XR Rebels Outside the Museum

Undaunted XR Boston Rallies Against Biodiversity Loss

On Saturday March 18, the 33rd anniversary of the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist, approximately 30 Rebels from Extinction Rebellion Boston (XR Boston) gathered in front of the closed museum to demonstrate against Earth's rapid biodiversity loss at humanity's hands. At 1 pm, a crowd dressed in animal costumes raised a red banner with the words "Declare Climate and Ecological Emergency" emblazoned in white. One Rebel delivered a moving speech, below:

"We are taking action on behalf of all the species endangered by extinction. We are taking action on behalf of humanity -- also threatened by extinction. We are taking action on behalf of women and non-binary individuals. Existing vulnerabilities and injustices are worsened by the climate crisis. We are taking action in solidarity with the people of the global South who are producing the least harm and yet suffer the worst impacts. We are taking action on behalf of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who spent her life protecting not only the art around you, but the animals who share this earth with us.

On this day 33 years ago, 13 works of art were stolen from this museum. It was, by Western European human standards, the single largest property theft in the world. The event is featured in countless news articles, podcasts, and a Netflix series. That heist, which occurred in 81 minutes, has been the subject of wide speculation and aggrandizement. Google it. You can learn every detail. Five empty frames hang in the Dutch gallery to this day.

In 1990, the year of the heist, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Formosan Clouded Leopard, and the Montane Monkey-Faced Bat went extinct, among thousands of other species. They will never be seen again. Scientists estimate that between 55,000 and 73,000 species go extinct every year. Since those 13 art pieces vanished into the night, more than 1 million species of animals and plants are currently on the brink of extinction. Each of them a piece of art created by nature. The loss is staggering. Our planet is a graveyard of empty frames.

When a species is stolen, whatever role they play within an ecosystem is stolen too, whether that's pollinating certain plants, fertilizing forests, or keeping other animal populations in check. The stability of Earth's ecosystems and innumerable species supported by them is stolen from us and from our children. They have taken our beauty. They have taken our friends. They have taken the Pinta Giant Tortoise, the Spix's Macaw, the Western Black Rhino, the Orchids of the Falls, and so many others.

We pursued recovery of 13 paintings. These empty frames are nothing, until we can see the emptiness spreading through our forest, grasslands, and wetlands. In broad daylight, corporate thieves accelerate habitat loss with mining, logging, fossil fuel extraction, agriculture, and real estate development. All of these years, we were distracted from a much bigger heist.​​​​​

1990, the year of this museum's heist, was also the year of the first IPCC report ringing the alarm to the biggest heist in human history. The climate crisis is the largest driver for the 6th mass extinction. There is still time. The thieves haven't made a clean escape yet. We can bring them to justice, but we must act now. We must hold our leadership accountable.

Leaders must declare a climate and ecological emergency. We demand to protect at least 30% of land and ocean by 2030 on a national and on the state level. This global "30x30" target protects areas from drilling, logging, and other types of extraction to protect habitat for species threatened by extinction. You who are listening - You can join local protests against habitat loss. Act now, because it's not too late for the bees, turtles, salamanders, and butterflies. Today, we are the guards on the watch, and we wont let billionaire thieves get away with the biggest heist in Earth's history.

Join us! Join Extinction Rebellion to push back against inaction on the climate and ecological emergency."

After this speech roused the crowd, they marched toward Fenway Park and blocked the street for 20 minutes, while staging a "Die-In" to represent the 1.6 million species who have been lost forever. Women and non-binary Rebels gave short speeches, amid chanting and singing from fellow activists. Many would-be museum visitors engaged in friendly educational conversation with the Rebels. It was a beautiful sunny day, and spirits were high.

You might already know that this was not the day XR Boston had planned.

For months, a planning committee of art-loving women and non-binary individuals had carefully analyzed logistics to carry out a peaceful, non-destructive, visually striking demonstration. They scrutinized maps of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. They planned a "Die-In" in the central courtyard of the museum, to illustrate the dichotomy between our society's obsession with a heist of 13 artworks, and its apathy for the extinction of over 1,600,000 species since the art went missing in 1990. These planners, who are teachers, artists, and professionals in Boston, crafted a safe, non-violent action to ensure the museum wouldn't suffer. Special provisions were made to protect the orchids and other plantings in the courtyard, along with the Roman floor mosaic. There was no risk to the art collection, staff, or visitors. The plan was to stage this Die-In toward the middle of the day, then clean up.

After these months of planning, XR Boston's media team sent a press release under embargo to a list of press contacts. An embargo is a time-honored courtesy between journalists and activists, allowing activists to invite journalists to upcoming events without publishing the story before it occurs. It is the pact by which journalists have been able to report on breaking news. The press release explicitly specified XR Boston's commitment to non-violence and non-destruction. However, on the morning of March 18, CBS published a news story that the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was closing for the heist anniversary, because they had been alerted of XR Boston's plans.

One Rebel planner, Jamie McGonagill, says, "We are protesting apathy to biodiversity loss, as our planet hurtles into the 6th great extinction event, pushed ahead of schedule by human hands. This is the biggest heist in human history, and unlike the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist, we know exactly who the thieves are. Extractive industries like logging, mining, and fossil fuels, plus irresponsible agriculture and real estate development, have stolen these plants and animals from us and from our children. It's disturbing that our embargoed press release was leaked by the media we had chosen to alert. It's troubling that the press has chosen to sabotage non-violent civil disobedience, rather than report on it."

If journalists no longer respect embargoes, they will lose the most crucial stories of our era. More disturbingly, we must discuss why this demonstration is the kind of story that leaks. Why would the press sabotage a non-destructive, clearly newsworthy event, when its execution would make much better news? What would an impartial journalist stand to gain from this, unless they were committed to protecting the interests that the demonstration threatened? If reporters have turned to policing, rather than reporting, can they still be considered reporters? If the press is committed to sabotaging non-violent civil disobedience actions, they are using their power to support status quo more dangerously than acknowledged, and blocking entire avenues of public discourse. They are working to stop citizens from peacefully speaking out against the crises of our era. They are playing for the wrong team.

Humanity is on a very short timeline before all art is threatened or destroyed, forever. Before this loss becomes an issue, we will lose another 1.6 million species, our clean water, and our farmable soil. We waste precious time when we fight each other about methods of crisis communication, about which spaces are "appropriate" to draw attention. XR Boston will continue these conversations, albeit with less trust in the press as collaborators.

Peggy Fogelman, the Norma Jean Calderwood director for the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, said "Isabella Stewart Gardner envisioned her Museum as a place of sharing art, community, and conversation. She was an advocate of all forms of art, as well as the environment, especially horticulture." It's unfortunate that the museum has robbed itself of the opportunity to remain relevant to these ideals. We believe Isabella herself would have held the museum doors open for a team of women and non-binary teachers, clasping hands and humming a song of loss for the plants and animals gone forever. Isabella understood the need for urgent public discourse, and we will continue to invoke her spirit as we fight biodiversity destruction, with or without the press's cooperation.


Extinction Rebellion Boston is an autonomous chapter of the international grassroots movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), which started in London in 2018. The purpose of XR is to tell the truth about how dire the ecological and climate crises are and spark immediate action in order to prevent climate and ecological collapse. We aim to mobilize people around the world to utilize nonviolent direct action to demand that governments take radical action to avert societal collapse caused by widespread climate and ecological disaster and to protect frontline communities, biodiversity, and the natural world. This movement is non-political and unites all of humanity behind a singular goal of a just and livable future for all. Learn more about Extinction Rebellion at: xrboston.org

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