Extinction Rebellion’s First Big Act of Civil Disobedience in US Shuts Down Rush Hour Traffic in DC

More shut downs planned for October 7 in LA, Chicago, NY, and major cities across the world.

A coalition of 17 climate and social justice groups shut down entry points to downtown Washington, DC yesterday, blockading key thoroughfares and intersections at a dozen points around the city for several hours during the morning rush hour. The event, Shut Down DC, followed Friday’s global Youth Climate Strike in a week dedicated to climate action across the world.

DC Shut Down climate activists with banner
The long-term aim of the protest was to keep public attention focused on the ongoing climate emergency, and keep up the pressure for urgent political action to address it.Photo by Matt Miles.

The immediate aim of the DC mobilization was to bring the nation’s capital to a standstill while Greta Thunberg and other youth climate leaders spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. (Thunberg’s emotionally charged speech at the summit — “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words” — has since gone viral.) The longer-term aim was to keep public attention focused on the ongoing climate emergency, and keep up the pressure for urgent political action to address it.

“We’re going to increase the profile of the climate issue by catapulting our way into the consciousness of people who otherwise would just be going about their daily lives as if the planet wasn’t on fire,” Russell Gray, co-founder of the DC chapter of the international climate action group Extinction Rebellion or XR DC, told Earth Island Journal prior to Monday’s action.

XR DC’s main contribution to the shut down was a pink and yellow sailboat, which was towed in on a trailer and unhitched at the intersection of 16th and K streets at about 7:30 a.m. On each side of the trailer, protesters attached themselves, either with chains and cables or with metal tubes welded to the trailer. The tubes allowed them to lock their arms inside, hindering removal efforts, though a team of police technicians arrived quickly with a portable generator and angle grinders to cut through the tubes.

Aware of the planned disruption, police were present in the area before the blockade was put in place. They cordoned off the blocked intersection and rerouted vehicular traffic away from the area, though pedestrian traffic was unaffected.

A handful of protesters came in costume, which lent an air of pageantry, and the general mood of the morning was energetic but not angry, as many chanted climate action slogans. Some police officers joked with protesters and seemed relaxed in dealing with the blockade, even while working to detach protesters from the boat.

Onlookers’ reactions ranged from open support to mild bemusement, but few seemed openly hostile to those protesting.

protest boat
XR DC’s main contribution to the shut down was a pink and yellow sailboat, which was towed in on a trailer and unhitched at the intersection of 16th and K streets. Photo by Matt Miles.

Dan, a father and data analyst at a local media company, who didn’t give his last name, was impressed. “I think it’s great, I support it,” he said of XR’s efforts. “I question whether it will have much impact, but I’m happy to see it happen.” Matt DiLoretto, another commuter on his way to work, was less impressed. “I don’t think it’ll change much. I don’t know how effective this is,” he said. But DiLoretto admitted that he believed climate change was real and thought the environment should be a top priority.

A common theme among protesters, who included activists from diverse groups like Black Lives Matter, Code Pink, Rising Tide North America, and Friends of the Earth Action, and onlookers alike, perhaps brought to the fore by the youth climate strikes, was a deep concern for the prospects of today’s children and future generations.

Sarah, a 22-year-old XR activist who was one of the first to be dislodged by police from the boat, mentioned her motivation to protest. “I’m terrified of the world we’ve created for my niece and nephew.” She was one of 17 XR protesters to be arrested for gluing themselves to a tunnel in the Capitol building in July, though yesterday she was not arrested.

Many protesters had planned for the possibility of arrest. Some wore bracelets or wrote numbers in permanent marker on their arms to expedite their processing through the legal system. Bob Gardener, of Sterling, Virginia, planned for a potential trip to jail, which wouldn’t have been his first. “In 2011, I was arrested at 350.org sit-ins several times,” he remarked.

By 10 a.m. cops had removed the last of the protesters from the boat and towed it away, choosing to make no arrests. At least 26 arrests were made at other locations during the shut down, though all protesters were released by early afternoon.

While the shut down involved a range of local groups, the tactics of blockading and disrupting were clearly influenced by Extinction Rebellion UK (XR UK), as was the use of the whimsically painted boat to block traffic. XR UK rose to international prominence in April 2019, when protesters caused major disruptions around London for nearly a week. Over 1,000 people involved with XR UK were arrested at the time but the series of actions and protests ultimately led the British government to formally declare a climate emergency, which was one of the group’s key demands.

“A key part of our messaging is that if you’re angry that your commute is being disrupted, don’t be angry at us. We didn’t just choose to come out here to mess with your commute — we’re here because there’s oil companies that are destroying the planet and we don’t have a choice. So direct your anger towards them instead of us,” Gray said. “Even though disrupting people’s lives for one day is not ideal, the disruption we’re going to cause is peanuts compared to the disruption of extreme weather, sea level rise, food system failure — all this scary stuff,” he added.

Like the youth climate strikes, XR is an international movement representing a wide array of people who, in the face of political and social apathy surrounding climate change, have felt morally compelled to act.

“I think there’s something about the way that Extinction Rebellion talks about the climate crisis that…it feels like one of the only groups out there that reflects the scale of the problem,” said Ellen McSweeney, a social worker and core organizer with XR DC, prior to the day’s event. “At a certain point when things are this bad, it’s not about who you vote for, it’s not about petitions — I’m not saying that none of that matters, but it just feels like there has to be a response that reflects how serious the situation is.”

While some involved with XR do have a history of climate activism and have joined forces with or been absorbed by the group, many like McSweeney have only recently dedicated themselves to direct action on the climate emergency. “Because we are in this insane situation, we feel that we don’t have a whole lot of other choices besides starting to put ourselves on the line and put ourselves into the gears of this machine to try to slow it down. Business as usual will send us straight over a cliff. It’s hard to know what a reasonable response would look like to what is a totally insane and very frightening situation, frankly,” she said.

Much of the energy that has catalyzed the growth of groups like Extinction Rebellion and the youth climate movements originated with the string of dire scientific reports and assessments released last year regarding global heating and massive losses of biodiversity.

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in particular, released last October, emphasizes the urgency of global and far-reaching measures to curb greenhouse gases, which are pushing temperatures toward a critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And the IPCC report stressed that emissions cuts must be achieved within the next 12 (now almost 11) years.

locked to ladders in the street
The general mood of the morning was energetic but not angry. Photo by Matt Miles.

Farhana Yamin, a British lawyer and past author of several IPCC reports, last week penned an article in the journal Nature detailing her motivations for joining XR UK and gluing herself to the pavement outside Shell oil’s London office last April, leading to her arrest. Like many others involved with XR, Yamin is an otherwise law-abiding citizen who has realized the necessity of nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to force government and civic engagement with the climate emergency, even if it means breaking the law.

“Having spent three decades failing to get governments to pay attention to the climate crisis through advocacy at the highest levels, I felt that activism was now crucial. I wanted to show how ridiculous it is that a law-abiding (indeed, law-making) mother of four should be handcuffed while the world’s major polluters remain unaccountable for ecocide,” Yamin writes.

Ultimately, XR’s success depends on its members' willingness to put their freedom on the line. And many will if it means their message will be heard, and most importantly, if it will inspire others to act.

“If Washington, DC — the center, the dark heart of the US — gets shut down, then it’s going to send a signal to the globe that people are finally making progress in the one place that people were least expecting it… that we can win if we all get in the streets,” said Gray.

The DC Shut Down was XR’s first major act of mass civil disobedience in the US, but more shut downs have been planned for October 7 in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and in major cities throughout the world.

“I think these actions are going to make a really big splash publicly, and I think we’re probably going to have a big influx of people interested in what we’re doing. And that’s kind of the point of doing things like this, it’s kind of to show yourself to the public as a group that’s ready to act,” McSweeney said.

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