Last weekend, I attended my first meeting of the wholly wholesome protest sect Extinction Rebellion. If you’re a government agent reading this, I’d here like to state that they are not, in any way, a terrorist organization, despite the fearsome name. This is a post about what they are instead.
I think I suspected, while dressing (what to wear to a climate activist meeting, I fretted? Answer: literally anything) that it would be me and about six other people. Instead, they kept having to bring in more chairs.
I did not take photos, but if I had, a panorama of the room would have revealed:
- Older women in vibrant attire.
- Earnest couples in their early thirties, all definitely here for the first time, and probably, like me, wondering whether we can justify having kids.
- Some timid young men, heads bent over phones.
- Many people who used they/them pronouns. (“I respond to everything except “it,” said a person in a skirt, charmingly.)
- In the corner: two children curled over a tablet, occasionally yelling in delight.
- At the snack table (nuts, chopped vegetables, hummus, and fruit), what I’d later learn was the art contingent, the people who make all the fancy buttons: two smiling and highly-capable-looking women in their mid-forties, the sort of people who wear cat-eye glasses.
Everyone except the organizers seemed nervous that someone would stop them and question their activist credentials. And no one did, because it was the opposite of that kind of meeting.
In the windowless meeting room, all crunching nuts, we began with a land acknowledgment, as well as a reminder to big talkers to shut up and non-talkers to start talking. Then we went around the room and every person introduced themselves. It did not take forever, because a lot of people seemed surprised to be asked and said only their names, but the ones who talked said things that made me, and everyone, tear up.
“I don’t want to just be alone with the climate disaster,” said a young woman, summing up my feelings succinctly.
“I’m here because I’ve been without hope for so many years that I thought, well, I might start hoping again,” said a wry older woman who, as she’d later reveal, is writing a book about the Black Panthers.
“I’m here because I was watching YouTube and stumbled into the IPCC report and became scared, and then afterwards Extinction Rebellion was next in the queue, and it was the only thing that made me feel better,” said a quiet person named Sunny.
“I’m here because if we don’t figure this out, everything else will be a moot point,” shrugged a man.
As always, in this sort of situation, I took notes in order to quell my oncoming nervousness about next being asked to speak. Then I kept taking notes, compulsively, filling eight or so pages in the notebook my brother Joe gave me for my birthday, and when it was my turn I was surprised, and ended up echoing the man’s point.
I said, “I’m here because I work in the book industry, and I’ve realized what total bullshit that will be if nobody’s around to read because the world’s on fire.”
It’s true. My purposes are selfish. The few people who could hear me laughed, though.
The organizers went on to give us a brief history. Extinction Rebellion (XR) began in the UK only last year, in the spring of 2018. The theory behind it is that people work more easily in small, non-hierarchical groups – XR is designed to splinter, to break into smaller and smaller contingents to get things done. “When the government has failed in its fundamental duty,” said the professorial man quietly, everyone leaning in – he was a great speaker – “which is to keep us safe, that’s when it’s time to rebel.”
XR London, after its founding, worked quickly; enough people flocked to it that in November 2018, they were able to arrange protests that effectively shut down five massive bridges in London. After a winter of activism, this May, the UK’s government – despite Brexit and everything – declared a climate emergency, making it the first country to do so.
Extinction Rebellion’s theory is that if 3.5% of the population mobilizes, that’s enough to force governments to take action. They’re counting on people like the ones in the room (everyone had an air of schoolteacher or grandmother or public servant about them) to create protests that make everyone in a city take notice, and for those protests to snowball. These protests don’t, the organizers explained, necessarily have to take the form of civil disobedience; those who participate won’t all have to get arrested or superglue their hands to government buildings. Instead, what’s required is creative action, and a lot of it.
In a little more than a year, XR has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It’s been combined with other groups – the Ghanaian contingent is linked with the anti-colonialist movement Stop the Maangamizi, and the German group works with Ende Gelande, who are fundamentally anti-coal. I’ve been following them on the Internet for a while, and was wondering when they’d show up here. Now, here they are – in a library in St. Paul, trying to gather more followers.
XR Twin Cities was founded earlier this year, and was, the organizers said wryly, six people who had no history of activism and no clue what they were doing. They shared only anger and friendship. Their first action was a banner drop over a bridge in the frigid winter air. They got some honks, stayed for a few hours, then went home, shrugging. Now, they’re everywhere: at all Open Streets festivals, at the State Capitol with friendly lawmakers, and sending an open letter to MPR demanding climate-responsible reporting.
It is, in short, my kind of movement: it’s very fucking fun, and requires little commitment. In the Twin Cities, it’s possible to become involved at the highest levels – as a member of a working group planning actions – or by simply showing up to events. I have no idea what I’m doing yet, but it’s going to be something.
This Saturday, tomorrow, they’re doing Green Emergency on the Greenway, an after-dark open mic that shares love for endangered species. (Word people, they’re still looking for performers.) Every Tuesday, the fun art ladies hang out at a house in Powderhorn from 1-4pm and do crafts, mostly jewelry and buttons intended to spark curiosity from people who don’t know. “Ask me about my earrings,” said one, leaning in to dangle them more prominently. “Go on, ASK ME.” (If this is something you’re into, message me – I’ve got the address.)
And next month, in North, there will be another meeting much like the one I attended – on Saturday August 17th, from 2-3:30pm, you yourself can come to North Humboldt Ave and feel better.
It has been hard, hearing all this news, existing in the polar vortex, watching the rivers flood, to know what to do. I’m aware, every time I bike to work and cook tofu, that counterbalancing me there’s some dude buying a truck and eating only steak. I’m aware that even biking to work and eating more vegetables isn’t enough. I hang out in the Star Tribune comments section and despair about all the people from the suburbs who are calling our warming earth liberal bullshit.
I think the best thing going to the meeting did for me was to give me hope. It’s like writing: if you don’t have hope that the thing you’re working on is going to turn out, well, it won’t.
This is something that the organizers of XR, a year and a half ago, fundamentally understood – that in order for activism to change minds, it can’t be shrieky or preachy. It’s got to be fun and inviting.
It’s got to be a room with ample snacks and people named Santa Eric Riese (who rocked a dressy skirt, a THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirt, a pair of pigtails, and a magnificent white beard) saying, “Minnesota is so nice, so curious. We protested on roller skates, and for weeks afterward people were stopping me in Uptown, saying, what is this? What were you doing? How can I get involved?”
So I have written this somewhat slapdash blog post – my first in a year – to say that if you too occasionally feel too sad about the planet to keep going, well, there’s something you can do. It’s right here in the Twin Cities, and it’s friendly as shit. And it’s enough to show up, because if enough of us do it, who knows what can happen?