Activism

‘I could be jailed for two years for blocking roads with Insulate Britain’

‘In individual terms I’m scared, but I have the feeling that I’m doing the right thing,' says Insulate Britain activist ahead of High Court hearing.

Oliver Roc, who faces jail for his part in Insulate Britain protests

Insulate Britain’s quest to get the UK’s homes properly insulated has provoked ire from motorists, politicians and some sections of the public. 

The group’s road-blocking stunts over the past six weeks have risked road rage, ink in the face, and angry Facebook comments.

But on Tuesday, nine activists from the group could be sent to prison for two years. 

One of them, Oliver Roc, tells The Big Issue: “In individual terms I’m scared and think it’s going to be shit, but I have the feeling that I’m doing the right thing.

The nine are accused of contempt of court for allegedly breaking a High Court injunction banning the group from blocking roads on the country’s “Strategic Road Network”.

The potential penalties are an unlimited fine, asset seizure, or two years in prison.

Roc, who has been arrested nine times for the group, has been busy cancelling direct debits – just in case.

Oliver Roc during an Insulate Britain protest

‘There’s so much stuff that I love that I’m going to miss. But I feel like we’re doing the right thing ‘

Roc saw the limits of conventional protests when he marched against the Iraq war. “I had a boring day and we just got completely ignored,” he recalls. “I felt quite depressed about that.”

Over time, he became more interested in the environment and saw that stronger action was required.

He continues: “A lot of people have got problems with the society we live in. But people just keep their heads down most of the time, behave themselves, even if they don’t like it.”

It wasn’t until he watched Extinction Rebellion block bridges that Roc got involved with environmental activism. He was first arrested during a protest on Waterloo Bridge in 2019 and given a criminal record and a £100 fine. Then, through people in Extinction Rebellion, he got involved with Insulate Britain six months ago.

“Insulation’s so boring, but it’s just quite a practical thing,” Roc says. “When Extinction Rebellion says we need to tell the truth about the situation, or we need to go net zero by 2025 or 2030, the thing people say is well, what does that look like? This is just an insanely practical, direct thing.

“In terms of reducing carbon emissions, it’s the best value thing that we could do as a country.”

He adds that it’s something which will benefit poorer people who live in badly insulated homes but can’t afford heating, and contrasts the group’s demands with green policies which “just put the costs onto normal people”.

Yet the key criticism levelled at Insulate Britain is that the costs of their protests – delays which could potentially cost people their jobs – are also put onto normal people.

Roc is firm that disrupting those normal peoples’ lives – when they’re driving to work, say – is necessary. As is pissing them off, he admits.

“To be really taking part in non-violent action, you need to go into a confrontation,” Roc adds. “People are going to be pissed off with you – that’s inevitable. They’re members of the public you’re disrupting so you need to prepare yourself for that.

“This isn’t about being popular, this is about trying to get some action on climate change. We knew that we were going to get absolutely vilified in large sections of the media. But we made a conversation about insulation, which is incredible.

The nine Ins

Roc says getting arrested is something he’s simply able to do, as his job as a carpenter is less dependent on whether he has a criminal record. In fact, the arrest that’s landed him in court – blocking the M25, allegedly in defiance of the High Court injunction, almost blurs into the others.

“I can afford to get arrested, get a little criminal record, pay a little fine,” he says. “I realise that it’s a position of privilege. Because for some people it’s not an option.”

The prospect of prison, however, is a bit more serious than a slap on the wrist. But the severity of the crisis means it should be on the table, Roc argues.

He adds: “In order to try and get more leverage, to get some of the changes we need, we’re probably going to need quite large numbers of nice people, moral people, to go to prison for decent chunks of time.”

He seems quite calm about that prospect. “It’s a deeply held conviction that morally at this time, this is the right thing to do,” he continues.

“In terms of trying to look after the future of our society, this is potentially the most useful thing I can do. It’s not like the aim is to go to prison, the aim is to be in civil disobedience against the government.”

But prison itself would be “a massive problem”. As would an unlimited fine.

Practically, Roc has a supportive family who will be able to sort his belongings out if the worst happens, and has been cancelling direct debits to prepare. But emotionally, he’s been going back and forth, bolstered by moral support from the others due in court.

He adds: “I feel calm about it. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like. Some things will be horrible and shit. There’s so much stuff that I love that I’m going to miss.”

“But I feel like we’re doing the right thing. As this crisis accelerates, the suffering around the world and the UK is going to be enormous. I can’t live my day-to-day life knowing what is coming down the line.

“In individual terms I’m scared and think it’s going to be shit, but I have the feeling that I’m doing the right thing.”

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