An unjustifiable police presence at climate camp

The police operation at this year’s climate camp was politically motivated and unjustifiable, writes a climate camper

Columns - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 4:49 - 0 Comments

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Early this August I found myself traveling to the ‘Camp for Climate Action 2008′. Climate Camp has convened every summer for the past three years and aims to combine high impact direct action, low impact sustainable living, education, and movement building. Each year the camp targets a high polluter – the first was held near Drax Power-Station, and last year’s was near Heathrow.

This summer the focus was Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent, where energy corporation E.ON and the British government are planning to build a new coal-fired power station, the first in Britain for decades.
Long before the first tent was pitched, it was publicly stated that the Climate Camp would culminate in a ‘day of mass action’ against Kingsnorth, possibly including attempts to enter the power station and shut it down – tackling corporate greed and erroneous Government policy head-on. E.ON responded by scheduling maintenance for that weekend (effectively shutting the plant down for us) and erecting a second electric fence within the perimeter palisade. Given the possibility of something illegal and highly political happening, the strong arm of the law was predictably on the scene.

The first indication that I was drawing near to the camp was sighting copious quantities of police officers and flashing blue lights. I was made to stop outside a large temporary shelter where campers were already queued, waiting for their turn to have their bags searched, item by item. I cannot overstate the scale of the police operation at Climate Camp this year. The cops had their very own camp down the road from ours, teeming with some 1,400 officers from all around the country. Given that around 3,000 people visited the Climate Camp site at some point over the week, this was an extraordinarily generous ratio of coppers to campers. It also cost the taxpayer a lot: figures vary, but the estimate is generally around eight million pounds – well over two and a half thousand pounds per camper.

Looking through the dominant paradigm of a generally law abiding population, it may appear reasonable that the police would attempt to protect the power station from breach. The laws of the land, after all, provide well for the protection of private property and profit making. But whether this is the case – even from a strictly materialist perspective – given the scale and seriousness of climate change is highly questionable. An interesting case in point is the six Greenpeace activists who broke into Kingsnorth Power Station and scaled the chimney a year earlier, and were subsequently charged with criminal damage. They were recently acquitted in court. Their defence successfully argued that they were acting to protect property around the world from the impacts of climate change.

Actually, protecting the power station from breach was a relatively small aspect of the police activity. Their operation included a permanent and menacing presence around the periphery of the camp at all times, with permanent surveillance and often riot police; violent incursions and skirmishes; the arrest of individuals for such crimes as ‘riding a bicycle on a footpath’ and the possession of hay fever tablets; the confiscation of such dangerous items as tent-pegs, a ‘war on terror board game’, crayons and string; and the low flying of police helicopters over the camp at all times of day and night. Even those who chose to keep it legal on the day of mass action and join the protest march were threatened with police dogs, horses and batons, and by the chopper circling overhead.

It is fairly evident, then, that the police operation was inspired by powerful political motives to a greater extent than by fairly applied judicial or legal requirements. This raises several important questions. If the police weren’t present just to protect a power station, what was their purpose? Why repress a group of people who are attempting to address the crisis of our epoch?

Needless to say, the police have claimed that everything they did was necessary to protect Kingsnorth and prevent unlawful activity. However, considering the situation ourselves only briefly reveals the overtly psychological nature of the whole operation. It’s not exactly a comfortable experience having your stuff rifled through by a copper, often resulting in confiscations. The noise of a helicopter some thirty meters above your tent at 3am is definitely sub-ideal. And the novelty value of having to haul yourself out of bed at 5am to help secure the site from a suspected incursion by riot police certainly wears off quickly. There is of course nothing inherently illegal about the camp itself and attendance is not a criminal offence. Yet the way in which the police behaved was a clear attempt to criminalise everyone involved – vegan chefs and all.

The Climate Camp is organised in a grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ and non-hierarchical way. Participants collaborate in ‘working groups’ to coordinate different aspects of the running of the camp. There are regular meetings, run on consensus decision-making principles, to facilitate and cultivate a form of participative democracy that permeates though the social fabric of the movement. This is not simply a protest camp, but also an experimental attempt to create a working model of a truly inclusive, free society.

Returning to my earlier question, I will share some thoughts. This is the state’s worst nightmare. Terrorism and wars strengthen the position of the state, providing a perfect opportunity for the government to cash-in on reactive fear and proclaim ‘this is why you need us!’ When people by-pass the current socio-political structures, organising themselves in a bottom-up manner to subsist and build practical alternatives, this challenges the notion that a coercive top-down state is a necessary evil. Climate campers are biting the hand that feeds and learning to feed themselves. Dissent is sometimes heeded, sometimes merely noted and other times ignored. When people actively opt-out or act on their own initiative and intuition, the state has much less control over what is going on. I believe the Police activities at Climate Camp are a clear example of a desperate attempt to compensate.

The project of systematic intimidation and harassment carried out by the UK government’s law-enforcement agencies was titled ‘Operation Oasis’. In my view, this was a highly appropriate designation. Climate camp could be compared to an oasis on many levels” a community of cooperation in a sea of relentless competition; a sanctuary of positive alternative in a desert of entrenched doctrine; and certainly an organised movement of compassionate individuals working progressively, within an overtly repressive and clearly anxious state. What I would suggest is this: find an oasis and help it to grow and develop, until the entire desert is fruitful and green.

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