You always remember your first time. Mine was at a Shell petrol station in Reading in the spring of 1998. It all seemed so new to a 19 year old first year undergrad, but people have been doing it for thousands of years. I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but I knew the risks and I knew I was ready, and I felt both empowered and a strange sense of coming of age.
I’m talking, of course, about non-violent direct action (or NVDA for short), and I’m writing this because it has been the subject of four different news items within the last week.
First of all we’ve had Climate Camp showing up at the RBS headquarters in Edinburgh, then there was the conclusion of the trial of the ‘Climate 9’ who invaded Aberdeen airport to protest against aviation and golf course expansion, most recently Greenpeace have occupied an oil platform in the arctic, and finally (although you’ll have to search harder to find this) we’ve had the first two acquittals of activists arrested at the Copenhagen climate summit last December.
What these actions have in common is that they were all the subject of allegations made in the media that have no either been disproven or not pursued, but you’re highly unlikely to see any of those articles retracted on the same pages on which they were published. Yet without this most people are left thinking that there was some truth to them, and this damages the reputations of both the organisations and individuals involved, and those of us fighting climate change in other ways.
In short, the Climate 9 were accused of delaying the launch of an emergency helicopter flight to save a critically-ill baby, but this was disproved in court. Protesters at Climate Camp have been accused of creating a dangerous molasses oil slick on a major road, but the nature of this incident remains unclear and the police have yet to charge any activists in connection with it. However most notable are the Copenhagen acquittals – two activists accused of ‘organising violence and significant harm to property’ (which carried a twelve and a half year sentence) had the charges reduced to lesser offences, but were then cleared entirely.
So where are those retractions? And what about all the other accusations made against activists by the press that turn out not to be true? Do some so-called journalists even write them knowing, or at least having a good idea, that they’re complete fallacies?
Here’s another example from personal experience. In 1999 I travelled to Birmingham to take part in a ‘human chain’ around the venue hosting a G8 summit, which was organised by Jubilee 2000 and attended by an estimated 80,000 activists, but what I was really there for was the event that followed. After most of the attendees had gone home (a rather depressing number of them having filed through McDonalds on their way) about 3,500 of us invaded the Bull Ring (then a major ring-round around the city centre). We were taking part in what is generally accepted as the first truly global climate change action – a day of ‘street parties’ organised by Reclaim the Streets. Whilst I won’t pretend that the event was entirely peaceful – being kettled and then riot-charged by the police may have had something to do with that – or that no damage was done by anyone (we were, after all, invading a major road that was in use right up to the moment we blocked it) the media coverage was hardly representative of what actually happened.
The focus of the accusations was that activists had hijacked a car, destroyed it, and then danced round it – only one of those being remotely accurate. The car certainly wasn’t hijacked as it wasn’t road worthy when it arrived – lacking an engine and anything else that might make it difficult to push and easy to set fire to. As I understand it it was even purchased legitimately from a local scrapyard. Whoever ‘hijacked’ it had also managed to re-spray it and install a large sound system in the brief amount of time it took for us to take control of the road. Even the local reaction was also surprisingly positive, to the point that some stranded drivers left their cars and joined in the fun. But no need to let that get in the way of a good story.
Yet there are times when activists do deliberately set out to damage property, beyond the minority who like to smash windows whilst the majority are demonstrating peacefully. These are usually well-planned actions where the activists have thought hard about their intentions and the implications for both themselves and bystanders. Whether such actions are organised with the military efficiencies of the likes of Greenpeace or the more ad-hoc systems used by anarchist groups they are the result of individuals willing to put their liberty on the line in order to make their voices heard. Given the scale of the problem comparisons between environmental campaigners and the suffragettes may be apt, and for all but the most ill-thought out actions there should be no apologies.
Take what has become probably the most famous action in the UK, and one which has set a major legal precedent. The Kingsnorth 6 were part of the group of Greenpeace activists (there were many) who invaded the Kingsnorth coal power station last year. They were found not guilty of causing Â£30,000 worth of criminal damage to the power station, despite admitting to having caused the damage, because they successfully argued that this was peanuts compared to the cost of the environmental damage inflicted by coal power stations. Fortunately for them they had the support of the well-oiled Greenpeace legal machine, and probably also the impact of the name, so not only were their legal costs met, but they also had a hugely effective PR department to handle (and correct) the media coverage. Yet in essence their action had at its heart the same sort of planning, thoughts and intentions common to many smaller groups, and no doubt the same sense of achievement once their work was done.
That’s the thing with activists, when they do cause damage they usually admit it, because they’re usually quite proud of it.
Whilst I no longer take part in NVDA, I still regularly take part in legal actions, and these will often end up reminiscing about campaigns past over a beer in the pub. But there’s definitely a bit of romance about NVDA – you always remember your first time.