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‘Activism not relaxism’: Just Stop Oil protestor explains direct action tactics

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There are few things more certain to inflame social media than protests by the group Just Stop Oil.

The activist group is demanding the UK government commit to halting all new fossil fuel developments, and have made their point with a series of eye-catching demonstrations.

Members of the group have superglued themselves to road surfaces, invaded motorway bridges and and attempted to disrupt this year’s British Grand Prix.

The images are stark, the reactions often furious, but who are these people? Ask in a social media comment section and you’ll get a deluge of replies, not many of them positive, describing Just Stop Oil activists as anything from naive children to neo-Marxist revolutionaries intent on destroying western society.

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Jennifer Kowalski, 26, from Glasgow, is an environmental scientist who was arrested in London last month for throwing paint over a Rolex window. That was Plan B. Plan A was getting audience tickets for Graham Norton – the activist is a huge fan of American popstar Taylor Swift and hoped to convert her to the climate cause.

Jennifer Kowalski, 26, from Glasgow is an environmental scientist who was arrested in London last month for allegedly throwing paint over a Rolex window.

She and fellow members of her group were branded “lunatics” by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, while the government has passed far-reaching new laws cracking down on protest in response to their actions. Tory MP Gareth Johnson this week called for the group to be made a proscribed organisation – usually reserved for terrorist groups.

Earlier this month leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer told protestors to “get up, go home” and accused them of disrupting scientists and others who are working to solve the climate crisis.

It’s not an argument which holds much water for Miss Kowalski, who has experience in doing things the ‘right’ way, and ultimately found her labour of love wasn’t making the necessary impact.

Having obtained a bachelors degree in biology with first class honours from the University of Aberdeen, she took on an internship in environmental analysis with Zero Waste Scotland before going on to work for one of the UK’s leading environmental consultancies.

She told The Herald: “I went on to environmental science after leaving Uni. I’ve worked for the government, I’ve worked for environmental consultancies, NGOs.

“Throughout my experience working for these different groups I realised the work that needs to happen to solve the climate crisis is just not happening at the pace that’s needed.

HeraldScotland:

“There’s no single entity or group that’s doing enough and collectively we’re so far behind what needs to happen, we’re so far behind what the experts are calling for and the change that’s needed.

“Being an environmental scientist I realised that, yes, that’s valuable work and there are thousands of scientists across the UK working on transition and changing society to fit around climate change and prevent it getting worse.

“But none of that matters if the UK government isn’t willing to listen and isn’t willing to actually do what is needed.”

While her background is in science, Miss Kowalski believes the greatest threat to the climate is a lack of political will to tackle the big issues.

She says: “I enjoyed doing the work I was doing beforehand it just wasn’t at the pace or scale that’s needed.

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“I actually started my first job at a very interesting time where Extinction Rebellion’s first huge protest was going on at around the same time.

“So on the one hand I could see, ‘oh there are people who totally get this and are willing to put their bodies on the line to get that message across’ and there are people in the office who I’m working with where it’s just a job for them. It’s literally just about making money and following the status quo and that’s all it is.

“I could see people on TV and in the media who got it, who realised how bad an issue this is, that this is life and death right now, and people who didn’t really care – or at least didn’t see the issue despite working in environmental science.

“I joined different groups in Glasgow and was trying to find the right people, people who understand how bad the climate crisis is.”

It was around this time she first started working with Just Stop Oil, having been left frustrated by the narrative around the COP climate crisis summit being held in her home city.

Miss Kowalski says: “I was working for an environmental consultancy, and I was talking about COP26 – it’s a huge conversation, obviously.

“But when I gave my views on it I was told my views weren’t OK to share. I was basically stating that this conference is, in many ways, a waste of time and isn’t going to achieve anything and, lo and behold, it didn’t achieve anything.

“I made the point about doing activism that’s not relaxism – stuff that’s not just easy to forget about but that actually disrupts the messaging, because it was all pretty much greenwashing.

HeraldScotland: Climate activist Jennifer Kowalski pictured in GlasgowClimate activist Jennifer Kowalski pictured in Glasgow (Image: Colin Mearns)

“So many people like Extinction Rebellion, like Just Stop Oil, are willing to put their bodies on the line and say ‘enough is enough’.

“I was later asked to fill out a feedback form for the company I was working for and I spoke about the fact they were willing to silence people who thought that activism was the right way to go, they were putting profit ahead of the climate crisis when people are already being killed by it.

“I was told my values didn’t align with theirs, so they fired me from the job I was in and at that point I thought ‘my value system has always been to protect life, to protect people – that’s what I care about the most and if that means I can’t work for consultancies or in certain parts of the environmental sector I’m not going to do that’.”

Critics of the movement, however, would say that far from holding the powerful to account, such protests are only inconveniencing working people.

Can making people on minimum wage late for work really be justified?

Miss Kowalski says: “A lot of the disruption that we cause does affect people, which is not what we want to do.

“The aim isn’t to disrupt people or get in the way of everyday life. We don’t want to be doing that and we have deep sympathy for the fact taking direct action can cause that or create harm.

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“It’s not at all ideal but the bigger picture is that this form of disruption and harm to people’s lives is going to happen anyway. It’s guaranteed at this point because of the temperature rise we’ve already created and the effect that’s going to have on our natural systems.

HeraldScotland: Climate activist Jennifer Kowalski pictured in GlasgowClimate activist Jennifer Kowalski pictured in Glasgow (Image: Colin Mearns)

“We’ve already seen thousands of additional deaths this summer due to the heatwave. Flooding has disrupted London recently. Flooding has displaced 33m people in Pakistan, 16m of them children.

“These things are about as disruptive as it gets and it’s through direct action that we see a way to prevent that getting worse.

“When we look at the bigger picture it’s just a case of what is necessary to do. Many of us within Just Stop Oil are scientists like me. Many, many people have had similar experiences where they’ve seen that their work just isn’t enough.

“What we need to do is take direct action and disrupt people to get our message across.

“There are people who are affected and people who hate seeing this direct action happen but, as a scientist, it’s just fundamentally necessary at this point.

“It’s what’s been done throughout history to create change, from the civil rights movement to the suffragettes, to bringing down the Berlin Wall: people created disruption and they fought against the things that were wrong in their society or that were imposed by their government.

“Change has never been created by simply voting or by writing to your MP. These are important things but they alone don’t make change.

“We need as many people as we can doing as many different things as they can, whether that’s going on marches, voting or actually sitting on the road.

“I fundamentally believe that it’s direct action that is going to be a huge part of the answer.

“We’re always just grounded in the fact we know we’re doing the right thing. We know that with the climate crisis constantly getting worse, with the cost of living crisis as well and the fact the government doesn’t really care about protecting everyday people that by standing up against that we’re doing something good and we’re doing something right.

“No matter what they throw at us we can be reminded of that, and when people do come and support us it’s another reminder of that. It’s really worth it to know you’re doing the right thing.

“It something that means a lot to me, to know that whatever tragedies are going on in the world or whatever tragedies happen in my life, at least I’m trying to do everything I can to make the world a better place.”

Another common refrain on social media is that the protestors are coming from a place of privilege – a kind of middle-class hippy activism.

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Miss Kowalski responds: “It’s interesting that we’re called the upper class, or rich people, when many of us are working class or not at all rich by any means, whereas the people in our government really are the upper class.

HeraldScotland: Climate activist Jennifer Kowalski pictured in GlasgowClimate activist Jennifer Kowalski pictured in Glasgow (Image: Colin Mearns)

“They’re extremely wealthy people, yet somehow the government and the billionaire-owned media have managed to write the narrative that it’s us who are out of touch.

“We know that the government is well-funded by the fossil fuel industry. Liz Truss was largely funded by them for her campaign and has worked for Shell. Rishi Sunak is worth millions. These are the upper class, these are the elite, these are the wealthy.

“Many of them have a stake in the oil industry, or at least a stake in the status quo. They’ve got something to gain by keeping things the way they are and from tax cuts for the wealthy – even if that hurts the poor it gives them more so that’s what they care about.

“We see right through that, we’re aware they’ve made the cost of living crisis worse to benefit the wealthy people who own these fossil fuel companies. They’ve decided to make us poorer, hungrier and colder so people who have more than enough money simply have more.

“It’s just ridiculous, it makes absolutely no sense and it makes no sense that people are willing to just take that and accept it. So we’re really trying to show we don’t have to. We’re trying to show we can resist that and say ‘enough is enough’ and create change, create better for the people this government is supposed to help.”

Just Stop Oil may make Piers Morgan and TalkRadio host Mike Graham – who famously suggested it was possible to ‘grow’ concrete – fume, but Miss Kowalski says the reaction is not always negative.

While their protests can attract vitriol, members of the public frequently show acts of kindness and solidarity.

She explains: “The last action I did we spray painted a Rolex shop in London.

“It wasn’t a hugely public setting so it wasn’t a space where people would get directly angry because we’re not blocking cars or anything.

“I got arrested a lot quicker than I thought I would because a police officer just happened to be passing by. I was just kind of stopped and handcuffed and I was in cuffs for about half an hour before other officers turned up.

“I was in a very vulnerable situation, and while I was lucky that there weren’t many people around, window cleaners that were called in and they were quite angry and at one point one said something along the lines of, ‘I’ll pour water all over you’.

“There was one passer-by who stopped and asked if I needed any water, I said I didn’t but they went and bought me a bottle of water anyway.

“I don’t know how I would have drunk it because I was in handcuffs! But the gesture spoke a lot louder.”

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