It’s been a week now since protestors of a variety of stripes descended on London’s financial district to challenge the G20 leaders meeting on April 1st. As more details emerge about the aggressive policing – notably surrounding the death of passer-by Ian Tomlinson – it seems a good time to look back on our experience of the day.
nef was at the Climate Camp on Bishopsgate, which was, for the most part, a peaceful and celebratory affair: the streets were decked with bunting, the air was full of music and a phenomenal amount of homemade cake – including gingerbread bankers – was being shared amongst the crowd. And it wouldn’t be climate camp without a bit of education: nef‘s Policy Director Andrew Simms led a loud discussion about low-carbon living and positive policies to fix the climate.
I asked two of our researchers to share their reflections from the camp: Victoria Johnson – our resident climate expert – and Lucie Stephens, who heads up nef‘s work on Co-production.
AW: Why did you decide to go to the protest?
Victoria Johnson: I’m a climate scientist, and I’m increasingly worried by what the numbers are telling us. There has been a growing consensus in the scientific community that we have less than ten years – perhaps as little as four or five – in which to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. If we don’t managed to do that, we’ll cross a threshold which makes a 2°C rise in the average global temperature much more likely. And with a 2°C rise, the effects of climate change will almost certainly worsen.
AW: And presumably you don’t think the Government has taken this to heart?
VJ: No. Despite the massive sea-change in scientific understanding since the publication of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) there is little evidence that any government is really taking the situation seriously. Greenpeace recently commissioned nef to explore the how green the economic stimulus package outlined in the Pre-Budget Report was. We found that less than 1 per cent was ‘new’ spending. And the total figure of the green fiscal stimulus was 0.0083 per cent of GDP. That’s a long long way below what experts are recommending: Lord Stern has said we need £11 billion a year, while the Green New Deal Group say as much as £50 billion annually.
AW: Did you have any apprehensions about what the day would bring?
Lucie Stephens: I was initially pretty wary about joining the protest, given all the talk of trouble in the media. In fact as I was cycling to work on the Wednesday morning I went past a TV camera crew interviewing a man in a suit outside the London Development Agency on Blackfriars Road. In the spring sunshine he greeted the journalists with “Nice day for a riot!” which I found so completely offensive that I made up my mind to march. The fact is many, many people care deeply about the issues that the protestors were highlighting. The assumption of trouble, of riots, undermined people’s confidence in their ability to peacefully protest. As someone who cares deeply about the environment and also our legal right to free speech, I felt it was really important to attend and be counted as a peaceful protestor.
AW: What was the atmosphere like at the camp?
VJ: Walking from Liverpool Street to Bishopsgate at 3.30pm – several hours after the Climate Camp had started was a really strange experience. There was no traffic, and lots of people walking in the road.
LS: During the day there was a great atmosphere. The workshops were well-attended and people were keen to engage and learn from one another. As the sun started to set, there were business people and tourists walking through the camp, with lots of them stopping to take pictures on their phones, seeming to enjoy the spectacle of tents in the centre of the city. The roads were full of people and bikes, not taxis and cars, the immediate environment felt peaceful in the spring sunshine.
VJ: And we kept bumping into the environmental elite. Established journalists, chief executives from environmental pressure groups and so on. People were casually strolling in and out.
AW: Did any of that atmosphere change as evening set in?
VJ: Yeah, around about 5.30pm it definitely shifted. Police began to ‘kettle’ the protesters causing the mood to change in a flash. By 6 pm the police had blocked us in the camp and were refusing entry or exit. Climate Camp organisers tried to diffuse the situation by providing information. Leila Deen – the protestor famed for sliming Mandelson last month – calmly suggested that we sit peacefully on the pavement to prevent the police from encroaching further into the camp. We did, and sat chatting with other protesters around us. A three man band – acoustic guitar, tambourine and bongos – began to play music and the mood picked up again, but then we were sitting in the centre of the camp – in the distance, from both ends of the street we could hear people chanting ‘shame on you’ as the police started to push forward into the crowds.
LS: Even after as the kettle was going on, there was still a fair level of camaraderie. Protestors were incredibly dignified, sitting peacefully at the feet of the police, dressed in riot helmets, shields, balaclavas – hardly recognisable. In many cases the police and protestors struck up conversations and chatted amiably into the evening. At one point a protestor started being a bit bolshie and yelling at the police, but the rest of us held her to account. We were about peaceful protest, so while still sat on the pavement we managed the situation, encouraged the woman to move away, which she did.
In order to illustrate how calmly protestors behaved and therefore how safe the police felt in our presence at least one office removed his helmet and balaclava (he said his head was getting hot) in order to have a scratch and a stretch. Many put down their riot shields for long periods of time to stretch and some squatted down to rest their legs or slumped on the chained up bikes. None of them would have been prepared to make themselves vulnerable like this if they felt their safety was in anyway threatened.
The irony is, I would have gone home at about 7pm if they’d allowed me. I had wanted to be at the camp during the day, to be counted and have my voice heard, but I had no intention of staying until 11.45pm. And I’m not the only one, lots of people around us were keen to leave and would have drifted away peacefully had the kettle not been put in place.
AW: Did you feel the protesters were being treated unfairly?
LS: While we were sitting on the pavement we struck up a conversation with a couple, both of whom are still finishing their A-Levels in north London. This was their first Climate Camp and they were trapped in alongside us. It really saddens me to think that their expression of freedom of speech is being misrepresented in the press – who would lump all protestors together as thuggish louts – and violently corralled by the police for daring to try to draw attention to the havoc that our generation is creating for their future on this planet.
The sense was that we were being punished for protesting, kettled for caring, that this had always been the intention. Not once did I see any violence from a camper that would justify police intervention. In reality this policing approach curtails our freedom of speech and makes protesting something that only those prepared to challenge authority are willing to do. This creates a vicious cycle and robs the majority of us of the right to peacefully protest and make our voices heard.
It was interesting talking to those who had seen police brutality at earlier Climate Camps, such as Drax protests. They were very fearful of trouble and of being attacked again. The impact of these policing tactics will be to scare people off protesting peacefully.
- Stuart White on the Camp at Next Left, the blog of the Fabian Society
- A video of the police attack on the crowd at Climate Camp