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From Red Pepper September 1997


Peter Styles looks beyond the new media heroes to assess the prospects of the direct action movement

After 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!).

Before 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 cartridge.

The 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.

There 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.

When 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.

There 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.

No income can inhibit activism if you are left without a sleeping hag, harness or printer cartridge

What are DIY groups working on?

* 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 the Dome.

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.

Lyminge Forest. 01227 261957/01303 265737.

The Teign & Bovey Anti- Quarry Action Campaign camp mobile: 0467 622825.

Genetic Engineering Network. c/o PO Box 9656. London N4 4JY. 0181 374 9516. gen@earthling.net.

Corporate Watch, Box E. 111 Magdalen Rd. Oxford 0X4 1RQ. 01865 791391. Magazine is quarterly and costs £1.50. www.oneworld.org/cw/

Privacy International. c/o PO Box 2600. Brighton BN2 2DY. www.privacy.org.



SchNEWS, PO Box 2600, Brighton, BN2 0EF, England
Phone/Fax: +44 (0)1273 685913
email: schnews@brighton.co.uk

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