‘People are dying now’: Just Stop Oil Activist explains viral protest
Aberdeen Student Lee Matthews speaks to The Gaudie in exclusive interview
By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco
Photo courtesy of Lee Matthews
The Gaudie spoke to Just Stop Oil activist and Aberdeen student Lee Matthews late last term. In November 2022, they went viral after throwing orange paint on Aberdeen’s Silver Fin Building as part of a protest against Barclay’s Bank. Here is part of our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you first become aware of the global impact of the climate crisis?
It's something I've always been latently aware of… But it was never something that was really in the forefront of my mind for most of my life. It wasn't until this February that I was walking to uni, and I saw a big poster across the road for a talk about the climate crisis and direct action… I was free that day, I figured I might as well pop by… they talked through some of the nitty gritty details of the climate crisis… [about how] we're not taking the appropriate steps. We're just continuing on with our life as normal. And I realized that that was something that I was doing. And I went home after that talk, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I realized that I had to get involved in some way.
Can you tell us a little about how you felt during the protest?
The thing about it that made it quite nerve racking for me was the more public facing aspect of it… [when occupying] an oil terminal, you don't have to deal with an angry public. So there was that aspect of it. And also, the other people involved in the Silver Fin action weren't comfortable speaking in front of a camera, so I knew that I would have to have to do that. And that was quite nerve racking, because then I knew that people were going to see me and know that I did that… Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe, there is a big attachment to oil, a big fear of losing oil, which is completely understandable. So I knew that I would have to deal with that. I did not expect it to get as much attention as it did. So I think if I had known I probably would have been a lot more nervous beforehand.
Just Stop Oil uses a lot of intense rhetoric, including likening the climate crisis to genocide. Do you feel these terms are appropriate?
I think that the way that people think about the climate crisis right now, they're not thinking about it as a result of decisions that are being made right now. They're thinking about it as something in the distant future that someone's going to come up with some genius solution for. But the fact of the matter is, there is consensus about what we need to be doing, and that is stopping building more and more fossil fuel infrastructure… And yet, our government is actively choosing to license more and more… People are dying now. And that is something that could be avoided. So I think using language like that can quite often make people at least think about that kind of reality rather than it being more abstract and distant from us. So I think it does have some rhetorical use.
Just Stop Oil is often criticised for their methods, such as blocking roads. How would you respond to this?
It's not about necessarily convincing people. Especially with the climate crisis, we already know that over 60% of the UK population are incredibly concerned about the climate crisis and thinks something needs to be done. But things aren't getting done… the way I see it is that there are a number of people out there who don't know about the campaign, but already agree about the severity of the climate crisis… And it's about getting our campaign in front of those people so that they know that we exist, and they can look for us and try and join us…
What are some ways that have helped you to cope with climate anxiety?
One of the things that has helped so much is being involved in a community who recognizes the severity of the problem and are able to support each other. Within Just Stop Oil, I've made some amazing, amazing friends who care so much and are willing to do a lot to try and solve this problem. And they are fantastic people…. we have Zoom calls called Resilience to Resist [which help us to build] this community of civil resistance, and companionship, and love because we can't fix this on our own, we need each other to be able to do that. And being able to have that connection with other people is so important.