Roadblocks, soup hurling, superglue … Just Stop Oil protests divide activists on direct action

As a month of climate protests ends, environmentalists are split on whether disruption or moderation is best to galvanise change

Not for the first time this month, a protest by climate activists descended into acrimony and the threat of violence today. At midday, close to the Oval cricket ground in south London, a dozen or so Just Stop Oil activists brought weekend traffic to a halt.

Irate motorists dragged protesters aggressively off the road. “Move out the fucking way,” shouted one driver. “[I] swear to God, I’m going to crack some of you in the fucking face.”

That driver is unlikely to join the ranks of climate activism soon. Yet, his anger also feeds into a broader, increasingly vigorous, debate over how many other people have been alienated by the strategy of Just Stop Oil in recent weeks.

As the campaign group concludes its month of direct action on Monday , organisers can reflect on huge global media coverage at the same time as tensions are rising among environmentalists over how extreme their tactics should become in order to grab the public’s attention.

In one camp are those who argue that direct action cannot be radical enough, given the extent and pace of the unfolding climate emergency, exemplified last week with key UN reports warning urgent and collective action is desperately needed to avert catastrophe.

In the other are proponents of a more moderate approach to attract more people to the cause. As disquiet deepens among some activists over the merits of hardline tactics, some members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) have started to gravitate towards some splinter, more moderate outfits.

One of these is MP Watch, a new network of citizens monitoring politicians’ words and actions on the climate. The group is among those worried that the disruptive tactics of Just Stop Oil have made it too easy to demonise environmental activism.

Jessica Townsend, co-founder of MP Watch, says: “The rightwing press has been so effective in trashing non-violent direct action that a moderate approach might be the most effective route forward at this moment. For me, It’s about what works.

“As things stand, there is a large group of the public, who are increasingly concerned about the climate, but feel they have nowhere to go with their worries. If there are moderate, dynamic campaigns for them to join, we are likely to see more people engaged and the possibility of an alliance across all political and social groups.”

However, Just Stop Oil, a more radical offshoot of XR, says the media coverage stemming from high-profile stunts or severe disruption, such as the recent closures of the Dartford crossing in London, confirms a winning strategy.

Most of all, they point to the throwing of tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London on 14 October.

“You throw a couple of tins of soup and suddenly everyone wants to talk to you,” says a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil.

Supporters of Just Stop Oil (JSO) disrupt traffic as they block the road in the junction at Parliament Square in London on 3 October.
Supporters of Just Stop Oil (JSO) disrupt traffic as they block the road in the junction at Parliament Square in London on 3 October. Photograph: Martin Pope/Getty Images

The group say the fallout from the soup stunt was enormous, even making the front page of the New York Times. A Guardian video documenting the soup throwing so far stands at 49.7 million views. “We had people phoning us from just about every single country after that.”

The Just Stop Oil spokesperson said they would not be apologising for upsetting anyone. “People are absolutely right to be angry because we have absolutely ruined people’s days. They have every right to be cross.

“But the question that needs to be asked is: what drives ordinary people – cabbies, teachers, paramedics – to cause that level of disruption? It’s not even about raising awareness now, it’s about demanding action.”

That sentiment is echoed by some of the largest and most established groups belonging to the green lobby.

Greenpeace, founded in 1971 by a group that sailed to Alaska to stop a US nuclear weapons test, firmly believes that disruptive action is the way to go.

Will McCallum, joint executive director of the campaign group, which has a presence in more than 40 countries, says: “We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve blocked roads, blocked infrastructure. These things have been in our toolbox for a long time. My compass for if it’s good or bad is not really set by the public’s reaction. Much more important is that the politicians are listening and is change happening.”

Last Monday, more than 30 Greenpeace activists entered the houses of parliament to protest against energy bills, an action that McCallum says got “good coverage”.

However, he concedes that the organisation was becoming accustomed to negative publicity after direct action from climate activists – even when Greenpeace has had nothing to do with it.

“We’re getting more angry people calling us whether or not it’s us doing the direct action,” he says. “When we blocked planes in Heathrow Airport in 2007, we were facing this exact kind of call out. As long as it’s peaceful, I see this as part of a social movement that’s absolutely desperate for change.”

The strategy for achieving such change is coming under increasing scrutiny. One former senior XR figure says the movement needs to abandon disruptive tactics if it wants to attract the millions of supporters needed to transform policy.

Rupert Read, a former XR spokesman, is attempting to create a more moderate flank that he believes will draw more people to the cause. He rebuts the claims by advocates of radical action that mobilising just 2% of the population would be enough to bring about change.

“This really is a dangerously simplistic view, a view that people reach for in desperation when they realise that they’re getting unpopular. It’s a view that encourages one to think, ‘well, it doesn’t matter if we’re unpopular. We can still win’,” says Read, a professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

He adds: “There is no way to win on this without broad consensus. It’s not possible – you have to take the public with us. It can’t go on for ever: you get more and more unpopular. And if you polarise more and more, your chances of actually winning become less and less.”

He wants a movement where people don’t need to self-identify as activists in order to join.

By contrast, hundreds of Just Stop Oil supporters have been arrested in the past month, an outcome that is seen as part of the risk for those who sign up.

The group’s spokesperson said the fact that so many people were willing to risk arrest underlined the seriousness of the situation.

“It’s not about saving polar bears or penguins any more. It’s about saving us.”


Mark Townsend Home Affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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