What Does It Mean To Rebel?

What does it mean to rebel?

If you're familiar with Extinction Rebellion's tactics, then the concept of nonviolent direct action, or NVDA for short, is probably not new to you. By now you’ve heard of the classic examples of nonviolent direct action being deployed by social movements to advocate for change, from women’s suffrage to the U.S. Civil Rights movement to the anti-war protests in response to the Vietnam and Iraq wars, among others.

Regardless of how familiar you are with historic or present-day examples, the most important thing you may not know about NVDA is that the possibilities of direct action are almost limitless – and absolutely everyone can, and in the face of climate emergency must, participate.

What is NVDA?

In our society, discussions about nonviolent direct action are often limited to the most extreme examples – activists handcuffing themselves to infrastructure, or to one another, and refusing to move until dragged away. Images in media show individuals putting themselves at risk of harm from angry crowds or violent police to make a stand, or protest marches that end with water cannons and tear gas. These brave and admirable acts of civil disobedience are crucial moments of change – and they are certainly inspiring examples of rebellion. However, they represent just a few kinds of nonviolent direct action – they are just the tip of the iceberg, one piece of the puzzle.

These examples paint a picture of nonviolent direct action that may feel inaccessible to many. Admirable, sure, but not something that seems within the scope of possibility for those who have multi-faceted lives to attend to, demanding jobs, and loved ones to care for - even if one did have the desire and bravery to pursue these kinds of actions. However, nonviolent direct action is not only accessible to absolutely everyone, it is a necessity. While voting is important, and lobbying can be a useful tactic, without mass NVDA, government inaction and corporate greed lead us with ever-gathering speed toward climate disaster.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we tell you why it matters, it’s important to know that NVDA is a big umbrella. Under that umbrella are peaceful demonstrations (some might even feel more like a celebration), joyful acts of almost theater-like disruption, sit-ins or die-ins in public places that call attention of passers-by, the longest continuously running stand-out in the state (XR Boston’s State House Stand-out), and so many other forms of action that feature art, acting, stoicism, and courage. These are just a few examples – there are as many forms of NVDA as you can invent, and all are impactful. More importantly, each action is a step toward a much larger goal that we can only get to together.

NVDA & XR’s Theory of Change

Nonviolent direct action is the daily tactic – the bread and butter – of a social change movement like Extinction Rebellion. But our overarching goal is to spark a mass movement – a rebellion of the masses – against a political system that is not only not moving toward climate solutions quickly enough but is actively in denial about the urgency of the crisis we face and the speed with which we must act. Inaction, or failure to act with the necessary speed, is climate denial.

Social science and history tell us that when enough people stand up to protest a wrong, to say “no more” to active harms, those in power are forced to respond to the need for change. While there are varying theories, and some debate, about what percentage of the population is required to engage in a social movement in order for the demands of that movement to be met, most research agrees that an active minority can impel major systemic change. Some research puts it at just 3.5%.

Pew research reveals that the majority of the American population favors taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050 (if only that were soon enough!), and nearly a third favor phasing out fossil fuels entirely. A majority also believe that state elected officials are doing too little to reduce climate change effects.

If even a small percentage of those who hold these beliefs engage in nonviolent direct action, we will see much stronger movement on the climate issue. That’s why we at XR call on you to join in our mass NVDA movement.

It doesn’t take much to get started – you just need to show up. Start with XR Boston's Earth Day 2024 celebration! On April 22, join your fellow rebels for a joyful celebration and send a message to our Massachusetts government by taking to the streets to demand they act now.

This is the first in a series of articles about a core tenet of Extinction Rebellion Boston’s theory of change: nonviolent direct action. In the coming weeks and months, look for a further exploration of what it means to engage in NVDA, an exploration of different forms of NVDA (including civil disobedience), why it is necessary and for most of us doable, and to hear from rebels who have been arrested in the name of climate action.

Related Stories:

Upcoming Events: