From New York to Hong Kong, nonviolent civil disobedience movements grapple with the limitations of authoritative policies. By strategically choosing which street to block, the position from which to drop down a banner; by turning public spaces into theatrical spaces, where splashes of fake blood and symbolic hanging on gallows alludes to how humans are killing themselves; Extinction Rebellion (XR), a global environmental movement, employs nonviolent civil disobedience to sculpt public spaces into heated, urgent calls for climate justice movements.
On Nov. 8, members of Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED), along with Assistant Professor of Political Science Claire Sagan, invited media messenger Steven Gray and activist Alexia Oldini of Extinction Rebellion NYC (XR NYC). They showcased and discussed their six minute compilation documentary of four major XR NYC events. Their films are posted on the internet soon after their protests to raise awareness among environmental activists around the world. One of the XR protests took place outside Times Square and called out the New York Times’ limited coverage of the global climate emergency. An hourglass within a circle, boldly printed on a monolithic green flag, waved through the streets of NYC, disrupting the cacophony of the bustling city in order to demand direct attention on severe climate catastrophes such as Hurricane Dorian.
XR protesters also gathered outside the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The elegant venue for music and dance was interrupted by an intriguing act by the members of the Red Brigade, a street performance troupe created by Doug Francisco, founder of Invisible Circus from the U.K. The performers were fully veiled in red shawls, with contrasting white paint and black eyeliner heightening the melancholy on their faces. Their performance, originating from the U.K., symbolizes unity—from the crimson red of the blood all species share on earth, to the coordinated movements and gestures which enact a sense of symphony. The Red Brigade’s visually captivating performance produces nervousness and panic. A member of XR claimed that the performace’s significance is that “it allows the people who watch it the space to feel the emotional depth of what is happening to our world now” (Twitter, @XR_NYC, 10.03.2019). Other acts of defiance included overtaking a billboard on Brooklyn Express Highway with an “ACT NOW” banner. A demonstration on Wall Street occurred during October Rebellion Week demanding a construction of the Citizen Assembly, where citizens will have a louder say on issues of national importance.
Activist documentaries tend to be unpleasant to watch—but the messages are not meant to be joyous. From jarring juxtapositions of nature and industry to shots of facial expressions warped by rage, Gray’s film is a compilation of essential moments from the four active protests. It combines aesthetics with content to raise awareness and convey messages that demand legislative actions towards the climate emergency.
A montage film of organically constructed civil disobedience suggests our ability to rise up and challenge citizens’ limited abilities to change the status quo of our environment. The film featured protestors resisting the police, demanding legislative action to reach net zero carbon emissions and breaking the boundaries of partisanship to form an apolitical organization inclusive of all members in the environmental movement. Demonstrating their unity, the protestors lied on the ground against each other, collectively refusing to be detained by the cops. Gray’s ideologically packed, eye-catching compilation film cut straight to the chase. Because of the capacities of social media-focused film to garner tens of thousands of views online, visual media has evolved into one of the most effective ways of spreading political messages.
While visual media messages allow activists to unite around common goals, they also add context to debates that would otherwise go unknown. Gray believes an apolitical approach to climate change—an understanding that the issue affects everyone on the planet regardless of party affiliation—should be approached holistically. While online media facilitates powerful images of political scenarios to be discussed and debated, its constant flow of content only provides spaces for quick glances between swipes instead of a dedicated involvement. We sacrifice depth of understanding for accessibility.
Participation often occurs in public spaces. Unlike in online environments, protests in public spaces are much more risky and restrictive. In mid-October, the Metropolitan Police decided to ban all XR movements in London, and cleared all XR London protests on Trafalgar Square. Yet London’s ban sparked backlash against the authority that police exert on the citizens they are meant to protect. Citizens question the police’s inconsistent definition of “peaceful,” as they often arrest nonviolent protesters. The ban heightened the rage and unease in London toward the complacency of the government, as well as the caught citizens’ attention on XR’s environmental goal.
Gray added that it is no easier to come together in NYC, where the NYPD are way more forceful and directly arrested protestors who are just involved in non-violence. This triggers a two pronged question: How can concerned citizens confront the police? And how can they confront them nonviolently so that the movement survives in the long run (The Guardian, “Police ban Extinction Rebellion protests from whole of London,” 2019)?
During his talk, Gray mentioned that if 3.5 percent of the population could come together to participate in civil disobedience, there is a strong possibility of creating radical revolutionary change. Gray thinks that there is hope for our future. Amidst the environmental catastrophe facing all of us, Gray’s film aims to gather the dedicated few necessary to make a large revolutionary change.