In April 2022, environmental activists protested at several sites in the UK. Most were members of Just Stop Oil — an environmental activist group that, as implied by their name, aims to stop the British government from committing to any new fossil fuel licensing and production.
Just Stop Oil doesn’t shy away from disruptive action; in fact, they double down on it. This was exactly the case in April when several protesters disrupted operations at a gas station in Birmingham, UK. They refused to leave and blocked and obstructed activity.
Their case was decided at Wolverhampton Magistrates’ Court, where District Judge Graham Wilkinson found them guilty of trespassing, sentenced them to a 12-month conditional discharge, and ordered them to pay varying (but minor) costs.
But that’s when things really got interesting.
The most heartwarming motivation you’ll read
“It is abundantly clear that you are all good people, intelligent and articulate and you have been a pleasure throughout to deal with,” the judge addressed the protesters, praising them and the intentions they manifested.
“It is unarguable that manmade global warming is real and that we are facing a climate crisis. That is accepted and recognized by the scientific community and most governments (including our own),” he continued.
Remarkably, even the prosecutor, who initially described the protesters as “self-appointed vigilantes,” retracted the comment after hearing the testimonies, conceding that the Just Stop Oil supporters were “good people.”
It wasn’t just a one-off remark from the judge, either. Wilkinson continued in this line and emphasized his appreciation of the protesters.
“No-one can therefore criticise your motivations and indeed each of you has spoken individually about your own personal experiences, motivations and actions. Many of your explanations for your actions were deeply emotive and I am sure all listening were moved by them, I know I was.
“In simple terms you are good people with admirable aims. However, if good people with the right motivation do the wrong thing it can never make that wrong thing right, it can only ever act as substantial mitigation.”
The judge continued, motivating that despite his appreciation, the law was broken and therefore, punishment had to be issued.
“As a judge my overriding duty is always to uphold the law without fear or favour.”
“This is not a court of morals, it is a court of law, if I allow my own moral compass or political beliefs to influence my decisions and ignore the law where it is convenient to me to do so then the court becomes one where the rule of law no longer applies.”
But the punishment was mild and the environmental organization took it as a moral victory. “We are going to stop new fossil fuel projects whether those in power agree or not,” Just Stop Oil wrote just after the motivation was released.
The defendants themselves expressed confidence regarding what they were doing. Naomi Goddard, 58, a parish Clerk, was quoted as saying:
“As a Parish Clerk, part of my role is to make sure things are lawful. Is it lawful to continue to license new fossil fuels, when we know that they are killing us? This is the question we need to be asking our government and the judiciary!”
Oliver Clegg, 20, a plant science student from Manchester, said:
“I never expected that I’d find myself breaking the law, getting arrested and before a judge. However, I also never expected that the government would license new oil, gas and even coal mines, whilst claiming it’s leading the world on the climate crisis! If the government will not stand up to the fossil fuel industry, then it’s up to young people to defend our own futures.”
Since Just Stop Oil started its campaigns a year ago, over 2,000 of its members have been arrested. The organization says that in opening new oil fields, the government is “directly harming us, we therefore assert our legal right and moral duty to act.”
However, research has suggested that disruptive protests may not always be effective, and may in fact be counterproductive sometimes. However, the science is unequivocal: our emissions of greenhouse gases are causing climate change, and our current measures won’t help us to stay clear of catastrophic damage. Disruptive action may or may not be the best way to go — but it’s not hard to see why people are resorting to it.