Image: Unsplash/Julia Joppien

The surprising thing about disruptive protests: they work!

Once in every couple of headlines this summer, one could read new exclusive details on the most recent protest by Just Stop Oil, at times mildly disruptive and potentially illegal. The climate activist group, which first came to media attention after a series of protests in March 2022, has sparked debates around the efficiency of their methods. Do their disruptive methods deter people from the wider climate change movement, or do they bring much-needed attention to the matter?

Just Stop Oil is mostly funded by the Climate Emergency Fund, an American network dedicated to financing climate activism. The group protests the government handing out “future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK”. It has gained heavy media coverage this summer. Amongst other disruptions, it has stopped a set at Wimbledon by throwing orange confetti on the court, interrupted a game at the World Snooker Championship, blocked roads such as the M25 motorway, and thrown soup on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, dubbed the Wimbledon protest “unacceptable” and is now looking to “help tackle serious disruption of this kind.” Moreover, the government has been passing laws to make some of their disruptive tactics, like roadblocks and locking on to objects, illegal.

Voices online are widely divided on the topic

But the verdict on whether Just Stop Oil is helping its cause has not gone beyond the courtroom of public opinion. Voices online are widely divided on the topic, with some accusing the protesters of going too far and others claiming disruptive methods are the only way to gain attention. Where does the truth lie?

In short, the experts contradict the wider public on this question. A February YouGov poll shows 78% of Britons think disruptive protests do more harm than good for the protesters’ cause. In contrast, James Ozden, the Director of Social Change Lab, who organised the survey, said: “The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement’s success.” This comes after an academic survey of 120 experts in Sociology, Political Science, and other relevant disciplines found that 69% of experts thought that disruptive tactics were effective for issues that have high public awareness and support.

Whether we like it or not, the history of social change is also a history of political contestation and disruption

–Professor Bart Cammaerts, London School of Economics

One respondent to the survey, Prof Bart Cammaerts of the London School of Economics, said: “Whether we like it or not, the history of social change is also a history of political contestation and disruption. Disruption of everyday life is often the best way to receive media attention, generate visibility for a cause, and above all to push political and economic elites to compromise and accept change, if only to protect their own interests.” Additionally, irrespective of the amount of dislike and criticism individuals face for their actions, the cause doesn’t lose followers. Ultimately, there are some studies that emulate the “activist’s dilemma”, wherein “extreme protest actions”, such as vandalising property or road blocking, can diminish support for a cause.

In response to the survey results, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil said: “There are two strands to civil resistance. One is disruption and the next is dialogue. Time and again, we see that public disruption is necessary to spark the conversations that result in much-needed political pressure.” It has become apparent the message is better received by civil society when disruptive action is used. For example, the British press more than doubled mentions of housing insulations after the debate stirred by the Insulate Britain campaign in 2021.

I see why people get angry about it, but it does get us talking and that is important

–Gary Lineker

However, some groups have started to move away from radical activities as their go-to strategy. For example, in January, Extinction Rebellion announced their new strategy is to “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks.”

Just Stop Oil still has a long way to go in achieving its end goal, as the government announces that it is going to grant at least 100 new licenses for oil and gas exploration and production in the North Sea. Regardless of their methods, as Gary Lineker puts it, “I see why people get angry about it, but it does get us talking and that is important.”


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