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George Floyd and the Unheard

By Austen Lethbridge-Scarl

(Chase Bank at Pioneer Courthouse Square is set ablaze on Friday night. Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)


Why is Extinction Rebellion writing about George Floyd? Because the fate of the world depends on it.


XR is considered to be a relatively radical environmental group, but we are committed to nonviolent civil disobedience. We are determined to be as obnoxious as possible to make the powerful own up to their own intentions and responsibilities. Our intention is to be as difficult to ignore as possible. But most of the time, much like our more conventional compatriots, we are ignored.


Consider that an extremely expensive gamble.


The nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement was not, as we think of it today, a code of honor. It was explicitly a tactic. The purpose of nonviolent resistance was to force the world to witness the brutality of Jim Crow and monstrous behavior required to enforce it. The tactic was wildly successful, but in its success, it was warped in public memory from being the way the Civil Rights Movement got things done to being the only respectable way to get things done.


But the world has adapted. Nonviolence can still be very effective (as it was with the Zenith 5 trial) but it only works if the world actually takes notice. Just as often, it seems it doesn’t. Much of the time, when prominent voices ask activists to use nonviolent tactics, it’s actually a request to go away, to not interfere with daily life, to make it easier for them to ignore us. That’s not okay for us, but it's not actually okay for them either.


I think we’re all much too familiar by now with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The official strategy with riots always seems to be to try to break up the protests and let everything blow over. Things can go back to normal. Nothing needs to change. Except nothing ever truly blows over. Every time a police officer is acquitted for the murder of an unarmed black person, the anger grows. Like any other language, no two riots ever need to be same.


The wasteland surrounding the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct is not simply a response to the death of George Floyd. It’s a response to every black citizen who dies at the hands of police, to the enduring systemic racism that has led to COVID-19’s victims being overwhelmingly people of color, and to the constant, endless indifference from our political elites, even those who rely on people of color to maintain their power.


It’s the growing despair that our courts are hopelessly corrupt and will always consider the police to be above the law. It’s the deepening cynicism that any condolence or platitude you hear on television is hollow garbage, written to make other people’s lives easier until you fade from public consciousness.


It’s deciding that the only justice in this world is that which you create yourself.

(To be fair, if they didn't want the store to get messed up, they could have named it literally anything else. Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)


When the world is determined not to care, nonviolence accomplishes nothing. Voting becomes a joke. The ways things are supposed to be done don’t work, because they aren’t supposed to. And when the proper channels don’t work, you do something else.


“Something else” could mean looting and razing an entire police station. “Something else” could means leftist and black liberation groups beginning to arm themselves and chant that if police shoot, they’ll shoot back. “Something else” could mean driving your car into a destroyed Target and doing donuts until you ramp over the flattened sliding doors and out into the night.


So, again, why is Extinction Rebellion writing about George Floyd?


We have ten years to stop climate change. Despite overwhelming public support for aggressive action, nothing is happening. We are being ignored.


Extinction Rebellion is committed to nonviolence and we will not abandon it, because that’s not who we are. But what the world doesn’t understand is that we are ultimately a compromise. We practice aggressive nonviolence, forcing a state reaction, but we’re still staying inside the system. We push boundaries but never break them.


But please realize that we might fail. XR has found real success across the globe, including right here in Portland, but those in power, the people actually driving us to extinction, are still so well insulated that it’s entirely possible that our strategies simply aren’t fast enough or powerful enough to break through.


When nonviolence fails, violence follows. In Minneapolis, you can plausibly argue that the rioters are morally in the right while still doing something morally wrong. That won’t be true for climate change. The stakes are so high that almost any action, no matter how awful, will be morally superior to allowing ultimate failure.


XR, 350, Sunrise, none of us are this planet’s last line of defense. If the world is hellbent on ignoring us, if nonviolence truly proves itself useless, we will be replaced. Someone else will step up, with a different playbook, and they will not be ignored, no matter the terrible cost.


Stay strong, everyone.


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