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Just Stop Oil: Climate activists explain why they are attacking artwork

Just Stop Oil activists stand by a painting, after smashing the protective panel, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 6 November 2023.
Just Stop Oil activists stand by a painting, after smashing the protective panel, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 6 November 2023. Copyright Just Stop Oil via AP
Copyright Just Stop Oil via AP
By Rosie Frost
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The group has gripped the headlines once again this week with mixed responses to their climate change protests.

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Just Stop Oil hit the headlines once again this week after two activists smashed a glass panel covering a famous painting at London's National Gallery.

The group chose to target Diego Velázquez's 17th-century 'The Toilet of Venus' oil painting because it was previously slashed as part of the suffragette movement calling for women's rights in 1914.

"Women did not get the vote by voting. It is time for deeds, not words," they said after hammering the glass panel.

This is the latest in a long string of controversial actions aimed at halting licensing for fossil fuel exploration, development and production.

Protesters have previously glued themselves to paintings and stormed the track at the British Grand Prix to draw attention to their demands.

While they've gained support from some prominent figures - including Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton - others have had a more mixed reaction to the group’s protests. From branding them as ‘extreme’ and ‘unnecessary’ to accusations of privilege among those who took part.

So who are the activists behind these contentious protests and what exactly do they want?

Last year, we spoke to two members of Just Stop Oil to find out in their own words.

Who are Just Stop Oil?

Founded back in February 2022, Just Stop Oil was created to put pressure on the UK government to stop new and existing fossil fuel deals. It is a coalition of different groups inspired by organisers from Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion.

Their message has spread and, as group member Indigo Rumbelow told Euronews Green, has brought a much broader range of participants than people might expect.

“Right now in prison is Dr Diana Warner. She's a GP, and she's 62,” Indigo told us back in July 2022.

“And there's, also in prison, a 29 year old bricklayer from the north of England, Josh Smith.”

Smith was part of the group that disrupted the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on 3 July 2022.

Twenty year old Hannah Torrance Bright is a student at Glasgow School of Art. She is also one of the people that glued themselves to Horatio McCulloch's painting ‘My Heart Is In The Highland’ at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow in June last year.

Hannah glued to Horatio McCulloch's painting ‘My Heart Is In The Highland’ at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow.
Hannah glued to Horatio McCulloch's painting ‘My Heart Is In The Highland’ at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow.Just Stop Oil

“I'm doing stuff that I never thought I would be doing in my entire life,” she tole Euronews Green.

But being terrified of the consequences of the climate crisis is one of the reasons Hannah said she is taking part. Regardless of whether people are engaged with the issue, she said, it's not “us versus them” as everyone will be affected.

“I think we're all scared. So much of the response around this has just been out of fear, and hyper focusing on little details of what we're doing to avoid actually talking about the bigger issue.”

What do Just Stop Oil want?

As the name suggests, Just Stop Oil’s demands are relatively straightforward.

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“We demand that the government immediately halts all future licencing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK,” Indigo explained.

They aren’t here to be liked, she said, comparing what they are doing to the suffragettes and adding that any effective social movement won’t be immediately popular.

“I want a future and I want my government to stop trying to kill me.”

It isn’t about personal actions or small individual choices but the government's response to an “emergency” situation. We are rapidly running out of time to take action, Indigo added.

In the words of the UK’s ex-chief scientific advisor Sir David King in 2021, what we do in the next three or four years will determine the future of humanity.

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I'm not doing this because I'm brave or insane or any of those things. I'm just doing it because I care and I'm afraid.
Indigo Rumblelow
Just Stop Oil Activist

“And I guess in the short term, directly from our actions, what I want from people who aren't in the government, is to join us,” said Indigo.

“It's so easy. I'm not doing this because I'm brave or insane or any of those things. I'm just doing it because I care and I'm afraid.”

Why are they glueing themselves to paintings?

The two activists said that, though Just Stop Oil has specific targets for their actions, the widespread nature of their protests is meant to break through the illusion that everything is okay.

“The aim was just to say to our culture, basically, that you can't be hiding from this. At this stage, everyone is responsible, everyone is going to be impacted by the climate crisis,” said Hannah.

The art world, she said, doesn’t exist in isolation.

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“I'm an art student, myself, and it does sometimes feel like the art world views itself as existing in isolation from the rest of the world. But, you know, the climate crisis affects all of us.”

Stewards remove a Just Stop Oil protester from a match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United in March.
Stewards remove a Just Stop Oil protester from a match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United in March.IAN KINGTON/AFP

They have targeted the oil industry, art galleries and even football matches where protesters tied themselves to goalposts at Premier League football matches back in March last year.

“That's just the beginning,” Indigo added.

“We want to show that this illusion that everything is okay is just not true and that we're in an emergency, and we should act like that.”

What does Just Stop OIl have to say to their critics?

In recent weeks, Just Stop Oil’s actions have attracted a lot of attention through the media and social networks. Not all of it has been positive.

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So what do they have to say to those who believe these actions are ‘unnecessary’ or ‘extreme’?

“I think the fact that it has got so much media attention, that it has got so many people talking about it - [people] for whom this was off their radar before - I don't think it's in any way unnecessary,” Hannah said.

The art student added that she isn’t doing this because she wants to, it isn’t for fun. Regardless of how people react, the consequences of the climate crisis are impacting people around the world right now.

“I don't think it's extreme at all. You know, we glued ourselves to the frames of the paintings,” she said.

“I think the fact that the government is effectively displacing half the [world’s] population is a lot more extreme.”

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Activists from Just Stop Oil sit on top of a fuel tank truck, as police officers stand guard, during a protest, at a roundabout in west London, Britain, April 14 2022.
Activists from Just Stop Oil sit on top of a fuel tank truck, as police officers stand guard, during a protest, at a roundabout in west London, Britain, April 14 2022.HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS

Hannah added that 3.5 billion people are expected to be made climate migrants in the next 50 years. With the unfathomable impacts of climate change and the warnings of scientists, she believes inaction, particularly by those in power, is the more extreme approach.

Instead of putting that fear into outrage at us, put it into outrage at what the government is doing to all of us.
Hannah Bright
Just Stop Oil activist

“Instead of putting that fear into outrage at us, put it into outrage at what the government is doing to all of us and the entire planet right now - and then do something.”

Indigo added that it isn’t a never-ending campaign. Rather, the group is posing the UK government a question.

“It's either going to stop licencing new oil, which will end our campaign of civil disobedience or to continue licencing new oil, in which case we will continue.”

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