The Dilemma of Protesting

Kaitlin Dryburgh

The summer of sport is upon us. I’m more of a winter person (I don’t deal with the hot weather that well), but the one thing I really enjoy about the summer is taking advantage of all the sport, be that on TV or in person. From Wimbledon, Silverstone GP, the cricket, rugby and golf, but it seems that this year some of the great summer events have been effected by some orange “hooligans”, at least that’s how the media are making them out to be. So far this year the Just Stop Oil coalition group have thrown orange powder during the world snooker championships, scattered a puzzle and confetti during Wimbledon, and ran onto the pitch during the Ashes with their signature orange powder in hand, among other events. A rogue supporter even took time out of their day to pop in past George Osbourne’s wedding to throw orange confetti over the bride and groom. LGBTQ members of Just Stop Oil even stopped the London Pride event via sitting protest on the road and a handful of supporters put a stop to an opera at Glyndebourne house. The group was only established in 2022, but there’s no denying they’ve made their mark on the fight against the climate crisis, if you believe that mark has been a positive or negative one is up to you.

I believe in direct action, I believe that if a cause is worth fighting for, and pressing enough sometimes handing out pamphlets (for example) isn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong though the pamphlets and information is still very important, but if we were to look back in history some of our biggest fights have been won in conjunction with direct action, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement or even the poll tax riots could be considered. All over the world, there are groups now that are considered freedom fighters, such as the Black Panthers, which at the time were public enemy number one.

Yet, I must confess that I have some conflicting views when it comes to Just Stop Oil. This is not because I don’t believe in the climate crisis, or in the dire straits that we as humankind have got ourselves in, absolutely not. You only have to look at the expected global temperatures this summer, or the extreme flooding we’ve had, to know that the crisis is already in full swing, my conflicting views are because of this.

It is no slight to say that the Just Stop Oil group are not popular among the majority of the public and this could be extremely counterproductive in the long run. Just look at insulate Britain, a great yet simple message, insulate houses and bring new houses up to a better standard, couple this message with a climate crisis and a fuel crisis and they should be on to a winner. Yet, they aren’t because the group has lost almost all public support due to their roadblock style of protesting, only three weeks into their 2021 stint of protesting saw 72% of the public against them, as seen in a YouGov poll.

Unfortunately, it appeared that their message never really got out there, other than their self-explanatory name. People were so irritated by them that they wouldn’t give them the time of day to explain and this was perhaps their downfall. With the help of the right leaning media we’ve grown accustomed to, the good message that they had to get across never seemed to happen. Instead their ability to reach new people and get them involved with the climate crisis barely materialised, never-mind the success of influencing government. In turn it could be considered that they began to create an echo-chamber where the only people that were listening were individuals who previously supported their actions.

I really hope that Just Stop Oil don’t see their public support plummet in the same way.

Yet on the flip side, the phrase you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs is applicable here, the whole point of a protest is to disrupt and in turn annoy people. Perhaps the problem is, we’ve forgotten how to protest or need reminded of what a real protest looks like, away from virtue signalling on social media. This past year or so has been the first time that many of my generation have seen large scale strikes in response to current state of, well everything I guess, and for many it has been a long time since strikes have been a weekly occurrence. Have we all gone a little soft in that period when life seemed a little more simpler. In the same vain is that how we’ve started to approach protests, have we forgotten that in order to be influential some sort of disruption is usually required, even a peaceful walk in protest will usually shut down a few streets. This could be a fair assumption. Experiments have already been conducted to find out how “extreme” protesting effects the feelings of the public and unfortunately the conclusions pose quite the dilemma. Activists have a choice to make, choose the more extreme methods and you will be perceived to be more immoral, lack an emotional connection and social identification with the public, however your message will reach more people. Or on the flip side, more moderate methods will gain more support from the public on an emotional side, but might be largely ignored or unheard. This line of thinking is summed up by Scotland’s own Andy Murray who commented on Just Stop Oil’s Wimbledon protests saying “I agree with Just Stop Oil’s cause but they shouldn’t disrupt Wimbledon”.

Personally the extreme nature isn’t the sticking point for me, but perhaps the exact methods being used, which all include world-famous events or in some cases items. Is the protest effective if the headline is more concerned with the protest rather than the cause of it? With the likes of the tomato soup thrown at Van Gough’s Sunflowers proving to be such a case. Does it become more about the individual who carries out the action rather than the collective group also fighting with them? Perhaps this is what sets the Just Stop Oil apart from the others. It sometimes seems that the venues they choose are so renowned and beloved that both the media and public are more concerned and enamoured with them than to listen to the message.

However, in light of recent demonstrations from Just Stop Oil at the above-mentioned sporting events, perhaps we could apply some context to what we’ve witnessed. Chris Packham rightly reminded us that the orange powder that has become their calling card is nothing in comparison to the IRA’s calling card of bombs. No one is getting hurt and in the case of Wimbledon, tidying up a puzzle is a fairly quick affair.

In defiance of all the ridicules media assaults, the politicians on both sides complaining of their nuisance, Just Stop Oil have pushed on. Although I wish they maybe mixed it up and chose some methods that would help to get more people on side, I wish above all that they are successful in their mission.

3 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Protesting”

  1. Just read This is Not a Drill an extinction rebellion handbook. Filled with sound ideas.
    Thom Cross

  2. I support the direct action and I’m immensely comfortable with the tactics. I think it’s certainly true that they alienate people but I think the message goes out independent of the people who spread it.

    Just Stop Oil. Insulate Britain.

    People want those policies even if they think the orange powder guys are tossers.

    And without the direct action we’d spend most of our focus on the foibles of celebrities.

  3. The right to protest should not include the right to target ordinary people as a way of putting pressure on a government. That is the same logic used by terrorists though obviously terrorists use actual violence whereas Just Stop Oil protesters merely ‘inconvenience’ ordinary people by making them miss funerals, miss medical appointments,…or die while waiting for an ambulance that doesn’t get their in time due to ‘slow walkers’ causing traffic jams.

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