Just stop

A new wave of disruptive protest is openly criminal, yet is minimally policed. It is time to say enough — and ban them all

Artillery Row

Another day, another adolescent, gratuitous criminal act of vandalism by Just Stop Oil. Is there anything more heart-sinking than the sight of orange clouds of paint and pinched, waddling protestors smugly cavorting around the latest scene of desecration? 

Ruining life for other people in petty, stupid ways is the stock in trade of the group, which has tried to wreck everything from Formula One to the Chelsea Flower Show. You can see what their problem was with the roaring motor cars, and perhaps there was some esoteric environmental peeve involving the growing and transportation of the famous London blooms. But just what possible, earthly reason could they have for targeting Stonehenge? Unless neolithic Britons were up to some tricks as yet unguessed at, there could hardly be a more ecologically innocent monument in the country.

The purpose of course, as with all their “protests”, was to immiserate and irritate as many people as possible in order to attract press attention. That is why they targeted such a famous monument, and it is why, scandalously, they chose to do so the day before the Summer solstice, in the full knowledge that thousands would be gathering at Britain’s oldest solar calendar to see the sun rise over the stones as it has done for over four thousand years. The paint may, as the group’s press release claims, “wash away in the rain”, but it was obviously and cynically intended to mar the experience of those gathering for the Solstice. 

Terror tactics

What sets Just Stop Oil apart from an earlier generation of ecological activism is its targeting of the infrastructure of ordinary life, rather than action aimed directly at polluters. Direct action has always been controversial, and feelings about the activities of Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior were so extreme that Mitterand had it blown up when it threatened French nuclear tests. But radical action was, however controversial, aimed against the ostensible villains, whether they were whale hunters or governments, and activists risked life and limb to carry it out. 

Just Stop Oil activists are often children of the elites

What we have now might be called indirect action. Although it remains non-violent, climate activism has increasingly borrowed the logic of terrorist organisations, picking “soft targets” over the hard ones of old. It’s much easier to go after a public, unsecured art gallery or an historic monument than it is an oil refinery or whaling fleet — not to mention far safer — and it gets many times the media attention. It’s exactly the same reason that terrorists bomb cafes and hijack planes rather than going after military barracks and police stations. Terrorists may not make themselves popular, but such attacks can spread the unpopularity around, delegitimising governments helpless to protect civilians from attack, and forcing them to negotiate, compromise or retreat. 

The trend is not isolated to Just Stop Oil. Greenpeace has followed the same trend, with activists in Peru writing “Time for change! The future is renewable” in giant yellow letters next to the Nazca lines, ancient indigenous geoglyphs inscribed into the soil of the Nazca desert, damaging them in the process. 

The move to soft targets also reflects a shift in the tone and thinking of green activism in general. It is cliched, now, for critics to compare ecological activists to millenarian fanatics, but it’s an observation that reflects an emerging reality. “Either we end the fossil fuel era, or the fossil fuel era will end us”, remarked one elderly activist who participated in yesterday’s vandalism. On the surface, we get the ends justify the means argument — climate change is too desperate, too existential, to exclude any approach that might work. But the subtext seems to be: the world is ending, so what does it matter if ancient monuments are desecrated? Are Just Stop Oil activists sincerely trying to save the world, or just partying whilst it burns?

There’s a further significance to the targets. Stonehenge is an unprecedented step in their pattern of escalation because it is, if any could be said to be, a place sacred to their own tribe. Those gathering there tomorrow — hippies, neopagans, wiccans — are exactly the sort of people that might be expected to support Just Stop Oil. The meanings they apply to Stonehenge — as a symbol of humankind living in harmony with the natural world — are surely the last things activists might be expected to symbolically attack. 

As baffling as this looks, it’s perhaps no more incomprehensible than 8th century Greeks hurling icons of the Virgin Mary into the fire, or 16th Century Englishmen knocking the heads off the statues of saints. Attacking or sacrificing your own sacred symbols can be seen as an act of spiritual and ritual purity. 

The problem with such fundamentalism is it tends to remove movements from the realm of reason and toleration. The zeal of a protestor willing to lose life or liberty to stop whaling or strip mining has morphed into the leisured nihilism of activists willing to risk a fine to throw paint on bits of our cultural heritage. The act of a person putting their body on the line to save something they love, has now become the grim, ideological fanaticism of believing nobody is innocent, and neutrality is impossible. 

What is driving it? Activists will claim it is that they have not been listened to, and that things are quickly getting worse for the planet. We are, we are told, running out of time. I don’t deny the seriousness of climate change or, more generally, the centrality of conserving our natural world as a basic duty of society. Yet nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that governments aren’t listening. Not a single mainstream party in the UK election has left the environment and climate change off the agenda. The Labour Party, on track to win this election, is promising to eliminate our carbon emissions by 2030. Those emissions are already half of what they were in the 1990s. By any measure, green activists are getting what they want, at least in this country. 

The answer, of course, as with so many recent protest movements, is not mass discontent, but rather elite discontent. It combines potent feelings of self-importance and guilt, the desires of a class unable to express its sense of superiority in aristocratic terms turning to ideology, and at the same time burdened by a sense of shame at its own power and wealth. Just Stop Oil activists are often children of the elites, such as poster child Phoebe Plummer, a public school girl who appears on TV interviews wearing designer clothes and grew up in a Chelsea mansion. Behind the frontlines of activism, the real key to the visibility and radicalism of these contemporary movements is simple — money and an increasingly professionalised “protest” movement. The sudden rash of highly provocative protests in the UK is anything but organic. 

The roots beneath the astroturf 

It all began, in 2018, when a group of eco activists occupied the Greenpeace headquarters, declaring that the organisation was too moderate, too consensual. This marked the founding of Extinction Rebellion, the movement that first burst into national headlines. Just like the vandalising of Stonehenge, this was a kind of green iconoclasm, targeting their own sacred symbols. But where was this coming from? 

The architects of the movements were certainly traditional leftwing activists in many respects. The two most significant figures were from archetypal Labour backgrounds — Roger Hallam is the son of a Methodist Co-Op factory manager, Gail Bradbrook the daughter of a Yorkshire miner. Their early lives follow the familiar course of the British radical left in this time. Hallam was a failed organic farmer, bouncing from Vegan cafes to farming cooperatives, and regularly vandalising buildings with political slogans. Bradbrook was a Green party member from the age of 14, and a fulltime anti-fracking activist based in Stroud, where she lived with her then husband. 

The protest movement is seeking to scale up, uniting disparate movements into a single behemoth. 

Whilst disruptive protest was an early and lifelong passion for both of them, something had clearly changed by 2018, and the two were prominent midwives for a shocking series of movements — Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and now, Just Stop Oil — which use headline grabbing tactics of mass irritation, disruption and iconoclasm. What happened? Roger Hallam went to university, age 51, to study for a doctorate in civil disobedience at King’s College London. Almost immediately he put his degree into effect, spray painting several parts of the university including the historic Great Hall, causing over £7000 of damage. He followed this up by going on hunger strike, and soon afterwards the University agreed to divest from fossil fuels. Criminal charges lingered in courts, but Hallam would fight and win there too.

Lenin had a saying: “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw”. Hallam had probed the British establishment, and discovered that not only would it give in to pressure, but that in many cases they were looking for excuses to capitulate. He didn’t take long to learn the lesson. 

After a lifetime of practical experience in activism, and now attending a finishing school in protest, Hallam was prepared to systematise his ambitions, unlocking what he called the “codes for social change”. He (quite literally) road tested his ideas in the “Stop Killing Londoners” campaign against air pollution, where he first experimented with getting protestors to lie down in front of traffic. He quickly saw how this idea could be scaled up. 

At around the same time, Bradbrook was in Costa Rica with her two young children, going on a drug pilgrimage, in search of answers with aid of ayahuasca. In between bouts of vomiting, she too landed on the idea of a “code” for unlocking change. A molecular biologist, she was well educated and connected, and used to thinking systematically. She met with Hallam soon thereafter, and the pair connected powerfully around a shared intuition that the diverse, small-scale progressive causes that drove protest could be united and systematised, organised around the idea of a single, existential threat that mandated radical social change. Other like-minded souls, veteran protestors, academics and activists, gathered at her house in Stroud – they were, she said “ready to go for the ‘big one’”. XR was born. 

The movement arrived at the perfect moment. #MeToo was still raging, Covid was waiting in the wings, and America’s “racial reckoning” was about to unfold. Western elites were both angry and ashamed, and progressives, in the face of Brexit and Trump, were prepared to look beyond representative democracy to something more radical. 

Mary Harrington has dubbed this methodology of activism the “Omnicause” – rather than many competing ideas, there is really just one multi-headed hydra. If you believe all women you must also want to abolish the police. If you want to save the whale, you’ve also got to fight to save Gaza. 

It is an ideological development, but it reflects the absorption of modern politics into the logic of the market, with the techniques of branding and marketing taking over from the classical arts of rhetoric and persuasion. Just as tech companies move towards consolidation, massive economies of scale, and then yet further market centralisation (as with Musk’s quest to establish a Western “superapp” along the lines of China’s WeChat), so the protest movement is also seeking to scale up, uniting disparate movements into a single behemoth. 

Dark green money

If this sounds beyond the talents and resources of even veteran campaigners like Hallam and Bradbrook, consider the great cloud of corporate consultants, advisors and funders who hover invisibly behind the environmental Omnicause. In order to hack the “social code”, they brought in the experts. There was UK political strategist Ronan Harrington, who teaches KPMG’s leadership programme; former McKinsey consultant Frederic Laloux; and political organiser and actor Sam Knights. This flood of managerial professionals may seem like an odd fit, but it was drawing on a crucial intersection between political radicalism and corporate culture — Silicon Valley capitalistic anarchism, specifically the radically decentralised idea of “holocracy” invented by entrepreneur and investor Briand Anderson. The management philosophy, which he called a “rule system for anarchy” has since been tested and adapted by corporations like Google and Medium. 

The purpose of XR, from the very start, was to “get arrested”

You can see the polished managerial gears at work. Protest “movements” are rolled out like products or brands, giving the impression of grassroots spontaneity and diversity, whilst in actual fact represent the same groups of people, and the same pot of money. Extinction Rebellion burst controversially onto the scene in 2019, bringing London to a standstill by blocking roads and tubes. In 2021 Insulate Britain, founded by six XR members, used much the same tactics to focus attention on a narrow element of their cause, home insulation, threatening the government unless it took action. A year later Just Stop Oil emerged, with a new demand — that the UK halts new oil and gas exploration — the same disruptive tactics, and sure enough Roger Hallam as their chief advisor. 

Though successful at grabbing attention, and with it donations, all the groups have a common war chest, namely the LA-based “Climate Emergency Fund”, which has provided substantial funding for all three groups. The body owes its existence to XR, having been “inspired” by its illegal activism. XR was following the startup playbook. Having sourced professional management advice, and had a successful “launch” with its disruptive protests, by 2019 XR was ready to attract investors, which took the form of the CEF, founded by entrepreneur and Bill Gate Foundation veteran Trevor Neilson, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy and oil heiress Aileen Getty. 

These were wealthy, entitled, angry, guilty members of the American elite, looking to back a cause that was both radical, yet professionally organised. Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kenedy, was born into America’s most famous political dynasty, and has described Trump’s election as a “personal” affront, which had a “psychologically damaging impact on me, as an individual”. Aileen Getty, an heiress diagnosed with HIV, is scared of becoming a “victim of my parents, of my heritage, of life”, and in the face of a fortune born of extracting fossil fuels, wants “to do what’s right and what’s fair”. 

According to the CEF’s website “Only mass organized people power can wake up the public and force governments to act on the climate crisis”. Note the word force (their emphasis) — this is an organisation explicitly and exclusively committed to funding “disruptive climate movements.” In other words it is committed to funding frequent and consciously illegal protests that involve property damage, trespass and the disruption of commerce and ordinary life. Though nonviolent, there have already been injuries, and ambulances delayed on their way to hospitals. 

The purpose of XR, from the very start, was to “get arrested”. XR, and its spin offs, explicitly advertise, praise and share videos of illegal activity. The latest assault on Stonehenge was shared online by Just Stop Oil, with a link to a donation page which has already raised over £140,000. On this page the group announces that “We’re escalating our campaign this summer to take action at airports” and promises to use donations to “fund trainings, rent safehouses and prepare people for action”. 

There is no ambiguity here. This is a criminal group, publicly commiting crimes

Though non-violent, these are illegal, dangerous, and damaging acts that will upset, scare and harm ordinary people, whilst leaving governments and big business untouched. The Just Stop Oil website proudly displays the numbers of arrests, alongside acquittals and dismissals. It refers to the government as “the real criminals” and those arrested as “rebels”. Protestors seek arrest not simply to garner sympathy and attention, but in order to put pressure on our already strained courts, police and prison. 

All this is done not as a form of popular protest — but rather as an attempt to circumvent a democratic system that, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, many progressives no longer believe in. Gail Bradbrook has said that she has lost faith in “representative democracy”, and the movement instead calls for unelected “citizens assemblies” to rubber stamp their agenda.

There is no ambiguity here. This is a criminal group, publicly commiting crimes, filming them, and using those films to raise funds to plan and execute further crimes. And all this is further supported by a group of American multimillionaires in LA, who send money to Britain to help shut down our roads, throw paint on our art and disrupt public events.

It is extraordinary that organisations explicitly committed to and raising money from criminal acts, that offer training and legal assistance to those planning to commit criminal acts, and attracting overseas funding intended to promote such acts, all in order to force policies on the government outside of the democratic process, are allowed to continue to exist without legal consequence. 

Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion and the Climate Emergency Fund deserve to be treated as the criminal outfits that they are. The reason they are not, the reason that so many of their foot soldiers escape prison, the reason their websites and social media accounts operate openly, is because they are supported by the rich, famous and powerful, including individuals within our political and legal establishment, who consider themselves to be above the law. It is time to say enough — and ban them all. 

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