The recent performative attack by two Just Stop Oil activists, where soup was thown on a Van Gogh painting, resulted in widespread publicity and debate over tactics. As an artist who is embedded in the visual arts world, I was initially shocked by the action – which was staged to imply destruction of an artwork – until I considered the history of environmental protest and non-violent direct action.
Many reduced the protest to a question of whether it just polarised the public against climate activism or changed anyone’s view.
Protest and change don’t work like that. The effect of a single action can’t easily be assessed as to what effect it might have on the overall movement. Each action, by individuals or groups, feeds an overall momentum.
Many activists have spent decades writing letters, gathering petition signatures, lobbying parliamentarians, organising peaceful marches of varying sizes, and joining noisy but peaceful protests. Along the way they’ve suffered the vitriol of naysayers as well as the rain, the ignorance of some politicians and the sometimes biased, sometimes ignorant media (if the media can be induced to cover a story at all).
Those who attack Just Stop Oil and call for only non-disruptive actions are likely unaware of the history of the environment and climate movements and the rigorous thought that has gone into strategies over these decades. It is not that long ago that mass rallies and marches related to environmental concerns were common; Greta Thunberg’s Skolstrejk för klimatet garnered hundreds of thousands at times – Wikipedia puts the numbers at greater than one million in March 2019 and four million worldwide in September 2019. Politicians and media often ridiculed them either as too young to have cogent opinions or imperilling their education when they spent an afternoon protesting. Parents often supported their children’s activism.
Young people see those in power as ignoring reasoned voices and mass peaceful protest while their futures look ever bleaker and business as usual continues, after the initial hope of post-covid changes. And it’s not just the young. For many years environmental protesters were side-lined as wild counterculture hippies out of touch with reality. Now, reality backs many of those voices – in the pages of ‘Science’ and countless UN reports that warn of imminent tipping points, a future of extreme weather for the lucky and mass inundation, land loss and death for the unlucky (who are usually poorer and often less to blame). Meanwhile, corporates and hand-tied politicians continue as if very little was wrong, even when councils and countries have declared climate emergencies.
When governments refuse or are unable to stand up to business lobbying, greenwashing and decades of often clearly documented corporate lying and obfuscation, and the media treat peaceful protest as non-newsworthy, the call for non-disruptive actions becomes an attempt at wilful dismissal.
Many historical changes in policies of inequity have been effected by long-term and wide-ranging protest tactics. Many have forgotten that these were frequently hard-won battles against entrenched and monetarily-backed views which were initially not widely supported. Often diverse, non-strategic and ragged groups working semi-independently would act at various levels and suffer verbal and physical attack from an unsupportive public.
In most long term campaigns of change there are those who write letters and academic papers, those attempt to meet with politicians, others who talk on tv and radio, create websites, those who blog or document injustice, organise or turn up for marches and street actions and those who act more directly and are prepared to confront and get arrested. Each one of these actions, singly, appears to have little or no effect. But collectively and over time, with repetition, reinforcement and immense effort, each can add to a forward momentum that might result in change.
The global anti-apartheid movement acted internally and worldwide to bring attention to the South African government’s racist policies, from the 1950s until the end of apartheid in the 1990s. Actions were varied, including petitions, street protest, and attempts at a trade, cultural and sporting boycott with racially picked teams. In Aotearoa/New Zealand the latter involved attempts to stop rugby games between the Springboks and All Blacks, resulting in confrontation with the public and police. These protests split opinion over tactics and effects but protestors occupying the pitches of stalled games chanted ‘the whole world is watching’ and later found that their actions gave renewed hope to the then-jailed Nelson Mandela and others in South Africa.
Also in Aotearoa, wide-ranging action was taken against French nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. The testing was initially above ground but even the below-ground testing endangered thousands of Pacific Islands people and irradiated islands, causing long-lasting pollution. Again, all forms of action were taken, including boats that sailed into testing zones to disrupt French operations.
The actions against a racist government and another that endangered people and environment finally resulted in lasting changes for the better, although the toll on many activists was severe. In Aotearoa the French even resorted to state terrorism against protest, blowing up a Greenpeace boat in Auckland harbour which killed a Portuguese-Dutch photographer. The French government referred to their own actions (prior to being found out as the perpetrators) as a terrorist act, and then celebrated the government agents that planted the bombs.
Other examples of successful long term campaigns are the global actions against the Vietnam war through the 1960s and 70s, which eventually turned the tide of public opinion against the US government’s activity, and the Suffragette movement which brought about votes for women. In fact, while Aotearoa allowed women to vote in 1893, Britain continued to refuse. Newspapers there ridiculed the movement (the term suffragette was initially a term of belittlement coined by a Daily Mail journalist) and the actions became more direct, with women being beaten for speaking out, and imprisoned. Women in the UK only gained full voting rights in 1928 after a long and at times violent battle, with disagreements over the aggressive tactics.
These examples all describe political changes that happen slowly and with a diverse range of interventions. Movements have groups that don’t always work together or even agree on tactics, and many vested interests work against change even when the call for it is widely supported. The public are often not on side initially, and politicians are regularly decades behind in their thinking and lobbied hard by those who would lose power or money.
Movements can change in their effectiveness and can often be co-opted by less supportive groups, for instance the takeover of child abuse hashtags by far right groups. Infiltrators can provoke or undermine action in ways that demoralise and defang groups e.g. police targeting and surveillance of legitimate protesters in the UK, NZ and many other countries.
Some protests move to violent actions in the face of frustration. So far, most environmental activism shies away from this and many activists are trained specifically in non-violent action and resistance along the lines of Gandhi’s movement in India.
Confrontational protest isn’t always on the side of movements we might all agree with. Anti-abortion protests have involved much direct action and violence for years, as have the recent conspiracy-laden anti covid vaccine protests. Right wing racist movements also try some of the same tactics.
Climate change is one part of an environmental and consumer-culture campaign that has been active in many ways since at least the 1960s. There are individuals who are effective in research that informs scientific evidence, and those who are more comfortable in actions that target politicians with letters or appearances at government select committees. Others are better at bringing sound-bite arguments for change to the media or in organisation of mass marches.
Right now, at the coca cola COP27 UN summit, world leaders and corporates are gathering to try to implement previous COP requirements and to work out whether and how to help poorer communities who are likely to be more directly affected by climate change, while having contributed less to the causes. We’ll see lowest common denominator statements, many of which will be ignored, delayed and obfuscated over. Meanwhile the Egyptian hosts are arresting some activists and side-lining others and making participation by NGOs extremely hard. It’s becoming clear that the COP27 app downloaded by 5000 attendees already, has spy-level permissions that may give authorities the ability to read email, listen in using phone microphones and view images for ‘security purposes’. One has to wonder why a vitally important series of UN talks is sponsored by a global corporate responsible for massive plastic pollution, where business interests get access to meetings and speakers while groups that try to bring the voice of the public have been pushed to the fringes or even disallowed.
The argument of this piece is that protest and engagement by the people who are most affected by climate change and environmental issues in general is becoming more and more circumscribed both by the authorities, by global organisations who might set regulations and by the media who require more juicy material for their pages.
While throwing soup at paintings may not have the most obvious connections with climate change, it indicates the frustration and anxiety that is affecting more and more ordinary people who have tried other forms of protest. This one protest continues to create debate over its tactics and effectiveness. Given that another direct action, at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, which directly targeted the use of private planes, is already starting to fade away from news and commentary, we can expect more creative, desperate and obscure types of action.
Personally, I currently remain more comfortable creating art and writing. However, as long as these other protests remain non-violent, I expect to support their objectives rather than find fault with their methodology and implementation.
The reasons for the protest and the debate over tactics were not covered well by much of the media, which to my mind makes those media complicit in the cause of direct action protest. If you want to hear their cogent and clear arguments, Owen Jones interviews another Just Stop Oil activist, Emma Brown, in an informative, emotional 15 minute clip.
Artnews writes about it and links to a video of Phoebe Plummer, after her court appearance.
Direct tiktok link, complete with criticisms about her oil-based earrings and vest.
A skynews piece quotes Bob Geldof in support (as well as being furious at road blockades) and links to further art actions.