Credit: Creative Commons

Demystifying direct action: in conversation with Just Stop Oil

By Niamh Flanagan

The Glasgow Guardian sat down with a third year student and member of Just Stop Oil to discuss the media treatment of the organisation and the personal toll activism can take.

Just Stop Oil (JSO) have risen to national notoriety in the past month, ever since activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery on 14 October. Following these remarkable scenes, there has been a spate of direct actions undertaken by JSO across Britain, with protestors glueing themselves onto busy roads in city centres, spray painting significant buildings, and even throwing cake over a waxwork model of the King in Madame Tussauds.

Despite what appears to be quite a clear mission statement: that the UK government halt the issuing of all new fossil fuel licences, JSO seems to confound much of the British public. I must confess myself to involuntarily recoiling and being left with a sense of slight bewilderment as I watched the now infamous clip of tomato soup splattering across one of the most indisputably beautiful paintings in history. Footage has emerged of disgruntled members of the British public dragging activists out of the road, and indeed JSO protestors were the subject of the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s rant against the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” of Britain, as she condemned such a demographic for empowering protesters.

Seeking enlightenment, I reached out to Scotland’s branch of JSO and sat down with member and University of Glasgow student Cat Scothorne to discuss her experience of involvement.

Cat became involved in JSO after friends of hers from the UofG Extinction Rebellion society were contacted by activists from England about helping to set up the Scottish branch of JSO in January 2022. Frustrated by a lack of success from more passive forms of climate protest she had participated in, Cat felt like involvement in the kind of civil resistance undertaken by JSO was the next logical step.

With the movement being as student focused as it is, I asked Cat about her opinion on the University of Glasgow’s role in regard to climate responsibility. She referenced that other universities in England had committed, because of student activism, to ban the advertisement of graduate jobs in the fossil fuel industry. “Glasgow University feels very far from that” she admits, “it reminds me of corporate greenwashing; Shell say they invest 3% of their profits into renewables without mentioning their primary purpose is oil extraction. The University is nowhere near as bad, but they do put on this progressive front about being super green, but still are linked to big banks which invest in fossil fuels. They’ve committed to divesting from fossil fuels in theory but haven’t actually done it yet”. Cat also recalls the University’s rejection of a Green New Deal proposed by student activists – “I know so many people who put their degrees on the line to put so much time into that and they just completely rejected it…They didn’t care”.

We discussed the occupation of the James McCune Smith Learning Hub undertaken by JSO protestors in September, with Cat acknowledging that there wasn’t as big of an increase in membership that they might have liked afterwards. She commented that “Students are often in quite a good position to do activism, not always, but especially when they are quite privileged as I consider myself to be.” Despite this, Cat accepted there are a number of “valid reasons” students might feel they cannot get involved. Speaking of their own involvement, Cat said that “It’d be nice to just go to university and have fun, but I just feel that’s so wrong in this situation when our own university and government are helping to drive the crisis”.

Our conversation moved to the more outlandish forms of protest that have proliferated in the last month or so (cake and soup throwing and the like), and the barrage of criticism that has emerged in response. Cat expressed frustration at much of the criticism; “People say go target someone more relevant, go target the oil industry, and I actually have a criminal record because in April I went down south and targeted the oil industry, and the media just didn’t report on it. At one point there was an estimation that one in three petrol distribution centres in the south of England were running dry because we’d shut them, but the media was deliberately not reporting on it, which felt like such a disservice to all these young people putting their liberty on the line”. Cat continued, “People tell us to stick to stuff that makes more sense but then it doesn’t get reported, and we don’t get the attention we need”.

On social media I’ve observed a huge amount of vitriol directed toward JSO members and was interested as to Cat’s experience of this, as a manager of the Scottish branch social media: “It’s just mad, like I’ll get sent direct messages of just someone’s d**k. People comment saying ‘next time you all have a meeting I’m going to show up and tell you what I think of you’ and threaten things which I try not to take very seriously, but it does have a mental effect.” Talking about where she thinks the hate comes from, Cat remarked “Obviously doing such extreme things such as getting yourself a criminal record, facing potential prison time, huge fines and public outrage wouldn’t be a normal or rational thing to do if there wasn’t such an insane situation in front of us, so when people don’t understand how bad the situation is they find it hard to understand”.

Cat acknowledges that the perception of JSO as having little regard for working class people, for example in the blocking of roads for people commuting to work, was something they could definitely improve- but also highlighted that: “The steps needed to fight the climate crisis are also needed to stop the cost-of-living crisis, such as insulation and free public transport”, drawing attention to the fact that JSO protestors made a concerted effort to attend many picket lines of striking workers over the summer in solidarity with working class causes. Cat also explained that JSO works alongside ex-oil workers who provide them key insights about what working for the industry is like and help to spread the message that “We’re all being exploited by the oil industry, and we all need a way out.”

I was intrigued as to Cat’s extensive experience with the police at such a young age, and she revealed that she is under legal curfew following her involvement in direct action for JSO and other organisations, originally set as a 7am-7pm curfew this summer. This was extended to 11pm but Cat had to get a late-night job and go to court every week for a month for this to happen. To check that she was following the 7-11 curfew police used to come to Cat’s house daily, at 2 or 3am, and make her show her face – if she didn’t, they could issue an automatic arrest warrant.

“One time I was at my parents’ house, it was 11pm, the doorbell rang, and I answered to be told by police I was under arrest, that a warrant for my arrest had been out since Tuesday because I had failed to show up for the check. I explained I must have been asleep and not heard it. They took me out to the police station… I was just watching TV with my parents. It was crazy.” Cat continued, “My lawyer told me that this kind of treatment they save for activists and sex offenders… I’m just so angry that hating war crimes and the funding of apartheid is seen with that disgust and they think it’s ok to harass a nineteen-year-old girl”. In addition to these shocking revelations, Cat spoke of tactics of pain compliance used by police at protests and the very common practice of strip searches when entering police stations experienced by her and many of her peers.

I asked Cat about what I felt must be an inevitable impact on her mental health. “It’s been hard. It’s things like I won’t be able to go home for Christmas… Other people have been affected without me meaning for them to get caught up in it, which makes me feel really bad… A lot of strain is applied which I think is all deliberate from their end.” Cat did comment that some of her lecturers at the University had supplied statements that helped to get the extension of her curfew. The Arts Advising Team was apparently less cooperative and were unable to provide any support in the time frame needed for Cat to get the extension.

Despite the huge personal toll, Cat doesn’t regret her involvement. “I have some wobbles where I’m just like what have I done? But then they don’t last very long because I’ve done activism for so long and feel very confident in my beliefs and how necessary this is. It is really hard hearing people you respect questioning why you do this but when you’ve heard speeches given by people in the global South about their homes going underwater, that’s the kind of thing I just can’t forget.”


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments