‘We’re going to be unpopular’: Do sports protests help or harm activism?

Climate activists in the UK have sought to disrupt football, cricket, golf, snooker, tennis and other sports in protest. But how effective is their civil disobedience, and how has the public responded?

A Just Stop Oil protester disrupts a match at the World Snooker Championship
A Just Stop Oil protester disrupts a match at the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield [File: Mike Egerton/PA via AP Photos]

Bradford, England – The United Kingdom has witnessed a summer of civil disobedience where an unprecedented number of “guerilla” tactics and protests at major sporting events – most of them climate group campaigners and activists – have exploded across the country.

As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “climate breakdown has begun”, the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that the world went through its hottest Northern Hemisphere summer on record last month.

For groups like Just Stop Oil (JSO), a non-violent environmental activist group founded in 2022 which demands that the UK government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects, civil disobedience has increasingly become their weapon of choice.

They hit the headlines last year when their members protested at several Premier League football games, including Everton’s dramatic win over Newcastle in March last year, and one protester attached himself to the goalposts with zip ties.

In recent months, activists from JSO have staged numerous high-profile protests at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, and the British Grand Prix in Northamptonshire.

During the summer, they disrupted the second Ashes Test and The Open Championship. In July, one protester threw orange-coloured confetti and jigsaw pieces onto Court 18 at Wimbledon, sparking outrage.

Dancing between disruption and changing the discourse, James Skeet, 35, a spokesperson for JSO, said the group intentionally targeted sporting events revered by the public.

“Every social movement in history that’s ever achieved anything worthwhile has done so through disruptive tactics,” Skeet said, referring to the civil rights movement in the United States, and struggles for gay rights and disabled people’s rights.

“What we’re attempting to do is force the issue to the forefront of public consciousness, and up the media agenda,” he said. “If you haven’t got millions of eyeballs, you’re not in the ballpark of achieving significant societal change.”

But how effective is civil disobedience? And how have the British public responded to their favourite sporting events being dramatically disrupted?

A Just Stop Oil protester sits on Court 18 on day three of the Wimbledon tennis championships
A Just Stop Oil protester sits on Court 18 on day three of the Wimbledon tennis championships [File: Alastair Grant/AP Photo]

‘People may shoot the messenger’

Following the UK government’s announcement in July to grant hundreds of new North Sea oil and gas licences “to boost British energy independence and grow the economy”, an online survey by YouGov in August found 82 percent of 2,069 adults of all political viewpoints surveyed across the UK consider climate change and the environment to be key issues.

Of those surveyed, 68 percent were found to disapprove of JSO and its tactics.

The findings followed another YouGov poll from February, where 78 percent of those surveyed thought disruptive protest “hinders, rather than helps a cause”.

“Many might argue that engaging in annoying people is entirely counterproductive,” Skeet said. “People may shoot the messenger to a certain degree.” Ultimately, JSO tactics were about “agenda seeding”, Skeet explained. “Even a small percentage of the conversations are talking about our demand for no oil and gas, then that’s a win for us.”

Some experts say there is a contradiction between what the public and media say about disruptive protests, and what academics think.

“In an expert survey of 120 academics who research social movements and protest, 69 percent of surveyed academics stated that they believe disruptive protest would be an effective tactic for an issue like climate change, showing a deep disagreement between experts on this topic and the media,” said James Ozden, director of the protest think tank Social Change Lab, referring to research published in July on what makes some social movements more successful than others.

Evidence pointed to disruptive climate protests helping to raise the salience of an issue, winning public opinion or encouraging the public to support moderate climate groups, Ozden added.

Other experts say disruptive climate protests at major sports events can be effective if high-profile figures publicly express their support.

Following JSO’s protests in Wimbledon, British sports presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker defended the activists in an interview with Channel 4, saying he admired their resolve in the face of arrest.

US Open winner Coco Gauff sympathised with protesters who disrupted her semifinal match against Karolina Muchovin in a news conference following her victory saying, “I believe in climate change.”

Protesters demonstrate at a match between Coco Gauff, of the United States, and Karolina Muchova, of the Czech Republic, during the women's singles semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships
Protesters demonstrate at a US Open match between Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchovaf [File: Frank Franklin II/AP Photo]

“Successful social movements typically have powerful or famous and respected allies outside the movement, who can extend the reach and influence of a movement to a wider public, reinforcing the message the movement is trying to get across, and giving legitimacy to the movement, its demands and its actions,” said Viktoria Spaiser, associate professor in sustainability research at the University of Leeds.

The tactics of JSO in particular have faced fierce criticism from senior politicians.

“The public have had enough of their lives being disrupted by selfish protesters. The mayhem we’ve seen on our streets has been a scandal,” UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman said in July, announcing that police powers would be expanded under the new Public Order Act.

Amendments to the Public Order Act pushed through by Braverman means “locking on” – whereby protesters attach themselves to other people, objects or buildings – is now a criminal offence in the UK.

Braverman’s comments came weeks before the Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist revealed in a statement that policing JSO protests cost The Met more than 7.7 million pounds ($9.6m) over a 13-week period.

In the run-up to the UK’s next general elections, to be held by January 28, 2025, climate change is high on the agenda for UK voters, as recent heatwaves have underscored a changing world.

In July 2022, record temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) were recorded in the UK and the Met Office issued the first-ever Red warning for exceptional heat.

There has been mounting frustration too with the UK government’s actions on climate change.

Although the UK adopted the target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 under former Prime Minister Theresa May, the High Court ruled in July 2022 that the government’s net-zero strategy, which sets out plans to decarbonise the economy, breached the Climate Change Act.

In his final letter as chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, John Gummer, also known as Lord Deben, said in June that the UK government had lost its global “climate leadership” because of its “failure to act decisively in response to the energy crisis and build on the success of hosting COP26”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Lord Deben said although he did not approve of direct action, condemnation from politicians was not the answer.

“I have to say to Suella Braverman, and others like her, that the first thing you have to do is to recognise that these are the actions of people who feel that the democratic system has let them down and will not deliver,” he said. “Before you get onto the condemnation, just realise why people are driven or feel themselves to be driven to these extremes.”

But what of the tactics of groups like JSO?

“In the end, the democratic system is the only way that we will deliver,” Lord Deben said. “The problem with extreme tactics is that it is counterproductive, and it also means that people concentrate on the tactics rather than the reason for the tactics, and that is indeed what Suella Braverman has done.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy but we must also protect the law-abiding majority’s right to go about their daily lives. The Public Order Act brings in new criminal offences and proper penalties for selfish, guerrilla protest tactics.”

What’s next?

Most of the UK’s climate change groups have mustered the media attention they desired. What now?

In recent months, there has been a divergence of tactics in the environmental movement between more radical groups that carry out disruptive action like JSO, and others who are moving towards less disruptive and more inclusive tactics.

The environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion called a temporary halt in January to high-profile demonstrations that have in recent years garnered media attention through direct action protests against climate change on major roads, airports and other public transport networks.

In April, the group launched four days of action where thousands protested outside Parliament against the UK government’s inaction against global warming, with the intention to “coexist” with the London Marathon.

Instead, Extinction Rebellion (XR) did not make the headlines for its ​​trademark of mass blockades. To everyone’s surprise, the London Marathon event director, Hugh Brasher, announced the group would help guard the event.

For months, XR had liaised with the police in advance of the marathon. Many of the charities were fundraising for disaster response and development charities such as Oxfam were “already on the front lines of the impacts of climate change”, XR said in a statement in April.

Instead of using arrests of activists as a strategy, XR is now shifting gears towards building more inclusive and safe environments for different groups to unite and protest together to create a rich “ecology of movements” and alliances, according to Yaz Ashmawi, 28, a former physicist-turned-organiser for Extinction Rebellion.

“Non-violent direct action will always have a place in Extinction Rebellion,” Ashmawi insisted. But for now, “a key part of the climate movement is the need to bring people out in large numbers”, Ashmawi said.

“What we’re doing is trying to decentralise our work as much as possible, and strengthen community groups all around the country, so we’ve got a system of local groups arranging people’s assemblies to bring people together to discuss the issues that are relevant to local people in their communities,” Ashmawi said.

With JSO’s announcement it would not rule out disrupting the London Marathon having attempted to disrupt the event the previous year, a split seemed to have emerged in the tactics of JSO and XR.

That same week, a JSO protester leaped onto a snooker table at the Crucible in Sheffield during the World Championship, releasing a packet of orange dye to a chorus of jeers. “That made the front page of every major newspaper,” Skeet said.

“We fully accept that we’re going to be unpopular. We’re not a political party. We’re not trying to win elections,” he said. “History has always shown that a relatively small group of people change society, and then society catches up with it.”

Source: Al Jazeera