Thursday, 26 August 2010

Five things you probably didn't know about the Edinburgh Climate Camp: Part 2

OK, so Part 1 turned into a bit of a rant about media coverage. Sorry about that. I feel much better now.

Let’s get on with some more interesting stuff:

2) 150 protesters came within a whisker of occupying RBS’s headquarters

On Sunday, around 150 people from the camp, wearing white hazard suits and face masks and accompanied by a thumping sound system, strode across the small bridge separating the Camp from RBS. The police weren’t expecting any large demonstrations until Monday, and so were caught largely off-guard, with only a dozen or so officers in the immediate area. The protesters pushed through the police line and, whooping and cheering, made their way right up to the windows of the bank’s headquarters.

From my vantage point on the other side of the stream, I couldn’t make out all the details of what was happening at the front of the crowd, but I heard the crash of breaking glass and quickly realised what was going on. They were trying to get into the building!

RBS headquarters is a fortress. There’s no conceivable way in except through one of the large plate windows, and someone had obviously prepared for this moment and brought the necessary tools for the job. It seems that they did manage to create a large enough hole to get people inside, but police reinforcements arrived and just managed to push the activists back, and back over the bridge.

Just imagine what would have happened if they’d got inside. If hundreds of activists had occupied the bank’s headquarters, it would have had incredible symbolic power: bringing the message about RBS’s destructive investments right into the belly of the beast. Sadly, the media mostly reported the incident as though it was an act of vandalism rather than an almost-successful invasion attempt. All the same, it was probably the most full-on and confrontational action I’ve ever seen at a Climate Camp, and when everyone gathered to discuss it in the main marquee later that night, you could taste the energy and excitement in the air. As we lurch deeper into the climate crisis, and as governments and corporations still fail to act with the necessary urgency, we need more stuff going on across the whole of society – including increasingly bold direct action.

This kind of action can seem extreme, or frightening. I used to feel that way about this sort of thing myself, not so long ago. But the more I learn about the urgency of this crisis and our failure to address it, the more I accept the need for increasingly loud wake-up calls, so long as they are non-violent and targeting the real culprits. If this was the only kind of action that was going on, then yes, I think there’d be a risk of alienating people. But so long as we are also engaging, connecting with and inspiring people in many other ways, then confrontational actions like this one can play a vital role in pushing the debate forward, showing governments, corporations and the public that climate justice is such a serious and urgent issue that people are prepared to break the law in order to stop it.

3) The Camp was a calm, friendly, safe and inspiring place

It’s hard to express in words the sense of community that the Climate Camp can create. Unlike the Blackheath camp in 2009, this camp consisted mainly of people who were there to actively participate, not to just pass through. This meant that everyone got stuck into setting up and running the site, cooking, cleaning, putting on workshops and planning actions. I’ve never experienced anything like it outside the Camps: 1,000 people all living and working together, making decisions by consensus, from varied backgrounds but united by a powerful common cause. Not everyone is there to break the law, but there's an underlying agreement about "diversity of tactics" - that everyone at the Camp is taking action for climate justice in a way that works for them, and that we're happy to work together under the same umbrella even though some people want to hand out leaflets and others want to chain themselves to bulldozers.

As I said in my last post, it’s not perfect yet – some accidental hierarchies inevitably emerge, based on who has the most knowledge, experience, or eloquence; old hands can forget how alien the camp can seem to new arrivals, especially those not familiar with similar events (or those from very different cultures, as in the case of the Indigenous Canadian tar sands activists who visited the camp); the consensus process is very much a work in progress and there are always communication failures and things that fall through the cracks. Despite all this, it’s an incredibly inspiring thing to be a part of – a tiny glimpse of an alternative world where we all look out for each other, share out tasks equally and have loads of fun together. I’d urge anyone with an interest in climate change to get along to a Climate Camp (if it happens again) – it’s an unforgettable experience.

The fact that the policing was much more low-key than past camps also helped, of course. How much this is to do with differing policing strategies between England and Scotland, and how much it was to do with the hammering that we gave the cops in the media and the courts last year over their oppressive policing of protest, is very hard to say (but that won't stop me from saying it: I reckon it's mainly because of the media and legal hammering).

I left the Camp feeling energised (well, physically knackered but mentally energised), optimistic, and part of a powerful and exciting community of climate activists. Reading other people's words on the subject (such as here and here) it seems as though I'm not alone...

Part 3 to follow soon - which will, confusingly, contain points 4) and 5). Hurrah for forward planning!

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