Louis McKechnie is the face that launched a thousand British football memes. In March, the 21-year-old caused a stop to play when he ran onto the pitch at Goodison Park during a match between Everton and Newcastle and zip-tied himself to a goalpost by his neck.
If anything could have enraged the 40,000 jeering football fans more, it was the solemnity with which he did it. But while for many the episode will have merely been jotted down as another entry in the annals of absurdity, his cause was deadly serious.
A day earlier, Maddie, 21, and Kai, 20—who did not give their surnames—attempted to stage a similar action at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in north London. Kai took a long pause and looked around him at the slowly filling stands before describing how he felt about what they had planned. “Every single second I spend here, I want to do what I’m going to do less, because I can see everyone just trying to have a nice time,” he said. “But I know it’s what is right; I know that it has to happen.”
Louis, Maddie, and Kai are all young activists with a climate group called Just Stop Oil. They have called on the UK government to halt all new fossil fuel projects in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. If their efforts fail, they intend to paralyze the supply chain themselves, using non-violent direct action to disrupt the strategic oil and gas infrastructure that keeps the UK moving.
The ambition is big. “We are mobilizing upwards of 1,000 people,” one JSO activist told the Guardian. “This is going to be a fusion of other large-scale blockade-style actions you have seen in the past.”
Just Stop Oil say they are taking inspiration from UK truck drivers’ protests in 2000, when, furious at a rise in fuel duty, haulers and farmers staged blockades that paralyzed petrol distribution. Hundreds of gas stations ran dry, leading to empty shelves in supermarkets, delays to mail deliveries, and schools being closed. Protests ended after the government said it would order soldiers to secure deliveries, but they won: then-chancellor Gordon Brown announced in that year’s budget that fuel duty would be frozen.
But where 20 years ago those protesters enjoyed public support in their campaign against rising prices, Just Stop Oil’s target is the fossil fuel system itself. While polling shows large majorities regard the climate as one of the most important issues of the moment, it’s unclear whether that understanding would continue if the pumps were empty.
At a recruitment meeting last Thursday in Camden, north London, Larch Maxey, a veteran eco-campaigner, said the aim was “to build a community of civil resistance in response to the climate change science.”
“In 2022 you have got tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers spelling out the climate science,” he said. Authorities such as David Attenborough and David King, the former government chief science officer, were in agreement, he said: There is a narrow window of two to three years in which to act. “We are facing the end of civilization if we do not act on the climate emergency. We are heading towards societal collapse.”
“When your house is on fire, you stop pouring petrol on the flames,” he said. “That’s basically the demand—no new licenses. We are in a crisis. Let’s stop digging out new oil and gas.”
Just Stop Oil doesn’t just share rhetoric with Extinction Rebellion, it sits within an arc of escalation that began with that group’s blockades of five Thames bridges in 2018. Since then, the environmental movement has continued to explore new non-violent tactical provocations to draw attention to its demands.
Many of those involved are, like Maxey, veterans of XR and the HS2 protests; McKechnie is one of a number who took action with Insulate Britain. As with those groups, the silhouette of Roger Hallam also looms behind Just Stop Oil. Although the Guardian has been told it is wrong to describe Hallam as the mastermind of this latest campaign, he featured prominently in early coverage of its activities.
The key shift in Just Stop Oil is what its supporters say is a move from civil disobedience and into civil resistance. What that means, as Jess Causby, 25, a supporter of the campaign, told the Guardian last month, “is stopping pointing out what the government should or shouldn’t be doing [and instead] actively stopping government doing what they shouldn’t be.”
The question is whether they can pull it off. The record of actions attended by Guardian reporters has not immediately seemed propitious. Young activists who tried to storm the red carpet at the BAFTAs two weeks ago misjudged how difficult it would be to reach, and ended up blocking its road entrance instead. Kai and Maddie were intercepted before they could prove a nuisance at Arsenal. A small group who tried to disrupt play at Tottenham were also swiftly handled.
Their next plan is to tackle a much bigger target, and they can expect to be anticipated. Oil companies have already begun to make preparations. What will happen next remains to be seen.