The Just Stop Oil protesters were meeting at Cathedral Gardens in Manchester at 10.30am. I arrived on time but they must have started promptly as they were already busy organising. I didn’t have a role but was watching on anyway and I must have looked suspicious as Beth, a member of the group, came up to me to ask why I was there. Once I explained I was writing about them she visibly relaxed. I asked if she dealt with press enquires and she explained there were no assigned roles as they’re a coalition group. But as she seemed to know, I asked her where they were going and she said, “I’m not telling you, just follow the hippies!”
I watched on while two men, who seemed to be in charge, were assigning roles including a de-escalator. Positions on the march were decided in advance, and the more new and nervous you felt meant you were at the front. Veteran members were placed at the back, facing oncoming traffic as the march would move from back to front and those in the middle apparently had to be ‘fast and nimble’.
The protest began on Miller Street, the part of the ring road behind the Co-operative buildings. They moved slowly and as I witnessed fast-moving cars driving towards them, their bravery hit home. Angry drivers mounted the pavements at speed to get past the protesters although some of those marching were on the pavement too. The drivers pressed down on their horns continually to express their anger; even as an onlooker it was scary so it must have been scarier for those on the road. Some protesters were on the pavement handing out leaflets to passers-by. Some took them, some ignored them and some were as angry as the drivers. One man took a leaflet, scrunched it up and laughed as he threw it on the floor.
I asked a leafleteer, Wendy, why she wasn’t protesting on the road. She said she wasn’t up to it – her husband, another climate activist, had recently been released from prison for his climate activism. It turns out her husband is a vicar and he had been arrested nine times for his direct action such as sitting on roads around the M25 and writing, in spray chalk, on the office door of the MP for Middleton and Heywood, ‘I’m fed up of the governments inaction’. He wasn’t arrested for this and the magistrate threw the case out.
People may say it’s inappropriate behaviour for a vicar, but he’s part of an organised group named Christian Climate Action and given the scale of the issue Wendy believes it’s entirely appropriate: “In the sense that this is all God’s creation and without protecting it we are being the biggest sinners than we’ve ever been before”. This long-term, all-encompassing perspective allays any guilt the protesters may feel about inconveniencing people and provides justification for their disruptive direct action. The amount of anger and hostility shown towards protesters is met with a stoic commitment to non-violent protest as they understand that they cannot risk escalating an already tense, highly charged situation.
This week, the Church of England announced the sell-off of its pension and endowment fund investments in fossil fuel companies including Shell and BP, following a 2018 vote in the General Synod to divest its shares in oil and gas companies that have not changed their business practices to align with the goals of the Paris Agreement by 2023. Well, it’s 2023 now, and the Church means business. It seems those activist clergy are simply practising what they preach.
While the principles of the group are entirely relevant for everybody, people still have to go about their daily lives which are largely dependent on oil and gas. One of the ‘Stop Oil’ banners has been modified to read ‘Stop New Oil’ rather than just ‘Stop Oil’, which is more pertinent given the Conservatives have authorised over one hundred new licences to drill for oil and gas since October. Wendy understands that we rely on non-renewable energy but she says that “We have enough oil and gas to last us for ten years so in that time we could do the transition. I mean we managed to do all the pandemic stuff really quickly because we had to. If we take that as seriously then I think we can do it but there has to be political will”.
The frustration at the government’s lack of urgency has spurred on the need for headline-grabbing direct action and a belief that the ends justify the means, but one common criticism has been that the actions of the group are far removed from the issues they represent, such as the infamous moment protesters threw tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, Sunflowers, or my personal favourite, smearing cake on the model of Prince Charles at Madame Tussauds.
I got speaking to another protester, Grahame, who used to work for Shell and he believes that “There’s a kind of symbolism in throwing soup on a painting: we’re outraged by that, but that’s a picture of the natural world and that’s what we’re going to lose. So if you’re outraged about that, a painting of the natural world, then you should be far more outraged by the destruction of the natural world by oil and gas”.
As well as anger at the authorisation of new drilling licenses, the protesters are angry at the latest changes to the Public Order Bill which mean police can shut down a protest before it becomes disruptive, but as Wendy argues, “All protest is disruptive. That’s the whole point, I mean look at the Junior doctors’ strike, they’re disrupting all sorts of things but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to strike”.
It was an inspirational day for me, as causing traffic jams and inciting the anger of car drivers is, as a cyclist, a satisfying sight in itself and it was pleasing to see that the only time the march broke their shape was to let cyclists through. There was a large amount of police called out to re-direct traffic and some might call it a waste of police time, but isn’t their role to protect the public? The protest in Manchester lasted only one day and while disruptive in the short term, it feels necessary in the long term and as the actions of groups such as the Suffragettes will attest, they believed their principles were worth fighting for even if they were condemned and criticised at the time. Their actions enacted lasting change and who would say now that wasn’t worth doing?
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All images: Katy Preen