Our very own correspondent Mary King travels to Heathrow to support Climate Camp 2007. If you have your own stories and would like them to be shown on environmental graffiti, please feel free to send us an email
“Holding a week-long event to protest about the aviation industry’s contribution to climate change (the Camp for Climate Action 2007) has been hugely successful in drawing media attention and raising the profile of the issues at stake, and great if you’re a full-time parent with children on holiday to entertain. However, it’s not so easy to take off for a week when you have work commitments (otherwise known as having used up all this year’s annual leave) and as a result my friend and I were reduced to showing our support for the weekend only.
“We rolled up at about 10pm on Friday night after following news of the camp’s progress online for the preceding week, not without trepidation after the warnings of frequent stop-and-search incidents and police hostility. In the event we reached the campsite without incident, and were greeted warmly at the Welcome Tent, where the introductory speech contained special emphasis on the importance of using the correct toilet, there being different ones for weeing and pooing. This turned out to be a lot easier to adjust to than you might imagine – indeed, all toilets were beautifully clean and relatively non-smelly (Glastonbury could certainly learn a thing or too), whilst all the other camping necessities – drinking water, meals, communal shelters – were organised beautifully.
“Camping was arranged in geographical areas – North West, Wales, Scotland, London, etc – with communal areas provided centrally as well as in each section. The atmosphere was relaxed for the most part, with most campers socialising in small groups; the protest attracted a range of people, with families with children and older people represented, though most were probably in their late 20s. There was little alcohol consumed, and whilst live music was provided in the main tent both nights we were there, various films were shown and a trampoline provided for the kids, the atmosphere was far too focused to become really festive.
“Our obvious concern in arriving so late was whether we would be able to integrate into camp life and catch up on what we had missed. Meeting people and learning the ropes as far as practicalities were concerned was no problem. However, in missing out on the week of discussion and workshops that preceded the weekend’s demonstration, we felt rather lost as by the time we arrived, each group was well and truly stuck into discussing their roles in the forthcoming 24-hour direct action against BAA. Whilst the camp itself was organised so well, the plan for the direct action seemed rather to be a victim of camp leadership structure: a system called “consensus decision-making”, which camp organisers see as more democratic than voting, was in place, which worked well when arranging food and drink for the thousand-odd people present, but wasn’t so effective at pinning down many diverse groups to organise a unified, mass action. The result was endless meetings, confusion, and a communication problem. Without a manager to instruct each unit on how they could work to feed into an overall strategy, plans were messy and changed constantly.
“However, things came together in the end, with the camp ultimately acting in three large groups to begin the 24-hours of action today. A child-friendly march, including groups of local residents, set off from the camp at around midday, whilst another group walked the site of the proposed third runway. The final group set off from the main tent at 2pm with the intention of marching across the field to BAA’s head offices, where a protest camp would be set up and demonstrators remain overnight to greet BAA workers in the morning. This way, the camp could attract attention to their cause without inconveniencing any passengers.
“My two days in camp had taught me that suspicion of the police among protestors was high, but even so the police presence felt shockingly heavy-handed. As we marched in columns across a field, aiming for a peaceful protest, hands in the air, bearing a banner reading “We are armed only with peer-reviewed science”, we were stalked by groups of Met, mounted and riot police at least equaling our numbers. As we approached the footpath leading from the field to a quiet side street, our path was blocked by riot police screaming “Get back, get back”, and any attempt to leave the field was met by force, police striking protestors with their metal truncheons. When myself and a friend, two clearly unarmed women, approached a section of fence to climb through to the road, we were met by a riot policeman shouting “If you climb over that fence I will hit you very hard,” while pulling on black gloves. I asked why I was being prevented from entering a public road but didn’t receive an answer.
“Our group scattered and attempted to continue the march by different routes, most of which were blocked by hordes of riot police as quickly as we could locate them. There were several attempts to get past the police line, with some groups succeeding, and five protesters injured in the attempt. (Whilst my cowardliness helped me to escape injury, I did fall in a nettle patch whilst climbing a fence which was fairly painful). The police corralled a group of about fifty people in a small park, but luckily my group were able to escape that and retreat back across the field, where two vanloads of police prevented us from entering our own camp for several minutes for no apparent reason.
“Back at camp we filed reports for the incidences of police violence we had seen at the Legal Support tent (the legal side of things was carefully monitored, with “legal observers” in fluorescent vests accompanying activists to record incidences and take down police numbers if necessary) before acting on a tip that the main route to BAA offices via the road was still open. Sure enough, by taking a bus we were able to reach the buildings and join the group of protestors who’d succeeded in reaching our destination – some by outrunning police and some by stealth. (Police later closed the main entrance to the climate camp, preventing more activists from joining the demo at BAA by this route). There was a huge media presence around the building which was heavily guarded by riot police, and about two hundred protestors were calmly settling in outside, pitching tents, arranging banners and kicking a football around. A light drizzle was keeping the atmosphere subdued, but most of the activists were upbeat, if shocked by the police behaviour. I learnt later that another large group was being held behind the building and negotiating to be allowed to join the rest of the demo.
“As Sunday night was drawing in by now, I resigned myself to my role as a fairweather activist and sloped off to catch the tube home, extremely admiring of the protestors bedding down on the solid concrete of BAA’s car park. A heavy-handed approach by the police had created an atmosphere of conflict when all we would have done, unobstructed, was approach the building en masse with our banners and chants. However, the action was still a success and as one of the cameramen outside BAA commented to me, “I think you guys have made your point.”