Opinion

The environmental movement cannot alienate the working class or we’ll never tackle the climate crisis

Last week, environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion organised what they refer to as Rebellion Week, a week of action to voice their opposition to the ongoing climate crisis. This has included a number of protests, improv jam sessions and non violent direct action training. A number of supporters camped out in tents in Merrion Square. 

As part of their protests, hundreds gathered on Kildare Street outside government buildings to voice concerns about climate change and the consequences it will have. In response, Gardaí arrived in large numbers and warned those demonstrating to leave the area or face arrest, reportedly even carrying a small number of people from the road (although no arrests were actually made), before allowing the protest to continue. Gardaí then formed a human chain in front of Leinster House allowing vehicles to move along Kildare Street. 

When Gardaí arrived on the scene, protesters met them with a show of affection, singing “Gardaí we love you, we’re doing this for your children too.” One Garda inspector was quoted in The Irish Times praising the protesters, saying “they conducted themselves with great dignity here today, and they were a credit to themselves.”

We’ve seen similar situations abroad, namely in England, where an Extinction Rebellion arrestee went as far as to send flowers to Brixton Police Station thanking them after their arrest. This is the same police station in which a 40-year black British man died and for which five police officers were arrested. Although they were cleared of misconduct, it remains controversial.

What’s the problem with this? There is definitely a popular viewpoint amongst activists that the best way to bring about change is to squeeze as many people as we can into a broad tent in order to exert as much pressure as possible. In this case, that has taken the form of attempting to build common ground with An Garda Síochana, while also claiming to be fighting for ordinary working people, farming communities, in essence; society at large. The former is in direct contradiction to the latter, and as such simply will not work. 

History has shown us that when it boils down to it, Gardaí will not side with those attempting to right a wrong. We can look to the Dublin housing occupations of 2018, the water charges protests and the Shell To Sea campaign as recent evidence of this.

In fact, these attempts to bring them on side serve no purpose other than to alienate those who Extinction Rebellion claim to be fighting in the interests of. Many young people from working class areas, some of whom no doubt would have been considering getting involved in environmental activism, will see this clip on social media and think “nah, singing ‘we love you’ to the Gardaí is not for me.” 

And why wouldn’t they think this? It is far from an uncommon occurrence for young working class people to face harassment at the hands of Gardaí. Being stopped and searched on the streets for seemingly nothing is just an accepted part of growing up in many areas of Dublin.  I spoke at a meeting titled Stop and Search: Know Your Rights organised by Workers’ Party Youth in Palmerstown back in June, where we heard a Garda accused of physically forcing a young person to scan his finger on his phone to unlock it so he could go through its contents. Another young person was recording the arrest of a friend which was occurring in a public space, before a Garda allegedly threatened to confiscate the phone if the teenager did not delete the video. 

I was stopped and searched all throughout my teenage years. One time in particular that comes to mind is when I was with a group of friends sitting on a wall outside one of our houses. Gardaí pulled up and told us that they’d received a call about a group of young lads walking around the estate with hurleys, and that as such they’d be searching us. Despite the fact that we had no hurleys, and that our neighbour who had called them came out of her house to tell Gardaí that it wasn’t us she rang about, they proceeded to search us regardless. After they inevitably found nothing, we were threatened with arrest if we did not all go home immediately.

I could go on and on and I’ve honestly always considered myself fairly lucky in my interactions with Gardaí relative to some of what I’ve heard from others.

It is safe to say that young people in working class areas are often treated poorly by An Garda Síochana. Why should we overlook this fact when Extinction Rebellion seek to express their love and gratitude for that same entity? These young working class people are decent people who would benefit greatly from changing society and should be apart of it, but asking them to get behind an organisation which engages in this feel-good kumbaya carry-on with Gardaí isn’t going to fly.

Climate change is human catastrophe in the making, and this is why it is absolutely vital to get our tactics right in combating it. We fundamentally cannot save the planet without working class action and support. It is capitalism alone that is responsible for this crisis. As few as 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions, a result of capitalism dictating that whatever action is profitable for private interests must be taken. No regard is given to the consequences it may have on society as a whole. While the capitalist class destroy our planet, politicians attempt to place this burden on the rest of us through the likes of increasing the carbon tax. These attempts to blame individuals merely act to take money out of the pockets of working class families. Arguably worse than that, they won’t effectively combat the climate crisis anyway.

Socialists say that those in power, those who make the decision to profit at the expense of the planet, they should bear responsibility for this climate crisis. We want to see them stopped dead in their tracks from causing any more harm. A socialist system simply would not tolerate this abuse of power which solely benefits the capitalist class.

With this in mind, we must acknowledge that just as turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, the rich won’t agree to give up what makes them their profits. If Extinction Rebellion and the wider environmental movement are serious about the slogan “system change, not climate change”, they need to question who their allies are to get this through. Only working class communities have the power, commitment and will to bring about the system change that environmentalists seek. They must not be alienated.

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