to the targets of their ire.

But then something extraordinary happens. A few members of the crowd form a protective ring around the protester. They are led by two individuals – a London Underground worker, an Asian man, who thrusts himself forward to tell people to stand back; meanwhile a commuter, a black woman, shouts at the men around her to back off. What could have been a nasty incident, involving serious injury or worse, is prevented. Describing this is one thing; watching it is another. It all takes place in a few seconds. You marvel at the speed with which the crowd organises itself to protect a vulnerable individual. But then, crowds are a lot smarter, and more decent, than they are given credit for.

In 1896 a French intellectual called Gustave Le Bon published a book called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. In a crowd, he said, a person “descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation”. A cultured man becomes a “barbarian”. Le Bon wasn’t the first to suggest that crowds turn people into savages but he gave an old prejudice a pseudo-scientific sheen, and his book proved highly influential. In the century to come it became conventional wisdom that when a group of strangers congregate, norms of decency are liable to be abandoned, and violence imminent.

More recently, scientists who study crowd behaviour have revealed this story to be a myth. Under pressure, for example in disaster situations, people actually become more compassionate, and organise themselves spontaneously to protect each other. The best of human nature can be found in crowds.

Extinction Rebellion’s organisers may need to capture this spirit if their movement is to build on its early success. Social movements that create or hasten big changes, like the campaign for gay marriage in the US, have done so by building large and diverse coalitions of support. Their first movers reach outwards to those who are not like them, and frame the need for change in terms that others can understand and respond to intuitively. Attitudes to gay marriage shifted remarkably quickly once people were persuaded to see the issue not as a legalistic argument about rights but as a simple question of whether two people who love each other should be allowed to marry.

So far, Extinction Rebellion has been adept at presenting itself as an open and engaging movement rather than as an angry, oppositional clique. As a result, public perceptions of them, and their message, are positive. But that’s why the Tube protests seem jarring and counterproductive. The video’s image of middle-class protesters looking down on working-class people trying to get to work is not one likely to win support for the cause. Neither is the
sabotage of an environmentally friendly form of public transport.

The protesters on that train might argue that they need to stop the wheels of capitalism from turning in order to save the planet. But they should be wary of making the climate crisis into a left-wing cause. The tragedy of America’s debate on climate is that it has become inextricably tied to political allegiance: left and right, blue and red. The result is gridlock. Instead of dividing the crowd, we need it come together and to invoke the human instinct to keep others, including total strangers, safe from harm. Even those who are stopping us from getting to work. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state