Published on
Sunday Herald / UK

Small Protests Can Beat the Big Guys

Joanna Blythman

Does the name Helen Steel ring a bell? She handed me a leaflet recently outlining an inspiring community sustainability initiative that she's involved in but I didn't realise who she was until a friend said "Remember McLibel? That's Helen." She was one of the two London anarchists who stood up in court to McDonald's, the world's mighty burger chain, inflicting the biggest moral and public relations defeat this global corporation has ever suffered.

Small, discreet, quite unobstrusive behind a heavy fringe, there's no self-promotion from Helen. She is just one of those citizens who, in a quietly determined way, refuses to bow the knee to powerful interests, or give up trying to stop something she sees as morally wrong.

I thought of Helen last week, looking at pictures of six Greenpeace climate-change campaigners as they emerged from court, cleared of causing criminal damage at the coal-fired Kingsnorth power station. The six - Huw Williams, Kevin Drake, Ben Stewart, Tim Hewke, Will Rose and Emily Hall - admitted trying to shut down the station by occupying the smokestack and painting "Gordon" on its lofty, landmark chimney, but defended themselves by saying that they were trying to prevent climate change causing greater damage to property around the world. They cited alarming facts, such as the small matter that Kingsnorth emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as the 30 least polluting countries in the world combined. The jury accepted their arguments as British juries often do. In recent years, miscellaneous court cases involving GM crops, nuclear power, chemical and arms companies have collapsed after protesters argued they had followed their consciences and tried to prevent a greater crime.

Such verdicts are anathema to corporations and government, but they suggest that the public at large has some sneaking admiration for people who take direct action, on the face of it cocking a snoot at the law, to draw attention to injustice or resist policies and decisions imposed from above that are out of kilter with public opinion. Such civil disobedience has a noble pedigree, from the CND protesters in the 1960s who took to canoes on the Holy Loch to the women's peace camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s through to Swampy's road protests of the 1990s and, more recently, the carnival revellers who occupied the site proposed for the third runway at Heathrow.

However much we are in sympathy with the cause, relatively few of us feel passionate enough or have the nerve to take on the likes of McDonald's or even a relative tiddler like E.on, the owner of Kingsnorth. Just supposing you were physically fit enough to scale a power station chimney stack, wouldn't you be daunted by the prospect of a night in the nick, a trial up against the best barristers that money can buy, or the very real threat of losing your job? Most seasoned campaigners, trade unionists, professional activists employed by NGOs, veterans of conference motions, council votes, demonstrations, petitions, rallies, vigils and all, baulk at putting themselves so much on the line, no matter how much they believe in the issue at stake.

Even the most engaged, active citizens throw in the towel when they have exhausted all lawful, established mechanisms for action. Seasoned campaigners become resigned to defeats, but then you get those surprising people - the retired Quaker accountant at the back row of the meeting, the previously apolitical housewife who has never been involved in any campaign to date - who are just so outraged at a decision or event, that they are prepared to go much further than the usual suspects, even if that means taking wire cutters to an MoD fence, or breaking into a nearby incinerator plant.

People like these are essential to the proper functioning of democracy. Not everyone is so tenacious. After the watershed of the Iraq war, many of us have retreated into defeatism and frustration. We feel alienated from the the ritualistic cut and thrust of party politics, let down by our elected representatives at all levels, local, national, global, so much so that we can't see the point of voting.

Whatever it is that bugs you - the sale of playing fields, dawn raids on asylum seekers, school or post office closures - there's that now pervasive feeling of done deals behind closed doors, the depressing thought that no amount of opposition at a personal or collective level is going to make one blind bit of difference to the outcome.

And this is where those prepared to contemplate direct action - the Helens, Huws, Kevins, Bens, Tims, Wills and Roses of the world - come in. They come up with creative stunts to keep vital issues in the public eye.

While interest groups like fuel protestors well and truly piss everyone off by blocking roads for hours, these activists keep the public on side using short, sweet action that often demonstrates a sense of humour, but is nevertheless as finely targeted as a cruise missile. They act as an important check on obsequious governments prone to rolling for vested interests, be that arms dealers, the global biotech lobby, Big Food or Big Pharma. Call them hotheads, if you like, but heavens, how we need them.


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