Roy Wilkes reports from this year’s climate camp.
Over 1500 people attended this year’s climate camp on the Medway peninsula. The camp focused on resisting government plans to allow E.ON to build at Kingsnorth the first coal fired power station in over thirty years, a proposal which makes a mockery of Brown’s professed concern about climate change. Government assurances that the new station will be carbon capture and storage (CCS) ready were exposed as utter drivel. ‘CCS ready’ means not that there will be a functioning CCS plant in place, but merely that there is space in a field somewhere nearby in which such a plant could be built at some stage in the future (if, that is, it ever becomes technically and economically feasible.)
Arthur Scargill visited the camp on the Monday to promote ‘clean’ coal. Despite making some good points about the horrific conditions under which much imported coal is mined, he failed to make a convincing case for going ahead with new coal fired power. And as George Monbiot pointed out, why would trade unionists want to condemn workers to the horrendous health and safety hazards of deep coal mining when many more hazard free jobs could be created in building and installing wind turbines. But the most important thing is that Arthur came to the camp, engaged in a dialogue, and defended the protesters in their confrontations with the police. This dialogue, on the future of coal and of coal miners, and on the need for a just transition to a low carbon economy, needs to be continued and deepened.
Monbiot for his part enraged many campers by apparently vacillating on the nuclear question. Although he was keen to emphasise the stringent safety conditions that he would apply to any future nuclear plants, Monbiot’s approach appeared to offer a green cover to the nuclear lobby, in what seemed like an unnecessary and indeed a panicked response to the impending threat from new coal.
The camp provided many opportunities for participants to debate not only climate change but also radical politics in general. Workshops were held throughout the week on a wide range of topics, including vegan cake baking, neo-liberalism in the education system, the role of trade unions in fighting climate change, developing sustainable transport policies and why men should oppose the oppression of women. Several workshops and training sessions were also held on the methodology and techniques of non violent direct action.
The mass actions took place on the Saturday, with the campers divided into 4 groups: green, silver, blue and red. Several hundred direct actionists of the ‘green group’ – which was sub-divided further into small ‘affinity groups’ – converged on different sections of the Kingsnorth perimeter. Some dismantled police fencing and used it to build ladders with which to breach the inner fences of the power station. Others climbed a nearby pylon to hang a banner reading ‘Shut Down Kingsnorth’. Those that made it into the grounds were all arrested, but to get that far in the face of such a huge police presence was an impressive achievement in itself. The fence was also breached by a flying pink pig (labeled “CCS”) which had been launched by members of the ‘silver group.’
The Rebel Raft Regatta of the ‘blue group’ took to the river in a range of boats and makeshift rafts (many of which had been built and hidden weeks before the event). One of these crews managed to hang a banner reading “COAL: Starter Gun For Climate Chaos” from an island fort opposite the station, while the crew members of another craft were subsequently arrested and charged with aggravated trespass. According to their charge sheets, “they did an act, namely disrupting the running of the power station by causing the water inlet cooling system to be shut down.” So much for E.ON’s claim that they had kept the power station running normally all weekend!
The largest and most visible protest was that carried out by the ‘orange group’. Around 1000 protesters marched from the camp to the front gate of the power station in a colourful, loud and joyous demonstration, which included all the children of the camp, plus a carnival dragon, several cyclists, a jazz band and a samba band. On two occasions sections of the march were attacked by police snatch squads, backed up by riot police and horses. The first attack happened when one of the jazz drummers was mistakenly identified as someone who had broken bail conditions by attending the camp, and in the second case as a response to the heinous crime of breaking a length of police tape. On both occasions protesters dived in to protect the police targets and then loudly remonstrated against police brutality.
The march culminated in a rally at the power station gate. Speakers included Liberal MEP Chris Davies, who claimed that CCS was both possible and necessary, and Dr Derek Wall (Principal Male Speaker of the Green Party), who lambasted establishment politicians of all parties for cowtowing to the anti-ecological imperatives of neo-liberalism. Derek urged the protesters to look to Venezuela for inspiration. A low flying police helicopter disrupted the rally for a short while, but only until protesters drowned out its buzzing with unified chants of “go away,” after which the helicopter did indeed go away, to much applause. Banners were hung from the gate and from all adjacent fencing.
The climate camp was not only an expression of radical education and mass protest, but also a practical example of non-hierarchical and sustainable living. Power for the p.a. systems, and for the music, cinemas and computers, was generated by wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and even cycle power. Composting toilets were provided throughout the camp – and they are incidentally far cleaner and less smelly than the chemical toilets and plastic portaloos used at rock festivals – with the waste donated to an organic farmer after the event. All the work – including cooking the vegan food, washing up, composting the waste and defending the gates – was organized collectively, with decisions taken in participatory ‘neighborhood’ meetings.
The methodology of consensus meetings, with all its associated hand signals, seems strange at first to those of us from a labour movement tradition. But it is well established among the radical greens, and seems to provide a useful addition to the arsenal of resistance. And as a means of reasserting the principals of participatory democracy, it could well prove invaluable.
Many campers who had come simply to protest new coal were visibly shaken (and indeed radicalized) by the massive police presence. 1500 cops from 26 police forces descended on the camp during the week. Anyone approaching or leaving was thoroughly searched under Section 60 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. An early raid on the camp resulted in truck loads of stuff being confiscated – the booty included such offensive objects as bike locks, crayons and oranges. A cock and bull story was released to the media about a cache of weapons found in a nearby wood, probably in order to justify these excesses. We were videoed and photographed repeatedly. Riot police were massed at the gates at 5am every morning, resulting in campers being woken up early in order to defend the gates. And a police helicopter flew low overhead at all hours of the night, in a blatant attempt at sleep deprivation, and also at key times during the day, in order to disrupt meetings. By Friday, food for the camp was held up at a roundabout half a mile away so that we had to carry it on foot (with searches in both directions.) Over 100 people were arrested during the week, usually for ‘obstruction’.
But the protesters held firm in resisting police efforts to invade and occupy the camp. An early attempt at police occupation was repulsed when around 50 cops were overwhelmed by campers and pushed back through the gate. The gates were barricaded and rapid responses to every attempt at massing riot police outside the gates ensured that they never gained access. Every morning the police would issue a printed sheet requesting the right to patrol the camp and even to set up an on-site police station. And every day, following discussion in the neighborhood meetings, their request was denied, so that throughout the week the site was maintained as a cop-free zone. This in itself boosted the confidence and determination of the campers.
One of the most striking features of the climate camp movement is the predominance of young people. This is certainly a cause for optimism. There is already a strong anti-capitalist consciousness among these youngsters, and this is starting to engender an understanding that the working class is the key agency of change. The camp has embraced the notion of ‘just transition’, and actively seeks out links with the unions. Despite many of its participants expressing sympathy with ‘anarchism’, this growing movement should nevertheless provide fertile soil for the ideas of eco-socialism.
It has been suggested that Kingsnorth might be the last climate camp. This is partly to avoid the camp becoming routinised as an annual jamboree, and partly in order to concentrate resources on the rolling blockade of Kingsnorth (which will begin as soon as a decision to build the new power station is announced.) The message from Kingsnorth is clear. This movement is not going away, and any attempt to go ahead with the plans for a new coal fired power station will be firmly resisted. And with the confidence of these young protesters running as high as it is, this is definitely a battle we can win.
The next meeting of the Camp for Climate Action will be in Manchester on the weekend of 26th to 28th September.
See website for details of the climate action group in your area: http://www.climatecamp.org.uk/