Climate activists says 'shock' protests need to evolve to get people of colour involved

·4-min read

It's the year of the landmark COP26 climate conference and a big year for environmental activism.

Recent lockdowns may have brought a halt to many street protests in the UK, but this has not stopped discussion among activist groups about how to get more people involved - particularly with how to make climate action more racially inclusive.

For several years now we've seen Extinction Rebellion (XR) grab headlines and focus much-needed attention on the climate emergency. Their success, however, is often due to the disruptive nature of their protests, leading to arrests.

As we've seen regularly with XR, detention at a protest means running the risk of getting a criminal record and a fine - a punishment that has drawn criticism and led some to suggest is the result of demonstrating being something of a "white middle class activity".

Venerable Dr Rosemarie Mallett, the Archdeacon of Croydon, has established herself as a leading figure on climate change within the Church of England, and notes the varying impact of an arrest on the life of a white person compared to someone who is black.

"Many black people understand that if they are arrested, it's going to have a tremendous impact on their lives and perhaps their employment, and so many other ways in which they and their family live," Dr Mallett told Sky News.

"I think a lot of people just will not take part. They see it as a white middle class activity."

As a result, Dr Mallett has questioned whether the climate movement has reached a crossroads. She says change often doesn't come via revolution, but via evolution.

She added: "I think there's a need for an evolution away from the kind of sharp, shocking protest. I think we've done it.

"And I think with any group it needs to evolve and think about its tactics in how it wants to change the debate."

The combination of white privilege and protesting is not an issue that has been lost on those who have taken part in XR rallies.

One protester, Lucy Craig, who was arrested for a breach of the Public Order Act in London in April 2019, said she believes that if she had been young and black, the process wouldn't have been "nearly as easy".

The 73-year-old was eventually given a £400 penalty, but candidly told Sky News she would be prepared to pay more. In her own words, she said a high figure would be "breaking the bank".

Asked if she thought being a middle class white woman had helped her chances, Ms Craig replied: "Absolutely."

She said: "I felt a sense of responsibility as an older person without a job to worry about, with a pension coming in every month. So I had very little to lose."

Supporting XR is not Ms Craig's first foray into activism, having proudly revealed how she once tore down a fence at Greenham Common, the former RAF base in Berkshire that saw high-profile protests in the 80s and 90s over the storage of nuclear weapons.

She added her belief that activism was "certainly" fuelled by white privilege, "like everything else, everything is fuelled by white privilege".

Meanwhile, Anjali Raman-Middleton, a teenage climate activist from Lewisham, south-east London, told Sky News she thought it was harder for people of colour to get their voices heard.

In August last year, the 17-year-old set up pollution advocacy group Choked Up along with three other students after the death of classmate Ella Kissi-Debrah.

The two girls had gone to primary school together - but Ella, who lived by the busy South Circular Road, died as a result of air pollution in 2013.

Speaking about Choked Up, Anjali said she founded the group to try to bring awareness to the fact that people of colour are disproportionately affected by air pollution.

She said: "I had seen the effect that pollution has had on my community and other communities in this area, particularly communities of colour.

"And I thought that it was wrong that the government was ignoring this issue and ignoring our lives."

Anjali says she has taken part in multiple climate strikes and marches but believes environmental activism in the UK is a very white activity.

She added: "I would say that it is more difficult to be a climate activist if you are a person of colour.

"And I think a lot of this is about the way that environmental issues are framed by the movement. And that they're often framed through a very white middle class perspective."

According to Dr Mallett, XR protests are not something she wants to participate in, but acknowledges the need to "shake the establishment up". She says she prefers writing letters and trying to make a difference within her community.

"It doesn't have to be those kind of big-ticket events. I think that black people, particularly around church communities, are very much more reserved, cautious, but definitely willing to make the changes necessary within their lives and their communities."

Anjali, however, says lockdown has forced the climate change movement to look more into how it can diversify.

She said: "There's an important role for people of colour to play within the environment movement and their voices are valuable and they must be heard."