On October 14, a small piece of British history was made on the damp and windy streets of London. It centered on a 77-year-old man surrounded by a cluster of police offers in bright yellow jackets. On any other day, Jeffrey Newman would have been one of the anonymous millions of people that travel around the city. Having met Jeffrey myself, I would say that the adjective “kindly” would spring to mind if you got talking to him on the tube or bus.
You certainly wouldn’t have guessed that he would be the first-ever rabbi arrested in the U.K. for civil disobedience. As part of the ever-growing Extinction Rebellion movement, Jeffrey had joined others to a peaceful protest outside the Bank of England in London. U.K. banks continue to fund the exploration of new oil and gas fields that, if developed, would wreak havoc on the climate. If we are to have any chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, then this must stop.
With a white tallit prayer shawl over his shoulders and a white kippah on his head, Jeffrey led a group in prayer. When the police asked him to move, he resisted and instead sat down. He was then arrested. This involved being unceremoniously carried away into a police van. He spent the night in a cell in Brixton police station.
Extinction Rebellion Protests
The Metropolitan Police arrested 1,832 Extinction Rebellion activists over two weeks of London protest. The consequences of getting charged, of being prosecuted and convicted, are potentially life-changing. The fact the so many people are taking this form of peaceful protest demonstrates the strength of conviction operating within Extinction Rebellion.
Extinction Rebellion’s focus on arrest, and using the criminal justice system as a route to increasing the impact of their actions, have made headlines, much of it negative. That was to be expected, given there is still entrenched climate skepticism in some U.K. newspapers. But Extinction Rebellion has also been subject to a range of criticisms from the left. For example, it’s too idealistic and disconnected from the realities of life for people struggling in an austerity-ravaged country of zero-hours contracts and unaffordable housing. It’s too white, too middle class, and too ignorant of the privileges that the majority of humanity is nowhere near enjoying.
"A police ban on Extinction Rebellion protests in London last month was unlawful, High Court judges have ruled."https://t.co/MNPQjSP1jm
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) November 6, 2019
Stepping forward and using your privilege to be arrested does not mean you are deaf to such concerns. In fact, for many people, it is this centrally unjust feature of climate change that motivates them. The warming of 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution is killing people right now. They are far away from London, typically living in developing nations in the southern hemisphere. And they are generally non-white. Climate change is not color blind.
To act on behalf of people less privileged than yourself is noble. However, to act with them is powerful. It is by building a broad coalition of people that Extinction Rebellion will be able to bring about truly transformative change. That must involve listening to the concerns of some people who have less than a cozy relationship with the police, for example. In 2018, black people in England and Wales were 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.
Understandably, some people of color do not necessarily feel included in Extinction Rebellion given that it appears to trade on privileges they do not enjoy.
Extinction Rebellion is in effect an umbrella term for a kaleidoscopic collection of groups and people. Rabbi Newman is a member of Extinction Rebellion Jews. There are Extinction Rebellion Muslims, and groups of other faiths. Over the past two weeks, people from Extinction Rebellion Elders have rubbed shoulders with Extinction Rebellion Youth. There are also hundreds of local groups, which, while concentrated in Europe, are spreading across the world.
The story of how humanity avoids climate and ecological breakdown will be told by all of us. We must all have a role to play. That means the heroes of the climate justice movement will be as diverse as humanity. They will wear pants, hijabs, skirts, turbans, hoodies, and dishdasha. After all, not all heroes wear capes.
And some, as Rabbi Newman demonstrated on October 14, wear white tallit shawls and white kippahs.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.