Extinction Rebellion, a climate-change protest group, targeted three working-class Tube stops near the Canary Wharf financial district in east London this week. In doing so they've given their opponents a massive boost:
The stations targeted by activists—Canning Town, Stratford, and Shadwell—are physically very close to the financial district of Canary Wharf. But they are a world removed from it. These stations serve some of the poorest areas not just in London, but in Western Europe. Most commuters shuffling to the train platforms at 7 a.m. (in a country where professionals usually start work after 9) are not wealthy financiers—they’re lower-income workers scraping a living in a notoriously expensive city. Footage of climate protesters with what British people would instantly read as middle-class accents blocking working-class men and women trying to get to their jobs soon after dawn—where they might be sanctioned for lateness—is terrible image-making. It plays into the hands of people who dismiss environmental activism as a hobby for privileged progressives.
These protests not only missed their intended target—the finance companies of Canary Wharf, which are located on private land with ludicrously tight security controls—they ended up creating a false dichotomy, setting up a conflict between the climate movement and public transit users. The optics of the incident end up wrongly implying that working-class London commuters neither care about, nor are affected by climate change.
As the urgency for climate action grows, Londoners who support Extinction Rebellion’s broader aims can only hope that the group can learn from this experience and adjust their tactics accordingly. The group suggested as much in a statement it released after the incident: “In light of today’s events, Extinction Rebellion will be looking at ways to bring people together rather than create an unnecessary division.”
If that happens, a vital lesson will have been learned. The U.K. capital is a critical player in the global battle for decarbonization. The climate movement needs victories here, and can ill afford to lose the sympathies of its residents.
Nice work, guys. Even absent the class conflict this particular action set up, I would recommend not disrupting public transport, which, you know, helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.