Just Stop Oil pauses UK highway protest that snarled traffic

LONDON (AP) — British climate activists who have blocked roads and splattered artworks with soup said Friday they are suspending a days-long protest that has clogged a major highway around London.

The group Just Stop Oil, which wants the U.K. government to halt new oil and gas projects, has sparked headlines, debate and a government crackdown on disruptive protests since it launched its actions earlier this year.

The group said Friday it was pausing its campaign of “civil resistance” on the M25 highway that encircles London. Over the last four days, its activists have climbed gantries above the highway, forcing it to close in several places.

Police say a motorcycle officer was injured Wednesday in a collision with trucks during a rolling roadblock sparked by the protest.

“We are giving the government another chance to sit down and discuss with us and meet our demand, which is the obvious no-brainer that we all want to see, which is no new oil in the U.K.,” activist Emma Brown told the BBC.

In recent months, Just Stop Oil members have blocked roads and bridges, often gluing themselves to the roadway to make them harder to move. Police say 677 people have been arrested, 111 of whom were charged with offenses. The protesters have been berated and at times physically removed by irate motorists.

Last month, activists from the group dumped two cans of tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” which was behind glass, at the National Gallery in London.

Climate activists have staged similar protests in other European cities, gluing themselves to Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” in The Hague and throwing mashed potatoes at a Claude Monet painting in a German museum.

Part of a wave of youthful direct-action protest groups around the world, Just Stop Oil is backed by the U.S.-based Climate Emergency Fund, set up to support environmental protests.

University of Maryland social scientist Dana Fisher, who studies activists, has said the protesters are part of a “new radical flank” of the environmental movement that she calls “the disrupters” and whose actions are geared at gaining maximum media attention.

Some environmentalists argue the disruptive protests alienate potential supporters.

Just Stop Oil defended its tactics on Friday, saying that “under British law, people in this country have a right to cause disruption to prevent greater harm — we will not stand by.”

In response to protests by Extinction Rebellion and other direct-action groups, Britain’s Conservative government this year toughened police powers to shut down disruptive protests and increased penalties for obstructing roads, which can now bring a prison sentence.

Even tougher moves were rejected by Parliament, but the government plans to try again to pass a law that would make it a criminal offense to interfere with infrastructure.

Civil liberties groups have decried the moves as restrictions on free speech and the right to protest.

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Jill Lawless, The Associated Press