Shoving from All Sides
The Public Order Act received royal assent on 2 May, just in time for the coronation. Its explicit aim is to combat the civil resistance tactics adopted by climate activists, with new offences including ‘locking on’, ‘being equipped for locking on’, ‘tunnelling’ and ‘obstruction etc of major transport works disruption’. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised the legislation as ‘neither necessary nor proportionate’. Meanwhile, the government is processing the 115 bids for North Sea fossil fuel licences that have been made since applications were reopened at the end of last year. The amount of carbon dioxide produced by just one of the unexploited oil fields, Rosebank, will be greater than the combined annual emissions of the 28 lowest-income countries.
The new legislation outlaws ‘interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure’, including roads, and gives the police new powers to break up slow marches, a tactic favoured by Just Stop Oil and other environmental groups. A slow march is exactly what it sounds like: a group of protesters walking slowly in the road to assert their demands. Marchers adopt a ‘blue light policy’, dispersing for fire engines, police vans and ambulances; cycle lanes are kept clear; and buses are theoretically allowed to pass through (although this can be difficult to co-ordinate). A slow march is designed to be disruptive, but not to the extent of a road block; the queues caused by recent protests are not unusual for rush-hour London traffic, and nothing compared to the travel havoc caused by the coronation.
The purpose of non-violent direct action is to create a certain amount of low-level disruption in order to draw attention to – and, ideally, avert – the far greater disruption that will ensue if the demands are not met. As with a strike, the powers that be can bring an end to the disruption in two ways: by threatening protesters into submission, or by acquiescing to their demands. Coverage of climate protests, like coverage of strikes, tends to skirt around the second possibility. But Just Stop Oil’s core demand – an immediate halt to all new fossil fuel licences in Britain – is really quite a modest one, in line with the guidance provided by the International Energy Agency, the UN and the government’s own scientists. Every major party except the Conservatives has expressed support for it.
The recent wave of marches has elicited a predictably aggressive backlash from the right-wing press. Criticism has also come from those who avowedly support the protesters’ aims but claim their tactics ‘alienate the public’ (a phrase which obscures the fact that climate protesters, as Mick Lynch has said of RMT members, are the public). The climate crisis is going to bring far more disruption to the daily lives of ordinary people, even in the Global North, than traffic jams or interrupted sports matches (it’s already happening: look at the floods in Emilia-Romagna this week).
But any act of civil disobedience that is perceived to exacerbate the day-to-day difficulties of a nation increasingly beset by fuel poverty, housing insecurity and rocketing food prices – even if it is in the service of a more secure future – is sure to attract negative attention. One of the crueller ironies of the climate emergency is that the precarity produced by its more immediate effects is likely to make it harder to conceptualise and prepare for its longer-term consequences. All the more reason to emphasise that the present energy crisis can only be solved by a just transition to renewables, and the new fossil fuel licences are not predicted to lower anyone’s bills.
It’s easy to criticise certain forms of protest for being counterproductive; it’s a lot harder to come up with better alternatives. Extinction Rebellion have been slated for years for prioritising disruption over mass mobilisation, but after they agreed to pivot away from direct action and gathered over 100,000 people in Parliament Square last month – one of the biggest climate protests the UK has ever seen – they got little attention from either the media or policymakers. This doesn’t prove that large-scale, state-sanctioned protest is useless, but it does suggest that it won’t be enough on its own.
The tactics that critics suggest could replace more controversial actions are already being used alongside them. Jane Goodall recently spoke out against the slow marches and recommended that supporters instead picket oil company headquarters (the march routes go past the Shell and BP offices) or protest outside parliament (Just Stop Oil is holding rallies in Parliament square every Saturday). I sneered at last autumn’s soup-throwing stunt on the grounds that activists should be targeting fossil fuel infrastructure rather than fomenting a media spectacle, without realising that the same group of protesters had been blockading oil terminals for months.
The situation is urgent, and urgent situations demand a wide range of tactics: a mass movement and a radical flank; spectacular stunts and targeted interference; traditional routes to power and grassroots activism. ‘No one way works,’ Diane di Prima wrote in Revolutionary Letters. ‘It will take all of us shoving at the thing from all sides to bring it down.’
But as the Public Order Act makes clear, the Tories will go to thanatotic lengths to ensure that the UK’s fossil fuel dependency is not reduced. The new laws ensure that protestors who block roads or lock themselves to buildings are signing themselves up to face serious prison time. Two activists who climbed the Dartford Crossing last October, Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker, were recently jailed for three years and two years and seven months respectively: the longest sentences ever handed down to climate protesters in the UK. The government is doing its best to treat the latest wave of activity as a minor nuisance that can be policed away, but it is clearly agitated, and with good reason. As the window of opportunity in which to avert the worst of the climate emergency becomes ever smaller, protest is likely to become more desperate. It’s going to be a long, hot summer.