In February 2022, a new group joined the climate scene and grabbed the public’s attention. From blocking roads to throwing soup at Vincent van Gogh’s ’ Sunflowers,’ Just Stop Oil’s bold actions caught the public’s eye, managing to get well over 50,000 news results from a quick Google search, and putting their name into multiple academic texts.

One issue that receives little attention, however, is what it’s like to be inside the organisation.

Mobilising Human Fear

Let’s start at the beginning, by taking a look at their co-founder, Roger Hallam. His past projects include co-founding Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and a political party called Burning Pink. In case you haven’t heard of him or seen one of his interviews, Hallam’s main method of mobilising people into the climate movement is by exploiting fear. He has, directly and indirectly, recruited over 1,000 ‘active members’ into JSO, with over 100 having spent time in prison in 2022. However, when asked what he actually wants everyday citizens to do, he appears to stumble. Hallam’s extremist views, such as claims that climate change will cause the deaths of 6 billion people this century, are often unsupported by science. Despite this, his use of ‘statistics’ to shock people is one of the methods by which he lures new adherents.

Many people, students and young people especially, who struggle with climate-related mental health issues such as eco-anxiety, are looking for ways to let out their emotions. Activism can be one of the best ways to do this — directly working to fight the cause of your worries is empowering — but profiting off of people’s fear is not the right way to build a movement.

Prison As Means To An End

A few months ago, I attended a celebratory banquet hosted by Just Stop Oil. I did not stay for the whole event, but whilst I was there, I heard the congratulations given for previous actions, as well as some plans for upcoming demonstrations. I was expecting the focus to be on climate-related advancements, perhaps even some shifts in governmental policy, but the thing that was mentioned over and over again was arrests. If you have spent any amount of time in JSO’s ranks, you will know how much they value arrests. The idea is that by filling up prisons and wasting judiciary time, policymakers will cave into the public’s demands and start taking action against climate change.

They listed off arrest numbers and shared goals for how many people they hoped would be detained in their next round of actions. But whilst this tactic may be effective, I was shocked by how group members were being treated as mere numbers. Going to prison is no vacation and often has a deep psychological effect on the individual. Being cut off from your communities and support networks can wreak havoc with a person’s life. But in this room of climate enthusiasts, people were bragging about how many times they’d been to jail and how many more times they planned to have themselves incarcerated. It felt like a sick game.

The culture of glorifying arrest is how some people find themselves in legal trouble. In particular, young people who want to make an impact are susceptible. I even found myself wondering whether getting arrested might not be the way to go — a view that clashes with my personal beliefs. And yet, by placing so much emphasis on the physical act of getting oneself arrested, it can feel like if you’re not willing to go the extra mile and risk personal suffering, then you’re not a true climate warrior.

Roger Hallam has said himself: ‘If you’re not in prison, you’re not in resistance,’ and that: ‘you keep going until you are banged up or dead.’ This militant mindset is not only putting individuals at risk but also rewriting the law in favour of the police over peaceful protesters.

Harsher Laws Harsher Fines

In 2023, a new Public Order Act came into force. The POA is, at its most basic level, a set of laws that aim to stop riots and control public gatherings. Among the new crimes is ‘locking-on.’ Locking-on is when you attach yourself to someone or something — a tactic that has been used throughout protest history.  One well-known example is the suffragettes who chained themselves to railings. Under the Public Order Act, locking-on is now a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of six months in prison and an unlimited fine.

As well as locking-on becoming illegal, it is also now illegal to be equipped for locking-on. If you happen to be carrying an object like a bike lock, chain, super glue, tape, etc., and you are suspected of harbouring the intention of using any of them to lock onto an object, you can be punished with prison and an unlimited fine. The Act has also expanded police stop and search powers, allowing them to be employed whenever there are reasonable grounds for suspecting someone of carrying prohibited articles. If that’s not enough, the police can also perform stop and search without reasonable suspicion, as long as there is a whiff of protesting in the air. These legal restrictions were introduced as a response to groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, at the cost of peaceful activists’ freedoms.

When it comes to Just Stop Oil, I find that my main concern is not roadblocks but the inherent hypocracy. I take issue with the fact that they campaign for a better future whilst disregarding the well-being of those they recruit. Climate activism is supposed to be intersectional and welcoming, allowing anyone to enter the community and fight together for change. But with JSO’s hierarchal structure, fear-mongering, and glorifying of arrests, the environment they create is competitive and hostile.

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