We Have Not Made Ourselves

Posted on October 12, 2019

Boris Johnson called the XR (Extinction Rebellion) rebels “uncooperative crusties” occupying “hemp-smelling bivouacs.” XR rebels retorted that “ridiculous Boris” can “shove his comments up his arse.” Political commentators have called XR rebels “jobless good-for-nothings,” but civilians have encouraged us and hailed us as heroes: “Great how you are doing this! We admire you!” And Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, declared himself an XR ally who is wearing the “uncooperative crusties” badge with pride.

Everyone who has followed the news can see that the XR rebels are a mixed bunch, covering a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Among the arrests are youngsters and students, but also middle aged Buddhist monks, science PhDs turned activists, and retired professors (such as me). We do not smell of hemp and most of us have regular occupations or jobs.

So here we are, us rebels sitting on one side of a banner saying “Rebel for Life - Tell the Truth - Act Now,” arms locked with fellow rebels, and them, the police, standing on the other side of the banner, calmly awaiting orders from the major. This looks like us versus them. No doubt for some of us, the rebels, it feels like that. And for some of them, the police, it must feel like that, too.

At the Museum bridge blockade last Monday, I have experienced the police response to our act of civil disobedience as moderate, restrained and correct. But when I mentioned this on the Facebook XR community page, some rebels responded that my view was skewed because of my white privilege. Well, there may be some truth in this. I have had some bad experiences with the police, but nothing really serious. I have never felt profiled, have never been subjected to humilating body searches, never been unlawfully detained, and these facts may have something to do with the fact that I am a white male of a certain age who looks well-adjusted and has learned to regulate his anger, to some extent at least. And maybe we are all privileged in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, blessed to live in a city and a country where moderation in law enforcement is considered a virtue.

Of course, police profiling exists, and it is wise to bear that in mind in choosing our roles within XR. Dze Aghali is a black woman involved in XR in the UK who was quoted in the Guardian:

“The idea of being arrestable and non-arrestable, people think [these] are problematic terms, but they’re not,” said Aghaji. “For example, I’m personally non-arrestable, and this is a decision that should be made by every individual. I understand that, being a black woman, the police are not going to [treat me the] same as a 40-year-old white woman. So I’m not going to put myself in that position. And within XR you’re not forced to.”

One of the tactical moves of the Amsterdam police was to post their most experienced policemen and policewomen upfront, those who were able to keep their calm and were willing to engage in easygoing conversation. This is something we can learn from, too. We can ease tensions if we put people upfront who have not suffered from traumatizing encounters with the police. Those of us who have reason to believe the police will be antagonistic should leave the friendly chatting to others.

A spokesperson of the police emphasized that they were in a balancing act: “On the one hand, we want to facilitate the right to demonstrate, on the other hand, blocking the street is not allowed and we want to prevent life in the city being stopped for too long.” All in all, the behaviour of the police was as I had expected. Clearly, they did not hate us. They were just doing their jobs, and part of their job was “to prevent life in the city being stopped for too long.” And I also had an impression that the order of the major to end the blockade was executed with only lukewarm enthousiasm. The police seemed in no hurry at all while making their arrests.

I am keenly aware of a tension here. As an XR rebel, I participate in acts that are clearly against the law. Indeed, acting against the law is the whole point of the rebellion. On the other hand, I do not think any society can function without a police force to uphold the law. I happen to be a retired professor, not a police officer. But I do not find it at all difficult to imagine a situation where the roles are reversed, where I am a police officer facing a blockade with a retired professor in it.

Why am I on this side of the fence and are they on the other side? Long, long ago, I have learned an important lesson from my father, who was a mild mannered man, but with a keen sense of duty. When his expectations of others were disappointed, he used to say: “Ach, die mensen hebben zichzelf ook niet gemaakt” (“Those people have not made themselves, have they?”).

We have not made ourselves. We were all shaped by our environment. For some of us, being hurt by police has made us bitter. Some of us have had the good fortune to meet inspiring teachers who have helped us in shaping our lives, others were less fortunate. We are all shaped by the society we live in, and we all carry the flaws of that society in us. As Jonathan Pie made clear in his magnificent rant about XR, we are all hypocrites, but if we are lucky we can decide not to be arseholes.

And if we are not arseholes, it is also because we have been very lucky. If we have found our tribe in XR, it is because we have been very lucky. For it holds for us too that we have not made ourselves. We are not as free as we think we are, in how we think, in how we feel, in how we act. And it is good to bear that in mind, for it will help us to be compassionate with ourselves and with others, including the police.

The police are on the other side, and it may seem that our banners with our values separate them and us, but they are human beings. We are not completely determined by our roles and neither are they. Opening our hearts to our fellows makes clear that we are all brothers and sisters, and that dividing the world in us versus them is unhelpful.

There was discussion in our XR Facebook group about one of our chants: “Police, we love you. We do this for your children.” I did take part in the chanting, and I witnessed how it helped to ease the tension. But I had mixed feelings, for I noticed the same police faces on the first and second day of the rebellion. They must have been on twelve hour shifts. “We do this for your children,” alright, but thanks to us, they only could get home after their children had gone to bed.

Some rebels felt that “we love you” is inappropriate, because of their experience with the police. Indeed, it is hard, for some of us, not the see the police as enemies. Voices of moderation “Policemen and -women are trapped in the system as much as we are and are human beings, just like we are” met the response that “they actively participate in upholding the system,” that “they are a poisoned barrel,” that as a group they are “racist, sexist, classist, homophobic and transphobic.” Such labeling is not helpful, I believe. It ignores the fact that we have not made ourselves, and that it is to some extent an accident that we are the ones who are inside the blockade and they are the ones standing outside.

I feel privileged to live in a country where the police, while not our friends, manage to show restraint in dealing with civil disobedience. Amsterdam major Femke Halsema, when questioned in the Municipal Counsel about how the city was dealing with XR, answered that the police have to uphold the law and that she had “nothing but praise” for the way the police had carried out that task.

We have not made ourselves. But we are here, now. We are present in this crucial period when human life on earth is in danger. We were made for these times. Either our society unravels and collapses or we manage to spread our inclusive message of love and rage to create a new life-sustaining society.