So this year’s Climate Camp is over, but the prospect of an early night is put on hold to reflect, via footage posted on You Tube, on the last few weeks.
It doesn’t take long to see that yet again the police have relied on their favourite, tried and tested climate camp critique – ‘there is a small group of activists who are committed to breaking the law’. And yet again I feel frustrated because they’ve missed the point - Climate Camp is about providing the confidence and space for a very large group of people to break the law.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean, as the police imply when they confiscate a block of kitchen knives, that breaking the law entails a stabbing spree in the local community. This year, as with all the others, no officers were assaulted, no horses or dogs decapitated. Their fears never materialised, but did uncover their interest in delegitimizing civil disobedience – painting it as an act of violence rather than of legitimate political dissent.
Climate Camp 2008 was the first time I committed to organising a direct action and I did so with a handful of other friends from the London neighbourhood. Most of us had met after last year’s Camp at Heathrow and had graduated from ‘newbies’ to committed Camp organisers over the course of the last 12 months.
We discussed why we thought civil disobedience could be effective and to what lengths we were prepared to go. We debated the differences between trespass, aggravated trespass and criminal damage and later sought advice form the legal team. We made up our minds that we were happy to trespass on EON’s land but that we couldn’t see any advantage from damaging EON’s property. It wasn’t quick or easy but we did settle by consensus on a common objective of trying to get onto EON property, dropping our banner and resisting arrest for as long as possible by locking ourselves to each other.
We attended workshops on our legal rights, on how to scale a fence and use D-Locks to ‘lock on’, as well as quick group-consensus decision-making. We did a recce by bike and pored over maps before deciding to approach the power station by the river Medway.
We left the Camp the day before to avoid a police lock down, and after a final meeting in the aptly named ‘Coal Hole’ pub we picked up the boats and other supplies and returned to North London to produce our banner, practise paddling in the garden and find a suitable launch spot on Google Earth.
At 6:00 the next morning our drivers picked us up and drove us to a factory on the south of the river – we hopped over the fence, pumped up our boats, donned our life jackets and, to the bemusement of onlookers, clambered over a final wall before racing for the water.
On the water we played a little cat and mouse with police boats before one of our boats was picked up. A quickening sense that it could all be over persuaded us to paddle towards a nearby island and disused fort. Here we utilised our fence-climbing workshop to climb up the fort and hang our banner ‘CO2AL: starter gun for climate chaos’.
For us it was important to make the point that as the public was focused on the starter guns of the Chinese Olympics, Kingsnorth represented a starter gun to a raft of new coal fired power stations in the UK. If this happens we’ll have no chance of meeting our emissions targets. So to ensure our everlasting glory we phoned the Camp media team who arranged for a photo to be taken and a mention on Indie media.
At this point we got a call from the crew of our other boat, who had ‘de-arrested’ themselves by untying the knot that had secured them to the police boat. They then crossed the Medway and reached EON property, where they hung their banner ‘Climate Risk’.
So whilst neither boat exactly achieved what we had set out to do, we did add another element to the mass day of action, another distraction for the police and another couple of banners to Kingsnorth’s perimeter. But most importantly we gained experience, camaraderie and trust, so that if EON does get the go ahead for Kingsnorth II we are in a much better position to undertake a really effective campaign of direct action to disrupt and dissuade construction.
Direct action cannot work on its own and the lobbying and mass campaigning by NGOs is of great importance. But what direct action does do is show that we mean business, that this issue is so urgent that we are willing to risk arrest to expose hypocrisy in government climate and energy policies. Ghandi used it, the suffragettes used it, the black civil rights movement used it – and there is every reason for us to use it to force the Government and big business away from fossil fuels and catastrophic climate change.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2008