This is one person's reactions to and reflections on Climate Camp 2010, intended to provide analysis, provoke discussion, and express love for the movement. I'm joining in the friendly-but-critical discussion that's been kicking off in the activist blogosphere (here, here and here), and I'm delighted to see us moving on from the liberal-vs-radical debates of last year to something more practical. There is always space for criticism, for reflection, and for moving forward.
I've lived in Scotland since infancy, and now live in Edinburgh. I went to the Climate Camps at Kingsnorth and the G20, but haven't previously been significantly involved in helping organise the camps. This year, I came to it late, attending the last two regional gatherings, and then helping out in organising and facilitating meetings. So my perspective is of someone who's been around for a few years, but only recently committed extensively. These are fairly immediate reflections; they're not full of deep or thought-through analysis, but just a series of thoughts and reactions.
I came to Climate Camp 2010 pretty cynical and disillusioned. Like several individuals and groups in Scotland, I'd been disheartened by the way Climate Camp decided to come to Scotland – both in terms of a lack of discussion with Scottish activists, and the decision to focus on a multinational bank rather than the fossil fuel infrastructure in Scotland. It seemed impossible to do effective direct action against a bank's offices, and I felt we'd ignored community struggles. I was also sceptical of Climate Camp's institutional record in terms of direct action – we have a tendency to go for a combination of protest spectacle and “throwing people at fences”, rather than direct action which genuinely seizes the means of production or disrupts the means of destruction. But despite this, I tried to come with an open mind, and I'm glad I did.
Throughout this piece, I'm going to be similarly direct and unapologetic in my criticism. That's because I did come away from Climate Camp inspired and optimistic about its potential, and eager to continue my involvement, and to help implement the suggestions I make – if they ring true with others at our gatherings. Every criticism I make is a loving attempt to think hard about what we're doing and trying to achieve, so that we can continue to get better and be stronger together.
Land and respect, visitors and hosts
When Jasmine Thomas, our visitor from the First Nations struggle against the Tar Sands, spoke to us at the camp-wide plenary about her culture, she spoke a great deal about respect, the land, and the culture of visitors and hosts. She said that, as a visitor, she had a debt of respect to pay the traditional land and the people of the earth there – in this case Scotland, and the communities near to the camp. She also said that in her culture hosts owe a debt of respect and gratitude to their visitors, and that they must take every care to look after them and not offend them.
These words chimed with me, and I suppose that's why, even though I felt my land had been disrespected by the way Climate Camp decided to come here, I tried to be a good host, to be involved, and to be open to having my mind changed.
Scotland is particularly thistley ground when it comes to attitudes to visitors, Edinburgh especially so during the time of the festivals. You have to understand two things: that whatever your interpretation of history, Scotland was brutally colonised by England over a period of hundreds of years, having its land and culture systematically destroyed; every August, the world descends on Edinburgh in its biggest ever arts festival, effectively having a passive party, leaving residents to clean up the mess. This made us all particularly sensitive to what could be construed as “protest tourism” and “holidarity”, and also to colonialist, touristic or tokenistic representations of Scotland in the build-up to the camp.
Sites and all the plumbing
Let's have some positivity. We are astonishingly good at taking, holding and building sites. We have a dazzling wealth of experience and technical know-how. I wish outsiders could understand that it's not just tents and marquees – that we can rapidly establish functioning and ecological electrics, plumbing, comms and defense. Not only that: we know how to take it down and clean it up again PDQ. We have a real commitment to leaving the land as we found it, or better. (Love and respect, see?) We have a real understanding of setting up temporary non-hierarchical and ecological communities. We don't sing our praises on this enough.
There is a but, though. We should regard our approach to welcome, to establishing safe and respectful spaces, and to continuing to strive for inclusive, empowering, non-hierarchical decision-making structures as just as much an essential part of the infrastructure as the plumbing. Process is and should be exciting! – it should feel as much like we're setting up a brave new world as building wind turbines.
Sunday's incursion onto RBS grounds – when a crowd of biohazard-suited activists forced our way over the bridge, spilled around the building, smashed windows, and temporarily occupied the bridge site – really showed our potential for direct action. Looking at the photos and video, it's clear that at the beginning we completely thwarted the police. I've sat around laughing with friends at eight cops futile attempts to hold the bridge, and all the funny falling-over-hedges and stuff. We showed our ability to get past State and Capital's private army, and inflict some damage on an environmentally criminal institution.
That said, we failed to do any long-term damage that would really qualify for a strong direct action (disrupting the means of destruction, in this case), and all too quickly the cops did regroup and force us to retreat. Actually, looking at the video and remembering what happened, it feels more like we panicked and retreated before we had to. While there were some brave and inspiring de-arrests early on, we were not good at forming a line of protection for those trying to enter the windows, not good at breaking the police lines once they'd formed, and not good at supporting each other when things got hairy. We broke and run.
I want to make it clear that I don't blame any individuals for these events. Everyone has their own threshold, everyone has to leave an action when they have to leave. What I blame for us not quite reaching our potential is a current lack of a culture of preparedness: we're great at training support roles at climate camp (Legal, Medical, Media, &c), but not so good at teaching people direct action techniques that make for truly effective actions. Moments like Sunday are only fulfilled when enough people who are there are ready to take the initiative, protect each other, and get the job done. I disagree with those who claim this is mainly a failure of pre-organisation, because I think secrecy and surprise are important: I think it's about ensuring that enough of us are ready to act when the moment comes.
Consensus and Collapse
It is possible for consensus to operate quickly and still be empowering. It is possible for us to use consensus to win battles. It is not possible for us to achieve this if we don't work on our organisational understanding of consensus decision-making, continue to train, and respect the process.
At the RBS raid on Sunday, I felt the process collapse underneath us into panic, mistrust, opinionated people (mainly men) shouting, and poor decision-making. Much like at Bishopsgate last year, poor consensus process meant that a group of people trying to hold the line, trying to protect a site with a human blockade, were persuaded to give up their position by those who weren't themselves holding the line. I think this shows a lack of a culture of solidarity, as well as of a culture of consensus. Thankfully, this year this did not lead to a violent and traumatising rout, merely to a loss of a strategic advantage.
Again, this is not a criticism of individuals, but of our current level of understanding. I'm saying: we're good, let's get better. And it's worth saying that a number of the observers of Sunday's action who has felt, as I had, sceptical of Climate Camp's potential for real direct action, were genuinely impressed by what we achieved that day. Let's build on that. Let's go further.
Community, Solidarity and Image
After a rocky start, this year's camp got much, much better at supporting community struggles. It took an initial book, but eventually the camp got right behind Communities Against Airfield Open Cast, prominently supporting its campaign and its march on the Saturday. Better still, many people in many discussions recognised the importance of showing solidarity with local struggles. If Climate Camp is not just to be a summer holiday for action, not just going to be a technique for gaining media coverage of specific issues, but a strong part of the environmental protest movement, this approach must continue. When we choose to take a site, it should be part of our process that we look at the nearby struggles and find the best ways we can offer them our solidarity – whether it's through publicity, training, or attending their events. That way we can help build the protest movements across the company into something strong and united, but still diverse and flexible.
There's another reason community struggles are important. If Climate Camp wants to be seen as more than just the stereotyped dichotomy of “violent anarchist thugs” vs “smug posh rich eco-fascists on holiday”, we're not going to manage it by battling our portrayal in the media. We're going to manage it by finding out what ordinary people genuinely care about, and supporting their struggles against the institutions and developments destroying their lives. Not only will that improve our public image, it will also serve to help radicalise communities, improve the understanding and accessibility of direct action, and build a global and local movement.
This takes us beyond solidarity with indigenous struggles worldwide. (Not that I'm not saying that isn't vital – it is.) We mustn't, as someone said in Sunday's plenary, fetishise indigenous movements. Solidarity connects us to struggles at home as well as abroad – it takes us from Cousland to Cochabamba to the Carrier Nation. We're only a part of the many, many movements here and worldwide. Connecting and sharing solidarity across these movements is how we will win.
More on this: we're always going to lose the media circus, by the way. I realised that when I was chatting, oddly enough, to the police, about the fact that they always lose the media circus as well: they're always either too violent or too soft, rather like social workers. The media and the commenting public love to hate us, with a little positive comment getting through.
Yes, we have a fantastically effective media team, and their work is important: we do need media coverage, and it does help get ideas into the public consciousness. But that's only one small front of the battle to build the movement (full disclosure: when I say “build the movement” I mean “to a revolution”; when I see “build the movement”, I mean that the long-term aim should be for the whole of society to be involved in moving). It's useful to counter arguments, lies and smears on Twitter (remember we get beaten on these fronts becayse we genuinely have better things to do, and are doing them), but it's also extremely useful to do outreach on the grassroots level.
I only have one comment in both of these sections, really: remember to Give Up Activism.
A Frickin Siege Tower!
I don't think anything captured the camp's imagination more than the siege tower. It had chickenwire and papier-mache rhino on the front, gorgeous paintings all round, and a catapult on the back. What more could you ask for?
Maybe for it to move a bit quicker. But I defend to the hilt any action's right to be utterly absurd and completely unworkable. In fact, sometimes that's even better. Whatever else happened, we pushed and hauled a frickin siege tower into police lines, crashing it into a riot van. Now that is an inspiring dream of direct action. An active spectacle. An image of our belief in creative resistance. Yes, it took a lot of time and energy, yes, it was raining, yes, we couldn't go anywhere in the end, but it was bloody beautiful. Not everything we do has to be constructive. Sometimes we can just get together to celebrate our culture in a vibrant, active, hilarious way.
Some people felt let down, and the argument over what to do the next day did escalate, and that's a terrible shame. People were tired and stressed and overwhelmed, and that means we don't always show our solidarity in the best way, don't always stick to our principles and intentions. What I want people to remember is how amazing that action felt at the time, and I want to take this moment to thank everybody who helped make it happen, which includes just about the entire camp. I will remember riding a siege tower into police lines screaming for freedom for as long as I live.
Also, let's keep doing this medieval siege warfare thing. I think we've hit on something there.
An Awkward Position
It seems well-understood that Climate Camp is a strange meeting point for many types of activist: fluffy and spiky, anarchist and socialist, those who believe in media spectacle and those who believe in direct action, localists and globalists, geeks, freaks and lovers. A culture of consensus is not a culture of compromise: it means we respect each other's individuality and autonomy, while finding ways we can work together. So I don't believe that Climate Camp can synthesise all these different aims and intentions. That's why our support for a diversity of tactics is essential. We use a diversity of tactics not just to struggle against oppression and destruction and this insane culture on every front at once, trying desperately to find something that works, though we do do that; we use a diversity of tactics and respect and show solidarity with others' tactics because that's what it means to work in a mutually empowering way.
We showed that really well this year, with our “decentralised mass action”, supporting the work of affinity groups in creating a huge range of different types of action, the vast majority of them incredibly successful and effective. Well done. Of course this step was creaky, of course some felt alienated, or badly organised, or unsure, but I think we're getting there.
But that diversity means we're always going to have arguments and confrontations. Because we're a network of many different types of group, and because everyone cares deeply for the organisation, we will rehearse over and over again the same arguments about peace violence, about direct action and protest, about process, about everything. And that's OK. Climate Camp will never be a stable, autonomous organisation; it is a place where people meet, connect, change, grow, and struggle together.
Tat Down and Beyond
I felt sad on Tuesday when it all started coming down. That's because I enjoyed myself, as a friend told me. Because I felt inspired and optimistic. And it was a happy kind of sad, because we were showing our real respect for the site and our ecological principles. But I always want every camp to last forever. The temporary nature of climate camp is strange, and it always feels a bit like a glorious holiday, a dream. As with the siege tower, I think that's a good thing. But as with the siege tower, I think we have to think hard about what that temporary nature means for our role in the movement. Should we embrace it, see Climate Camp simply as a place where people can meet and grow and exciting things can happen? Or should we be thinking about building a sustainable year-round organisation that works constantly to build our movements? Or . . . ?