Braverman urges police crackdown as Just Stop Oil say they won’t stop

Just Stop Oil have hit the headlines for a series of stunts, but a poll for ITV shows a majority think the government isn't doing enough to stop it

Suella Braverman has urged the police to act "more quickly" and "more robustly" in driving Just Stop Oil protesters - and others involved in direct action - off the streets.

In an interview with ITV's Tonight programme, the home secretary said she was "enraged" when she saw a video of a mother trying to take her child to hospital, who was stopped by protesters.

"They've lost their humanity. I was so angry by the lack of sensitivity, the cruelty, in the face of what every parent can identify with, wanting to get your child to hospital urgently."

She accused them of being militants, with extremist tendencies, who showed a "lack of compassion for the British people".

But JSO protesters told us they felt compelled to act in the face of government inaction over climate change.

Emma de Saram, a 22-year-old recent graduate from Dorset, told us of sleepless nights worrying about the damage being caused by continued burning of fossil fuels.

"We are talking about life or death now. It is not the economy or the environment. It is extinction or survival. I mean if extreme is wanting to survive, then I guess we are extreme."

Our interviews with the home secretary and Emma came during weeks in which I and ITV's Tonight team - including Tim Maynard, Martha Elwell and Teddy Davis - followed protesters from one scene to another, watching as they blocked busy roads at the peak of rush hour, stopping some getting to work.

We saw a lot of fury.

"What are they achieving?" shouted one man, sitting in the passenger seat of a truck.

"I've got family to feed and what do they do?" he asked, opening the door and leaning out, preparing to angrily confront the protesters blocking his way.

What's your message to them, I asked. "Get out of the way!" he screamed, slamming the door.

"Waste of time!" shouted one person. "If they are not careful someone is going to get... run over!" said another.

JSO activists take part in slow walk protest. Credit: PA

A man who said he was late for his work on a zero-hours contract added: "I worry about climate [but] I need to feed my kids, I worry about that more."

But we heard support too, often from cyclists ringing their bells as they passed. Or from people waiting at bus stops, saying "good on them".

Even some who got really angry were clear they supported the cause. One man jumped off his bike and physically forced the protesters - in their familiar orange vests - off the road in order to let a bus for schoolchildren pass.  

But, when he calmed down, he said he supported their cause - he just disliked the disruption.

And that view was supported by polls carried out for the programme. 

Asked if environmental protesters were justified in causing disruption to the public, 59% said they were not, while 33% said they were. 

A similarly high proportion of people felt the government was doing too little to crack down on the protests, with 52% saying the same about the police.

But marginally more people said they agreed with the cause - to stop any new drilling of oil or gas - than disagreed with it.

It was in response to the polling about ministers doing too little that Ms Braverman seized on pushing the police. Asked if the government should do more, she pointed to the new public order act (that outlawed tactics like locking on to things) and then secondary legislation that targeted slow walking.

But she added: "I am going to be unrelenting in always pushing for the police to act more quickly, to act more robustly and to stand on the side of the British people so that these militants don't get away with it."

But environmental activists seized on the statistic that showed support for stopping burning fossil fuels, arguing that it was necessary to build on that. Lord Deben, the Tory outgoing chair of the Climate Change Committee, said he felt the JSO tactics were counterproductive and instead urged people to relentlessly pressure their MPs to show how important the climate crisis was to them.

Former Extinction Rebellion spokesman Rupert Read said it is time to ditch direct protests. Credit: ITV News

Rupert Read, who was a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR), said the time had come to ditch direct protest (he once threw paint on the Tufton street offices of a climate sceptic group) to build a "climate majority".

Even XR itself is now much more moderate, going for specific targets and not the public.

But none of them could deny that JSO get far more coverage for tiny protests - a quick burst at a sporting event or just five people slow walking - than they do for even huge marches and events.

The question is whether the negative coverage is still making a difference to the cause.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell jumping in front of Tony Blair's car in an anti-Iraq war protest back in 2003.

Peter Tatchell - a human rights campaigner who has done 3,000 direct action protests, and has been arrested 100 times (he tried to arrest Robert Mugabe and jumped in front of Tony Blair's car) argued that many movements had been disliked at their start.

He gave the example of the Suffragettes, revered now but whose tactics were widely criticised at the time.

"Nearly all throughout history, protests have provoked a public backlash. They have not won public support. It's taken perseverance, determination, and consistency over often many years to win the public over."

He was deeply critical of the government's new laws (that saw anti-monarchy protesters who had agreed their peaceful plans with the police for months get arrested and spend 16 hours in prison) as being too draconian, arguing "protest is the lifeblood of democracy".

JSO have disrupted major sporting events, painted buildings and staged regular slow marches - but is it helping their cause? Credit: PA

But Mr Tatchell - like Mr Read and Lord Deben - is not totally convinced that JSO have chosen the right target, wondering if they should aim at those responsible for burning fossil fuels rather than the public.

One of the group's multimillionaire backers is not so sure. Dale Vince told me: "Disruption makes news and news gives us the route to talk about the issue."

He is sure that in years to come people will look back and know that these direct action protesters were right. But, for now at least, they have to face the fury of the public and home secretary, and the increased powers of the police.

The Met police said they have spent more than £7.7million on JSO protests in just 13 weeks - with 23,597 officer shifts dedicated to policing 515 JSO marches. 

Police say a 13-week campaign by Just Stop Oil (JSO) has cost them more than £7.7 million, the equivalent of 23,500 officer shifts. Credit: PA

Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist said: “What is important is it doesn't stop here. In the autumn we arrested 750 people, and this time we arrested 271 people and charged 174.

"So we now have to work towards prosecutions and charges and some cases won't be heard until 2025. We have a whole public order and crime team working on that. It is a significant amount of effort.

“These are police who could have been doing other things.”

He added: “This is really unique in protest terms. The right to protest is part of any democratic society and critically important, but this isn't protest, it's crime. There is a difference.

“The right to protest is strongly protected, but when you get into deliberately causing serious disruption, that tips over into crime.”

He said the speed of response was critical. 

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