Young UK climate campaigner pushes the boundaries of protest

London (AFP) – At just 21, former engineering student Louis McKechnie has already been arrested 20 times and spent six weeks in jail.

This has made him one of the most recognizable faces among UK climate change campaigners.

Over the past two years, he has been part of a number of groups using increasingly radical and hard-hitting stunts to raise awareness of the issue.

After Extinction Rebellion, Animal Rebellion and Insulate Britain, McKechnie is now a full-time member of Just Stop Oil, which wants to put an end to all new fossil fuel projects.

In March, he risked the wrath of football fans by tying himself to a goal post in the middle of a game between Newcastle and Everton.

“I was seriously terrified,” he told AFP. “It was 40,000 people screaming ‘wanker, wanker, wanker’.”

Despite a ‘wave of guilt’ for infringing on the fans’ sporting passion, he managed to stop the Premier League game for seven minutes.

McKechnie, who used a tie around his neck, said he felt vindicated.

“I was doing it for them (the fans) at the same time. Their government is lying to them and they deserve the right to know that,” he said.

An angry fan kicked him in the head, but McKechnie said he didn’t feel it. Hundreds of death threats then forced him to quit social media.

– Selfish minority –

“I expected to be public enemy number one…but it’s a sacrifice I’m totally willing to make. We knew we wouldn’t be popular,” McKechnie said.

But he thinks it was worth it, if only a fraction of the crowd watched Just Stop Oil online afterwards to see what the fuss was about.

The 21-year-old activist has become a familiar face among climate change protesters Tolga AkmenAFP

“I don’t need them to agree with the tactic, just agree with the message,” he said.

Since her first outing of direct action — a solo roadblock — McKechnie has been disrupting the BAFTA Awards red carpet.

He spent 53 hours 15 meters (50 feet) off the ground on pipes at an oil terminal in Scotland and damaged pumps at a petrol station.

It was a protest blocking London’s orbital highway, the M25, that landed him behind bars, along with eight other members of Insulate Britain, which campaigns for better insulated homes.

He was imprisoned on his 21st birthday on November 17.

The judge accused the protesters of breaking “the social contract under which, in a democratic society, the public can legitimately be expected to tolerate peaceful protest”.

Behind bars, however, he said two inmates approached him shortly after his arrival to say thank you.

The right-wing tabloid press particularly criticized the protesters, calling them “eco-anarchists” and accusing them of “sabotage”.

The Daily Mail called McKechnie an “eco-zealot” and took aim at his long hair and aviator-style glasses, calling him a “John Lennon lookalike”.

The government now wants to strengthen its legislative arsenal against the “guerrilla” techniques of what it calls a “selfish minority of protesters” to disrupt the lives of ordinary Britons.

But McKechnie said: “We’re not going to stop, because we can’t afford it. We’re more afraid of the climate crisis.”

– “More radical, more scandalous” –

McKechnie added that he sees no end to the protests, as long as they remain non-violent and do not endanger lives.

“We don’t do this because it’s fun. We do it because we’re desperate,” he said.

He was one of nine protesters from Insulate Britain jailed last year for blocking London's orbital M25 motorway.
He was one of nine protesters from Insulate Britain jailed last year for blocking London’s orbital M25 motorway. Tolga AkmenAFP

Three decades of protests and petitions have failed, he noted.

“If things keep not working, we’re going to have to keep escalating. We’re going to have to keep getting more radical, more outrageous.

“Not because we want to, but because we have no choice.”

McKechnie is from Weymouth, a small coastal town in southern England threatened by rising sea levels.

He was still a child when his mother, a local ecologist, studied sustainable development in low-income countries.

“A big part of her life was trying to get change through the political system and I saw her try and fail for so many years,” he said.

His father Alex, a teacher, describes his son as a “studious, thoughtful and calm young man”.

“He’s not a hooligan,” he told AFP.

“He’s not afraid of confrontation. He’s in the right place at the right time, and it’s very rewarding as a parent to watch,” he added.

For McKechnie, the road may be long but he is not giving up.

“We try to educate people,” he said. “It works slower than we would like, but it works.”