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Tomato soup, a famous painting and a viral clip. What makes a protest work?

Climate activists Just Stop Oil certainly got the media talking with their latest action. But is that enough?

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21 October 2022, 3.39pm

Just Stop Oil activists throw tomato soup over Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'

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Rich Felgate. All rights reserved

Last week, two Just Stop Oil activists threw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s world-famous ‘Sunflowers’ painting in London’s National Gallery, then glued themselves to the gallery wall.

Just Stop Oil formed earlier this year to protest against new oil and gas extraction in the UK. The painting, which is protected by glass, was not damaged.

The action prompted strong emotional reactions from the public, both positive and negative. Some fellow activists criticised the stunt. Others defended it, and likened the duo involved to other ‘unpopular’ activists of the past, whose tactics ‘worked’.

But what does it mean for a protest to ‘work’? Just Stop Oil’s action certainly attracted massive media attention, but is raising awareness enough?

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An undervalued but powerful outcome of protest is the ability to shift the narrative. An analysis of world protests between 2006 and 2020 found that direct action protests “can have a significant impact in reframing debates and bringing issues into the global political agenda”.

Take the Occupy movement from a decade ago. Micah White, the former editor of Adbusters magazine, who helped to spark the movement, deemed Occupy Wall Street “a constructive failure”. But the group’s slogan, ‘We are the 99%’, is now known the world over, and has helped to bring about new discussions of inequality and the 1%.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) – a group for which I was once a former spokesperson – has also helped to shift the ‘Overton window’ (the range of policies the mainstream population considers acceptable) on climate change, bringing the terms ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate crisis’ and ‘net zero’ into everyday conversation. But XR’s main goal was to build a mass movement in order to create political change, so many members feel that it has failed.

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XR believed that it would inspire mass civil disobedience that would result in prisons full of activists. An early tactic, when I was still involved in the movement, was to try to win over specific groups, such as influential figures (we courted celebrities) and even the police. But this idea fell flat on its face when protesters delivering flowers to police stations were heavily criticised by other social justice activists. The fill-the-jails tactic was also criticised because of how it would impact people of colour and working-class people.

A turning point came in 2019 when XR activists disrupted London’s Canning Town tube station at rush hour. It lost us public support and divided the movement. Those defending the action argued that we didn’t need to win people over, because, as protests became increasingly disruptive, the government would enforce draconian measures to prevent them. The resulting laws would so outrage the British public that they would trigger the public uprising needed for revolution that XR itself could not achieve.

Therefore, who cared whether or not people liked the tactics?

Does popularity matter?

Just Stop Oil is one of a number of XR splinter groups, including Insulate Britain and End UK Private Jets, who are continuing with this basic theory. Insulate Britain doesn’t care that it has lost public support because of its road blockades, and Just Stop Oil often clashes with the public.

After the Van Gogh action, a Just Stop Oil spokesperson said: “We are not trying to make friends here, we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.”

Where XR relied on individual donors and public donations, Just Stop Oil is funded by the US-based Climate Emergency Fund, so they don’t need people to like them to keep going. However, guaranteed funding doesn’t guarantee success.

By alienating people instead of appealing to them, Just Stop Oil is losing the chance to negotiate with political leaders

Just Stop Oil’s disruptive actions are not necessarily affecting the public’s desire for action on the climate crisis. According to surveys conducted earlier this year, soon after Just Stop Oil was formed, 58% of UK adults support their demands, but 57% are against the group itself.

However, social scientists generally agree that to be successful, social movements “must include the rank and file of the constituencies they are representing in decisions concerning goals and tactics”. They also need to “cultivate ‘conscience’ constituencies”, meaning “sympathisers, celebrities, patrons – who may not directly benefit from the movement’s goals but are willing to contribute money, facilities, equipment, access to media and other resources.”

On its website, Just Stop Oil celebrates “enabling a conversation”. But the aforementioned world protest research shows that this – and the media attention it requires – is typically not enough to succeed. Activists also need to pressure governments, take part in backroom negotiations with political leaders, and build alliances with powerful actors to achieve their aims. By alienating people instead of appealing to them, Just Stop Oil is losing the chance to negotiate with political leaders.

Research on Just Stop Oil concludes: “Due to existing high levels of climate concern in the UK, it’s possible that broadly trying to increase concern for climate change is now less effective than it was in previous years.”

Three-quarters of UK adults said they were worried about the impact of climate change, when polled last October, just before the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. A poll from 2020 found that 65% of the UK population wants to see the UK government shifting the subsidies it currently provides to domestic oil and gas companies to instead support clean energy and energy efficiency. Just Stop Oil doesn’t need to win people over on this, which is why the public already agrees with their demands. However, reducing oil use overnight would lead to even higher costs to British people, since the current energy crisis is currently due to insufficient access to fossil fuels.

Ultimately, concrete government policies are the metric to watch, rather than the number of likes on a viral video – regardless of whether those policies relate to the right to vote, civil rights, net-zero goals or stopping drilling for oil and gas.

I want to see fossil fuels left in the ground as much as the next environmentalist, but the climate crisis movement – which regularly complains that the world just isn’t listening – needs to stop believing that attention alone will lead to success. They need to find tactics that speak to people instead of annoying them. And if they really want to succeed, they need to heed their own advice and follow the science on how social movements work.

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