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Pic: Alec Smart

Twyford Down + 10

The tenth anniversary of the first road protest campaign at Twyford Down has us casting our minds back to see how far things have or haven't come since then. Alex - who we may call a er 'veteran' of this campaign reflects on her experience of it.

There is such a thing as a movement whose time has come and Twyford was one of those movements, those moments. Looking back, ten years (!) down the line, from inside this fluid, diverse, complex and sparky movement, it is quite obvious to me (and to all of my political generation who have stayed with it), that waves of action like the roads protest movement are all part of a wider sea, the legacy of radical action. more on that later. So, whilst we - those of us living on the Down and coming down for days of action - were mostly all new to direct action, to the whole scene, blithely unaware of our political heritage as we geared up for the next round, there were other networks of activists and experience and local opposition who in more subtle ways had created the conditions for this moment.

These included previous mobilisations like Stop The City demo's in the 80s and Greenham Common; activists from earlier actions like these, with tactical and strategic experience, helped trigger and sustain action on Twyford Down. Greenham women told me what to do with the pallets they brought down as the weather got colder and our benders more scrotty. 'Straighter' groups like Alarm UK! and the Twyford Down Association fought the road at another level, providing us with information and support. It is from people like these that I first learned about roads and how shit they were on so many levels. The whole free festy and traveller scene was very full-on then too, another way people heard about stuff happening- there were so many people out and about in the landscape those first few summers at the start of the 90's.

Not that I - or any of us much, I guess - thought about that much at the time, and we were too busy doing it to analyse it. And there was, on top of the 'mulch' of these other, established networks, so much that was new and innovative, lots of energy and - like with every new wave of mobilisation - lots of amazing people emerging and meeting each other and buzzing off each other and staying up late and going 'and did you know about this..' And 'hey why don't we do that'.There was something in the air, maybe.

The Earth First! networks were also being 'born' in the year leading up to the 92/3 Twyford protests and EF! and the Twyford campaign symbiotically grew, each learning and drawing strength from the other. I clearly remember sitting on the Down and some EF! folk having a workshop on what to do when the police came to carry us down the hill. I was naïve enough to think that it couldn't possibly happen - but none of us knew exactly how full-on things were going to be (a workshop on 'how to kick a security guard in the shins when he tries to grope your tits and pressure - point you, whilst trying to hurl yourself under a bulldozer' would have been more use. a steep learning curve for all of us.) though, if any of us had bothered with a bit of radical history, or listened to any of those 'old fart' peace activists, we might have sussed things a bit more from examples like the peace camp eviction at Molesworth.

It was just such a beautiful place, but quite small really, no impressive 500- year old forests or anything like that, just the hard cleanness of chalk and flint, a place where the Down met the sky, the sense of space, and where the footprints of past generations who'd lived in the landscape were literally visible - the barrows, the field systems and dewponds, and the worn-deep iron-age trackways locally known as 'dongas' where by mid '92 a small camp had been established. Of course it's a fucking great hole now, the heart of the Down carved out and taking a chunk of mine with it (and other peoples' too, I know). Your first campaign, whatever it is, tends to be your real political education, when the penny really drops - and one of the best things about it is that lots of other people are going through it too - that feeling of solidarity, of (often) unspoken understanding, love and rage. And yeah, alienation and resentment and personality clashes too. all totally necessary if painful.

For the first time I heard people ranting about stuff I'd thought for years, about the way society related to nature, value systems, gender politics, and then we had new stuff to put together with this: power relations, state control, roads roads roads. but lets' not forget, we had so much fun running around the Down on full moon nights, tripping on mushrooms, stumbling down to the worksite at the water-meadows and giggling, distracting the security guards whilst the pixies slipped about in the shadows. We were doing something about it all, and if, post-Newbury, it all seems a tad untogether, well it was, comparatively, but we had to start somewhere - tactics we now take for granted had to be thought up in the field - a legacy of knowledge we have hopefully passed on (though, sorry, everyone will have to learn the hard way about what to do about the pissed nutter whose major contribution to camplife is to fall into the fire, knocking off the just-about-to-boil kettle).

The numbers involved at that point in time- the Autumn/ Winter of 1992 - were tiny. Across the country, new networks of EF! activists were getting established, getting together, blatting down to Twyford for a weekend or day of action, spending time networking what was going on - things were starting to wake up again after a lull in activity generally in the ongoing history (+ her story) of the direct action movement.

Twyford was to catalyse this process and kick things off big styley. Of course none of us at the time knew any of this was going to happen- we were simply 15- odd (very, very odd) people on a hill, with a goat, running out to stop two old bulldozers and a few site officials and cops who'd come up to try and catch us unawares. their goal - to rip off the species - rich turf of the donga trackways. Ours - to stop them. For a few months, all it took to keep them at bay was us on the case, there, and erm, a significant amount of face paint and hippy chants. At the same time the forces of darkness were starting to get their shit together, what with Bray's detective agency lurking in the bushes, police complicity in providing names for injunctions, eviction notices, etc. We were all getting jumpy, there were more frequent, increasingly serious attempts to trash the Down, work on other parts of the site was kicking off and our early attempts at site invasion were not going too well, and we'd long since geared up into nightwatches and all of that.

Still no-one expected the Spanish Inquisition (aka Group 4) that grey December pre-dawn. Seeing that blurred mass of yellow jackets and massive machines it was obvious, running along the edge of our boundary toward the lookout post, that this was it, this was really fucking it. You know the score, whatever you've been up to - when you look over at the machinery and the manpower of the enemy lined up against you, coming churning towards you ripping up the trees, or banging their shields. urrgggghhh. aaarrghhh!!!! here we go! It was mental. It was fucked - up and it went on for days. No almost ritualised procedure of 'you know the score chaps' and media circuses, just absolute chaos, violence, pain, loss, instinct, bravery, fear, blinding rage.well, you know how it is.

The shockwaves of 'Yellow Wednesday' had precisely the opposite effect to that intended by our glorious leaders- they increased resistance. The second stage of the Twyford campaign is probably the one most people remember, because numbers kicked off exponentially. People who read about it in green mags came down with their mates to the new camp. People who'd been there beforehand got stuck into networking and strategising with a vengeance. Meanwhile the contractors (Tarmac + Mott McDonald) were getting torn into the cutting with their diggers. For me, and many others, this became a war of attrition, and one we did fucking well at.

Sometimes there'd be dozens of us charging onto the vast, moonscaped site from different angles, painted -up, screaming and yelling and generally going apeshit, thundering past the security guards, pulling out of vice - like hand grips, dodging past the buckets of diggers (driven by psychopaths) swinging viciously at you, leaping up with a desperate scramble on the oily, dirty surface of the machine and up and up. sometimes it ended in tears with bruised bones, others in all-day parties with entire machines disabled, draped in banners and tat and covered in people, kids, old ladies, the sound of drumming and whooping covering up any noises of machinery breaking down. Actions like these, like the bailey bridge, were the result of a lot of hard work and group effort.

By this time the anti- roads movement had a life of its own, with new campaigns urgently needing numbers, people getting more strategic in how to fight and what it was we were actually fighting, using our experience in other situations.Cradlewell, the M11, Solsbury Hill. and increasingly, our actions diversifying into related areas as we adapted tactics we'd learned worked at Twyford (office occupations, for example) for other enemies, other targets. Roads protest was never, ever, a 'single issue' thing but it was a starting point for lots of us to look at the wider picture (the dominant paradigm, modernity, the structure of power, blah de blah) and go, oh yeah. so arms sales and oil extraction and genetic engineering and all the rest of it just followed on 'naturally' as issues we needed to address, as we as individuals and symbiotically as the movement as a whole have grown into a much more complex deconstruction of 'life, the universe and everything' (aka "anti-capitalism and that"), which is where we are now, and how our movement has built up capacity.

Just to wind up with some thoughts about Rio+10: I am angry at the moment- fucking angry. It's all well and good to waffle on about the 'success' of our campaigns, of our movement, its effects on society's values. but let's face it - it's ten years since Rio - and in that time we have fought roads, human rights abuses, business-as-usual-behind-greenwash bullshit summits, about loss of habitats and species and the ozone layer and oil and war and the death of the innocent and power relations and all of it, all of it - and guess what? It's all still happening. This is why activists burnout, when they give their all and their original 'enemy' is not only still there, but you also realise that there's a many- headed hydra out there showing no signs of stopping - sooo tempting to run away and leave it to the next generation.. but I'm not letting go. I am fucking furious, how dare they, how dare they destroy our world and kill babies and call us the terrorists? The farce of Rio+10 is the final straw (how many times has that camel's back been broken?!) and boy do I want to stop some roads.. See ya out and about this summer.

Love, Alex 29.4.02