LONDON: At the age of just 21, former engineering student Louis McKechnie has already been arrested 20 times and spent six weeks in prison.
It’s made him one of the most recognizable faces among Britain’s climate change activists.
In the last two years, he’s been part of a number of groups using increasingly radical, 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 a halt to all new fossil fuel projects.
In March, he risked the wrath of football fans when he tied himself to a goalpost in the middle of a match between Newcastle and Everton.
“I was seriously terrified,” he told AFP. “It was 40,000 people screaming ‘wanker, wanker, wanker’.”
Despite feeling a “wave of guilt” at intruding on the fans’ sporting passion, he managed to halt the Premier League fixture for seven minutes.
McKechnie, who used a zip 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.
One angry fan kicked him in the head but McKechnie said he didn’t feel it. Hundreds of death threats afterward though forced him off social media.
“I was expecting to be public enemy number one… but it’s a sacrifice I’m perfectly willing to make. We knew we wouldn’t be popular,” said McKechnie.
But he believes it was worth it, if even just a fraction of the crowd looked up Just Stop Oil online afterward to see what it is about.
“I don’t need them to agree with the tactics, just agree with the message,” he said.
Since his first direct action protest — a solo roadblock — McKechnie has disrupted the red carpet at the BAFTA awards.
He spent 53 hours 50 feet (15 meters) off the ground on the pipes of an oil terminal in Scotland and damaged pumps at a petrol station.
It was a protest blockading the London orbital motorway the M25 that landed him behind bars, along with eight other members of Insulate Britain, which campaigns for better home insulation.
He was jailed 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 properly be expected to tolerate peaceful protest”.
Behind bars, though, he said two inmates approached him shortly after his arrival to say thank you.
The right-wing tabloid press has been particularly critical of the protesters, calling them “eco-anarchists” and accusing them of “sabotage”.
The Daily Mail branded 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 bolster its legislative arsenal against the “guerrilla” techniques of what it calls a “selfish minority of protesters” for disrupting the lives of ordinary Britons.
But McKechnie said: “We’re not going to stop, because we can’t afford to. We’re more scared of the climate crisis.”
‘More radical, more outrageous’
McKechnie added he sees no end to the protests, as long as they remain non-violent and do not endanger lives.
“We’re not doing this because it’s fun. We’re doing this because we’re desperate,” he said.
Three decades of demonstrations and petitions have not worked, 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 originally from Weymouth, a small coastal town in southern England that is threatened by rising sea levels.
He was still a child when his mother, a local environmentalist, studied sustainable development in lower 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, quiet 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 that’s very gratifying as a parent to see,” he added.
For McKechnie, the road might be long but he’s not giving up.
“We’re trying to educate people,” he said. “It’s working slower than we’d like but it is working.”