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Why did Just Stop Oil storm stage at Les Miserables? It makes more sense than you might think

Just Stop Oil's latest protest has seen them stop a West End performance of Les Miserables. Why would they do such a thing? Experts say it makes perfect sense

Just Stop Oil Les Mis

London's Sondheim Theatre was evacuated after Just Stop Oil stormed the stage. Image: Just Stop Oil

Just as theatregoers at the Sondheim Theatre were getting ready for the rousing finale of Les Miserables, a revolutionary call to arms, the mood was ruined. The red flag waved during “Do You Hear the People Sing?” was overshadowed by the orange banner of Just Stop Oil. Activists glued their hands to the stage, the performance was called off, and the theatre was evacuated.

But this is a theatre company, not an oil company. They’re trilling, not drilling. So why would Just Stop Oil target a West End musical?

It follows in the footsteps of the group’s protests at Wimbledon, the National Gallery, the Ashes and more. The reasons behind the Les Miserables protest explain a lot about why you keep seeing Just Stop Oil in the news getting in people’s way.

Disruptive protests are the point – and they’re not necessarily counterproductive

Whenever Just Stop Oil protesters take to the roads or the Les Miserables stage, politicians from all parties are quick to weigh in. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves called them counterproductive, pathetic, tedious, and rude.

Lord Deben, the Conservative former chair of the Climate Change Committee, said he “wants to win this battle” but doesn’t like “counterproductive protests”.

This is a widespread sentiment, says Benjamin Abrams, a lecturer in sociology at University College London, but it may miss the point

“There is a desire to paint these movements, not just as malign or poorly motivated, but also stupid. Evil and irrational is the caricature of these groups. But it isn’t the case that these groups are stupid and continue making the same mistakes,” explained Abrams

“Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, one thing they have in common is that their name is their demand.”

Even if activists face personal vitriol, they are still achieving their aims, Abrams added: “If I were an enterprising environmental activist I might say the more I get the words ‘Just Stop Oil’ splashed on headlines and so on, you’re still getting that message repeated. You’re getting attention for the issue and not just the group.“

But groups must be mindful of what’s known as the “political opportunity” for success – otherwise they may face an effective backlash.

“Opponents can use that period of heightened attention to push back against the cause,” Abrams said.

The protests might also make other climate groups more effective

Just Stop Oil aren’t the only climate activism group in the country. From more disruptive groups like Animal Rising – who stormed the Grand National – and Extinction Rebellion, to long-standing organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, it’s a broad spectrum. All these groups have a part to play – and Just Stop Oil’s radical actions can help make life easier.

“We’ve found a fair bit of evidence that disruptive protests like these do work,” said Mabli Jones, director of Social Change Lab, which studies the effectiveness of protest groups.

“We found that after those protests public support for a more moderate group – we used Friends of the Earth as an example – actually went up as a result of Just Stop Oil’s actions.”

It’s what’s known as the “Radical Flank Effect”. More extreme groups can make more moderate activists seem appealing to those in contrast, simply by contrast.

“The moderate groups might not succeed without a radical flank being disruptive,” said Kevin Gillan, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester and editor in chief of the Social Movement Studies journal.

They’re an equal opportunity disruptor

From football matches and LGBTQ+ marches to the theatre and the cricket, Just Stop Oil target a wide range of events.

“Their strategy is to try and disrupt everything, and to try and do so equitably,” says Peter Gardner, a lecturer in sociology at the University of York who specialises in social movements.

“Any cultural event, any form of public event that is taking place, they have said they will disrupt as a way of trying to get across their demand that the government end new oil and gas licenses,” Gardner said.

“It’s extremely difficult for a social movement to get any kind of media coverage so they have to be continuously inventive and creative, and they know they’re going to get criticised no matter what they do.”

Climate groups who target the public will get told to target oil companies one minute, then governments. Whatever they do, Gardner said, there’s a sense they can’t satisfy public opinion – but it doesn’t matter.

“The goalposts keep moving, they know they’re not going to be liked. And they’re not terribly interested in being liked,“ he said.

What does protesting at Les Miserables achieve for Just Stop Oil?

Publicity can be an end in itself – keeping climate change in the news – but it can also help protest groups in other ways.

“They obviously feel they can be a party of a bigger movement to force a change, and by keeping themselves in the news that’s useful to recruit new activists and raise funding,” said Gillan.

It can also be a way of influencing politics. When an election isn’t near, news coverage and reaction can signal to politicians the issues their constituents are interested in.

“Some people see it as an end in itself, but mostly it will be seen as a means to an end. In a democratic country we’re aware that our political representatives are responsive to whatever’s in the public agenda,” Gillan added.

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