A weekend show of force by British climate activists is set to test the public’s patience with the re-emerging Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil movements.
The London Marathon is the latest sporting showpiece at risk of disruption after protesters targeted the World Snooker Championship and horse racing’s Grand National.
Runners near Sunday's finish line will pass by Parliament Square, where Extinction Rebellion is expecting 30,000 people at a four-day protest that begins on Friday. Tens of thousands are expected to participate in a days-long demonstration titled The Big One that blocks off the Houses of Parliament and government buildings.
Marathon bosses say they have struck an unlikely deal with Extinction Rebellion leaders, who are promising to stop hardliners causing chaos around the runners just hundreds of metres away as they come to the finish line.
Extinction Rebellion “will be uniquely asking all their participants to help guard the London Marathon”, said event director Hugh Brasher.
While Extinction Rebellion has recently backed away from the mass disruption tactics that made it famous, it has threatened to “unquit” its campaign if ministers do not call time on fossil fuels.
“Disrupting the London Marathon isn’t happening, but civilisational collapse is. Which should we be talking about?” said activist Yaz Ashmawi from Extinction Rebellion.
The group's cousin Just Stop Oil was in last-ditch talks with marathon organisers after failing to give the same assurances as Extinction Rebellion.
A protester wearing a Just Stop Oil shirt jumped on a table at the snooker last weekend and threw orange powder over the cloth.
Professor Ian Acheson, a senior director at the Counter Extremism Project, said stunts such as these could terrify spectators even if they seem relatively harmless in hindsight.
“It’s highly unlikely that stunts like this will do anything other than alienate ordinary people and trivialise real concerns about climate,” he told The National.
“On the other hand it is likely to reinforce and nourish a base of supporters for whom such actions are already priced in.”
Just Stop Oil staged marches near the Grand National venue while animal rights activists delayed the start of the race — in an incident blamed for the death of one of the horses.
A YouGov poll this week found that 51 per cent in Britain had an unfavourable opinion of Just Stop Oil, with 16 per cent favourable.
About a quarter said they had never heard of the group despite its publicity tactics. Representatives of Just Stop Oil have not ruled out an escalation by disrupting the coronation of King Charles III next month.
“Protesting with little or no visibility is Kryptonite for mass activist groups,” Prof Acheson said.
“It diminishes impact and reduces relevance, so disrupting any event, even those where the audience is likely to be hostile, is a rational choice.”
Environmental protests in the UK — in pictures
Extinction Rebellion, known as XR, insists the four-day protest known as The Big One will be peaceful and family-friendly. However plans for the multi-day event are much more military, with a “biodiversity march and mass ‘die-in” on the cards for Saturday afternoon plus going ahead, and an attention-grabbing encroachment on the marathon.
Allies including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and trade unionists have pledged to join the protest.
A US activist network called Avaaz said on Thursday it was encouraging supporters to join The Big One.
“It’s not just the global temperature rising, it’s people everywhere, rising to fight for the survival of humanity and all life. Politicians must respond with an urgent and just transition away from fossil fuels,” it said.
Mr Brasher, the marathon organiser, said Extinction Rebellion organisers “have assured us that they do not wish to disrupt” the 42km race.
Activists say they do not plan to block roads or glue themselves to anything as they have done in the past.
Protests in years gone by saw activists cause mass disruption by blockading roads and sticking themselves to Docklands Light Railway trains in London.
“XR has a reputation, we get that. But this time the primary aim is to get the attention of the government, not to target disruption at the public,” says an advert for the protest.
Just Stop Oil has not backed away from disruptive action and says its antics grab headlines where weighty climate reports do not.
A recent report by the world’s top climate scientists said greenhouse gas emissions should be cut in half by 2030, but activists say governments are not doing enough.
Their key demand is that the UK government bring an end to new coal, gas and oil projects — after it opened the door to new North Sea exploration following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Protesters from Just Stop Oil compare themselves to civil rights campaigners and suffragettes of decades gone by.
The women’s suffrage campaign reached boiling point when activist Emily Davison died after throwing herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Recent Just Stop Oil stunts in Britain include throwing paint over a Vincent van Gogh artwork and interrupting a Premier League football match when a protester tied himself to the goalpost.
One common objection to protests on the streets is that they could block ambulances from reaching people in need.
There was outrage in Germany after an ugly incident in which a cyclist died during protests by a group called The Last Generation.
Prosecutors in Berlin said last month that emergency vehicles had been delayed by the protests but would not ultimately have saved the woman from her injuries.