Climate Camp: Savior of the Environmental Movement?

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The Guardian/UK

Climate Camp: Savior of the Environmental Movement?

Hostile police tactics at the Kingsnorth and G20 camps has not put protesters off as climate camp goes global.

by
Tom Levitt

Protesters at Kingsnorth in August of last year. (Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA)

It was a different kind of protest. Instead of turning up at the
latest G8 summit or AGM of a multinational and waving the banners of
opposition, the protesters chose their own location.

They set up
camp in the shadow of a controversial carbon emitter - such as Drax
coal-fired power station - living as sustainably as possible before
making a high-profile demonstration.

Drax, Heathrow and Kingsnorth are now synonymous with climate change, in part due to the success of the protest camps of the past three years. But where did this powerful new movement come from?

Early inspiration

The
Stirling Eco Village at the G8 summit in 2005 was the first in this
wave of climate camp protests. Although much more of a formal
arrangement than later ones, with the site chosen in agreement with
Stirling Council, the camp and related direct action efforts provided
the model for future protests.

'[after Stirling] We had a sense
that we were capable of doing much more than just reacting to the
calendar of events,' remembers Climate Camp protester Kevin Smith. 'We
could set our own agenda now.'

It was the following August of
2006 when the camp-and-protest model met its first big test. By all
accounts the police were caught by surprise as protestors attempted to
break into the UK's biggest carbon polluter, the Drax coal-fired power
station in West Yorkshire.

The decision in 2007 to set up camp
next to Heathrow airport in protest at plans to build a third runway
was seen as an inspired move. More than 2,000 people joined the
week-long protest, and were duly followed by a large contingent of
broadcast, online and print media that ensured round-the-clock coverage
of the action.

Police response

However, the high-profile
nature of both the Drax and Heathrow protests saw the police react with
a much more hostile response to the Kingsnorth protest in August 2008.

'At
Drax the police were somewhat confused, but by Heathrow they had become
much more strategic and at Kingsnorth they took that to a new level,'
said Kevin Smith.

That new level saw what even the police later
called a 'disproportionate' response by Kent officers, including
widespread stop and search, intimidation and sleep deprivation tactics.

Responding
to criticism at the time, Police Minister Vernon Coaker claimed 70
officers had been injured tackling protesters but it later turned out
that this figure was made up of entirely unrelated injuries including
sunstroke and a suspected wasp sting.

In addition, a freedom of
information request by the MP David Howarth found the police had
confiscated items including blankets, balloons and a walking stick.

Kevin Smith believes the police scare tactics at Kingsnorth and G20 earlier this year ultimately helped their cause.

'The
police actions had the effect of radicalising some otherwise
mild-mannered activists. It inspired people to realise that sometimes
you do have to stand up to the repressive police tactics like that,' he
said.

Limitations of protest

While Greenpeace,
Friends of the Earth and other campaign groups have welcomed the
success of the Climate Camp protests, even going as far as organising
talks at the Camps, they are more guarded about its direct action
tactics.

'Friends of the Earth supports people's right to
peaceful protest and believes that protests should be non-violent,' is
the official line from Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth's Head of
Climate Change.

Groups such as the Campaign Against Climate
Change (CACC) worry that direct action marginalises the impact of the
protest and the movement in general.*

CACC National coordinator
Phil Thornhill said although the Camp benefited from respected
individuals like MP Norman Baker turning up in support, its anarchist
minority could lose it widespread support.

'It is not so much
that it is illegal but that at the heart of an anarchy-based philosophy
is one that doesn't admit the relevance of government. And a lot of
people would think that government is the only body that can ultimately
tackle climate change,' he said.

Camp protestors say the majority of them are far from being against the political system.

'When
people come to climate camp the biggest thing they realise is that it's
full of ordinary people, with ordinary jobs who are not against the
political system at all. Just frustrated by it,' said Jess Gold,
Friends of the Earth Campaigner and Camp protestor.

Global future

This
year's protest is set to be the biggest yet with more than 60 camps
taking place around the world. As well as one in London, camps are
being planned in Ireland, Wales and as far away as India and Brazil.

Earlier
this week, around 150 people set up the Scotland camp near the site of
a planned open-cast coal mine in Mainshill Wood in South Lanarkshire.

But even as it reaches global scale, organisers are already thinking beyond the camp protest idea.

'The
idea of climate camp is not to hold camps but to develop a social
movement in this country. The most important thing is that we're
effective,' said Kevin Smith.

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