Four years ago, when Extinction Rebellion started blocking London’s roads in a call for climate action, they brought a DIY carnival atmosphere that transformed their protests into festivals of resistance.
On Thursday morning, when climate activists staged road blocks close to Waterloo, just south of the Thames, they were about two dozen grim-faced campaigners, wearing sensible clothes and hi-vis vests, and enduring abuse from passersby as they tried to superglue their hands to wet asphalt.
They blocked three entrances to St George’s Circus roundabout, one of south London’s busiest junctions. Within minutes, the scene was awash with flashing blue lights, dozens of police, and traffic backing up in all directions.
Just Stop Oil, XR’s latest successor movement, has vowed to block central London roads every day this October. Friday was their 14th consecutive day, and they stepped up tactics once again, with two young women throwing paint over Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting in the National Gallery, a polarising action that left many aghast. Another action involved spraying the revolving sign at New Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan police headquarters.
Their demand is simple: that the government agree to a moratorium on all new oil and gas projects, in line with a recommendation by the International Energy Agency.
With the government having announced a new round of licensing only last week, their prospects of success seem bleak, but activists remained committed. “The burning of fossil fuels is killing people right now,” Kat, a children’s mental health nurse said as she sat blocking St George’s Circus.
“It’s fuelling the cost of living crisis, and it’s driving temperatures higher and higher. So I will not stand by and watch this government commit crimes against humanity by continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry. That is morally wrong.
“So I’m sitting here peacefully and non-violently in the road, and our demand is: no new oil and gas.”
Just Stop Oil burst on to the activist scene in April, with an audacious plan to block the distribution of fossil fuels in the south of England with coordinated blockades of the terminals from which they are distributed.
In what they described as a strategic shift from the civil disobedience of XR to a new model of “civil resistance”, from 1 April Just Stop Oil’s supporters took action at up to 10 fuel distribution facilities a day, staging road blocks, committing mass trespasses, digging and occupying tunnels, and clambering aboard tankers.
Within days, local newspapers reported queues and shortages at petrol stations across parts of the Midlands, Kent and Cambridgeshire, and as far afield as Wales. Analysis of official fuel distribution data by the Guardian showed deliveries were down by a fifth across the country. The drop-off was even more precipitous in regions served by terminals targeted by protesters, with deliveries down 43% in the West Midlands, 44% in London and 48% in the east of England.
Just Stop Oil has not come from nowhere. Roger Hallam, the social movement strategist behind XR and Insulate Britain, is also understood to be influential in Just Stop Oil. Many key activists from those previous radical environmental campaigns also appear in Just Stop Oil’s circles. Animal Rebellion, the vegan XR offshoot, lent activists and expertise from their blockades at dairy distributors.
But where XR, and particularly Insulate Britain, relied on a hardcore cadre of older activists, who were prepared to be arrested multiple times, Just Stop Oil was planned as a youth-led campaign. Hallam was reported to be touring universities talking to young people about the climate crisis, and signing them up.
Alex De Koning, from Newcastle, took a break from his PhD in green hydrogen after someone shoved a Just Stop Oil flyer into his hands. “It said: find out what the youth are doing about climate change,” he told the Guardian.
“So I went along. And what I found was really shocking. It was heartbreaking [to learn] how urgent the situation was. But more importantly, how little the government are doing about it, in fact, how much the government are doing to actively make the problem worse for profit. And it changed my life.”
Within a few weeks, De Koning, who had never been to a protest before, found himself running in front of a moving oil tanker, and sitting down for 14 hours glued to a friend blockading a terminal. “It was terrifying,” he said.
But after two-and-half weeks of sustained action at oil terminals, the strain began to show. Oil companies and local councils obtained injunctions banning protests at terminals, allowing police to take action more quickly. In less than a fortnight, the group’s supporters had been arrested nearly 1,000 times.
A few days later Just Stop Oil announced it would be pausing actions. Within a week, they returned to protests at oil terminals, but police were more prepared and were able to contain the disruption. As activists began appearing in court in large numbers, the campaign entered a new phase. Activists took part in targeted actions against art galleries and sports events, while others took part in civil resistance in the courts.
From the beginning, Just Stop Oil has also enjoyed substantial funding. As well as ongoing crowdfunding, Dale Vince, the millionaire founder of green energy company Ecotricity, said he gave them £10,000. Vast amounts more came from the US: the Climate Emergency Fund, a philanthropic fund set up by Aileen Getty, gave them “hundreds of thousands”, its director told the Guardian.
This combination of funding and activist commitment has allowed Just Stop Oil to build up a sophisticated activism operation, with the money to feed, house and transport activists. The organisation has a strategy team, who craft the overall campaign. A mobilisation constantly at work trying to enlist new recruits. Legal teams help activists navigate the legal process once their prosecutions begin, and even help to raise money to pay fines. At the very immediate level, volunteers mobilise to meet activists as they are released from police stations.
“So when people come outside from being arrested, there’s always someone there with a hug, a cup of tea, which is really important,” said De Koning. “So we do try and make sure that everybody is supportive, as much as can be.”
The infrastructure is necessary to support activists through what can be difficult experiences with the prison system. So far, after an estimated 1,600 arrests of supporters, 79 people have been to jail, including on remand, for actions taken with Just Stop Oil. Seven are currently in prison.
As the summer wore on, Just Stop Oil toned down its actions, instead staging smaller, headline-grabbing protests at locations like the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and at art galleries up and down the country. Meanwhile talks began for a return to the streets in October, but in coalition with a wider range of groups, including Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project.
“The idea of the summer was to mobilise and recruit as many people as possible for October so they could do this sustained activism for as long as possible. And also to give some people rest after the very intense April actions,” De Koning said.
The agenda has also evolved. An end to new oil and gas projects remains the key demand, but activists were now calling for subsidised public transport, new taxes on big polluters and basic energy for all.
“There are so many other issues to this, which are all interconnected,” said De Koning. “And especially when we’re dealing with the cost of living crisis that we’re dealing right now is so important to have these demands, which help with both the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis.”
Oscar Berglund, a political scientist at the University of Bristol, who studies social movements, said Just Stop Oil were more explicitly political than previous radical environmental protest groups. Partly that is because “they see a conflict”, he said.
“They see an enemy in the fossil fuel industry, not just the fossil fuel industry, but primarily that.” Just Stop Oil, said Berglund, do not “just see climate change as something that is happening to us, right? But that there is actually a conflict here. [That] some people are driving this and some institutions are causing climate change.”
This distinguishes them from XR, who had explicitly called for a broad coalition to tackle an emergency affecting everyone, or Insulate Britain, whose positive demand for a programme to insulate homes did not attempt to single out villains.
But Just Stop Oil’s return to the busy streets of the metropolis has also won them new enemies. On Thursday morning, passersby could be seen berating activists, asking them how they thought disrupting people’s commutes could bring about structural change.
On Friday, visitors to the National Gallery gasped when Just Stop Oil supporters hurled tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
“They may be trying to get people to think about the issues but all they end up doing is getting people really annoyed and angry,” said one witness, who declined to give his name. “The typical unthinking individual who doesn’t think about the big issues of the planet is not the kind of person who walks around the National Gallery.”
Even more intense was the social media backlash, where the activists were denounced as “morons”, “idiots” or “punks”. “Effing morons – this is not the way to protest!” Tweeted the former tennis player Martina Navratilova.
Meanwhile, the government has passed new laws in an explicit attempt to curtail their protest activity. The police, crime, sentencing and courts act, passed this year, makes new offences of blocking roads and national infrastructure, and a statutory offence of public nuisance seen to be deliberately targeted at activists.
More is to come. The public order bill, currently before parliament, includes a new offence of “locking on”, where demonstrators attach themselves to something so they cannot be removed, that carries a maximum sentence of up to 51 weeks in prison. Proposed serious disruption prevention orders would ban serial activists from taking part in protests.
Just Stop Oil has also received criticism from within activist circles. Its core strategy of taking disruptive action to be arrested, with the hope it can somehow jam up the judicial system, has been criticised as unrealistic, and naive as to the repressive potential of the state.
It has also been criticised as exclusionary to people of colour and other marginalised communities, whose personal and community experiences with the institutional racism of the police and legal system make them reluctant to take part.
But at St George’s Circus, not everyone was critical. Many passersby thanked the protesters for the action they were taking. Mary, 56, was stood to one side of one blockade, watching the police search protesters’ bags, said she was glad to see the protest in her neighbourhood.
“Brilliant location: high profile, zone 1, one of the most polluted parts of London as well,” she said. “Working-class families need to be made aware of what is happening with fossil fuels, because we inhale this day to day.
“Anything that raises awareness is important, so I’m happy to see this here today.”