Inside an Extinction Rebellion meeting

I went to my first meeting in late November 2019, when plans for Christmas were being wrapped up, like a last minute present being frantically Sellotaped on Christmas Eve.

I live in Hove, but meeting with a friend who is a regular rebel, I went along to one of the three groups in Brighton.

In this article I’m going to presume that as a human existing for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of Extinction Rebellion (XR). So I’m not going to go in to much detail about the movement, but I’ll add links in case you want to know more.

What you might not know is that XR only started in May 2018. It was founded in a café by 15 friends and has since boomed with millions of rebels united by purpose and a deep concern for our planet.

With thousands of autonomous groups scattered across the world, I was fascinated to know what happens at their meetings.

It’ll be to no-one’s surprise that whilst their values, messages and demands are quite clear, the structures behind it are predictably complicated.

I knew a little about how the meetings worked after hearing Clare Farrell (one of the founders) speak so modestly at the Meaning Conference just a few weeks earlier. But I was interested to know what it was like first hand.

To mitigate one of the obvious problems of having no hierarchy and a room full of inspired rebels keen to have their say, they have a nifty solution.

To give everyone a voice, without hundreds of voices speaking over one another, XR developed a set of simple hand signals…

The XR hand signals

  • One finger pointed up = I want to make a point

  • One finger pointing up on each hand = I want to say something that is a direct response

  • Jazz hands = your level of agreement. Pointing down at the floor means I don’t agree with this, mid-way is kind of seeing their point and way up by your face is like ‘hooray! Someone on my wavelength!’

  • Both palms facing up, and moving up and down = speak up

  • Both palms facing down, and moving up and down = slow down

  • One hand with fingers moving = I’m confused

Structure of the meeting

1. Check-in To open the meeting, we go round the circle, giving our names, whether it’s our first meeting and letting the group know how we’re feeling with a thumbs up, thumbs down, or a thumb pointing somewhere in the middle.

2. Intro to XR for the newbies Whilst the rest of the regulars start their plotting and planning, us newbies are taken to one side and given a quick run down on the movement, which included a brilliantly succinct A5 handout, including the principles and values of XR, their three demands and digital/social links.

There are a lot of links including a Meet Up group and a Google drive with information about upcoming national and international events. Their website is also bursting with information which is well organized.

We also go through the principles of civil disobedience, which to me was the most interesting part of the evening. One of the core founders, Roger Hallam studied Civil Disobedience and this shines through when you look at the thinking behind their marches and rallies. Here’s a three minute video by Roger on the principles of civil disobedience.

3. Discussing upcoming plans

Us newbies are integrated back in to the fold and the group splits again, this time in to smaller specialized groups to continue Christmas planning.

We stay with the larger group who discuss what actions are needed for the 12 Days of Crisis-mas demonstrations and a smaller group go to another room to talk about the digital approach to the action.

Whilst groups are autonomous and with no ‘leader’ per se, there is an obvious tension and a slight power struggle between two of the ladies, which by the end of the two hour evening becomes increasingly palpable.

Despite this, the rebels continue to diligently take notes on agreed actions. Whilst I admit I can be quite the pessimist, I can’t help wonder which - from these wildly ambitious ideas being bounced around the room - will materialize.

4. Kinetic exercise

We get up and move the chairs to one side for a quick exercise, it’s now around 21:30 so it’s a relief to stand up and move around to get the energy levels up again.

The three Brighton groups are gathering opinions on the status of XR in Brighton. We’re given statements such as ‘Brighton should be leading the way for the XR movement’. Moving up and down the room, we position ourselves depending on our level of agreement, with a few of us offering up why we’ve chosen to stand where we are with each statement.

Some statements are quite ambiguous and I don’t feel like everyone quite understands what’s being asked which causes some frustration.

5. Arrest training

This section of the meeting was impressive and was reassuringly delivered by a chap who had some sort of background in the legal sector.

He made it clear that unless there was a certain level of willingness, you were highly unlikely to be arrested at any of XR’s events.

We were given another handout showing the ‘arrestee lifecycle’, the roles of those in the arrest team and all of the training available which took place on other evenings. These include pre-arrest support, knowing your rights, police station support and post arrest liaison.

6. Closing the meeting

We finish by going round the circle again, this time giving one word on how we’re feeling and one thing that we’re grateful for.

I came away feeling quietly excited to meet some kindred spirits, but also exhausted after a long meeting and an overload of information.

I really admire the XR movement for forcing attention on the most pressing issue of our times. But it also conjures an odd mix of emotions – it’s a relief that the safety of our planet is finally being given the concern is deserves, but it is also very frightening. The more information is revealed, the more the stark reality of our situation becomes apparent.

Brighton has three ‘affinity groups’ who plan action to support the XR movement. Head to the XR website, or if you are a Facebook user, search for ‘Extinction Rebellion Brighton’ to find out more.

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