Saturday, August 29, 2009

climate camp vs newbury

I'm sat here on Blackheath, site of Wat Tyler's rabble-rousing for the Peasants Revolt, among the roused rabble of the Camp For Climate Action, ready for the pedants revolt.

This afternoon I bumped into an old comrade from the Newbury Bypass and we inevitably compared the two events.

The Climate Camp, like Newbury, is composed of a disproportionate number of young adults, especially students. Indeed, yesterday I had a journalist trying to get the old gimmers like me to grumble about it.

Personally, I've no prejudice against being educated, and given the fact that students are the most likely to have the summer free and least likely to be shackled by mortgage and family commitments, it's not surprising they are here in force. The protests against the Vietnam War and in Tianenmen Square were led by students. I don't think that invalidated them in the least.

But anyway, this young demographic have no memory of the older struggles, and many talk of Newbury in the way we old 'uns speak of Paris 68. It's easy to get all rose tinted along with them, but me and Tot Hill veteran Martin just thought about it properly. There is nothing we can remember about Newbury that Climate Camp doesn't blow out of the frigging water.

There are complaints that Climate Camp's politics are diluted, that it's become a liberal lobbying group awash in NGOs and reformist ideas. Yet Newbury was actively supplied by Greenpeace, supported by many Friends of The Earth groups, and both NGOs often felt like they were entitled to speak on behalf of the campaign. There were nimbyists, conservative conservationists, those who just talked of other ways to move the absurd quantity of traffic instead of having any thought-through systemic critique. Climate Camp draws the demarcation much more clearly and speaks for itself a lot louder.

All radical movements we venerate had their woolly end. This doesn't mean we should ignore it, but it does mean that their presence isn't indicative of an all-encompassing woolliness. Check your suffragette, civil rights or anti-nuclear history, they all had it. The Climate Camp remains overtly radical. The first thing you see coming up the hill or going past on the 380 bus is the entrance banner saying Capitalism IS Crisis.

The programme of workshops and discussions shows the position as against the growth economy. The influx of newbies - half the people at the opening plenary hadn't been to a previous Climate Camp - means many have to be walked through the ideas to join it up, but the enthusiasm for that perspective is startling.

Last night I was in a mass meeting of over 500 people talking about economics beyond capitalism, who understand that not only is there no way the climate crisis can be tackled while capitalism is intact but that as well as immediate action we need to be thinking about the broader abstract cultural issues. And not in a stuffy drywank way that thinks economics is something for economists any more than we believe politics is just for politicians.

The Camp has involved itself with those irritant backbench Labour rebel MPs and the LibDems keen on civil rights, but that hasn't necessitated any move to their parliamentary freemarket politics. At Newbury we fought alongside titled tories, fox hunters, all manner of fuckheads who we'd give stick to on any other day of the week.

At Newbury the police totally decided their own agenda. Here, we have them on the back foot, kept off site despite their threats and desires. Newbury had a huge contingent of those who felt that if we only talked to the police as human beings they'd somehow not defend the forces of destruction. Those at Climate Camp who haven't had experience of the police often feel that way too, but it's easy to disabuse them of the notion and, as a site and group, there is no way the Climate Camp would behave like that.

Climate Camp out-media the police, indeed they are as savvy as people can be with the mainstream media, way more sussed and successful than Newbury, normalising radical perspectives in a far more effective way.

There is a total absence of the dippy new-age bullshit that saturated Newbury. People chanting at trees to ensure they couldn't be cut down and that sort of gubbins. Climate Camp may be idealists, but they're realistic and practical ones. My favourite kind.

And they're not just practical in the application of ideology but in the most obvious sense. The ability to equip everyone with the kit needed to allow the real work of talking, thinking, networking and planning to happen is amazing. They tipped a fully working eco-village illegally and secretly into a field in a few hours.

At Newbury we tolerated all manner of brew-crew lairy fuckers. We had no idea how to include them and get them to be a co-operative element of the campaign, nor any idea how to exclude the tiny number of irredeemably disruptive people. Climate Camp stops most of that bother before it even starts, and the Tranquility team sort out much of what does happen, and even then the process is so collectively and democratically understood that often people don't call in the experts but sort it out themselves.

And part of the reason we put up with those munters was the fact that they would dependably be there, and we needed the numbers. The idea of thousands of people coming together, of a movement pulling in hundreds of new people every time a big event happens, was simply unthinkable.

To put them in the middle of the Met's home turf, retain control and get on with the real business of educating, agitating and motivating one another for action - not as a single focus but an ongoing culture of action - would have been an insane joke. The sheer weight of numbers is gobsmacking.

It's never in the bag, all movements make mistakes and all movements need continual vigilance and tweaking if they're not to be co-opted or diluted or burned out. But on those fronts and all the others listed above, Climate Camp is the real deal.

It's not that they're some sort of great guru overachievers pulling it out of a hat. It's the culmination of a lot of lessons learned from sites and campaigns over the last 20 years, and indeed Newbury was part of that experimentation and refinement process. It is clearly on the current front end of all that and its awareness and creativity are immense. It has, as Newbury did, that feeling that this isn't something these people are doing but something they are, that this is a rolling network rather than an event.

Newbury was an amazing campaign, an inspiration to others around the world and a radicalising force for a huge number of people. At the time it felt fractious but righteous, chaotic and dicey but cool as fuck to be in the middle of. Climate Camp is all that and more.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but in reading this you seem to have forgotten that the Newbury protests were part of something so much bigger.

I was involved in anti-road protests from the earliest days at Twyford Down until the bitter end of Newbury. and I am still a direct activist now.

Never, in all those years was it about one road, but about the same things - about capitalism, industrialism and the trashing of the wild places of this earth. With most of my mates, we joined in the Reclaim the Streets parties (much more creative and beautiful and cross-movement than the very boring climate camp at the G20. We took out protest to open cast coal mines and to Whatley Quarry, to Rio Tinto Zinc and to the importers of timber from ancient forests. and climate was part of this too.

I am sorry you seem to have closed your mind to what really happened at Newbury and focus on the pissheads; what you forget is not just the radicalism, but that at Newbury many of the protesters were disenfranchised travellers (any wonder they drank?) and that most of there and at the other camps gave up everything to live that life fulltime - not just a few days of the summer, but for years, year round to try to save something we felt passionate about and aware that it was part of the bigger picture.

Derek Wall said...

I first came across Merrick when he wrote the battle for the trees book about Newbury, I am sure he like lots of us thinks the whole thing was a pretty wonderful part of a wave of effective resistance.

However I think he is having a go at outlining some critical analysis, you may disagree, but good for him.

Yes I think climate camp is moving in the right direction!

merrick said...


I haven't forgotten that the Newbury protests were part of a something bigger, both in terms of the targets for actions and in terms of the deeper political analysis and spiritual basis of the protests. That's not what I intended to say or imply.

The point I was trying to make is that hindsight lets us see a campaign's effects clearly and imagine it as always predestined to have had those effects, being of one defined course, ignoring the way that, at the time, it is a swirl of differing opinions, mistakes, chaos and unpredictability.

You are absolutely right, it was certainly full of people who saw the bigger picture and was a powerful positive thing for those involved and the wider world. I'd hoped to have made that clear, and reading it back I think I did, I'm sorry if that didn't come across clearly to you.

But I've heard numerous people who talk of the 90s campaigns in glowing terms criticise Climate Camp for things that apply at least as much - often far more - to the 90s stuff. And that seems a load of arse to me.

Anonymous said...

What a load of bollocks this debate is. It is like saying that climate camp (which used to be the camp for climate action) should be compared to the camp at Mainshill and the actions at Fros Y Fran.

Camps and actions to defend a threatened site are one tool in what direct action does and bring together an assortment of those opposed to the threat (whatever it is) from anarchists to local Tories. The camp for climate action (as it was) was a totally different project to build a movement, inspire and carry out action.

A critique of the climate camp movement is vital and drawing on lessons learnt in many years of direct action in the UK are useful for this, but calling something "climate camp vs Newbury" and trying to compare one with the other is a rubbish debate.

better would be to look at what was learnt that is of use to the current rise in true protest camps (like at Mainshill) and from the Reclaim the Streets protests of the 90s.

you seem to have taken rather personally some of the rather cynical comments, I guess, or older activists. Why not listen to what might be useful in their comments and ignore the miserable old git remarks (some of them just feel left behind I guess. Otherwise you set up a false and frankly rather stupid debate.