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Where I ought to be

Posted by helen on Sun 30 Aug 2009 at 13:10

I have so much to say about Climate Camp I don't know where to start, including several complicated political articles which are still half-formed, and all the stuff I've been learning about the law, and engaging with the police, and the science of climate change. But I can't write about my experience of being there on any of the political blogs, and I know that the longer I leave it the harder that will be to write so I want to quickly get something down.

I took part in the Swoop on Wednesday, even though I wasn't camping. This felt like a fairly crappy thing to do, as they'd explicitly asked people not to just show up for the swoop and then bugger off, so I was prepared to stay as late as necessary to make sure the site was safely established. I couldn't camp for the week (there was no way I could get time off; I'm having to do extra days in the office at the moment to stay on target) but I was as concerned as everyone about whether the police would behave this time, and wanted to offer the camp what little backup I could. Strength in numbers and all that.

The whole point of the swoop was that, after being abused by police at many previous lawful protests, including the Heathrow camps, Kingsnorth and (crucially) Bishopsgate at the G20, the camp was determined to go ahead as usual. As far as I'm aware, Climate Camp are one of the few protest movements in recent years to have been beaten back repeatedly by the police and eventually emerge victorious: the media frenzy surrounding the G20 was tugged by an effort of will from a story about rioting anarchists to one of thuggish police, and Climate Camp put an immense amount of work, PR and direct negotiation into ensuring that this event would not be similarly disrupted. It worked. The site was kept secret until the last minute, and participants gathered in small groups, on foot or bikes, bearing tents and hiking rucksacks, guitars and flags, around the city to await instructions by text message. I joined the Pink Group outside the Rio Tinto offices, where Legal Observers (including Denny) handed out Bust Cards advising you of your rights if stopped by police, and Climate Camp organisers gave out flyers, and outreach Bingo cards encouraging activists to approach passersby and talk to them about what we were doing. Musicians gathered round singing protest songs, we played a silly British-Bulldog-style game of 'Copper, Corporation, Activist', won by the team that broke the rules most creatively, and there were talks about why Rio Tinto was selected as a meeting point, and why carbon offsetting doesn't work.

There was also lots of sitting around and eating the food and drink we'd brought with us. I was very very tired, having just got back from a weekend away and not having caught up on my sleep, so when I tired of chatting to people I read my book (which was, topically, set during the Reformation). There was a heavy police presence - 14 officers standing on the other side of the street looking bored, and various police dog vans and motorbikes driving past at regular intervals - but they prudently let us get on with it. I overheard a couple of fantastic conversations between activists and City workers, but didn't quite have the energy to do much outreach myself.

When we did get the word to move it was very disorganised, with some people at the front heading off and everyone straggling after. Most people hadn't got a text, so we were trusting those at the front to know where they were going. As Denny commented, it was a system ripe for hijacking by anyone confident enough to strike out confidently in a certain direction, waving a mobile phone. The swoop publicity materials had mentioned splitting up and dodging through the streets so we weren't a procession (which involves different types of legal permission) but in the end we just trailed en masse to the Moorgate tube, thence to London Bridge. The loud guitarist got really annoying at this point - non-stop out of tune singing is much less tolerable on a tube platform than outdoors, and I blushed at the impression we were giving to members of the public.

Once at London Bridge, the sense of disorganisation continued - we knew we were heading to Blackheath, but half the group didn't have tickets (Oyster not being valid on the overground) and didn't even realise it until Denny pointed it out, at which point there were 40 people joining the ticket queue at once. We missed the first Blackheath train, but then we were on our way to the site, aware from the twitter feed that the exciting work of demarcating the camp and erecting the fencing had already (mostly) been done.

We straggled up the hill through the village (very posh!); the camp was right on the crest of the heath. Chosen as a site steeped in the history of dissent and grass-roots reform, including Wat Tyler's Peasant's Revolt. Minimal police presence, as we had by now come to expect. As everyone heaved their camping backpacks to the ground and started excitedly establishing neighbourhoods I couldn't help feeling slightly out of place. I wasn't camping, I wasn't 'part of it', and during the anticlimactic swoop I'd started wondering what there was to distinguish me from the press. I felt like a tourist.

But I've done this sort of thing before, and I wanted to help. A lot of people were sitting on the grass waiting for people to arrive, though, and those unloading lengths of rope and mounds of canvas, and an incongruous collection of plush armchairs, sofas, wooden furniture and old bathtubs from lorries seemed to have it all under control. I sat with Denny on the edge of the Legal Observer's meeting (I would have been one, but I was too exhausted to get to the pre-swoop meeting the night I got back from holiday) and waited for the opening meeting to start.

The camp is run as a consensus democracy, with no established hierarchy. Meetings are held in circles, anyone can speak, and while decisions can take a while to reach, they tend to reflect the wishes of the camp as a whole very accurately. Volunteers to help with various setup tasks were asked for - I offered to help build compost loos but they had more people than they needed. Neighbourhoods (regional camping groups: London, Cymru, North East, etc) were identified, and Spokes for those neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood meetings take place every morning, and the Spoke plus three representatives from the neighbourhood then attend the morning Camp meeting, and speak for their group in any urgent camp-wide decisions. Less urgent questions are decided by consensus at the evening camp-wide Plenaries in the main marquee.

I ended up wandering over to the East Side (Cambridge, Norfolk, Humberside) neighbourhood to see if they needed any help with their kitchen. The woman in charge seemed very stressed, not at all sure what to do with the offers of help from random non-campers ("Have you pitched YOUR tents?" "We aren't camping..." "HRM.") and so after helping her move crates into the kitchen tent and tarps back into the van, me and a few other helpers ended up pitching the kitchen staff's sleeping tents. I was paired with a pretty Cambridge student, with blonde dreads and bare feet, studying Anthropology. The sky was grey and the wind was fierce. We battled with the tent, which threatened to turn into a landsail every other minute, and kept getting tangled with another couple (also London residents who weren't camping) that were trying to raise Tent Number 2. There wasn't space for both tents, each of which could have easily slept an entire kitchen staff, and the Kitchen Organiser kept wandering over to criticise and then changing her mind about what she wanted, which was fairly frustrating. I kept thinking how much more pleasant it was to be in the Green Futures Field, with a central organised core and much less faff, and how the downside of non-hierarchical organisations is that you end up taking instructions from people who are terrible at giving them, but I suppose that faff and bad managers are both downsides of hierarchical organisations as well.

Once the tents were up, I wandered over to the big tripods to keep Denny company while he was on gate duty. They had two legal observers stationed on the gate at all times to keep watch, including overnight (insomniacs were encouraged to volunteer at the camp meeting), and defend it from police -like the fencing, this proved to be unnecessary, but I understood the camp's caution. Groups wandered the perimeter every so often to check all was well.

At the gate, the camp seemed a little bleak to the eye - the lowering clouds, the unadorned yards of Harris fencing, the stark metal tripods thrusting into a darkening sky. The big green CAPITALISM IS CRISIS sign strung across the gate was acting as a land sail in the ferocious wind, dragging the heavy metal poles across the grass in the strongest gusts, so it was taken down, making the whole complex look even more forbidding and quasi-military. "They should have décor!" I exclaimed wistfully to Denny, wishing I had the time to volunteer. We discussed the options for adding colour to Harris fencing without causing the sail effect, and agreed that a décor team attached to the fencing team would have made the new site much more approachable.

Of course, the camp was still in the early hours of its birth, and there were two days of rigging before the influx of people at the bank holiday weekend. But with so much media attention surrounding the Swoop, all eyes were on the camp in its infancy; on the gate on that afternoon we spoke to Green councillors, locals, members of the press. Dozens of photos were being taken, curious locals were wandering over, and a few brightly coloured flowers or painted canvases relieving that industrial, metal fencing and tripods would have made a real difference. I decided to organise a deco team for next year's camp, temporarily forgetting my self-imposed ban against organising extra-curricular activities for a while.

We had other small criticisms as well: outreach was minimal, and lots of interested passersby or local politicians hovered outside the gate, put off by its stark appearance and guessing that the fence was intended to keep them out. This is not an impression it's sensible to give on common ground, especially not when you're imposing on the hospitality of a local council for your water, and anything to make it clear that the fence is self-defence and the camp is open to the public would help. Denny made the effort to speak to people, took some photos for them, but I hid, exhausted, inside the fencing, watching and feeling rubbish for not having the energy to be more use.

I was aware of the extent to which my impression of the camp was influenced by my tiredness and low mood, the grey weather, and my frustration with myself for not participating more fully. Had I had more energy to give, I'm sure I would have got a lot more out of the day. Part of my frustration was just that consensus democracy feels like a disorganised, slow process, demanding a different type of pace, although I don't think that means it's inefficient. If you're chilled, at home, in good company, that pace can be very pleasant, I think; if you're outside it, it can seem like faff.

And despite everything, I felt very safe in that place: surrounded by likeminded, engaged people willing to give their time and energy for a cause I agreed with, on common ground steeped in a history of dissent, on a grassy hill looking over the city skyscrapers to the north. It was wet and windy and I was glad I'd brought my raincoat. I wished I could stay to camp, but knowing I couldn't, and knowing I was too tired to be of much use, we headed home at 7pm or so, to get some sleep. Both of us were interested to see what the camp would become over the next few days, and I think it went without saying that we would return when we were able.

I was relieved not to have been caught in a conflict or kettled until the early hours, glad to get the rest I knew I needed, but I continued to feel bad about not being able to participate as fully as I wanted to. This felt right, like something I wanted to be part of, like all the things that make the first few days in the Green Futures Field far, far better than the commercial festival that follows them. I was aware that my dissatisfaction with the afternoon stemmed mostly from my own tiredness, and the lack of self-respect that came from not camping. (Maybe I could have taken that time off work. Maybe I could have not gone on holiday. Maybe I could have thought about Climate Camp earlier in the year, committed to it, done extra work in August to get ahead at work...) Denny and I followed the camp twitter feed like people obsessed. We heard about the meeting with Superintendent Pendry and the Whitechapel Anarchist Group (whose banners we'd seen on site) that disrupted it by yelling anti-police abuse; we heard about the police erecting a giant cherry picker with mounted spotlights and CCTV; I wished we were still there so my frustration and emotion about these things was as a full participant, and not as a nosy tourist.

I spent the next two days talking about the camp online, defending it to critics, glued to the news feed and spreading the word about interesting updates. My attention was divided between the ongoing negotiations with police and the 'real' story, of what was happening inside the camp (a slower story, but an affirming one: marquees being erected, consensus decision making, people working together, eating together, site-wide plenaries where speakers update the camp on campaigns and other events, entertainment and singing and workshops). Denny went back for a bit on Friday to do another gate shift; "All I'm doing at home is refreshing their twitter feed, I may as well be there to see for myself." Stuck at work, I wished I could do the same.

I got the chance on Saturday, and it was everything I hoped for: I spent the day there yesterday and have much to tell. I'm going back again on Monday morning, but right now I'm due at a business meeting, so I won't get the chance to write more until I come back from the Camp tomorrow. I feel like this is all moving very fast. I'm lucky to be in London, and have the opportunity to pop in and out with having to commit to the week. My life does not have space for this new project but I can't resist it: it follows on inevitably from everything else that has been important about the last 18 months. This is the culmination of a lot of things that started, for me, at Glastonbury and picked up a new thread through my political engagement and Police State; it's a coming-of-age for some of my convictions, and how I choose to act on them. I'm too tired to be spending these hours there but it's energising, affirming, inspiring; this is what I should be doing, so I'm doing it. This is where I ought to be.