On the ‘climate camp has sold out’ meme

A friend of a friend posted this link, to which (I have to confess) I rolled my eyes. It kind of reminds me of when I was at school & ran as an anarchist candidate in the mock elections (fully aware of the inherent contradictions), and was told off by one of my teachers for printing posters with bomb making instructions rather than something along the lines of “property is theft”.

I’m all up for debating about the nature of capitalism, but clinging to orthodox structural Marxism and complaining in high academic language that no-one else understands hasn’t got the left in the UK anywhere in the last 50 years. This kind of thing is very well represented in the workshops at the camp & very good they are too. There was a huge plenary one evening on this year economics, with Marx & everything, and I’d happily lay money that was the largest gathering (outside of a university) where newcomers were introduced to those ideas in the UK in the last year.

Naturally, not everyone endorses them as the only way to analyse our society, and I think the plurality in our movement is directly related to it’s energy & vitality. That said, they are a lot more widely understood than this article makes out, and it’s a bit silly to confuse slogans on banners taken to protests with an all encompassing statement of somebody’s politics. If you do that, you find yourself turning up to a protest with 3000 dense lines of spidery handwriting on a bit of cardboard and looking like a bit of a plonker.

The camp is clearly anti-capitalist, and this is affirmed regularly at meetings, when discussing media and outreach etc. It is also extremely effective at smuggling radical critiques into the mainstream media, for example getting a debate on carbon trading on Newsnight on the back of a “highly mediatised, symbolic” direct action. It does this by intentionally shying away from gems such as “These arguments fail to grapple with the structural processes of capital, instead limiting their critique to a superficial critique of the appearance of contemporary capitalism”.

As with my poster at school, talking about radical ideas in a way that is too far removed from your audience’s frame of reference is not very  radical at all, because they are only understood by the usual suspects. Not using this language is too much of a departure from the one true way for some, and I think it is really important to continually debate how to dance the line between access and co-option, between accessibility and compromising the message. But that debate is continually going on within the climate camp process, and I think that in general our dancing is pretty impressive.

There are obviously some people involved in the movement who are reformers rather than revolutionaries, and the way the camp is organised through consensus decision making means that the group cannot cross the red lines of anybody who is involved. That seems like a pretty watertight defence against creeping liberalism to me.

The charge that the camp didn’t involve radical direct action this year is misplaced – the last time I checked, seizing a piece of land in central London, denying access to the police and organising autonomously within that space to, amongst other things, take down Ratcliffe-upon-Sour power station was pretty radical. Similarly, introducing loads of fresh-faced newbies to actual functioning anarchism in action is infinitely more powerful than writing a long wordy treatise. We had hundreds of people running around on Blackheath practising tactics for outflanking the cops at the Great Climate Swoop, and the police had taken such a hammering about their tactics at the G20 that they allowed it all to happen. People protesting in the SOCPA zone were politely requested to please climb the side of the Treasury by the street, rather than the one by the park. During that week, a whole raft of the most draconian legislation which is usually deployed against protesters was de-facto unenforceable.

This (probably temporary) space for direct action was directly created through the tactics which have been the subject of most soul-searching within the camp – working the mainstream media very hard, doing some police liaison and interfacing with parliamentary committees and HMIC. Again, it is really important that this engagement is continually debated, and if it ever becomes an end in itself then we’ve lost, but my point is, so far the plurality of approaches has been a huge success, not a drawback. We really are stronger together. Who’d have thought it?

I think that as protesters/activists/political radicals/general ne’er-do-wells we are very used to being outsiders, and climate camp having such a large public profile is a long way from what anyone is used to, and this lies behind a lot of the critiques that are directed at it. It doesn’t feel, smell or taste like what people are used to in other situations when they have been ‘fighting the good fight.’ However, if we are serious about tackling the greatest environmental catastrophe in human history with this non-hierarchical method of organising, I imagine we are going to be spending quite a lot of time outside our comfort zone. In fact, if we aren’t, I think we are probably doing something wrong.

If we expect societal change to come out of what we are doing, it would be a mistake to believe that we are going to come out of it unchanged ourselves, with identical ideas, methods and beliefs – as agents of change, we are hardly going to remain static. The way we are organised requires everyone to participate, and there ain’t gonna be any cadres, so we certainly can’t go into it with fixed ideas of how the end will look, or with the intention to control that change – we only get to be participants too. That is certainly going to take us way out of our comfort zone, but I think the way we organise is a powerful bulwark against oppression and domination; it demands that we are reflexive, adaptive and accommodating and it draws out the creativity and agency in everyone it touches.

We are taking on a massive task, and it isn’t going to reward us for prioritising abstract notions of political purity above efficacy. If we are going to tackle the state’s role in climate change, we are going to have to challenge it to live up to some of the ideals it espouses – looking after the worst off in our society, maximising individual wellbeing, neutrally mediating between disputes – and  call it out when it flounders on the inherent contradictions within Liberalism. We need to show the emperor has no clothes so that everyone sees that the disproportionate power of corporations and the wealthy have a stranglehold on these ‘neutral’ institutions, and that we need to end capitalism before it ends us all. At the moment it is looking alive and well enough to saddle us with runaway climate change before it does itself terminal damage, so personally I don’t think we can afford to ignore the institutions of power that exist now – I think we’re going to have to get  our hands dirty and do all sorts of things that we would never have dreamed of. However, considering the timescale we don’t have the luxury of arguing over whose strategy is the best one. At the moment we’re in a quickly descending aircraft, and it’s “press every fucking button on the dashboard” time. We have a commitment to all work together to try and solve this, and that seems like a good starting point, with all of our different approaches and outlooks. Or alternatively we can go our separate ways: you can keep your Marxist dogma, and we’ll keep our revolution, but that seems like a bit of a shame – and our way includes dancing……

And the music keeps on playing, on and on….

As if we didn’t already know – the extremely hasty post-mortem on Ian Tomlinson didn’t give the full story. This one, as they say, has legs. The Sunday Times is going to be running with the report from the climate camp’s legal team, including my testimony. Whether the Met will be able to resist a proper inquiry into police tactics on the day remains to be seen. I’m going to use this post to add various links to stuff I’ve read on this story, extra thoughts as they come.

One thing that has been running around my head since we got attacked by the police is the degree to which this nearly didn’t become a story at all. There was nothing in the news about police violence the following day – Tomlinson’s death was a footnote amid the gibbering non-story of a media sanitised summit in the Excel centre. Even the Guardian was very slow off the mark –  Indymedia had witness stories, and I think also pictures of Tomlinson before they did. I remember emails going around on the Thursday telling people to get on the phone to the Guardian’s newsdesk and tell them that they completely failed to pick up on the story of the police’s behaviour. To give them their dues they made up for that omission later on, and got the pivotal video evidence that has completely changed everything. As the IPCC had presided over  a dubious postmortem, was briefing journalists that there was nothing in the story, claiming that there were no video cameras in the area, I think we can all see where their investigation was heading.

This is a salutary lesson to anyone who is partial to simplistic analyses of capitalist class struggle – if it weren’t for the conscience of a New York fund manager, the police could have got away with causing the death of a passer-by in the middle of the city of London – completely surrounded by CCTV and witnesses. Who’s up for hanging a banker now? Incidentally, there is a Facebook group coordinating complaints to the BBC about their failure to report the violent breaking up of the climate camp. I would also encourage anyone with fingers to complain about Evan Davis, who firstly denied that Tomlinson had been hit with a baton, and seemed to think that because the Met & ACPO wouldn’t put up an interviewee to defend the indefensible, he had to cover their collective areses in the interests of balance. As an indication of exactly how sickeningly deferential towards the cops he was, rabid rightwing screed ‘Biassed BBC’ ran with it under the title ‘unbiassed’ – if the BBC makes these guys happy, you know they are failing in their public service remit.

The other thing that has been bugging me (with the possible exception of FUCKIN’ ALLLLL OF IT!!….ahem), is a comment made by one of the officers when I was right up against their lines after we had been trampled in their rush on the bicycle sound system. A girl who I was with, who got punched five times in the head, and went to hospital with concussion, reports that her friend overhead one of the police say about her – “you must be a leftie, with a face like that”. I never said anything at the time, as I didn’t want to upset her, but I overheard one of them say “she looks like something out of Middle Earth”.

There are two things that stand out in this comment – the first is the bizarre similarity with Boris’ collumn about the protests: “when April dawns they will surge like the orcs of Mordor in the general direction of the Bank of England”. The second was the chilling realisation what I heard was classic dehumanisation, in a very literal sense. He said it twice, lamely, as if he was hoping one of his colleagues would join in, or laugh along with him. It was a bit pathetic and what really came across to me was that he was looking more for reassurance than anything else. I wonder if this was the guy who punched her several times, looking for some sort of affirmation that it was ok because she was ugly, and anyway…they aren’t like us, right?

I think the role of Boris in all of this has been underscrutinised so far. Word is that the Home Office had input into the police strategy, so we’ll see whether any of those chickens make their way home, but what about the wretched blond apparition who supposedly runs the capital? As Dave Hill has pointed out, he has been dead quiet about this, but was soiling his pants to get on the Today programme and announce Bob Quick’s resignation, and generally show us that he is in charge of the Met. As an avowed libertarian, you’d think he might have an opinion on his police beating up peaceful protesters on the streets of his city, but his only statement has been to say that the police did an excellent job, and that he hopes that the nastiness will all be over soon. Fuck me dead,  at least Paul Stevenson had the good sense to say that footage of his men assaulting a man shortly before he died was ‘troubling’, or words to that effect. An excellent job? In what sense? How bad would this have to look before it fitted the mayor’s idea of a police public relations disaster? Tiananmen square? That bit in Mississippi Burning when you realise the cops are actually the Klu Klux Klan? Ed 209?

Ok, so we all really know that most people who call themselves a libertarians basically don’t like being taxed, but have few qualms about all sorts of unpleasentnesses being meated out to anyone outside their social class, or circle of acquaintance. But you’d think Borris would have better advice than this – I think he is out of step with popular opinion. I’d wager that most people would take the police’s side over stident hippy types, all other things being equal. When they have wontonly attacked an Evening Standard seller who did nothing worse than walk down the wrong street and resent being manhandled by thugs in reflective jackets, that’s quite a different matter. And to have it all come out in a perfect media storm that draws in their utterly cack-handed arrest of Damian Green and all the memorials of Hillsborough, suddenly it begins to look like we just handed over a lot of power to people who are not fit to wield it. As I’ve already said, the Sunday Times is running with the attack on the climate camp this weekend, and the journalist I spoke to was actually sincerely concerned about what he’d been reading. Similarly, Times leader writer Danny Finkelstein has admitted he was wrong to assume that we don’t need politicians acting as media observers at protests, and that there “were clearly more than one or two isolated examples of brutal police tactics.”

This are Boris’ kind of people, or should be. Is he unable to comment further because he gave police some very unwise advice beforehand? I’m not going to make wild claims that there was some crazy Tolkeinian conspiracy, but his attitude is easy to read from his collumn beforehand. I think it’s safe to assume that he gave the the police a lot of leeway, if he gave them any kind of a steer, and it wouldn’t have been out of character for him to say some extremely foolish things about roughing up hippies. I wonder what will come out…

Extra, Extra:

  • Merrick, who is in a much better position to judge than I am, reckons that the police’s behaviour was relatively restrained compared to what he’s seen before

More stories & what to do next

There’s a site which is aggregating people’s accounts of the day & police behaviour here.

If you are completely outraged by all of this, the site has a number of suggestions, and there is a very active Facebook group about all this.

I’d encourage anyone who has any grounds whatsoever to make a complaint to the IPCC about police behaviour on the day. I’ve complained about the officer who ‘arrested’ me, and whoever was in charge when the cops charged & trampled us. The IPCC is a really flawed setup – the police generally carry out their investigations & they were basically parroting the police line in a very pliant way until they were forced to admit otherwise. Disgracefully, the first thing they did when the Guardian published the video of his assault was to turn up at the newspaper’s offices with City of London Police and ask that it be taken off their website.

However, for all its failings, the IPCC is the established route, and if we are going to properly hold the cops to account for their behaviour, we need to show that we are taking all the ‘correct’ steps. The word I’ve had from climate camp legal, is that they don’t have very much faith in the IPCC process, and they see policing like this as a political issue. Insofar as the Met (who were in operational command during the G20) is accountable, it answers to the Mayor, the Home Secretary, and the Metropolitan Policing Authority. A number of  Greens & Lib Dems in the London Assembly sit on the MPA, and both parties have been very active on this & I have heard from the Greens that IPCC complaints are of much more use to them, because they are sworn statements, which carry more weight. So, complain to the IPCC, but don’t hold your breath for them to do something.

Most of all – if you weren’t there on April 1st, you are disgusted by how the police behaved, and you know that something needs doing on climate change, come to the next climate camp between 26th August & 2nd September. Bring friends, cameras, media, lots of happy feelings and don’t be intimidated by the police. They took us on because our numbers were smaller and the cameras had gone away. Most importantly, help make it happen. Let’s make sure they can’t do it again.

Police violence at climate camp in the city

The climate camp was really peaceful all day. It was so relaxed that I spent a fair bit of the afternoon encouraging people to come along, including two of my younger sisters. Feedback I’ve had about the camp was that Bishopsgate office workers were really impressed with the camp, and were very glad to have us on their street. The police lined up at either end of the street, but let people come & go as they pleased. There were a line of them outside the climate exchange, and a line of police vans against that pavement. Pairs of police were wondering unchallenged through the site, and suffered nothing worse than the odd narky comment and unwelcome looks.

Aside from a few people who squared up to the cops on one occasion when they came running in with batons – who were quickly calmed down and pulled away by other members of the camp – I didn’t see any violence from the campers at all, unless you count graffiti and flat tyres on the police vans. About 7pm they changed tactics, stormed in the south end to cut off an alleyway, and kettled the camp. I didn’t witness this directly, but you can watch it online. At one point you can see a protester, facing away from the police with nowhere to go, pushed to the floor in a manner strikingly similar to how Ian Tomlinson was assaulted.

At around 10, or 11pm I ended up at the south end of the camp, where the policing had been most fierce. The atmosphere was markedly different from the north side. They had several lines of riot cops, and vehicles with loads of armour plating – we called them tanks, I’ve certainly never seen anything like them deployed before. At the time there was a soundsystem going around & it was being used for consensus decision making amongst the campers. The result of this discussion was that about half of the people in the camp wanted to go home to bed, and the other half were going to try and stay the full 24 hours. At the time the police were insisting that they would search, take the names and address, and photograph everyone who left. This intimidatory tactic clearly held up things up. If they had been more sensible, they could have ended up with a more manageable crowd in a smaller area – no harm done. As they could hear everything that was going on the soundsystem, I find it hard to believe they were too stupid to realise this was the case, rather I suspect they saw that there was some indecision and decided that they wished to use that to their advantage and force the situation to a confrontation.

As it was, despite all the problems with effective decision-making, we orchestrated a controlled retreat. By this point I was right up against the police line on the south end of the camp, right next to the walls of the office building – at the most south-westerly edge of the site. We were walking with our arms linked, being pushed by a line of police using their riot shields. They kept pushing us, but when we got as far as we’d agreed we sat down. Shortly afterwards they tried pulling people out of the line – they didn’t have batons, but they were punching people, and hitting them with their shields. One guy who was more exposed got hit a lot and was bleeding from the head. We hung onto him, and the line didn’t break.

As we were only 3 or 4 people deep they then decided to rush the line. This was clearly an operational decision, as they all did it together. We were sitting down, so we basically got trampled underfoot by them. I don’t know what happened to the woman who had been next to me, but I guess they dragged her away. It was all very chaotic – arms and legs everywhere, and lots of shouting. As there were loads of people in the way, this tactic didn’t really work for them – I got a police boot in my face, my friend got her glasses smashed, and a thin line of police got to the far side of us – but not enough to tackle our line which still held. But they were now between us and the rest of the camp.

This situation was static for quite a while, and fortunately nobody near us was badly hurt. I have a black eye and a fat lip, but was otherwise ok. I’m pleased to report that my reaction was to give all the police a proper dressing down. Nothing rude, or aggressive, just telling them exactly what they had done. “You were hitting that guy with your fists, that is completely over the line…..Think about what you are doing, you are supposed to be public servants and you are beating up civilians in the street” – that kind of thing. I also called over a legal observer, and had him film the policeman I could definitely identify as having used his fists.

Shortly after this, they began to pull us out one by one. Most of the police who had got inside the lines had left, and we’d also rearranged ourselves. This meant that I was basically on the corner, so I was the first to be grabbed, and I held on for as long as I could and then went completely limp. I was carried by two cops, and laid on the floor. They told me to get up & I said I’d rather lie there. They began to drag me, and another came and grabbed me by the hair, and yelled in my ear – “I’m going to break your fucking neck”. This hurt enough that I gave up on the limpness, and got up. I was then shoved against a wall by the hair grabber & his female colleague. Ironically, the whole time he was shouting “calm down, calm down” at me despite the fact that I was actually fully in control of myself and he clearly wasn’t.

He bent my arms behind my hands behind my back and put cuffs on, and pushed them so that they really hurt. The cuffs trap a nerve in your wrist or something, it is a bit like your funny bone being hit, only worse. My left hand still feels odd if I touch it, almost a week later. All through this time I was telling him that I was cooperating, coming quietly etc, and he didn’t need to be rough with me. When he put me against the wall he had been joined by a female colleague, and they walked me to the van – still doing the very painful thing to my arms. I was really being polite as well – “please stop doing that to my arms, it really hurts”, over and over. A protester outside the cordon was close with a camera and I called her over and asked her to photograph him because he’d pulled me by my hair and threatened me. His female colleague pushed the camera away quite violently. I asked him for his police number, and he refused to give it to me.

He was still really worked up. I had my rucksack on, and he was trying to get it off, fiddling with the straps. He kept saying he was going to cut it off, and I kept saying that was completely unnecessary. I told him to take the cuffs off, and I’d remove it. To reassure him, I said “I won’t hit you”, and he replied: “If you hit me I’ll kill you”. This impasse continued for a couple of minutes. It was stupid because I couldn’t even see the straps, he was manhandling me, and they don’t undo anyway. Eventually my calmness prevailed, he pulled everything out of my pockets and put me in the van, and shortly after they took the cuffs off and I got the rucksack off.

I assumed I was going to the station at this point. They told me I was arrested when I was cuffed, so I gave my name and address, but not my phone number. I asked to see the PACE code immediately, and the woman told me to shove off, or words to that effect. I politely pointed out that it was my right to request, that I wasn’t intending to annoy her, but I wanted to be able to read their codes. She said that I was a fool to think she carries them around with her – although I’ve seen other police keep them, or something similar, in a pocket.

Another protester was then loaded into the van, and they clearly wanted the space. After asking where I was going to go, and giving my blood curdling warnings about coming back (my instructions were basically to leave the van and keep walking), I was released.

From what I can gather from what was said to me, the law they were using to justify this behaviour was ‘obstruction of they highway’. I imagine if we have any kind of response to how police were behaving on the day, it will attempt to portray  this behaviour as excesses by some ‘bad apples’, or those under pressure. This is quite clearly not the case.

As I have already stated, the decision to try and literally run over a line of protesters who were sitting down and not harming anyone was an operational decision, as it was undertaken collectively by a line of trained police in unison. Furthermore, when I was remonstrating with the police, and identifying officers who had struck people their colleagues either did not respond, or stated that our continued presence after having been issued with a warning meant we had no grounds to complain. The universality of this attitude must reflect the way that they had been briefed on the day.

None of the officers I spoke to seem to have been aware that the climate camp had been peaceful, and good natured until we were kettled. I had an argument with a female officer who seemed to think that we deserved our rough treatment because we had prevented people from going to work, despite the fact that all the offices on Bishopsgate were inhabited during the day, albeit with security guards on the doors, and workers were wondering around the camp seemingly amused by the whole business.

Officers were clearly prepared for the day in such a way that the more violent amongst them thought us fair game, and their colleagues took the view that we had asked for it by blocking a road, and fraternal solidarity demanded they ignore any excesses amongst their number. This is a management issue – the police should have been briefed to be scrupulous in their behaviour, ensuring at the first instance that they diffused rather than inflamed situations, and to reign in any colleagues who let the pressure get to them. From their behaviour it is quite clear that their instructions had taken a different tone. From the contempt in the mayor’s newspaper column about the protests, and the way that those in command saw fit to kettle a non-violent and good natured protest, I can only assume that this failure in management goes all the way up, and those in charge are directly responsible for the myriad assaults and illegal behaviour of the police on the day. Far from being an abberation, the attack on Ian Tomlinson was symptomatic of police behaviour on the day.