In conversation with the Bristol student facing nine months in jail

‘Of course I’m worried what getting arrested might mean for my future’

University of Bristol student Jesse Prince is facing a possible nine-month imprisonment. They are facing trial in January 2024 after being charged with committing a public nuisance whilst protesting with activist group Just Stop Oil late last year.

The protests involved climbing onto the gantries of the M25 as part of a nationwide act of civil disobedience. They created major disruptions on parts of Britain’s busiest motorway in an effort to prevent the provision of new oil and gas licences in the UK.

Described as “extremely dangerous and disruptive” by Transport Secretary Mark Harper, the protests led Jesse to be arrested and spending time in prison.  

Jesse is not a stranger to being behind bars and has been arrested four times, even earning themselves a nickname after their most recent arrest. 

They told The Bristol Tab: “I actually got the nickname Eco in prison because when I first arrived in my cell, I had a cellmate and he was like, ‘What are you in for?’ and I said, a bit embarrassed, ‘Oh, protesting’. And it turns out he’d just seen me on TV!”

From Jesse’s eight days in HMP Lewes, Jesse recalls “feeling awful” for their parents, who described it as “the worst week of their life.” Jesse also worried about their studies and a potential impact on their future.

Jesse’s charge falls under “conspiracy to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance”, a new offence under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The act was subject to widespread criticism last year for curbing the democratic freedoms of protestors, and leaves those found guilty of public nuisance with nine months in prison under the current legal guidance.  

With such vast consequences, as well as the widespread opposition to this form of militant protest, it begs the question – Why? Why do so-called “eco-fanatics” choose these extreme, often highly controversial, forms of action to protest their cause, even at the expense of their personal lives?

In fact, Jesse’s first involvement in activism happened by asking these very same questions. They said: “I saw one of Animal rebellion’s actions [when they were] dumping milk out in Harrod’s, and thought, ‘Oh, what a dumb thing to do. That’s gonna make people hate you and it’s gonna put people off the cause. It might even be contributing to the demand for milk, so even making the problem worse.’ So, I went to one of their talks in person to be like, ‘That’s weird, why would you do that?’”.  

It turns out that there are plenty of valid reasons for dumping milk in a supermarket, climbing motorway gantries or throwing soup on a Van Gogh. Jesse points to a ‘radical flank effect’, arguing that “the existence of the radical flank makes the people in power more likely to negotiate with moderates”.

They cite previous movements such as the Suffragettes (who also targeted famous paintings to gain public attention) as evidence of “a long history of civil disobedience leading to rapid social change”. This is backed up by research that has shown that whilst extreme action turns people against radical protestors, it does not decrease support for radical demands and even increases public support for moderates.  

In terms of concerns about what a nine-month sentence might mean for Jesse’s future, they aim to strike a balance between the personal and the political.

‘”Of course, I’m worried what getting arrested might mean for my future. But I have to remember that this is an act of self-defence and the people actually threatening my future, and yours, are the ones in power. That’s a much bigger threat.”

For Jesse, this is an “emergency”, and they emphasise the importance of making environmental activism part of the mainstream. Finding it “hard to relate” to students who go about daily life without concerns for the planet, Jesse argues that without action, climate breakdown will lead to “millions of deaths” and poses an existential threat to our generation’s future. 

Speaking specifically to the student community, Jesse says: “We have to normalise resistance because we as a culture are very complacent … I think we forget that just as its important to invest in our career by studying, it’s also important to invest in our future by helping the environmental movement as much as possible.”

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