Who’s afraid of the dark?

Rory Hamilton – 28th October

Spooky season is upon us and the host of autumnal colours filling the sights reminds me why it’s my favourite time of year: orange pumpkins, orange leaves, and orange spray paint all over 55 Tufton Street.

Yes, that’s right, if you’re on any type of social media, or maybe if you live in London, you might have seen the direct non-violent action of campaign protest group Just Stop Oil, their iconic bright orange colours have been making a strong point in opposing the expansion of over 100 new oil and gas licences under the last Prime Minister.

Among their civil unrest they’ve tied themselves to football goals at Premier League matches (you can’t help think they missed a trick by not visiting Tannadice), they’ve spraying orange spray paint on flagship stores of Ferrari and Aston Martin, they’ve sprayed the same orange paint on the New Scotland Yard sign, they’ve “pied” a waxwork of King Charles III at Madame Tussaud’s, and also blocked the road by posing for the iconic Beatles Abbey Road image. You can take a look at all of their actions in this video titled ‘Just Stop Oil pissing off rich people’ by JOE

Two recent actions, in particular, have been notable for the coverage they’ve received. First, and most recent, another spray painting incident occurred on 55 Tufton Street, the office of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. GWPF argue for a ‘a balanced and rational approach to climate change’, former Chancellor Nigel Lawson is their President, and they have advocated against climate action, including questioning whether climate change is actually happening, and supported a ‘Net Zero Watch’ to question the costs of reaching net zero. Their defacing in the wake of Liz Truss’ resignation appeared to add to the joy of many, in contrast to Just Stop Oil’s other actions. What stood out to me was that the painter in question, while no Van Gogh (pun very much intended), was a middle-aged man who looked like the stereotype of a Brexit supporter. But he showed compassion and care for the issues that mattered, he was doing it for his grandchildren and for our collective future. It’s not just a group of middle class students taking action – people from all walks of life clearly understand the implications of not stopping new oil and gas production.

The second notable action was two young activists throwing tins of soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting in the National Gallery. They then proceeded to glue themselves to the wall and explain their actions as security came to grab them. The outcry on social media was pretty horrendous, and I’ll admit that I was initially questioning their actions too. I saw many people claiming that Just Stop Oil must be a psy-op (psychological operation, i.e. Shell and BP were funding these people to make a nuisance of themselves so they would lose favour with the general public). “Decorating the glass protecting the painting with tomato soup appears to horrify some people more than the collapse of our planet, which these campaigners are seeking to prevent.” However, the painting itself was unharmed (big loss there then for everyone decrying the attack on culture) and I was won over by comments from a number of prominent commentators such as Jason Hickel, George Mobiot, and Kevin Anderson.

The question that they asked was, ‘well what else do you suggest?’ And okay you might think, climate strikes, or emailing your MP, or getting involved with Common Weal, for example, might be fairly progressive forms of action. But their rebuttal queried how much this had worked? The climate strikes were quite the radical thing when Greta-mania was sweeping the world, and to be fair, they accelerated the urgency with which people began to see the climate crisis, and I have no doubt that without them we would be even further behind where we are now without them. But they seem to have become part of the picture now, a staple of the weekly calendar, and an accepted part of the political environment, i.e. politicians now feel they can ignore them much more than before.

So when we consider the actions of Just Stop Oil, we’ve got to think why? Why do they feel the need to breach that supposed ‘harm’ barrier when they could protest just as effectively as XR or Fridays for Future have? It’s become clear that we need much louder resistance from climate activists because the message isn’t getting through: with over 100 new oil licences, and for a period the ban on fracking was lifted, greenwashing left, right and centre, from oil and gas companies, and Sir David King at the National Climate Emergency summit saying that we only have three to four years to dramatically improve our emissions before we’re looking at genuine catastrophe. And that’s not to mention the droughts, floods, wildfires, species extinction, and all the real life effects of climate change we’re experiencing right now. So is the message getting through? Evidently no. As Craig and Robin say everywhere they go, your government’s targets are too low, and the action they’re taking to meet those targets isn’t enough.

I then saw a video from one of the protestors herself.

It has now been viewed by almost 8 million people. And can you really disagree with any of what she’s saying? We need to be having these conversations now because we don’t have time to waste, so we cannot expand new oil fields or any form of fossil fuel exploration, yet the media is preoccupied with Tory party infighting. Their actions evidently merit a certain amount of praise as it gives them a platform to ask those questions, and so when people like Richard Madeley on Good Morning Britain or any of the self-righteous morons at GB News or Talk TV, get Just Stop Oil on to start asking them ‘do you think its appropriate to be defacing pieces of culture?’, they actually give them a platform to hold the powerful to account, who are so often given a free ride because of where power and money lies, and who already has access to a big platform. Let’s not forget that Shell, BP, and all the other big players, will undoubtedly have a counter-campaign trying to safeguard their profits. We need to be louder. Actions have to be so loud that they can’t be ignored. Because they’re right – no art on a dead planet.

There’s also a side note to be made here, that some have attacked the protestors for being privileged middle class white people whose actions will have to be picked up by working people and people of colours. Firstly, who will have to pick up the actions of big oil? You and me, our children and grandchildren – everybody. Secondly, at least the protestors are exploiting their privilege for a greater good. Privileged people can recognise their position and use it for a fight that affects us all – they can afford to take risks that advance an important social cause. There’s a recognition here, unlike the Animal Rebellion protestors in this video below.

The difference between the two is that the art is not affected, and for the sake of all of us we need to stop the production of oil. Emptying milk in a supermarket… what are you doing? Even if large scale dairy production and farming makes a contribution to global carbon emissions, wasting produce disrespects the low waged workers who produce the milk and who have to clean up the mess of the protest, and disrespects those people who are choosing between heating and eating. I don’t think pouring milk all over the floor is going to win anyone over to veganism, let alone climate activism.

Greenpeace, too, have been asking ‘Who voted for this?’ at Liz Truss’ conference speech, occupied Parliament on Monday to tell Rishi Sunak ‘Chaos Costs Lives’. Over 30 of them sat inside the lobby and blocked Parliament, but you almost wouldn’t know because the media was too preoccupied with the coronation of the new Prime Minister. They’re asking all the right questions, and protests will only get louder as the government’s indecision and inaction carries on.

But Keir Starmer’s answer is wrong. Branding them ‘arrogant’ on LBC’s Call Keir, and calling for stiffer sentences for protestors, is wrong. He’s not only wrong because we need the freedom to express our frustration, but he’s wrong because his answer should be action. The way to stop these protests is to listen and actually do something about it: produce a comprehensive plan to change society, introduce a real windfall tax, support those calling for urgent action.

Starmer’s willingness to support Tory authoritarian measures against a peaceful right to protest demonstrates yet another example of his capitulation and mainstreaming of the far right and dangerous right wing ideologies. Protest and civil disruption is an important part of our democratic society. We must reserve the right to protest because it enables us to express our emotion at the government. It enables us to show just how important it is that they take action in our best interests. And direct action, especially on the climate, is more important than ever now as this government continues to prevent our right to express our will at the ballot box by denying us a general election despite the continual changes that have occurred. 

Whether you agree or disagree with the tactics of climate protestors, we must preserve their right to do so. Do you think that people would not feel the need to take such dramatic action if serious action was actually being taken by the government? 

George Monbiot rightly asks ‘who are the real criminals here?’

Is it the people who want to protect the future so that we can enjoy Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Haystacks? Or is it Ben van Beurden and Shell funding anti climate messaging, bribing politicians, or hiring soldiers to kill Nigerian activists?

The climate emergency is real, and if we don’t stand up for action now, then choosing your Halloween costume this weekend might soon be the least of your worries if it isn’t already.

2 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of the dark?”

  1. Rory,
    I am one of the grey haired, probably (now) regarded as middle class, retired protestors. While I don’t do the spicy actions, I support those brave enough to do so. Protests and campaigning with Just Stop Oil, among many others, is a big part of my life now. I have every sympathy for the protesters and the generations to come. Most likely my generation will be dead before the worst happens but consider this:
    the impacts are not a THREAT as that is something that MIGHT happen; they are a REALITY. Impacts ARE happening here and now and I dread to think what our children and the generations to come will face. Like most people, I want a safe, clean, biodiverse, ecologically resilient, fair and just world for our children and grandchildren. That’s worth fighting for but I fear it is futile. That said, I’ll keep going for as long as I’m able.
    Despite the overwhelming and irrefutable evidence of global heating and species extinction and in the FULL knowledge of the apocalyptic impacts, governments in the developed world are not acting at the pace and scale needed. In fact they are doing the opposite. CO2 emissions have increased since CoP 26 as has species extinction. Our governments are complicit in putting profit before people and planet. We can no longer avert impacts; tipping points have already been triggered; there is no going back; they are ‘baked in’; irreversible. They can get much worse though so we need to all that we can to at least prevent that happening.
    When governments know and don’t act, how can ordinary people change that? History tells us that non violent direct action has worked. Therefore it’s reasonable to pursue NVDA. However, our government is seeking to make protests illegal. It honestly feels like we’re in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. In the proposed legislation, somebody like me could be electronically tagged without charge or conviction because I have protested before. While I’m not important enough to be worth their bother, we should all be very worried; it’s extremely sinister.
    The soup on the Van Gogh incident, among others, like the underground train protest left me wondering what I regard as non violent. The soup did no real harm to the painting and, boy, did it attract attention! Nevertheless, what will be the lasting memory for the general public? They’ll remember the soup on the Van Gogh but will they remember why it was done?
    The subway protest attracted loads of attention but it was harmful to some, e.g. those on zero hours contracts trying to get to work, losing pay and even jobs. They are so busy trying to make ends meet that I understand their anger and their view of protesters as privileged middle class or workless agitators who have nothing else to occupy their time.
    Therefore, I think that NVDA should be done more intelligently. We need to take people with us and our actions should not cause ordinary people any harm. The actions should affect those causing the problems: governments, the fossil fuel industry, the wealthy shareholders and the climate wrecking banks. There is such an example, although not climate related; the train strike in a neighbouring European country where the workers went to work but refused to take fares. That did no harm to ordinary people in their commute to work and it hit the shareholders in their pockets where it hurts them most. I call that effective. I wish I could think of loads more such intelligent and effective actions. Can you?

  2. Thanks for this post. The Just Stop Oil video is the most hopeful thing Ive seen in a while…..has there been a media ban because I hadn’t heard of any of this other than via George Moniot?

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