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!

An antidote to environmental depression

All I had to go on was a vague and anonymous Facebook notification. I followed my Maps app to the address but got lost when some of the Renaissance-era buildings weren’t numbered. A young Vietnamese immigrant with a child on her hip set me straight.

Finally, there was a sheet of paper taped to the mail box of a building in a narrow Prague street. A large Dagaz rune (which Ralph Blum called Breakthrough) tipped sideways was printed on the paper and repeated on one of the doorbells. It’s supposed to be a stylized hourglass, but my first impression was of the rune and a surprising good omen.

I rang, but there was no answer.

I gently pushed and the heavy wooden door creaked open. Inside was a dim hallway, like so many in the ancient city. A decorative railing ran around a spiral stairway and light filtered down from sunbeams coming through windows somewhere far overhead.

I passed a young man with long hair to the middle of his back, but then hesitated, glancing back at him. Prague is the kind of place where one might find new friends in a dimly lit stairwell.

“Are you with us?” he asked softly in Czech, addressing me in the informal grammar reserved for close family and friends..

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

“Probably.” I grinned, “if you’re the meeting.”

“Go right up,” he nodded and the welcome in his voice was again almost shocking to my battered nerves, accustomed to the acrimony and judgement so rampant in today’s society.

The sunlit room upstairs was filled with more of the same, open hands reaching to bring me into the circle, smiles and enthusiastic voices. I had come prepared for cynicism, long arguments, social cliques, power trips, poorly hidden political agendas and all the other problems that have plagued activism circles for decades. This friendly reception was already more than I’d hoped for, but would it turn out to be just a shiny package for the same old dead ends?

I took a seat and watched as the meeting unfolded. Someone took the lead but then quickly passed the speaking role to another. Everyone was introduced in 10 minutes. The agenda was on a board with precise times that were kept without strain. Plans and methods were explained with professional clarity as well as with heart. We broke into groups to discuss specific projects.

I have rarely seen an activist meeting run so well, reaching goal after goal with no sense of rush.

Activism? Who has time for that nonsense these days, you might well ask.

The focus of this group is no mystery—taking real, practical action to force government agencies and industry to behave responsibly on the climate crisis. It was nothing short of our survival at stake and for once the activist proposals were not merely about leaflets or poetry slams or rallies. The work on the table was practical resistance to destruction.

Instead of being frustrated by a long, acrimonious meeting and incremental pace as I had in countless community organizations before, I had to question whether or not I was ready to jump into this swift flowing stream.

This was my first Extinction Rebellion meeting—out on the expanding fringe of the movement in Eastern Europe. And I had to hand it to them. Excellent organization. Solid tactics. Laser-focused goals. And the flexibility to learn in a new country.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

I have been struggling with deep environmental depression for years now. And a lot of that really is environmental—as in ecological. I grow my garden, hoard rain water, ride the train, recycle, try to speak up and all that. But it is clearly ineffective. For the past few years, I have looked for organizations to join off and on, but they were either inaccessible, just plain lazy or more serious about their donor’s goals than the real work at hand.

Keeping hope had become a chore. And a lot of serious environmentalists today have a lot of unpleasant things to say about hope.

So, is Extinction Rebellion just a bunch of well-organized naive idealists?

I might have thought so from just the one meeting. But deeper research reveals a strong foundation in realism and practicality. The movement is spread through local talks or lectures that summarize the status of climate science, describe the mounting effects of climate change and then outline the demands and strategy of the Rebellion. It’s a surprisingly anti-inflammatory, technical lecture to spread a revolution.

But even with level-headed words the scientific conclusions are pretty depressing. At the end of the talk, an opinion is given about whether or not we can still avert the worst effects of climate change even if we can generate the “political will.” The scientific jury seems to still be out on that. But there are plenty of reasons to believe we might not be able to stop a climate catastrophe that will seriously endanger our way of life and civilization no matter what we do today.

In the context of a motivational talk, this isn’t a logical way to convince masses of people. We are told that political and industrial leaders are ignoring the crisis and our best hope is to force them to pay attention and act through non-violent civil resistance. Yet we don’t even know whether or not it is already too late for them to avert disaster before they’ve even meaningfully started.

Still it’s real and honest.

Why do anything if the cause may well be hopeless? The Extinction Rebellion response is a question, “What does it mean to be human today?”

For me, it is about the quality of whatever life we have left. I have a choice. I can either live in a fog of depression and anxiety or I can do what needs to be done because it needs doing. Taking steps in the right direction is the only way out of depression I know of.

If that isn’t exactly a rousing pep talk, then so be it. Maybe the Rebellion is already rubbing off on me.

To my newfound co-conspirators in rebellion, I’ll give you some fair warning. I’m socially awkward, even a dork. I don’t do modern fashions. I can’t recognize faces and I can’t run as fast as I used to. I sometimes speak before I think and my daily life is pretty rugged at the moment.

But I have been in this kind of struggle before. I know about walking miles to distribute fliers and about herding cats. I know about long nights and the times when a lot of work goes for naught. I’m worth having around. I pack a good herbal first-aid kit and I’ve usually got food if you’re batteries are running low.

I have also always wanted to end my conversations and posts this way:

Love and courage! .

How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.