Meet Britain’s most controversial protesters
This year, climate activists targeted everything from a Van Gogh painting to a Captain Tom statue. Their actions drew anger from a sizeable proportion of the public. So, why are they willing to put it all on the line?
In the past few months, there has been a noticeable escalation of climate protests in the UK. As the planet continues to sizzle, groups such as Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Animal Rebellion have grabbed people’s attention in increasingly inventive ways. Who can forget the protesters that threw soup at Van Gogh’s famous painting of sunflowers? Or the ones who scaled the Dartford Crossing and were hanging there for 36 hours?
Although these types of actions agitate a sizeable proportion of the public and spark debates on organising tactics, a recent poll found that 66 per cent of people back nonviolent direct action. But the government doesn’t seem to agree – it’s cracking down on protesters by introducing harsh bills to police them. That means many of the activists taking the risk are now being criminalised and imprisoned for their actions.
Yet with so much standing in their way, these individuals carry on with controversial protests. Why? THE FACE speaks to some of the people behind the most divisive protests to find out.
Anna Holland, 20, is currently studying at Newcastle University and joined Just Stop Oil in June this year. They rose to prominence in October when, alongside Phoebe Plummer, 21, they poured a can of soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery in London. They were arrested and held for 25 hours, before being seen in court and charged with criminal damage.
“Mine and Phoebe’s action marked an escalation in Just Stop Oil’s actions. We’ve been in civil resistance against the UK government since October, because they’re trying to push forward over 100 new fossil fuel licences. We chose [Sunflowers] because it was such a famous and iconic painting – we knew everyone would have some special connection to it and that this would spark a feeling of protectiveness. When Phoebe and I were about to throw soup on the painting, I saw the plaque next to it. The description talks about how Van Gogh used yellows and oranges to symbolise hope. And that’s the most fitting thing that could have been said about the painting and why we chose it.
“[We felt] so nervous [leading up to the action]. But then we also felt so excited and empowered, because I knew what we were doing would be talked about by everyone. And every single action done in Just Stop Oil has shown that we’re making history and standing on the right side of it. I always expected the amount of hate Phoebe and I got, but when it actually happens – when you wake up to more and more hate messages on your phone – it’s really difficult to deal with. I don’t think I would have been able to cope as well as I have if it hadn’t been for everyone in Just Stop Oil supporting me.
“I’ve dedicated years of my life to going on marches, signing petitions, writing letters to members of parliament, and none of that made any difference. Just Stop Oil was the first organisation that made me feel like their actions and methods would make a change. We’ve tried doing more passive actions. We’ve tried doing almost everything at this stage, and nothing has worked. All we have is nonviolent civil resistance.
“We won’t consider ourselves entirely successful at Just Stop Oil until the government releases a statement of no new oil projects. Aside from that, it’s gotten so many people talking about the climate crisis. There’s been a shift in how people view the climate crisis and activism. People know that the future is scary and that we face the extinction of humanity, but they’re also talking about what they’re going to do about it. We will not be put off by this recent crackdown on protesters. In this past decade, 1700 climate activists have been murdered around the world, just for trying to demand a better future – and that’s only the 1700 that we know of. So if in the UK, all I have to do as a white person is give up my freedom and my time, that is such a small price to pay for a future.”
21-year-old Maddie Budd is a former medical student from Herefordshire, who dropped out of uni to become a full time activist. She poured human faeces on a statue of Captain Tom in October, as part of End UK Private Jets. She was charged with criminal damage to the memorial, spent three weeks in prison and has been given a suspended sentence.
“I chose [the action] because of how outrageous it is – he’s a really loved figure, a national hero. You couldn’t find a more loved guy in terms of the British public. There are emotional tipping points within the human psyche, or the collective psyche. I don’t think it’s OK to leave it to terrible ecological events to tip people into action. We need to try and make that critical mass of people rise together as soon as possible.
“I wasn’t expecting to go to prison for it, so that was quite a shock. What has affected me the most is the people in my life, because they were hugely horrified by it and didn’t want to be associated with it. Mostly, they were scared for my safety and didn’t want me to go to prison. But since it’s happened, they have also been more understanding of the issues.
“I think political pressure is different from what I was trying to do with the action, which was more about the public. [The action] went very public, creating a big emotional response. But I think it didn’t succeed, because we’re still not looking at a huge critical mass of people in resistance. I didn’t think we would be, but that’s how I measure [success]. I’m going to keep trying different things.
“I wouldn’t do [this particular protest] again. I’m glad I tried it, but I think there is much more to try, which is completely unprecedented. The reality is, [tipping points] don’t really care about our culture. [They’re] going to keep destroying everything that we know and love. I don’t want to look back in five or 10 years time and think I could have done more.”
Activists from XR’s Animal Rebellion have been pouring milk in expensive shops and supermarkets in the past few months to raise awareness about the agricultural industry’s contribution to the climate crisis. They’re calling for the government to help farmers move away from animal farming and fishing as part of an immediate transition to a plant-based food system. Steven is a 40-year-old activist from Clacton-on-Sea who joined the group in February this year, and was part of this direct action at London’s Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges. He was arrested the day after and is currently looking at a maximum of four years in prison.
“We’ve done this type of action in the past, and it’s proven to be highly visible with civil disobedience. The members of the public were understandably shocked. They were scared, and some were very angry, but it’s a healthy response and I accept that. But I’ve also been approached by people who wanted to shake my hand in the local area, and I’ve received supportive words from my daughter’s school.
“We’ve had many questions about whether it’s a waste of food, but there are a couple of viewpoints to counter this. That milk is wasted the moment it’s stolen from the mum. It’s intended for a baby calf, and we’re stealing it. Another way of looking at it is to highlight the wastage that goes on daily regarding milk. There is so much milk wasted every year in the UK. The few pints that we spilled on that day is a drop in the ocean.
“The outcomes of the action have been successful. We’ve all been pleased to see that the action created national conversation. It was on news outlets, talk shows, animal farming and fishing in the oceans, and the damage it’s causing. It was surprising how much of the media didn’t question our demands; they accepted the experts’ opinions that rewilding is the key solution to the climate crisis.
“We’ve tried all of the other methods. We tried petitions, marches, and writing to our MPs and mayors across the country. But the government and big businesses continue to ignore us. Instead, they plunge us deeper into the climate, ecological and cost of living crises. This is all a result of our reliance on a broken food system that also thrives on the abuse of innocent beings, the destruction of our environment from farming practices, and our overreliance on fossil fuels instead of the cheaper, green options available. We strongly urge everyone to get involved in mass civil disobedience to save a future for all of our loved ones.”
Insulate Britain has become widely known for their road-blocking tactics. Last year, they blocked the M25 as part of a significant action. Emma Smart, a 45-year-old from Weymouth in Dorset, was one of the activists blocking the motorway. She was sentenced to four months in prison and spent two months inside. During the first 26 days of her sentence, Emma went on a hunger strike to symbolise 26 failed COPs. Most recently, she was dragged out of a restaurant by the police for attempting to talk to David Attenborough.
“The M25 epitomises business as usual: traffic, emissions and humanity carrying on as normal. Stopping that was quite symbolic. We have to disrupt the status quo. The climate emergency needs a massive reaction from the public, just like we saw in the pandemic. Overnight, everything had to change. There was an emergency, and the government went into emergency mode and responded to that crisis.
“Small groups of people are much more vulnerable [to being hit] on the motorway, which was terrifying. I was constantly questioning myself and was worried about the impact it would have on my family. I knew I was risking going to prison. It was very daunting. But overriding that was the urgency, belief and determination that we have such a rapidly closing window to act. I have two young nieces who are eight and six – by the time they’re old enough to take this sort of action, it will be too late. I feel a huge responsibility and a huge duty. I’m also so aware of the privilege I have living in this country that if I break the law and go to prison, I will not be tortured or shot – many people in this world don’t have that privilege. I am white, so I don’t have to face the same institutional racism that a person of colour might if they were arrested or went to prison. I can’t have that privilege and not use it.
“We broke through a kind of new level of civil resistance in that campaign, with a subject that would never get its own headlines – it’s not a particularly interesting topic. It’s now a mainstream conversation, people know the name Insulate Britain, a campaign that less than a hundred ordinary people carried out. We didn’t get the government to commit to insulating homes, but it’s certainly moved up the agenda.
“David King, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the government [2000 – 2007], said that what we do in the next three to four years will determine the fate of humanity. Those words constantly echo through my head when I’m awake at three o’clock in the morning. They’re what drives me. In 10 years time, I don’t want to look back and go: “I could have done something at that critical point in history.”