FOR OUR NEXT ACT
Styles looks beyond the new media heroes to assess the prospects
of the direct action movement
the eviction of protesters from Manchester airport there has been
a lull in high profile environmental direct action, but it will
turn up again eventually. Direct action and DIY Culture have become
buzz-words and are in danger of losing their meaning. Frank Field
has spoken of DIY social welfare - as ominous as it is oxymoronic.
But the protest movement should be judged on more than media mentions
per minute. In that spirit I will aim to write this article without
referring to Swampy (damn, slip of the pen!).
embarking on constructive criticism, lets look at the successes.
Five years ago transport was a dead political issue, but direct
activists have provided a spark of hope in the dormant political
scene of the 1990s: a symbol of determined resistance to those
too busy, disempowered or downtrodden to fight back. However,
the recent review of the Dirty Dozen proposed road schemes has
resulted in only two being ditched.
The last five years have been an intense time for many activists
and it is easy to forget that they are real people, not one-dimensional
media heroes. The constant grind of arrest, trial and, increasingly,
prison, burns people out. Tom, a now-dormant activists says: 'A
lot of people who were heavily involved in anti-roads stuff are
now involved in bringing about positive alternatives such as perma-culture,
energy solutions and knitting.'
Aspects of the movement such as prisoner support are becoming
more organised because of an increasing state clampdown on DIY
protest. Money is a problem. not just for campaigns but for individuals
too. A few years of living on little or no income can inhibit
activism if you are left without a sleeping hag, harness or printer
internal tactical debates are raising important issues. At this
summer's Earth First! gathering in Scotland there was a remarkable
consensus on issues like the legitimacy of damage to property
as a tactic and the fact that it is the nature of capitalism that
is the root cause of many of the planets ills. One activist argued
succinctly the importance of organising locally. Big national
actions are very easy for the state to control so we need to fall
back on the old strategies of flexibility and surprise, covertly
if possible. We saw such flexibility at the end of the gathering
itself when 150 activists left the site armed with pickaxes and
shovels and headed off in the direction of the local open cast
mile. The 600 or so riot politic outside the site flexed their
muscles and waited for an excuse to restore order with a few well-aimed
baton charges. Imagine their disappointment when the greens went
past the mine and into the nearest village to dig a pond at the
school. It was an ignominious end to Scotland's biggest police
surveillance operation for a decade.
are also salient ideological issues to be resolved, such as gender.
Despite a lack of overt sexism in campaigning, men do tend to
be the loudest. The solution requires reasoned debates and concrete
ways of tackling the problem. What we don't need is symbolic tub-thumping.
I have detected signs of the worst excesses of Political Crapness
(sorry, Political Correctness) creeping into the movement. If
the movement is reduced to petty squabbles about the use of language
and rerunning of the violence/non-violence debate, then it may
be time to say that DIY stands for Dreary Ineffectual Yawning.
a lot of young, determined people come together it can be a powerful
phenomenon, but also, potentially, a self-indulgent one. How does
the movement remain radical without marginalising itself? If we
do not reach those people who are more at home with Coronation
Street than Claremont Road anti-roads squat, then we will have
lost. More working class people are becoming involved, but the
archetypal activist is still a white, middle class graduate dropout.
British activists do have a distinct and, in sonic respects alienating,
subculture, though it is not as pronounced as the gulf between
German anarcho-activists and, say, Stuttgart bank clerks.
is also the question of what relative values are placed on the
different roles of people in the movement. Those who present the
direct action movement to the rest of society work just as hard
as those who are pushing out the boundaries of action. The same
is true of those who have other support functions. These are interdependent
relationships and we must guard against allowing the cult of the
Ego Warrior to undermine that co-operative culture.
income can inhibit activism if you are left without a sleeping
hag, harness or printer cartridge
What are DIY groups
* Reclaim the Streets
is planning to switch its attention toward the oil Industry rather
than simply focusing on car culture. This will compliment the
occupation of Rockall by Greenpeace. Meanwhile the Reclaim the
Streets concept is still sweeping across the country. This summer
there have been auto-free autonomous zones in Leicester, York,
Hull, Sheffield and Portsmouth.
Pre-eminent among current tree camp campaigns is Lyminge Forest
in Kent, where 400 acres are under threat from plans by the Rank
Organisation for a holiday village
July brought an intriguingly titled press release: 'Protesters
Occupy a Million Toilets In Newton Abbot'. For the uninitiated,
tree camp has been set up on the site of a proposed Devon quarry,
which is to be excavated to provide materials for bathroom fittings
(see Praxis ).
* Surveillance in general
and CCTV cameras in particular are becoming a cause for concern.
Privacy International has organised anti-camera actions, including
one in Brighton which was the world's first co-ordinated opposition
to this technology.
* In May a cricket
match was held on a test site for genetically modified potatoes.
The crop was, alas, accidentally destroyed. This action mirrors
others elsewhere in Europe.
* The Corporate Watch
network is a new and welcome addition to the direct action world.
Their superb magazine is worth looking out for and they will be
working with Red Pepper on a regular Corporate Watch page.
* Unfortunately the
Millennium Dome may become a reality. This PVC eyesore will result
in the production of more deadly dioxins. Grassroots groups together
with Greenpeace are planning to occupy the land designated for
Amidst all this, and
much more activity, an even greater clamp-down on protest has
begun which is being packaged by the private sector. The Major
Protest Response Unit, a joint initiative by Trevor Coleman, the
Under Sheriff of Devon, and Michelmores, solicitors of Exeter,
will calculate the potential cost of clearing a protest site.
Meanwhile, those organising the Copex Arms Exhibition had this
to say about peace activists in a recent circular to potential
exhibitors: 'Protesters are hardened political activists, well-trained
and funded and looking to cause as much confrontation with authority
on the one hand and inflict as much economic damage as possible
on the other... Increasingly their funding and training is drawing
support from Russian organised crime..' If this is true, then
the roubles must have got lost in the post. Nevertheless, these
are signs of a backlash which is likely to grow.
There are also new
legal barriers. Three animal rights activists have been prosecuted
under the new Protection from Harassment Act, and six others face
conspiracy charges in connection with the production of Green
Anarchist magazine and Animal Liberation Front material. This
is a very steep. very slippery slope. We will all have to be vigilant
against these infringements of political activity and free speech.
Direct action is not new. We can learn valuable lessons from the
yellowing pages of history. Meanwhile, away from the world of
campaigns, newsletters, networking and gatherings, forests are
still being decimated and species are becoming extinct at a greater
rate than any since the age of the dinosaurs. If you're not outraged,
then you're not paying attention.
Do or Die. a
British version of the Earth First! journal. £2 (inn p+p)
from DoD. c/o South Downs EF!. Prior House. 6 Tilbury PL Brighton
BN2 2GY. www.hrc.wmin.an.uk/campaigns/EF/earthfirst.html.
Reclaim the Streets.
PO Box 9656. London N4 4JY, 0171 281 4621. www.hrc.wmin.an.uk/campaigns/rts.html.
01227 261957/01303 265737.
The Teign &
Bovey Anti- Quarry Action Campaign camp mobile: 0467 622825.
Network. c/o PO Box 9656. London N4 4JY. 0181 374 9516. email@example.com.
Box E. 111 Magdalen Rd. Oxford 0X4 1RQ. 01865 791391. Magazine
is quarterly and costs £1.50. www.oneworld.org/cw/
c/o PO Box 2600. Brighton BN2 2DY. www.privacy.org.