This is a guest post reprinted from an XR Forum:
This post asserts it’s time for XR to significantly diversify its tactics to the ends of broadest possible success. A non-exhaustive list, covered here is Tactical Theatre, Advanced Trolling and Electronic Disobedience.
Before going into the tactics themselves, there are a great many reasons why XR, in Year 2 of its explosive spread over this troubled planet, needs to tactically diversify, bringing in new forms of engagement alongside those already in use. A few of what I think are the important ones are noted here:
1. Arrest means different things for different people
The modus operandi of “getting arrested” simply doesn’t export very well outside of privileged countries: telling a Venezuelan woman in Maracay to go out and get herself arrested might have very different and life-changing consequences compared to that of a British woman in Sheffield, UK. Similarly, a Moroccan rebel and migrant living in Toulouse might have a very different experience of jail and law itself than that of a French born white-skinned man living in the same region, and may also naturally be very wary to avoid risking deportation. Arrest being a risk only the privileged can so often take, with the comfort of fair treatment on their side, we can dissuade many rebels from joining us when we insist that getting arrested is our primary tactic. We need to offer other forms of intense engagement, alongside the existing.
The risks of positioning arrest as the core tactic has been covered in many articles, recently in this interesting piece by Nafeez Ahmed.
Others have argued that XR’s strategy means black and ethnic minorities facing mass brutalisation from law enforcement will be inevitably marginalised by a movement whose principal focus is ‘disruption’ actions premised on getting arrested; thus erasing minorities and indigenous people from the movement. That raises questions about the capacity of such a movement to reach and enfranchise wide grassroots support in a capital city that is very diverse.
2. If our goal is to get arrested, we lose when we’re not
When huge numbers of rebels turned up to block the historic Place du Châtelet, in the centre of Paris during the October rebellion, locked on and ready for a heavy-handed Police, they were met with a very different outcome: the Police simply refused to arrest anyone. The Police, it appears, had studied XR, learned of its goals, and so refused to play along with the plan, leaving a couple of days into the occupation.
In a sense while the press picked up on it, it was a gentle sort of defeat from the perspective of mass arrestation, as the occupation - while festive and bouyant - was left to its own devices. Next, in the general absence of Police, Far Right groups turned up and started to make trouble, putting pressure on rebels to consider moving out of fear and fear of being seen associated with them (thanks to @andromeda for the clarification). And all the while, as some public grew increasingly annoyed by the occupation, rebels did their best to be good to drivers and shop owners alike. The government did not engage. Incidentally, this precise same tactic was employed against the Occupy movement.
This was a rationale why the branch went on to perform far more directed interventions during ‘Block Friday’, blocking malls (one of which for 7hrs!) and shops, one borrowed from a larger and bold occupation on Oct 4 over ~14hrs in a huge shopping mall.
3. Real pressure comes from all directions
While excellent and generally productive, glue-ons and road-blocks represent one ‘vector’ of pressure: a frustration of process or passage, disruption of a site of business, a denial of service (to borrow a term from information security). They do have a weakness however: they are predictable and are something that can prepared for by the state. Police forces can be tasked with de-gluing and de-blocking response teams, that simply need to be deployed when XR is out on the streets. As Police get better at dealing with it, less stress is applied to the system; it becomes habitual, predictable, and loses some of its impact.
Real pressure comes from all sides. For statecraft and corporations to feel real pressure, they should not ever be ready for what we do next. We ought to surprise them, catch them off guard, baffle them, have them always running, trying to catch up, and all while trying to guess our next NVDA. We want them scratching their heads as we surround them, not at home in the war room preparing for our next rebellion.
4. The press will get bored if we only pull the same tricks
When XR first hit the scene, it was radical. “I can’t believe they’re blocking all those bridges!”, one heard. “They’ve shut down the city centre!”. While huge achievements unto themselves, their significance when repeated as strategies will only over time, and quite naturally, fall away. Once is a strong statement, twice a re-assertion. If we simply follow the same recipes, driving the same tactical proposition, we will never have the press on-edge, we will lose their interest slowly but surely. We will become the group that glues themselves to things, does die-ins and blocks public roads.
We need to continue to do these things, and yet more. Much more. We need to be imaginative and continually diverse.
First proposition: Tactical Theatre, Advanced Trolling, Deep Mischief
Several groups, notably the Yes Men (US) and Peng (DE) have for many years engaged in forms of culture jamming and troll culture, with tremendous and wide ranging success. This form of activism can manifest in many different ways, among them:
- Brand hijacking
- Fake news
An example, copied verbatim from the very excellent page on the Yes Men.
Example: Yes Men Trolling ExxonMobil
On June 14, 2007, the Yes Men acted during Canada’s largest oil conference in Calgary, Alberta, posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) representatives. In front of more than 300 oilmen, the NPC was expected to deliver the long-awaited conclusions of a study commissioned by U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. The NPC is headed by former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, who is also the chair of the study. When the Yes Men arrived at the conference they said that Lee Raymond (the promised speaker) was unable to make it due to a pressing situation with the president. The Yes Men then went on to give a presentation in place of Lee Raymond.
In the actual speech, the “NPC rep” announced that current U.S. and Canadian energy policies (notably the massive, carbon-intensive processing of Alberta’s oil sands, and the development of liquid coal are increasing the chances of huge global calamities. But he reassured the audience that in the worst-case scenario, the oil industry could “keep fuel flowing” by transforming the billions of people who would die into oil.
This, like so many other Yes Men actions, was adored by the press and public alike and was shared enormously. Public did not feel targeted by the action, rather a sort of precision against the industry itself.
XR has an opportunity here, I feel, to study and learn from such seasoned masters of the Prank, and employ a Tactical Theatre. Actors and actresses, this is your calling!
Peng has had similarly great successes to that of Yes Men, with great feats of impersonation resulting in tremendous public spectacles that press have latched onto, en masse. But I thought that I would mention here a particularly excellent ‘exploit’/action that didn’t involve one of their tactical theatre interventions, rather simply using email, letters and fax machines.
Example: Peng and The Great Gun Recall
In a bold intervention against the global arms trade, Peng successfully caused a mass disruption to the business of one of the world’s largest gun manufacturers, one that profited largely from the Syrian conflict.
In 2017 200 U.S. vendors of guns made by Heckler & Koch, received letters from someone named Martin Obermann, with the official-seeming letterhead of Heckler & Koch’s Head of Transatlantic Sales.
Recipients were notified that, as of May 1, the international arms giant had “ceased the supply of firearms to the domestic market in the United States of America” and had begun “voluntary recalling all firearms from the sporting and commercial markets in the USA.”
The letter stated:
Owing to the rise of firearm-related deaths in your country in conjunction with the threat of ongoing civil unrest and a highly volatile foreign policy under the administration of President Donald Trump, the German headquarters [of Heckler & Koch] no longer deem the USA a safe destination country for weapons export.
The result was guns pulled off the shelf all over the country, costing the company vast amounts of money in sales. This is an excellent example, I think, of an action with mass effect with a low deployment budget. Coal mining and petrochem equipment manufacturers, and soy livestock feed exporters (Amazon basin, primarily exporting to EU and China) surely could be targeted in pranks engaging distribution networks.
As regards jurisdictional costs, it would be plausible that XR, being decentralised, could not be held accountable legally, as no one particular branch would need claim the action as their own. Nonetheless, some legal food for thought.
Second Proposition: Electronic Disobedience
A long standing interest and engagement of mine over the years has been Electronic Civil Disobedience. This area takes many forms, each with considerable differences in legal implications, all of which need to be keenly studied beforehand. I’m not encouraging or advocating their specific application here, merely noting them.
The problematic ‘better get a lawyer’ examples
Website defacement, hacking
As a lawyer once noted to me, defacing the website of a brand in most Western states will earn you as many or more years in jail as violent crime, saying “you are better to walk into one of their outlets, pour petrol over everything, slap a member of staff and steal product on the way out before setting it alight”. In almost every case, traditional hacking like this will be considered far more serious form of ‘breaking and entering’. For this reason it is considered a problematic tactic and in need of much discussion and legal counsel before engagement.
Let it be said that my views on this form of engagement differ from many in that I do not think it is property damage, especially given the defacement can be so readily removed, much like water-based paint on the side of a building.
This involves broadcasting FM or AM radio on the same band/frequency as popular/known/commercial radio, over many city blocks at once and with a signal more powerful than that of the source broadcaster (from the perspective of the receiving radio), such that your signal is heard over that of the original. Once can mix in fake talk back shows about the ecological and climate emergencies, ads about over-consumption, official-sounding jingles with an Extinction focus, remixes/overdubs of pop songs etc with messages about Extinction Rebellion and the emergency at large.
This can certainly land you with hefty fines and years in jail, but is relatively easy to pull off and difficult to trace to a source when done at short intervals. The most compact version involves getting a quality omni-directional antenna, a powerful amplifier, motorcycle battery and voltage down-converter, a TX capable software-defined radio (SDR, like the BladeRF, LimeSDR or USRP), a frequency down-converter, a laptop and some pre-recorded audio. You merely need access to a roof and to be ‘between’ the broadcaster source and a busy intersection or densely populated part of town.
A typical over broadcast would be 10 minutes rather than an hour long session, from a friendly rooftop location in good weather, hitting all the taxis, buses and work-places with radio playback within reach of the fake radio tower/station.
I will not describe this approach in more detail here, for good reason! If you want to go down this road, study the law in your area and know that if you are caught you can go into jail for a long time.
Mobile (GSM) Network Spoofing
This is an area I have spent much time engaging in, at one point coming very close to being arrested by German Federal Police, facing EUR25k fine and 5 years in jail. It involves deploying sub EUR1k radio equipment to appear as a valid cell tower (GSM base station), which phones then unwittingly connect to. You can then call those phones by the hundreds in a mass cascade, or SMS them all at practically the exact same time (resulting in a huge cacopheny), optionally giving the appearance of an official message from the mobile phone provider, police or from, say, a local government office. Much can be done here, with astonishment and mass effect the result.
The equipment list is also a SDR (USRP, BladeRF, with a quality clock etc), YateBTS (software), a GNU/Linux computer, a very good dipole or directional antennae with amp (ideally), and well placed in a location with generally poor connection to local cellular infrastructure. An area where LTE doesn’t work, and downgrades to 3G, is ideal also.
I will also not detail this approach in more detail here, for similarly good reasons If you want to go down this road, study the law in your area and know that if you are caught you can go into jail for a long time.
Example unit, complete with completely illegal GSM jammer, BeagleBone, USRP and 23k mAh battery
The non-problematic, low-barrier and immediately useful examples
Rather than going super high tech, build a Social Engineering campaign around readily available infrastructure building up a completely fake/spoof representation of company, political party or corporation that is not committing to remedy the emergency. Register fake Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIN accounts months in advance of the campaign launch, buy fake followers if you need to, conscript fellow rebels among your networks, etc to ensure they appear to have a history.
Make posts throughout those months, such that it looks legitimate and be crafty about it, while avoiding any reference to the real company or organisation (to avoid detection and triggering account take-downs). All the while work on a site using a domain you’ve registered that looks like it may come from the source, and then, when the time is right, mass distribute awareness of it!
- A politician vying for election that has been stubborn with introducing pro-environment policies, denying the science, announcing they have given into the wealth of evidence and in a radical change of heart now vow they will do their best for future generations of all life, introducing policies to be effected immediately on election
- A company with a terrible track record in ecocide vowing to dedicate its billions in profits to reparations of communities harmed, and funding vast rewilding initiatives
- An EU Energy Commission that has back-tracked on its prior commitments to the Paris Accord announcing bold new austerity measures
WiFi ‘spoofing’, captive portals
A simple router with modified firmware can be used with a battery in a backpack with the SSID Starbucks or COP26 Public such that it acts as a ‘captive portal’ pointing to a page that looks like Google, or Facebook, or some popular news site but with information about the emergency at hand. It can even be routed to https://rebellion.global for direct onboarding using a 4G uplink. It can also be done with a Raspberry PI and hidden in a coat. This works really well and is hard to catch, unless of course your bag is searched. Penalities are minimal in most Western jurisdictions.
Disco-bedience, I omitted to add, is a great example of such diversification at work.
Do you have any other examples of how XR might further diversify its tactics in 2020?