At the weekend, a group of young climate activists sat in the street in locations across Newcastle. They belong to a growing global movement of people partaking in non violent disruptive action. In Newcastle, their protest was met with hostility by members of the public. We speak to two people present at the protest about why they did it, and what they have to say to people in Newcastle.
On my way to meet Jon and Alex I’m given a flyer in the street. On one side it says “We’re F***ed” and on the backside it gives details of an upcoming talk. The flyer comes from a group called ‘Just Stop Oil’, whose website describes them as a, “coalition of groups working together to ensure the government commits to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production”. Funnily enough, it is this group that Alex and Jon acted on behalf of when they sat in the streets of Newcastle last weekend.
Sitting on oil tankers
Saturday was not the first time Jon and Alex have got involved with Just Stop Oil, but usually they focus their efforts directly on the oil industry, not the public. “I’ve been involved in the campaign Just Stop Oil did in April, in which we blocked oil tankers, we sat in front of oil refineries and made them unable to do their operations”, Jon explains. Alex is no different: “In April I also sat on top of oil tankers, more recently I’ve been sitting on top of oil pipelines for 39 hours, 15 metres above the ground.”
For Alex, Just Stop Oil was his introduction into climate activism:
“I went to a talk in March, which was about how urgent the situation really was and how social activism does work.” Previously, Alex had believed in a career in science. “I tried to focus my career on what I thought would help the most with climate change, like hydrogen production”, he explains, “I’d never done anything to do with activism before”. Hearing the talk changed Alex’s world view – “I realised science wasn’t enough. Two weeks later I ran in front of a moving oil tanker and sat down for 14 hours waiting to be arrested”.
Protesters blocking roads
The image of high-vis-clad protesters sitting in the road has been a prominent one in recent months. A group called ‘Insulate Britain” made headlines last year for this style of protest. The public did not react positively to these protests and videos went viral of a man squirting ink onto an elderly protester’s face.
The Just Stop Oil ‘swarm’ in Newcastle began on the road next to the Newcastle campus. A car driving past gave them a thumbs up, then in contrast, someone snatched their signs from them. The group moved to a road outside Central station. Here, they began receiving more verbal and physical abuse from the public. This time, a motorist left their car, and began physically handling the group. “Seeing your friends get dragged out of the road is really tough”, admits Alex.
“It’s the media!” Jon says immediately when I ask him why the public directs so much anger towards climate protestors. He laughs, “well, partially. If you look at the majority of the coverage of Just Stop Oil, we tend to be covered in the greatest depth by those who hate us the most”.
It’s hard to dispute Jon’s analysis. A Google search finds a recent Daily Mail article referring to Just Stop Oil as an “eco-mob” who “taunt police”. Another chooses to call them “eco zealots”, and criticises the money they have cost local police. “I think a hostility has been whipped up against us”, continues Jon, “from the media, from the police and from our government”.
The path to activism
Jon’s attitude towards the negative media coverage of climate activism may stem from his extensive experience as an activist. He started his journey as a Greenpeace speaker, talking to children about the climate crisis, but soon realised he would rather challenge those who had the immediate power to change it.
Jons own climate awakening occurred during his childhood:
“I’ve always been worried about this, since I was a kid”, he tells me. He talks about visiting The Crystal as a child, a building in London that promotes sustainable living. However, this both awakened Jon to the climate crisis and showed him the failures in dealing with it. “I was walking around it, seeing we are going to be running out of water, our cities are planned so badly we’re just polluting the air all the time, and thinking, as a child, that this is the future that people have given me. But, growing up, politically, I realised that The Crystal itself is a greenwashing operation for the company that made it. I realised that basically any of these corporate efforts are just adding to the problem rather than reducing it. From there, where do you go but activism?”
A global movement
For activists across the world, the media and the public’s disapproval has not disheartened them. At the start of June, a young French protestor tied herself to the net at the French Open with the message “We have 1028 days left” on her t-shirt. More recently, two Canadian protestors tied themselves to the goal posts at a football game in Vancouver. This time, on their bodies they had written “1022 days left”.
Both these actions echo those of Just Stop Oil protestor Louis at the Everton vs Newcastle United game in March. They also mirror the actions of protests throughout history. The disruption of a sporting match recalls infamous images of suffragette Emily Davidson throwing herself under race horses at the Epsom Derby in June 1913. In the hundred years since, the harsh public response to new forms of direct action reminds us of the hateful response the suffragettes received.
Alex and Jon are not just climate activists. Anyone sitting in the coffee shop we’ve met in would see two normal looking young men talking to me. Jon reads and writes plays in his free time, and this year one is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Alex enjoys performing magic and watching movies. It is inspiring that alongside their lives, passions and studies they have chosen to spend hours just sitting, to try and bring awareness of an issue they believe in.
Alex and Jon are also aware that everyone they disrupt is another human with lives and passions of their own:
“It’s incredibly difficult, emotionally, to come to terms with the fact that you may not have a future”, says Jon, “it’s even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that if you’re not doing anything about it, you’re potentially contributing to the problem. I don’t blame anybody for trying to shy away from that fact, and to try and just get on with their lives, which already are being made considerably harder by the government”.
“People have a pretty difficult time as is. I do think some of the hostility just comes from the fact that people’s lives are already difficult enough, and they don’t want us to bring extra disruption in.” Jon also focuses on the hope, and how much it can mean for people to get involved:
“The hope comes in when people still make the effort, despite how difficult their life is, to connect the dots and think, their life is difficult as a result of these political pressures. And they either join the movements or stand up against the government and these awful businesses in their own ways. The hope is in people recognising they have more to lose in this situation by supporting it than they do by going against it.”
An introduction to direct action
Alex admits, “This was supposed to be a decent introduction for people into what direct action was like, we didn’t think people would get too angry because we were only there for five minutes”. Disrupting the lives of citizens is often controversial, but in Alex’s opinion it is sometimes necessary. “Normally we take the fight to the fossil fuel companies directly. This one, as much as we really hate doing it, was disrupting ordinary people. Sadly, that’s the only way that you really get noticed.”
“We did not expect the reaction to be what it was”, says Alex. “I think it’s the most intense action I’ve been a part of.” Members of the public began by taking the group’s banners and shouting at them. This escalated to attempting to physically move them off the road. However, the group returned as soon as they could to sit back down. Jon describes the result of this clash, “they were holding us down on the pavement”, so that the group couldn’t return to the road.
Finding common ground
Alex, whose role on Saturday was ‘de-escalation’, found it hard to engage in discussion with the hostile members of the public, who were more focused on physically removing those in the street. Had he got the chance, Alex would have told them, “Five minutes of disruption to raise awareness that we could run out of food in ten to 15 years? That’s a small sacrifice to pay”.
Jon reiterates the common ground that those who dragged the protestors might not realise they have with the people they’re confronting:
“We’re fighting on their behalf, whether or not they agree with the methods that we’re using. Ultimately, every single person’s future is affected by the fossil fuel industry. We’d like to think that there is a way of making sure that the people who feel hostile towards us could at least understand where we’re coming from and that we do have shared interests and shared values.”
It might seem like such a hostile, physical response would put the first timers off future activism. That is far from the truth. “It did shake them up quite badly”, says Alex, “but every single one of them said they would do it again. That’s incredibly empowering, and it makes me proud to know all of them”.
Alex and Jon believe the responses to the swarm taught the activists valuable lessons. “The hostility of the reaction, and the unjustified violence against us, has basically just strengthened everybody’s resolve”, says Jon.
Alex points out the solidarity the group felt from some members of the public:
“There was a really lovely woman who came into the middle of it, next to this drunk guy, and put herself in the way so he wouldn’t carry off this young girl. There were some people who came up afterwards to say thank you, and ask if we were okay. There were some people who picked up the pickets that were torn out of our hands and gave them back to us. It was really lovely.”
Finally, I ask what they’d say to anyone who wants to get involved, but feels apprehensive hearing about the hostility they face:
“The climate crisis is overwhelming”, starts Alex, “but in order to tackle this problem we have to tackle many systemic issues. We are not just fighting to reduce emissions, we are fighting for another world. We are fighting for a world I think we should all be proud to live in. We are fighting for something more beautiful, and if that’s not something that’s worth putting your money, your body, your time on the line for, what is?”