We are sorry but we must break the law

A rugged start in Extinction Rebellion deescalation practices

On a rainy Monday in Prague, a group of activists met in a neglected park near a major traffic artery -- Nervous, skittish and just beginning to pump adrenaline, they unfurled their banners in a few practice runs, getting them upside down more often than not.

The people I had trained as a deescalation team, mostly at the last minute in a rushed explanation of psychology--the prefrontal cortex, the door to the panic center of the brain and the principles of active listening--were so dazed that they repeatedly forgot to even go into action at all during the practice runs. About half of the deescalation team had done a few role-plays in my kitchen. That was it.

Rebel for life - Photo by XR Praha

Rebel for life - Photo by XR Praha

A large majority of us were first-time activists, barely having been to a few quiet (and completely legal) political rallies. And here they were preparing to flagrantly break the law.

But we got our signalling system drilled to the point where I was reasonably sure we wouldn't be hit by oncoming traffic and then we went into action.

Unsuspecting drivers whizzed by us while we politely waited at a red light. Then the first signaler called, "Blue team into action!" The small group with me started across the intersection unrolling our large blue banner, which read, "You can't outrun the climate crisis." . A minute later I vaguely heard the call "Green into action!" as the group with the green banner blocked the other axes of the intersection.

My deescalation teams were darting out into the traffic backed up in front of them, offering apologies, cookies and informative fliers along with their hastily trained active-listening and non-violent communication skills. Someone gave a warning shout about a motorcycle and I went for him.

I barely had to think of my calming techniques. My shoulders were relaxed, my hands nonthreatening as I loosely offered him a flyer. He smiled back at me under his visor and I thought things were going fine.

Then a van broke ranks behind him, lurched forward with aggressive honking and swearing. It had become clear that we were there to stay for at least a few minutes--seven minutes according to plan.

I immediately left the motorcycle driver and approached the van, which had stopped but continued to jerk forward in little starts toward our people at the banner. "I can see that you're upset," I said, forcing a little volume into my unwilling voice. "Can I help you?"

I never got the chance to exercise active listening and calm the driver down. By this time, our signal guy was bellowing at the driver with a megaphone and the van was physically pushing a teenage girl and a photographer into the middle of the intersection.

I think I said, "Please stop! This is dangerous!" The driver yelled incoherent curse words. I was torn with indecision for a second and then the chance to act was gone anyway.

Our safety people managed to get the two endangered individuals out of the way and I managed to stop the stream of cars behind the van by the simple expedience of stepping behind its bumper and standing still, thus avoiding a rush that would have seriously put the lives of my deescalation team--back in the traffic with cookies and fliers--at risk.

In the end, the crisis was averted but other drivers were upset because of the scene. One woman got out of her vehicle sobbing that her child was at home and she had to get to him, as if our protest truly heralded an immediate collapse of civilization. Our deescalation team hurried to listen, apologize and explain that we were only there for seven minutes. The tone reduced from panic to sullen angst.

Photo by XR Praha

Photo by XR Praha

Why take these risks, you might well ask, for a moment with a banner?

Of course, it isn't for the banner. Most of the drivers can't even see it. This is one of the basic tactics of Extinction Rebellion, one I was very skeptical about when I first joined. I wanted to protest big polluters and corrupt politicians. But as I read more and came to understand the psychological and socio-political dynamics of the situation I became less reticent.

This blockade, like every other Extinction Rebellion action, is part of a wave of disruption that forces the climate crisis into the forefront of everyone's minds and onto the front pages of every newspaper and the first minutes of every news broadcast. Without this disruption of the lives of ordinary people--without a shit-load of such disruptions--there is no way we will see change fast enough to avoid massive famine and economic collapse.

As just about every literate person on the planet has read by now, the latest IPCC report, which is a very conservative consensus of a lot of different scientific perspectives, gave us twelve years to solve the climate crisis if we wish to have any real hope of avoiding a vast collapse of our civilization and food-production systems.

That's not to say we have twelve years to START working on it. We have twelve years to implement changes in the global industrial economy so vast that there is really nothing to compare them to, though the build up to World War Two and the Marshal Plan combined are often invoked as an example solution. And so far, there is not one government on the planet that is truly taking it seriously.

But there is one that has at least pledged to do so, and that is the British government, where Extinction Rebellion really got started in April. The tactic of massive disruption achieved its first stated goal. The British government was forced to declare a climate emergency.

But more than that, it created an unprecedented storm of media coverage and public concern over climate change. Most of it wasn't even in support of Extinction Rebellion initially. But the more the media looked into it and the more people paid attention and read about the crisis, the more everyone realized how serious the crisis is.

We activists are not in a popularity contest. We are not out in the road risking our lives because we think that will convince someone to agree with us. We are an emergency siren. We are simply a wave of disruption that forced British society to wake up and pay attention and which will do the same in every place we can.

We are sorry. Really I am sorry. I want to apologize to the frightened woman with her child at home and to all the others who were just tired and heading home from work. We do not want to do this. I would apologize if I had to wake you up at night to warn you of a fire in the building, but I'd still do it. We have no choice but to disrupt life as usual and even to break the law. This is an emergency.

Talking to journalists:

A guide for direct action participants

If you are part of a direct action you may be approached by journalists. Whatever the goal of your action, you have some sort of message for the public. Your main target may be the government or a company but your second target is ALWAYS the public. Journalists are a stand-in for the public, whether we like it or not. Therefore, it is very important to know how to get your message across to journalists.

Before your action consider these things:

  1. Do you want all participants to talk to journalists or will you politely redirect journalists to your organizer?

  2. What is the most important goal of your action? What do you want? Make sure you can say it easily in one or two sentences.

  3. What is your message for the public? Remember that when you talk to journalists, you are also talking to average, uninformed people listening to or reading a news report. Some of them will actually want to know your message and support you. Treat them kindly.


When journalists approach you, try to figure out what kind of press they are. There are three types of press:

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

  1. Friendly press: Those who already agree with you or share your values, even if they don’t know who you or your organization is specifically. They will help you if they reasonably can.

  2. Hostile press: Those who have already set their minds against you and your values or which view your organization negatively for political, financial or other reasons. They will use whatever they can against you, including your silence or dismissal. 

  3. Uncommitted press: Those who have not openly taken a side for or against you and which may either be indecisive or trying to appear objective. There are no objective people. We all have sub-conscious assumptions and values. Uncommitted press will usually try to listen to your message, but they owe you nothing and they are often most interested in controversy and shocking details.

How to talk to the different types of press in order to get your message across to the public and to your specific targets through the media:

Friendly press

These journalists may happily publish your message and even specific information like your demands or the date and location of your next public event. It is important to be concise and clear. Keep your details in order and have your main message in written form to give to them. You cannot assume they know when the big action day is, no matter how much you have publicized it.

You don’t need to pander to them, but don’t take them for granted either. If you have time, you can give them interviews and even include some of your personal feelings.

It is better to avoid talking about organizational problems or internal conflicts. Uninformed people are always your audience and if you portray your organization as disorganized, it takes credibility away from your justification for disruptive direct actions. Finally, note that some hostile press might pretend to be friendly press in order to make satirical reports about you.

Hostile press

There are different types of hostile press. They may politically disagree. Their owners or major advertisers may be financially against your goals. They may be frightened and conservative with a lot of false assumptions about you. It is easy to think you should not talk to hostile press at all. However, it is important to remember that if they have come out publicly to talk to you they will probably publish or broadcast something from your action. And ultimately when you speak to them, you are speaking to their audience.\

If you react angrily to a rude and offensive journalist, thousands of people watching the video of your reaction will feel that you are angry at them or disrespect them. So, don’t engage too much with hostile press. They will use just about anything they can against you. Give your two-sentence statement of what you want and then a one sentence message for the public. Repeat it if they ask you for more. Be polite but firm.

Uncommitted press

These journalists may have false assumptions about you, your organization or your cause gained from those who are hostile toward you or simply from information confusion. If they state something incorrectly or show an incorrect assumption, resist the temptation to give a frustrated or irritable response, even if you have heard it many times.

Remember that uncommitted press may know very little about your goals or message. They may jump to false conclusions without meaning to. They will often be looking for what is most shocking and outrageous. You can use that to your advantage at times with creative actions, but it can also hurt you if what they get stuck on is some trash that fell out of your bag.  

Be ready to state what you want clearly in two sentences. Add a one sentence message to the public if you can. Avoid talking about organizational problems or disagreements within your movement. If asked about another faction that is pursuing the same goals as you, it is best to be vaguely supportive and avoid criticizing other groups, beyond stating your clear differences, such as, “We are non-violent. They may have similar goals but because they do not abide by non-violence, they are not part of our movement.”

Uncommitted press thrive on controversy and they will often look for controversy within your movement, which can be very harmful to your outreach and your message to the public. If asked to give personal feelings, you can state your emotions. “I’m sad.” “I’m very worried.” “I’m so angry!” Psychology tells us that if ordinary people hear you state your emotions starting with the word “I” they will be naturally empathetic. It is much more difficult when you have to accuse someone who is doing harm. It is good to start it with “I,” such as “I am angry that….” or “I am sad that our prime minister won’t do anything about this crisis.”

Finally:

Look at the camera, rather than the interviewer when possible. Avoid using words you wouldn’t want a six-year-old you loved hearing. And enunciate, particularly in crowds!