Was the Extinction Rebellion train action a mistake?

On a chilly morning near the end of XR’s October 2019 protest, several groups of XR activists prevented trains from leaving busy London stations. It was a controversial move and in the furore that followed, the activists’ voices were largely drowned out by the chorus of opposition coming from many quarters including XR members and organisers. I spoke to one of the participants to hear her side of the story. 

Ruth Jarman, one of the people involved in the XR train protest last October, says she has doubts about the effectiveness of the action but wouldn’t rule out doing something similar again. 

Ruth, a member of Christian Climate Action, an XR-affiliated group, was one of four activists involved in stopping a train at Shadwell DLR station in East London. 

“There was a Catholic Priest and a Church of England Vicar on top of the train. And then Phil Kingston tried to scale a ladder to get on top but people stopped him so he glued his hands to the side and I sat next to him.”

“There was quite a lot of people quite upset but there wasn’t any violence towards us and in the end I wasn’t arrested,” she says.

“At one point I wanted to get up and leave. I’d never gone into an action so unsure if it was the right thing to do because I knew there was a lot of people in XR who didn’t think it would be helpful to the movement.”

The plan, explains the 54 year-old Oxford chemistry graduate and mother of three, was to strike a blow at London’s financial district by stopping trains heading to the City. 

“We’ve got to tell the truth in a way that’s commensurate with the problem.”

Ruth Jarman, XR protestor

“This is because bank financing for fossil fuels has increased each year since the Paris Agreement and in 2018 Banks spent $654 billion financing the extraction and burning of fossil fuels,” she says, adding that she concedes this message was largely lost.

“The aim was to hit the elite but it was the ordinary people working there (the City) that were affected. That certainly wasn’t intentional to hit those sorts of people. We hadn’t considered the socio-economic make-up of the commuters. I do feel it was the wrong stations,” she says.

What did Ruth make of the criticism that the action affected a mode of transport that XR would like people to use? 

“I understand that but we’re not going to solve this by switching from cars to public transport or using renewable electricity. What we’re dealing with here is the biggest issue humanity has ever faced. Business as usual, just going to work as usual, cannot continue. We have to change everything we do and how we do it,” she says. 

Did the protest achieve anything positive? 

“Our house is on fire.”

Ruth Jarman

“The main thing is to tell the truth about what’s coming and this action did that by giving a glimpse of what happens when ordinary life is disrupted.”

“Our house is on fire. The head of the UN said we had until 2020 to prevent an existential threat. We’ve got to tell the truth in a way that’s commensurate with the problem. That does mean disruption and people getting upset. Writing a letter or visiting your MP..that’s not really saying it’s that serious,” she says. 

And though Ruth is regretful about the impact of her actions on ordinary working people, she stops of short of condemning the tube protest.

“I still don’t know if I’d do it again. XR offices have never had their phones ringing so much as that day. So at the end of the day if more people are more aware of the absolute emergency we’re in then everyone is going to benefit, especially the people who are less privileged because they’re going to be hit first by climate change.”

Ruth strikes a surprisingly cheery note when asked how she was affected by the criticism of the protest.

“When I meet people, the first thing they ask is how I am. It’s beautiful really. I haven’t received a single personal attack, but then I haven’t looked on Facebook, I might have hundreds there.”