We speak to three Just Stop Oil activists who have spent time in jail as a result of their climate activism
Most people spend their 21st surrounded by friends, family, and loved ones. Usually, there are presents, balloons, a cake festooned with a ring of striped wax candles. Maybe a bottle of champagne too, if you’re lucky. But last year, Louis McKechnie spent his 21st birthday alone in a prison cell – and celebrated his 22nd the same way this year, too.
“I didn’t expect to spend this birthday in prison, but I’m comfortable enough,” he said in a statement published on the Just Stop Oil website on his birthday in November 2022. “No matter what the state takes from me, I’ll be glad to have given it to increase my generation’s odds of survival.” Louis, 22, is a Just Stop Oil activist. He’s been incarcerated in HMP Wandsworth since July, following his protest at Silverstone in the summer, and will remain there until next year. He’ll miss Christmas this year too – again, just like he did last year.
When it comes to climate protests, most of the time, we only see one half of the story: activists launching soup at a painting or glueing themselves to a motorway, before being swiftly whisked away in handcuffs by police in high-vis jackets. We rarely pause to think about what happens to these activists after they’ve been arrested and what they sacrifice in the process.
We spoke to three Just Stop Oil activists – McKechnie (via his father), Jesse Prince, who spent eight days in HMP Lewes, and Louise Harris, who has recently been released on bail from HMP Bronzefield – about what it’s really like to have a brush with the law as a climate activist.
WHAT HAPPENS ONCE A PROTESTOR IS ARRESTED?
“After arrest, you are put in the back of a police van and driven to the nearest police station. Then you are taken to the custody desk, who will take your details and read you your rights and ask which solicitor you would like to use,” McKechnie explains. “They then take your fingerprints and if it is your first arrest, your DNA – so, your spit. Then they take your picture – always important to smile for a good mugshot – and then you are taken to the cell.”
What’s the cell like? “Normally the cell has a toilet and a sink or a tap, and you’re able to buzz for attention. There’s CCTV in the cell too,” Louise says. She was arrested in early November 2022 for climbing a gantry above the M25 – you might remember her from this emotive video. “Make sure you ask for two blankets and bring a book,” adds Jesse, who was also imprisoned after the M25 action. “I’ve found that the average police officer is friendly, but I am a white male, so others may have very different experiences. And you do have the odd one or two who like to intimidate you – they talk down to you or threaten to make your time in custody less comfortable.”
In theory, you can only be held in a cell for 24 hours, at which point the police must either charge you or release you. “I found court very intimidating, it was the most frightening part of my whole journey,” Jesse says. “Make sure you have a contact’s number written on your arm or memorised so that you can call them.”
According to Just Stop Oil, its supporters had been arrested about 700 times since the start of October, on top of about 2,000 arrests since the start of the campaign in April.
WHAT IS IT LIKE IN JAIL?
“Really, really boring,” Louis says. “It’s just like that movie Groundhog Day – nothing interesting ever happens in here.” Louise had a similar experience – following her arrest, she was charged by the Met for causing a public nuisance, and remanded in custody at HMP Bronzefield. “Every day is the same structure, in terms of what time you are fed and what time you are allowed out,” she recalls.
“I was allowed out of my cell for about three or four hours a day, with half an hour of fresh air – sometimes one hour,” she says. She adds that the 40 prisoners in her ‘wing’ were made to share one computer. “You’re in a very helpless position. Your independence is taken away.” Louise was released on bail last week and is now awaiting her trial, which is on December 8.
Louis has managed to find some positives in his situation. “The best things about prison are finally being able to work through the reading list I have accumulated over the years,” he says. “And I’ve made a lot of friends in here, and hope to keep in contact with some after release.”
More than 30 climate activists in the UK were incarcerated while COP27 took place this year.
ARE THEY WORRIED ABOUT THEIR FUTURES?
These activists are not only sacrificing their freedom – they’re also risking their futures. For people who work with children or vulnerable adults, for example, background checks are imperative and a criminal record could blight their applications. Anyone working (or hoping to work) in a profession such as banking, law, and healthcare could also be negatively impacted by having a criminal record. Going to prison can also make it harder to acquire home insurance and buy houses, and landlords can refuse to let their properties to prospective tenants with criminal records.
“I’m certainly worried about my future,” Louise says, “but that’s because of the climate crisis.” Louis feels similarly. “I am definitely worried about my future but the criminal record part is no problem,” he says.
“We had 40-degree heat in the UK this summer and over 1,000 people died because of that,” Louise continues. “I don’t want this summer to be the ‘best’ summer compared to all future summers – I want it to be the worst we will ever experience.”
“We’re on track to see total societal collapse – you know, global food shortages, water shortages, famine, droughts, wildfires, extreme weather events, starvation, conflict of resources,” she says. “Having a criminal record is meaningless when there is no functioning, ordered society or when there’s no law and order.”
“The climate emergency threatens my future, the future of my entire generation and all life on this planet. Once you have fully internalised that, all previous problems become rather insignificant,” Louis adds.
COULD THE PUBLIC ORDER BILL LEAD TO A RISE IN CONVICTIONS?
The Public Order Bill is currently passing through the House of Lords. The bill proposes a slew of oppressive legislation, such as the introduction of new criminal offences for locking-on (individuals attaching themselves to others, objects or buildings to cause serious disruption) and obstructing major transport works, as well as extending stop and search powers for police.
This is bad news for everyone, really – a petition signed by more than 300,000 people and coordinated by Liberty and Greenpeace branded the bill an “attempt to overthrow democracy”. But it’s especially concerning for people who regularly protest – it’s obvious that many of the new offences have been designed to specifically target climate protestors.
As Louise points out, legal rights charity Justice and Amnesty International have compared the Public Order Bill to repressive Russian laws. “[Under the Public Order Bill], you don’t even need a criminal conviction to be subject to an ankle tag and other conditions, whereas in Russia you at least need a guilty conviction before they can do those sorts of things,” she says.”
“The act will not deter activists from doing what they have to do,” Jesse surmises. “If the government really wants activists to stop bothering them, they should do the responsible thing and Just Stop new oil licences.”
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