Climate activists from Just Stop Oil disrupted Wimbledon tennis

LONDON — William Ward was nervous about disrupting arguably the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, with its television audience of millions.

The All England Club is a sacred space for tennis fans. It’s also a rule-abiding place, where “quiet, please” instills an instant hush among the crowd, where amending the all-white dress code to allow female players to wear dark undershorts was a big deal.

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Ward knew that violating Wimbledon decorum would surely lead to his detention. But then he thought of his grandkids — whose names he’d written on the back of his T-shirt — and what he’d say when they were older and asked about climate change. And so he leaped a barrier and flung orange confetti and puzzle pieces onto Court 18 until security hauled him away.

People in the crowd — while still mindful of their manners — groaned and booed.

“It was surreal,” said the 66-year-old retired engineer, who had never done anything like that before.

His activist group, Just Stop Oil, had done plenty of stunts like that. Most attention-grabbing was when a pair of members doused Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” canvas in tomato soup.

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(Video: Just Stop Oil via Storyful)

The group knew the Wimbledon protest would make headlines, too.

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry put a positive spin on it, telling the BBC that a 66-year-old’s willingness to get himself arrested at Wimbledon showed that people are “deeply, deeply concerned” about the climate crisis.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been less enthusiastic about “the eco-zealots at Just Stop Oil,” complaining that they are “not content with disrupting our summer and cherished sporting events, they are essentially leading us into an energy surrender.” His administration has given police greater powers to clamp down on protesters.

Britain’s climate movement is divided over whether protests that aim at headline-grabbing disruption are an important passion project or surefire way to alienate supporters and hurt the cause.

That debate has been especially visible in the evolution of Extinction Rebellion — a group that originated in England’s rural Cotswolds in 2018 and that initially focused on radical action. Members glued themselves to roads, stripped in Parliament and staged a “die-in” at London’s Natural History Museum. Soon, they were inspiring traffic-blocking protests in cities around the world. And they were getting credit for accelerating climate policy in Britain.

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But at the start of this year, Extinction Rebellion reinvented itself. The group announced “a controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic” and said it would instead prioritize “attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks.”

In April, Extinction Rebellion said its Earth Day weekend rallies in Parliament Square drew a record 100,000 participants over four days and resulted in zero arrests — in contrast to 2019, when a similar rally led to more than 1,000 detentions.

“We are building up our numbers for the mother of all mass mobilisations in 2024,” the group said in a statement to The Washington Post this week.

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Rupert Read, a former spokesman for Extinction Rebellion, parted ways with the group before the strategic shift, feeling that its methods had been “too polarizing.” He said he was especially disillusioned by an October 2019 protest that had activists climbing on top of a London Underground train — and irate rush-hour commuters dragging them down.

Protesters with the climate-change movement Extinction Rebellion climbed on top of subway cars Oct. 17 during an early morning protest in London. (Video: Extinction Rebellion via Storyful)

Now he has a new initiative, called the “Climate Majority Project,” which he hopes will appeal to the “many millions … who want to do something significant, but they are not prepared to glue themselves to something.”

“We don’t win unless we take people with us,” he said. “This is not an issue you can win with a small number on your side.”

Other activists, though, have been moving in a more radical direction.

Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, is now a Just Stop Oil booster.

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Before his Wimbledon protest, Ward took part in Extinction Rebellion’s April rally — and said he was shocked at how little coverage the peaceful, lawful, nonviolent protest got. “I wish them well, but we need to reach the ordinary person about what’s going on,” he said.

For Just Stop Oil, stopping play at Wimbledon was considered a spectacular success.

It didn’t go quite as planned. James Skeet, a spokesperson for the group, said the disruption had been scheduled for the day before, when Catherine, Princess of Wales, was in the Royal Box. But — as happens often with the British tournament — the day’s matches were stopped early because of rain. (Some activists noted that the weather was far more disruptive than the protests.)

Even without a royal witness, Skeet said, the Court 18 confetti “elicited millions of conversations across the country — and even if a small percentage are talking about our demand that the U.K. government reject new oil licenses, then that’s a win.” Just Stop Oil wants Britain to stop all new oil, gas and coal projects. The British government’s advisers said recently that the country is at risk of missing legally binding emissions targets.

So which activism strategy is more effective?

A newly published survey of 120 academics who specialize in social change and protests found that the experts ranked “the strategic use of nonviolent disruptive tactics” most important in a movement’s success. And the experts considered disruptive tactics especially useful for issues like climate change that already claim a lot of awareness and support.

In some cases, like the animal rights movement, radical protest tactics have been shown to reduce popular support. But James Ozden, who studies social movements as part of the U.K.-based Social Change Lab, said Just Stop Oil appears to be having what social scientists call a “positive radical flank effect” — where radical groups generate more support for moderate groups, who by comparison seem less extreme.

Last fall, Just Stop Oil activists shut down parts of Britain’s busiest highway. YouGov polls conducted for Social Change Lab found that those who knew about the Just Stop Oil campaign didn’t support that group any more because of the highway action, but Friends of the Earth, a less controversial group with no connection to the protest, did get a boost in support.

Bart Cammaerts, a professor of politics and communications at the London School of Economics, said in an email that radical and moderate camps benefit each other most when they are “seen as part of the same movement … needing each other, feeding off each other.”

British tennis star Andy Murray seems to be among those who object to the tactics of radical climate activism but don’t think less of the movement.

Anticipating that Just Stop Oil protests would disrupt Wimbledon days before they did, Murray said: “I agree with the cause — just not always how they go about expressing it. Rather than running on the court, maybe they could do it a different way.”

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