On May 24, 2022, Extinction Rebellion (XR) staged an action in Rotterdam. About three hundred activists blocked a railway line used for coal transport. In addition, access roads to the Maasvlakte coal-fired power plant were blocked. ‘If the government doesn’t crack down on big polluters, Extinction Rebellion will’, is what the group wrote on its website, referring to the action. The police arrested 175 activists that day.
‘I was shocked to see people chaining themselves to the tracks’, says PhD candidate Amarins Jansma, who is doing research on activist movements at Utrecht University. ‘It was a dangerous action. But of course, it was highly symbolic; they temporarily disrupted the coal supply.’
For her research on Extinction Rebellion, Jansma followed the action at some distance. She only ever goes to the barricades for her work. ‘I have participated in climate marches, but I’ve never been involved in disruptive actions such as gluing or chaining myself to something.’
Last week, Jansma was one of the speakers at the symposium ‘Oproer in de Polder’ held at the Academy Building. The symposium, organised by the Leiden Centre for Dutch Politics and Governance, focuses on the wave of protests washing over the country in recent years.
For her research, Jansma spoke to 106 members of XR. ‘They’re concerned citizens. People always say that about the farmers, but the same can be said for climate activists. They’re incredibly empathetic. They’re not only concerned about their own future and that of their grandchildren; they also worry about the people in the global south.’
Almost everyone who participates in an action first attends a day of training. ‘During these trainings, groups of eight to ten people practice, for example, how to deal with an angry motorist who goes ballistic because your group is blocking a road. The idea is that you engage in conversation with such a person in a very calm manner, and try to find common ground and shared concerns.’ There is quite a lot of social control at the actions. The group also has a well-being person who checks whether everyone is doing all right.’
The actions are often shrouded in secrecy. ‘Although most actions are announced broadly on social media, hardly anyone knows exactly when, where and what is going to happen. Of course, they have to make sure the police don’t find out beforehand. As a researcher, I’m always very welcome. No one minds me tagging along and asking questions.’
XR is a horizontal movement without leaders. ‘You can also organise actions autonomously, as long as you stick to principles such as non-violence. The group is very open, they talk a lot about the consequences their actions might have.'
Activists know all too well when the police are going to intervene. ‘Legally, officers are required to give three warnings that they’re going to remove activists or stop the action; and they usually do.’
The participants are aware that they are breaking the law. ‘In fact, they seek that out, to generate more attention for the climate problem. Some are willing to get arrested, but it’s also perfectly fine to walk away. There is a division between high-risk and low-risk groups.’
Although Jansma does not draw any comparison with the farmers’ protests in her research, she does notice some differences in how the police respond. ‘Sometimes, climate activists are arrested even before they start their action; that doesn’t happen to farmers. If farmers block a highway, the response is milder. According to some people within XR, this constitutes unequal treatment. As to whether there is actual policy in place, I dare not say because I haven’t spoken to the police.’
In her lecture, Jansma primarily talked about climate activism. However, she has also attended protests organised by Kick Out Zwart Piet (KOZP). ‘Actions by this movement involve far less civil disobedience. They don’t block highways or occupy ministries.’
Their protests are peaceful, but the reactions are not. ‘Two years ago, I attended a protest in Venlo as a researcher and had to flee because supporters of Zwarte Piet were hurling fireworks and rocks at KOZP. We packed into a couple of cars and drove off. It was very intense.’
KOZP cannot use XR’s tactics. ‘You can only do that if you feel relatively safe as an activist. Members of KOZP don’t always feel safe enough to be civilly disobedient, like when it comes to relations with the police. When you’ve had to deal with microaggressions and ethnic profiling all your life, you tend to err on the side of caution.’
The contrast with protesting farmers knocking down fences with tractors in The Hague is stark. ‘They seemingly feel comfortable enough to do that. But not everyone is in that position.’
Is it possible that climate protests will intensify? In the past, there have been violent action groups in the Netherlands. For example, the Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action (RaRa), which was mainly directed against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, reportedly blew up the house of junior minister for Justice Aad Kosto in 1991, set fire to Makro branches and destroyed Shell petrol stations.
‘I don’t expect XR to resort to violence’, says Jansma. ‘However, there are individual climate activists who call for eco-sabotage: blowing up pipelines or destroying SUVs. It’s always about material things. There is no talk of visiting the Shell director at his home or anything.’
Under the slogan “in case of climate emergency break glass”, XR activists smashed the windows of a Glasgow bank in April last year. ‘There was a lot of debate about that within the movement. Some members really felt that was unacceptable. The intention is not to damage things. It’s about what actions are effective in bringing about change. XR’s view is that violence is ineffective, because it actually turns people against the movement. That principle is really very important, but of course, break-off movements are always a possibility.’
There is also an increasing number of movements that focus on just one specific part of the climate problem. ‘For example Just Stop Oil or the Tyre Extinguishers that deflate the tyres of SUVs and other big polluting vehicles. I expect to see more and more of these one-issue groups to start operating.’