As a human being it is very difficult not to have sympathy for somebody that I cared about deeply, but it is also important to remember that that person that I cared about deeply did not in fact exist. I cared deeply for somebody whose life was intermingled with mine, and that person’s life story is a fiction.
These are the words of an activist, named only as Lisa, who gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee last month. Lisa’s testimony about her ex-partner is part of the Committee’s Interim Report on undercover policing, a subject which has rightly caused a great deal of outcry and controversy over the last year or so.
The collapse of a high-profile court case against a group of environmental activists in early 2011 revealed that a police spy known as Mark Stone (real name Mark Kennedy) had successfully infiltrated various activist groups over a long period of time, acting as what can only be described as an agent provocateur.
This case was just the start of a series of revelations concerning the activities of Kennedy and a number of other undercover officers – revelations which have left many within the activist community quite rightly shocked and angered, and have led to wider calls for public inquiries and investigations into the use and tactics of police spies like Kennedy and his colleagues (hence the Home Affairs Committee’s involvement) .
Here’s something I’m really excited about. This is the trailer for Grasp The Nettle, the brand new film from some of the team behind the successful indie remix mash-up documentary The Crisis of Civilization (2011). Filmed during the immediate aftermath of the 2008 banking collapse and beyond, Grasp The Nettle follows the lives and experiences of an eclectic group of activists involved in two radical social projects in London – the Kew Bridge Eco-Village and the controversial Democracy Village in Parliament Square.
Since June 2009, a remarkable group of people have been acting as caretakers of a patch of derelict land sandwiched between Kew Bridge, the A315 into central London and the Thames.
This is a busy, congested and built up corner of west London where available land is at a premium, and this site had lain empty and unused for several decades before the eco-villagers moved in last summer.
Now it is a thriving example of sustainable living, as well as being community garden project and home to a fascinating array of plants and wildlife – the latest in a long line of different functions.
The site has always been much more than just a piece of wasteland; it actually has a long history, probably dating back at least as far as the Bronze Age, and mainly because of its central position between the river and a main road. The A315 has long been an central route in to and out of London – it is built over a Roman road and was later also an important coaching route.
There had also been a ferry (and later a bridge) at Kew since at least the 17th century. You can thus easily see how the centrality of the site to river crossings and main roads would make it a logical plot of land to locate a business or build other property, and how this would eventually give it an element of historical significance.
So yesterday I ambled down to Blackheath in south-east London to check out the goings on at Climate Camp. For a variety of reasons (such as not actually owning a tent or sleeping bag, and the horrendous events at the G20 Climate Camp), I hadn’t originally been planning to go, but a friend and fellow activist invited me down, and I decided to take a look….
The idea behind Climate Camp is a simple and effective one – to bring together environmental activists from all over the country in order to give them the information and practical help they need to take direct action on climate issues. In the past, the camps have been at places such as Heathrow airport, and at the Drax and Kingsnorth coal-fired power stations in Yorkshire and Kent respectively. This time round, the site at Blackheath has been chosen, in clear view of London’s financial sector at Canary Wharf. Blackheath is also a highly symbolic site in the history of protest and rebellion, being a rallying point for Wat Tyler’s 1381 Peasants Revolt and for Jack Cade’s 1450 Kentish rebellion, as well as having strong connections to the early 20th century suffragette movement, making it emblematic of past struggles.
Only being there for the afternoon, I confess that I didn’t make it to any of the very effective and practical workshops on various activism-related subjects that were going on all over the camp, or sample any of the food being prepared communally in the regional kitchens across the site. Instead, we spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting drinking cheap cider in the sunshine while watching the world go by, marvelling at the lack of cops anywhere, and discussing the big news issues of the week: how, where and why had the mighty SpaceHijackers managed to get hold of a helicopter (and, more importantly, what are they planning to do with it?), and what on earth was that strange-looking middle-aged man over there in the orange gym slip and green tam o’shanter hat actually doing, because that sure as hell wasn’t Irish dancing (sorry, no photo of the alleged ‘dancing’. It probably would have cracked the lens). In fact, I suspect the heated debate over whether he was actually wearing anything under that skirt is still going on somewhere!
Despite my laziness, I came away with a big pile of helpful and instructive literature on crucial issues for any activist; such as direct action, the law as applied to activism and loads of information about the UN climate talks in Copenhagen later this year. That was useful. And the workshops run on subjects as diverse as economics, carbon trading, photography and media for activists, non-violent direct action, legal observer training and pedal-powered sound systems are all examples of the kind of practical information that can make a difference on many and varied levels. As I wandered round the site, it was clear that there was a lot going on, and that many of the people involved were engaged in and committed to what they were doing (although points are lost for the jugglers I spotted as I was leaving – as the sign says at the gate: ‘this is not a festival’), making the camp a positive and friendly space.
However, I have some reservations (and these, I would like to make clear, are just personal observations, not criticisms of Climate Camp and its structure). It seemed to me that there were an awful lot of those ‘the rules don’t actually apply to me’ types on site – for example, despite the Climate Camp website asking people not to bring their dogs with them, there were hounds of all types everywhere. If people are prepared to ignore such a simple and basic request, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a direct action with them. I have no desire to be arrested or injured because someone else can’t be bothered to follow instructions in a situation where instructions are often needed. Most of the people on site were clearly and genuinely committed to their cause – but I also got the impression of quite a few of the ‘middle class webel’ type (there’s often overlap with the above archetype too). You know the sort, the ones who go all out to shock mummy and daddy (who probably did the same thing back in the late sixties/early seventies, and with whom they probably still live) by wearing daft clothing, getting their hair put in ‘designer dreads’ and talking very loudly about what rebellious anarchists they are and how many times they’ve been arrested, although they still, hypocritically, go to Starbucks for those nasty lattes. These people are usually more of a hindrance than a help, and generally (although not always) are completely ignorant of anything other than the basics of what they are supposed to believe in and be fighting against. Now, I’m not criticising all young activists here (nor all middle class activists); we were all young and relatively politically naive once, whoever we are and whatever our respective backgrounds, and we all matured or are maturing at different rates. The criticism comes when one has to deal with the dilittantes, the ‘lifestyle’ anarchists/socialists/whatevers (and they do exist) who see the whole thing as a fashion statement, as a way to look ‘cool’ and ‘alternative’. The problem is, I feel, that you’re going to get idiots like these in any mass-movement (political or otherwise) that has its core amongst predominantly young (and, admittedly, sometimes also not so young) people – until they grow up and realise that activism isn’t a game.
And the climate crisis certainly isn’t a game either.
Because nature doesn’t do bail-outs.