Are the climate activists the new generation of Suffragettes?
Lydia Carter presents illustrations of climate outrage. Is the Just Stop Oil group an accurate representation of the Suffragettes from the century of old? If so, are preventative protesting laws adding monstrous fuel to an already raging fire?
The recent outcry at the protests of climate activist groups such as Just Stop Oil has sparked the new governmental bill enforcing stricter laws on protesting. Does this new bill restrict our freedom and independence to peacefully protest by silencing our views?
In October 2022, a pair of protesters threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s renowned painting Sunflowers and then glued themselves to the wall with 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer declaring “what is worth more art or life?”. The message of these activists is clear: do we care more about destroyed art over the destruction of lives from climate change? Some have questioned the manner in which it is done. Is it necessary to threaten cultural heritage in such a way that has angered most of the population? An unnamed witness to the event commented that “they may be trying to get people to think about the issues but all they end up doing is getting people really annoyed and angry”.
Another ‘peaceful protest’ was when the group marched slowly through the roads of Whitechapel in December, causing traffic blockages and extreme road rage. Not only was their protest ironic (traffic blockages would cause more CO2 and fossil fuels in the air from longer car journeys) but it was also dangerous and massively inconvenient. Described by the police as “an accident waiting to happen”, their protests are a danger to the public. One truck driver dangerously ploughed across a field to overtake the protesting group which put the public on the road at harm. His frustration is understandable when these protests affect daily lives and routines. After a separate traffic disruption on the M25, 57-year-old Jan Goody was sentenced to six months in prison due to the dangers that she posed to the cars on the motorway.
The new bill, described as a “serious disruption prevention order” tightens police scrutiny and security against protesting groups interfering with transport, infrastructure and disruptive acts. With currently 13 Just Stop Oil protestors arrested and sentenced to time in prison, some of the general public have questioned whether this is a breach of the right to protest.
It can be argued that the Just Stop Oil protests are dramatic, disruptive and even “ridiculous” as commented by one of the organisation’s own members. The ridiculousness of the events is what promotes media attention and so highlights the cause to a wider audience. Our society prides itself on our freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest. Although the activists are inconvenient, they have not permanently damaged paintings nor caused direct harm to people. Imprisoning people for peacefully protesting goes against our nation’s values and rights. It is undeniable that the protests have caused anger and fury from the public, but in actuality, the paintings weren’t permanently harmed and the marching walks only angered, not hurt, anyone.
The ridiculousness of the events is what promotes media attention and so highlights the cause to a wider audience.
The imprisonment of climate activists parallels with the suffragettes who were imprisoned for protesting for their rights. We have not learnt from history if we repeat these actions. Imprisoning suffragettes only hindered their cause, a cause that the majority of the population would agree was right. There have been threats of paintings being slashed by the activist group, in a similar way to the suffragettes slashing paintings for their beliefs. Worryingly, the drastic starvation techniques used by suffragettes could be adopted by the imprisoned activists too. From these examples of history, imprisoning those exerting their right to protest is an oppression of voice and freedom of speech. It also gives the police further reason for random searches and greater power which, after the Black Lives Matter movement, gives cause for concern to people that have been unfairly and racially targeted in the past.
The extreme measures to control climate activists give greater power to the police and diminish the public’s voice. Perhaps the drastic actions are because of their voices being silenced in the past. Instead of imprisoning protestors, maybe we should listen to them to move forwards in our lives without disruptive or inconvenient protests.