Past / Present / Future / Tense: ACT UP and Extinction Rebellion

11.1 / All the World’s End

Past / Present / Future / Tense: ACT UP and Extinction Rebellion

By Martabel Wasserman December 18, 2019

Rebel for Life / Silence = Death

“The collapse of visions of the future has paved the way for reflecting on a previously forbidden subject: extinction.”
—Franco “Bifo” Berardi1

The group Extinction Rebellion (XR) emerged in 2018, making the discussion of mass extinction—including human extinction—hyper-visible. While portions of XR’s website discuss the loss of biodiversity, their “About Us” section emphasizes rebelling for “our children’s children’s future.”2 “The child” and “the future” are political sites open to meaning-making, but in my recent experience as an organizer, they are most often used to perpetuate a politics that doesn’t challenge underlying systemic issues, such as capitalism’s imperative for growth, militarized borders, and environmental racism. In fact, XR defines itself as “apolitical.”3 In my work within a coalition of twelve climate justice groups organizing for a week of global climate strikes from September 20–27, 2019—inspired by Greta Thunberg and #FridaysForFuture—the use of these monolithic, highly contested terms caused tension.

Within my working group, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), we often found ourselves critical of the protest strategies used by groups like XR, particularly around the aesthetics of mourning (the child’s future). In order to understand these tensions, I am bringing discussions had with comrades over beer onto the page. The work of ACT UP often came up as a useful comparison to help pinpoint our critique of XR’s (a)political strategies. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) formed in 1987, defining itself as a “diverse non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” While the focus of ACT UP is distinct from current climate organizing, addressing a series of interconnected issues that revealed profound systemic fissures.4 The scale of climate change similarly requires rethinking society from the ground up. I do not want to nostalgically idealize ACT UP. But the frequency of this comparison among many doing climate justice organizing speaks to its ability to tease out political issues. Doing a comparative analysis of rhetorical, aesthetic, and performative protest tactics creates a space for necessary political discussions about praxis in the current moment.

ESP. Extinction symbol, 2011. Courtesy of the Artist.

XR’s logo—a graphic representation of an hourglass—is meant to communicate that the time to act is running out. As my comrade T.J. Demos writes, “By situating emergency in the near-future, and by narrowly defining it as carbon-caused, it’s as if the disaster hasn’t already occurred—in past invasions, slaveries, genocides, all perpetuated in ongoing land grabs, displacements, and extractivism, as the traditions of the oppressed have ceaselessly shown. Indeed, Indigenous activists remind us that they are already ‘post-apocalyptic.’”5 The hourglass perpetuates the idea that the climate crisis is in the future, not historical and ongoing. This temporality is inflected throughout the XR protest imagery and performance. 

As a counter example, ACT UP’s logo, the graphic pink triangle designed by Avram Finkelstein and the Silence=Death Project, reflects a different relationship to history. The upward pink triangle in the original poster is a reversal of the triangle used to identify gays by the Third Reich. By flipping the triangle, ACT UP not only reclaimed a symbol of otherness for one of political power, but also linked together histories of state-sanctioned violence. As well, the slogan Silence=Death conveys an extreme urgency because it makes the stakes explicit.

Silence=Death Project. SILENCE=DEATH, 1987; offset lithography poster. Courtesy of Silence=Death Project.

XR’s hourglass could be resignified in a way that doesn’t erase the history or present state of climate violence. As Greta Thunberg stated, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”6 Could we instead mobilize around the idea that the time of unlimited extraction and capitalist expansion is running out? If we read the hourglass this way, the climate crisis is in the present and its culprits become more clearly identified.

Subject: Get Your Die-in ON! 


I click on the link to a Facebook event for an XR Action in San Jose with a graphic that reads: “IT’S YOUR FUNERAL.” The text, “It's your funeral (if the earth goes, so do we),” hovers above a coffin with the XR hourglass logo on it. In the background, skulls alternate direction in a decorative banded pattern. “Get Your Die-in ON!” echoes in the tenor of many of the discussions about die-ins I heard during coalition meetings. The exuberant and joyful aspects of protest are vital, but what affect does this call imply?

Author Unknown. Protest poster, 2019.

The XR poster evokes another historical example from ACT UP, a call for the collective scattering of ashes in Washington, DC. In ACT UP’s poster, an urn between two faces creates an impossible distance between them. It is as if the faces are leaning in, to kiss. The poster calls for participants in what is known as the Ashes Action. Its text reads, “You have spoken out in anger, joined political protests, carried fake coffins and mock tombstones, and splattered red paint to represent someone’s HIV-positive blood, perhaps your own.” What is emphasized is being bound together emotionally in “grief and rage and love.” You may have splattered blood in solidarity with those living with the virus, you may have splattered blood because you have the virus. Deborah Gould (another local comrade) writes, “ACT UP’s message was clear: the way to grieve the endless deaths was with confrontational activism that angrily forces the reality of AIDS death into public view.”7 The action’s use of intermingled ashes—actual bodily remains—creates a powerful sense of connection and collective loss.

ACT UP. Washington, DC, October 11, 1992 Politlcal Funeral Demo Poster, 1992; offset lithography poster. Courtesy of ACT UP.

The Ashes Action was part of what Sarah Schulman, author of the forthcoming Let the Record Show: ACT UP and The Enduring Experience of AIDS, calls “a narrative arc from die-ins to public funerals over the course of about six years.”8 In a phone interview she recounted, “At the beginning of ACT UP, they did die-ins. In fact, the first major action that was at the FDA in 1988 was when the people used tombstones. People who were positive and assumed that they would die, lay on the ground and held up tombstones.”9 In a recent Facebook post, Schulman wrote, “I gave a talk at a university about AIDS political funerals. The faculty had much they wanted to say: remembering parents, partners, and friends who died of AIDS, telling stories about working on projects or having fun with people who died of AIDS. But the students? ‘Were those real bodies?’ was the first question. ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘those bodies were real.’”

Neither the bodies nor demands of ACT UP were abstracted. What about our contemporary political discourse would lead students to think the bodies were fake?

The idea of pre-performing what felt like one’s own immediate death—or doing so in solidarity with those bodies that were dying all around in their communities—is different than how XR is performing the death of “the future” in the middle of the city with the goal of the government declaring a climate emergency. Demos describes the vagueness of  XR’s demand for climate emergency as “an unstable discourse, potentially only reaffirming the ruling order—an emergency without emergence, one blocking the rise of radical difference—where the ‘beyond political’ framing opens a door to the financial cooptation of green capital.”10 The die-ins and political funerals organized by ACT UP directly challenged specific institutions: the Food and Drug Administration, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and the White House. If and when XR successfully gets the government to declare a climate emergency, what will a response “beyond politics” be able to achieve?

Thomas McGovern. Manhattan, July 22, 1993, 1993; photograph. [AIDS activist James Baggett and friends carry the coffin of fellow activist Jon Greenberg through the streets of New York City during a political funeral. Greenberg died from AIDS on July 12, 1993.] Courtesy of the Artist.

In recent XR protests, empty caskets are carried that read: “Our Future” and “Our Children’s Future.” Protestors are mobilizing their positionality as concerned parents with performances such as a parade of mothers mourning what is to come. Climate chaos will undeniably be inherited by future generations, and the energy behind these protests is inspiring and necessary. However, the mourning of the future and a tendency to privilege ideas of “the youth” obscures histories and present climate violence, and limits how we can imagine the future.11

In Lee Edelman’s 2004 polemic No Future, he “interrogate[s] the politics that informs the pervasive trope of the child as figure for the universal value attributed to political futurity.”12 Edelman’s critique allows us to understand the ways in which current protest strategies exclude precarious political subjects, such as climate refugees detained at borders right now, that are elided by a focus on the idealized (white, affluent, heteronormative) child and their imagined future. In the United Kingdom, XR recently staged a breast- and bottle-feed-in to protest climate change. Signs comparing the earth to lactating breasts read, “Don’t suck us dry.” The mother and child are mobilized as the ideal political subject, seemingly speaking only from a place of concern for the nuclear family.

Neil Rudd. Santa Cruz Climate March, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.

In local organizing leading up to the September climate strikes, “the youth” (an imagined, pre-political, and monolithic category) were often evoked by adults in response to explicit anti-capitalist organizing. The coalition collectively struggled with the question of whether we were a youth-led movement. One openly anti-capitalist high schooler was consistently ignored and overshadowed by adults speaking on behalf of an imagined youth. “Kids don’t have bank accounts,” someone said, when we were discussing why we should strike in front of Wells Fargo. In the climate coalition, “the youth” were evoked by adults in an attempt to stop us from confronting one of the largest investors in fossil fuel and pipeline expansion. A parade of mourning mothers from XR did ultimately end up kicking off our climate march in front of Wells Fargo, and XR has since been very specific in their targeting of big banks. However, it became clear that “the youth” were being conjured in response to anti-capitalist actions because, in this imagining, “the youth”—like the breastfeeding mother—are not directly confrontational, but rather concerned about unattributed climate chaos which has not yet touched them. But climate chaos is here now. 

Capitalism = Death


In the short period of writing this, climate casualties accumulate around me and grief distracts me from my attempts at formal analysis and theoretical intervention. Sorting through conceptual problems in the present feels like navigating a constantly shifting terrain where the death toll keeps rising. As we face the “new normal” of blackouts caused by the criminal negligence of PG&E in Northern California, it was reported that Robert Mardis Sr., aged 67, died twelve minutes after the power was cut to his home and oxygen machine. While the autopsy proved it was unrelated, there is a link that needs to be made here: there is an undeniable inequity at the intersection of the loss of electricity and ensuing health, economic, and safety issues. Many will continue to be impacted due to infrastructure that is poorly maintained in order to maximize profit.

I recently encountered a sick and scared looking baby seal at my local beach. I contacted the Marine Mammal Rescue Center who brought him to their center to be rehabilitated. They informed me that he was a Northern Fur Seal, and many like him are found stranded on shores in locations out of their usual habitat range as it becomes harder and harder to find fish due to warming waters. He was named Dolan and I become obsessed with following his journey to recovery. On a writing break, I clicked on a current patient link to see how he is doing. No Dolan. I held my breath and clicked the released and deceased page. Dolan was just euthanized. 

After I post about Dolan’s passing on social media (where I was sharing his story), another eco-socialist comrade responds by sharing more tragic news: a woman named Desieire Quintero was struck to death by a tree knocked down by the wind while camping in the forest. She was pushed into the forest after police disbanded the Ross Camp, a self-organized homeless community. My comrade Vicki commented that she was, like Dolan, “another victim of displacement.” While it may seem to some like a stretch to link these deaths, their interconnectedness is clear.

Ry Farola. Santa Cruz Climate Strike Poster, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.

Silicon Valley’s grasp on Santa Cruz makes the cost of living impossibly high for many to survive, tangibly damages the air quality with increased development and traffic, and creates tremendous carbon footprints from data storage while supporting militarized borders and surveillance technology that prevents safe and just migration. Jo Issacson, a regular part of the mutual aid effort at the Ross Camp, wrote in her review of Jordan Peele’s Us, “Santa Cruz is not a counterintuitive place to find horror; it is the logical epicenter of global capitalism’s emergent neocolonialist forms.”13 Desieire is a victim of this entanglement, too. 

What would it mean to bring coffins with these names to local sites of power: City Hall, PG&E, Amazon, and Google offices? 

In his 1989 essay Mourning and Militancy, Douglas Crimp wrote, “Public mourning rituals may of course have their own political force, but they nevertheless often seem, from an activist perspective, indulgent, sentimental, and defeatist.”14 Crimp was responding to an activist culture within ACT UP that was limiting the space for public mourning and dismissing mourning as  apolitical. Crimp responded with a clear articulation of why we must let ourselves mourn, but rather than let the mourning stagnate into a state of melancholy, how we must mobilize it into political activism. By facilitating grief groups and performances of mourning, XR does make public space for grief and the overwhelming sense of loss caused by climate change, but it is necessary to decenter the future of an imagined, ideal nuclear family, and address the realities of climate violence and its most vulnerable subjects. In DSA’s present anti-capitalist organizing we are struggling to do the same as ACT UP once did. Our challenge is to mourn while we reinvigorate aesthetic traditions with a radical political vision for the future.

Notes

  1. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Game Over" e-Flux Journal #100, May 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/100/268601/game-over/.
  2. “About Us,” Extinction Rebellion (blog), accessed November 2, 2019, https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/about-us/.
  3. “Our Demands,” Extinction Rebellion (blog), accessed November 15, 2019, https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/demands/.
  4. As David Halprin wrote, ACT UP necessarily had to take on “issues of race, gender, poverty, incarceration, intravenous drug use, prostitution, sex phobia, media representation, health care reform, immigration, law, medical research and the power and accountability of ‘experts’.” David M. Halprin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  5. T.J. Demos, “Climate Control: From Emergency to Emergence” e-Flux Journal #104, November 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/104/299286/climate-control-from-emergency-to-emergence/.
  6. Greta Thunberg to World Leaders: “How Dare You? You Have Stolen My Dreams and My Childhood,” accessed November 1, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMrtLsQbaok.
  7. Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  8. Sarah Schulman, telephone conversation with author, October 24, 2019.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Demos, "Climate Control."
  11. Recent die-ins led by the artist Nan Goldin targeting the Sackler Family as perpetrators of the opioid crisis is another example of holding specific parties responsible for ongoing loss.
  12. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004).
  13. Johanna Isaccson, “Beach Blanket Barbarism | Johanna Isaacson,” Commune (blog), June 7, 2019, https://communemag.com/beach-blanket-barbarism/.
  14. Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002).

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