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Just Stop Oil Van Gogh Sunflowers National Gallery London
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In defence of Just Stop Oil

Even if we disagree with their tactics, these protesters deserve our solidarity

It’s been a big weekend for Just Stop Oil, the protest group calling for the end of new fossil fuel licenses in the UK. It started on Friday at the National Gallery, when two activists chucked tomato soup over Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting before gluing themselves to the wall. While the painting was protected by glass and not harmed, the protesters were later arrested for aggravated trespass and criminal damage. That same day, activists sprayed the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police with orange paint, and then on Saturday, 29 protestors affiliated with the group blocked a road in Shoreditch. On Sunday, another member spray-painted an Aston Martin showroom, and earlier today, two activists successfully blocked off Queen Elizabeth II bridge in London, causing miles of congestion in either direction and blocking the passage of oil tankers from Essex. This marks the culmination of a month’s worth of protests undertaken by the group in response to the government’s decision to greenlight 100 new oil and gas projects in the North Sea. As of now, over 440 people have been arrested.

The group has succeeded in hitting headlines, but the public reaction has been decidedly mixed. Conservatives have been as splutteringly indignant as you’d expect, but even plenty of young, progressive people have also denounced the protests, for reasons both good and bad. Despite being one part of a larger series of actions, it was the Van Gogh stunt that drew the most publicity and inspired the most disapproval. It shouldn’t be beyond the pale to criticise these kinds of protests and I’ll admit my initial reaction was dubious. It’s hardly equivalent to throwing a bucket of shit over the Captain Tom memorial, but it seems fair enough to question how useful it is to deface (even symbolically) a painting that lots of people like and which seemingly has no connection to the oil industry. It just felt kind of random – it would have been different, perhaps, if the National Gallery was still sponsored by BP as it was until this year. But it’s also true that these protesters have been targeting oil infrastructure: if you haven’t heard about that but did hear about the Van Gogh stunt, it’s worth asking whether the latter was really so ineffective. Having conversations about tactics is no bad thing, and the stakes are so high that no one should be immune from critique simply because “they’re at least doing something”. But where this happens, there should be a baseline of solidarity – something which has been sorely lacking in much of the response.

Following the protest, lots of people on TikTok and Twitter began confidently asserting that the protest was a psy-op conducted by the oil industry itself, with the goal of making climate activists look bad. The case for this rests – almost entirely – on the fact that Just Stop Oil has received funding from The Climate Emergency Fund, an LA-based organisation founded by Aileen Getty (who is, admittedly, the granddaughter of an oil baron). It’s understandable that this would invite suspicion, but Getty is a prolific funder of environmental activism who has spent years campaigning against fossil fuels; her family haven’t been involved in the oil industry for decades, and she makes no secret of where her wealth comes from. In a joint Guardian op-ed with fellow heiress Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert, she wroteOur personal histories compel us to publicly acknowledge what we have known for many years: the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is killing life on our planet[...] The two of us are intensely aware that our families’ history with oil has granted us tremendous privilege. With that privilege comes the opportunity to contribute to a world where all have the chance to thrive.”

This seems like a plausible account of her motivations, and if using your wealth and platform to campaign against fossil fuels is a psy-op for the fossil fuel industry, it seems like a weird and counterproductive one. Even if the conspiracy theory were true, it seems more likely that the two young people involved in the protest would be sincere and unwitting dupes, and it still wouldn’t justify the level of vitriol being levelled at them personally.

Aside from the psy-op allegations, one of the most common criticisms levelled at the protesters is that they are privileged (one of them was revealed to have attended a private school) and that this renders their cause illegitimate. Some commentators went so far as to suggest that wasting two cans of soup during a cost-of-living crisis was evidence of their arrogant indifference to the plight of the common man, and environmental activism itself was framed as a frivolous, middle-class hobby, something you could only care about if you didn’t have any real problems. But even if these activists really are so posh they’re blind to the concerns facing the British working class, their cause is still just. The climate is not a middle-class issue. On a global scale, it is already working-class people who are suffering the most from the climate crisis and this will only continue. Portraying the climate crisis as a bourgeois indulgence just betrays the fact you don’t care about poor people in the global south.

On a similar note, people have suggested that these protesters won’t face the full effects of the law, because “mummy and daddy will pay for their legal fees”. Even Tory MP James Cleverly tweeted, “I’m just wondering what the reaction would be if a couple of black boys from Lewisham had thrown soup on a Van Gogh or poured milk all over the floor in Harrods.” He has a point, but it’s an interesting statement to come from a member of the government which recently released a report denying that institutional racism exists within the UK. It’s true that middle-class white people tend to have an easier time in the criminal justice system, but that’s exactly why it’s a good thing when they put their necks on the line. Even so, the idea these people face zero risk whatsoever – and are therefore undeserving of our respect – isn’t true. A white person can probably expect more leniency, yes, but the government has been ramping up legislation designed to criminalise protests for years, and there are already Just Stop Oil protesters in prison. These people deserve our solidarity, even when we disagree with their tactics.

All of this pales into irrelevance next to the larger questions: are these protests effective? Or will they risk alienating people from the cause? What’s interesting is that both things can be true at the same time. For example, Extinction Rebellion was wildly unpopular, but following their protests, polls showed that more people considered the climate crisis a priority. How effective shifting public opinion actually is in terms of changing government policy or corporate practices, it’s not clear, but environmental protests do create a sense of emergency – within the last few years, you can feel that very palpably. Rather than a cynical false flag operation, the Van Gogh stunt felt like an act of desperation – that’s not necessarily an endorsement, but it does create a feeling of urgency that filters through. And “winning people over” is only one aspect of protest: it’s also about causing disruption in an attempt to force your demands to be met, which inevitably entails pissing people off. Very few social justice movements throughout history have been popular with the general public, which is exactly why they are needed. At this stage, we are facing suffering and displacement on such a mass scale that I’m not sure any of us really deserve to go about our daily lives without being inconvenienced. The idea that groups like Just Stop Oil risk putting the public off “their cause”, as though it belongs to any one particular faction, is absurd. The environment is a cause which, whether we like it or not, belongs to us all.