Students join fight for the planet

Laying it all on the line

Surrounded, arrested, removed, jailed – then back out on the streets to do it all over again. The RUG students who have joined Extinction Rebellion are willing to take big risks to remind us that our planet is dying.
By Edward Szekeres

It’s a surreal scene. Rows of people lie on the cold, wet concrete, blocking a major Amsterdam thoroughfare just in front of the iconic Rijksmuseum. Arms interlocked, the activists chant: ‘We do this for your children’ and ‘We are peaceful, what are you?’ For some, this is their first protest ever. They call themselves ‘concerned citizens’ rather than activists. Their cries are directed at the uniformed officers slowly closing in. There is no traffic aside from police vans, horses, and a helicopter hovering above.

The police are face to face with the human blockade of singing ‘rebels’. A scuffle breaks out as officers grab hold of the weakest link lying at the end of the human chain. Demands for ‘climate justice’ ring out as they untangle the protestor. They carry him to a bus parked nearby. He’s about to be arrested. He doesn’t resist; no one else does either. The remaining protestors erupt in cheers as the police take him away.

The protestors are committed to non-violence; it’s one of Extinction Rebellion’s ten guiding principles.

Groningen branch

That day in front of the Rijksmuseum, ninety people are peacefully arrested. The blockade is dismantled. The remaining several hundred protestors are fined and sent home. Those who refuse to leave are arrested and transported to an industrial area outside the city. There are simply not enough cells to hold them all.

Among the transported activists are RUG students Flora, Lilly and Tay. They are part of a thirty-strong group of rebels who travelled to Amsterdam with Groningen’s branch of Extinction Rebellion to get in on the action. They came to demand that the Dutch government move quickly to take ‘necessary measures against the climate and ecological crisis’.

‘We are in a climate emergency. We know what disastrous consequences climate change will have. We just don’t know when the disaster will happen or how big it’s going to be – but we only have a few years left to do something about it’, Tay says.

Happy to be arrested

In the bus, the rebels thank the police for using large vehicles instead of hundreds of cars. ‘It’s better for the environment’, they say, happily.

They are dropped off in the middle of nowhere and have to walk at least an hour to the nearest available public transport. They aren’t discouraged; they are victorious, singing and revelling the entire way. ‘Historically, arrests gave power and urgency to civil rights causes. Just look at Martin Luther King jr. or Gandhi’, says psychology student Lilly.

They are dropped off in the middle of nowhere and have to walk at least an hour

Arrest preparation is part of the Rebel life; they all receive legal training before they engage in protests. Soon these cheerful displaced rebels will be back in the city: blocking bridges, gluing themselves to corporate headquarters, and staging ‘die-ins’ at the main square in Amsterdam.

They keep it up for nearly a week. Sleeping in tents and hidden locations, students and parents – even children and the disabled – sacrifice their time and comfort for a cause that unites them all. Flora is arrested twice, and removed several times. A few days after the protest, she still feels sore from being shoved around by the police. But she doesn’t let that stop her. ‘It’s a learning process and we are just at the beginning. We’ll figure it out.’

80 percent planning

Extinction Rebellion was established in October 2018 and is currently active in more than seventy countries. The Groningen branch was started in February this year. It currently has around seventy ‘members’ – a term the movement tries to avoid, because it belongs to the power structures and hierarchies they are trying to challenge.

The organizational structure is ‘horizontal’ – there is no official leadership hierarchy. Rather, the operation is made up of eight interconnected circles that each focus on specific issues, including media and outreach, political strategy, and finance and logistics. The circles meet and sit (in circles); their representatives communicate the results of the meetings with each other. ‘Instead of prioritising experts, the circles welcome anyone who wants to develop themselves in these areas’, Flora adds.

In Groningen, rebels who are ‘arrestable’ call themselves rabbits. The ‘non-arrestables’ are bunnies

Most people don’t know much more about Extinction Rebellion beyond the inconveniences they often cause by blocking of traffic. But there’s much more to this group than just protesting. The real work starts before they ever take to the streets. And while the rebels are hierarchy-adverse, there is a real structure to the organisation. ‘Eighty percent of what we do is planning, going to meetings, and planning again. Only the rest is real action’, says Flora, who is now a full-time activist.

But not everyone involved is involved full-time. The movement lists five levels of involvement, from passive support to a few paid, full-time positions. And not everyone is willing to be arrested, either. In Groningen, rebels who are ‘arrestable’ call themselves rabbits. The ‘non-arrestables’ are bunnies.

Looking out for each other

Extinction Rebellion meetings have their own unique culture – what rebels call ‘regenerative culture’. Gatherings start and end with participants discussing how they are feeling at that moment. The idea is to prioritise each rebel’s mental wellbeing to prevent burnout. ‘We need to keep our movement sustainable until the government fulfils our demands’, Flora explains. In light of that, rebels are divided into ‘affinity groups’ during their protests and actions that are responsible for looking out for each other. And within those groups, couples form ‘buddies’ who stick together and take care of each other.

At the meetings, rebels use ‘non-violent communication’ or specific hand signals that show agreement or disagreement and set the order of speaking. They don’t interrupt each other and wait patiently for their turn to speak. There is no majority vote – everyone has to agree on a proposed measure. Sometimes, there’s even a minute of silence to grieve the dying planet.

Sometimes, there’s even a minuten of silence at the meeting to grieve the dying planet

The movement also organises training sessions in non-violent, direct action. Such actions differ from traditional civil disobedience insofar as they are strictly peaceful. At a time when farmers are using tractors to knock down the doors of local government, Extinction Rebellion activists continue to insist on peaceful action and reaction, even in the face of arrest.

The rebels try to balance their passion for change with a sense of responsibility. A local die-in at Groningen’s Grote Markt is called off because of the relentless rain. Lilly and several other student rebels leave the Amsterdam protest after a couple days because they have classes to attend. But they are quickly replaced by fellow activists who take their place in the blockade. ‘Together we are unstoppable, together we are rising up’, says Tay, repeating the Extinction Rebellion motto.

Business as usual

Just a few streets away from the Rijksmuseum protest site where the rebels are working so hard to make people care about the climate crises, life goes on as usual. Locals and tourists snap photos with cell phones as they make their way past the blockade to get their take-out or go shopping. While a few people stop to cheer them on, most don’t really seem to care. Others are just frustrated by the fuss and inconvenience. Some people are clearly annoyed when a rebel with a bagged tent bumps into them in all the commotion.

But at the end of the day, Lilly doesn’t think anything matters more than the cause. ‘Blocking traffic is just a small inconvenience. But losing our planet is an irreversible catastrophe.’

Flora and five other ‘arrestables’


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