For the last few days, I have been in attendance at the so-called Camp for Climate Action, or “Climate Camp” for short, a now annual mass activist rally which serves to protest major governmental sources of environmental negligence, as well as a spontaneously-formed decentralised community which gathers to celebrate sustainable living. This year, the location was within a village in the Kent area, just shy of the site for Kingsnorth, a new proposed coal fire power station which, if built, would emit up to eight million tonnes of CO2 per annum.
There is much that could be written about this event, but it summarises itself as part of a growing decentralised social movement which is acting to prevent climate change. Grassroots movements like these emphasise their lack of leadership in the conventional sense of the word, focusing instead on the importance of consensus-based decision making, in which every participant is granted the potential to have a say in all processes, and whereby each person’s voice is heard with equal validity.
Because Climate Camp is composed of many different individuals, each one having a different idea of what this movement means to them. Many come from the more “radical” end of the political spectrum, identifying as anarchists, for example, whereas others might come from a liberal perspective, believing the state can be reformed as opposed to feeling it must necessarily be abolished. All members of this diverse gathering, however, unite with a common vision not only of protesting major causes of climate change, but also holding the present authorities accountable for their part in it.
And for some reason, this time round, the state is thoroughly pissed off.
At last year’s Camp, which took place a little north of Heathrow Airport as a protest against its proposed third runway, police presence was fairly prominent and in some places quite aggressive. However, having now attended both last and this year’s events, I have to say that the police have been prominently more aggressive both in their presence and tactics with the current protest. At this point, it is wholly worth pointing out that as well as being a decentralised movement, Climate Camp collectively considers itself to use tactics of nonviolent direct action. That is, as an entity, it does not incorporate tactics of violent opposition against state authority into its overall ethos. As another fellow camper put it to me, “you probably won’t find a fluffier bunch of hippies anywhere else in Britain at this time.”
Why, then, was every single participant forced into a stop-and-search procedure before they could enter into the camp? Why was the entire community awoken at five o’ clock in the morning the day after opening by a mass convergence of police officers at both entrances? Why did these officers feel the need to get into full riot gear and attempt to force their way past campers at the gate who had done nothing to provoke such a reaction aside from standing their ground (Which was being done anyway)?
Every person with whom I personally spoke has viewed these tactics as unnecessarily excessive, and I have heard accounts that even some of the officers themselves weren’t aware of exactly why these measures were being taken. Some reports even suggested disgust from some of the officers themselves, not only at the extremity of the measures, but also at the fact that they were being exacted in the presence of women and children.
At this point, I want to stress that I am not using this blog post to turn the police establishment into an enemy, or to suggest that the individuals involved are somehow evil or sinister. However, I also firmly believe that there must be a necessary separation between the individual and the institution of which they are part. The tension that exists between the policeman’s orders and his own personal beliefs would seem to be a good demonstration of this.
Moreso, however, I am also interested in the reaction of the state authorities to a gathering like this. Doubtless Climate Camp is one of the most prominent grassroots social movements to have arisen in recent times, and I can’t help but be fascinated at how much the powers that be perceive it to be a threat. In their eyes, you can’t possibly have a good two thousand people spontaneously gathering as a community to demonstrate an alternative way of living unless someone is up to no good. “Intelligence suggests that someone in the camp is planning to commit criminal damage,” was the excuse I heard from some officers. And with that alone, it was just cause not only to violate people’s personal rights by forcing them to be stopped and searched, but also to exact violence and intimidation upon them. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the early church community, who weren’t persecuted by the Roman authorities for being violent revolutionaries, but for the exact opposite – namely, preaching peace and nonviolence in contrast to Caesar’s sword, living as an economic community which turned Rome’s upside down (Acts 4, for example), and by loving those within and without the community with shameless passion. There comes a point when these values of living become so radically subversive and seemingly contrary to human nature, that the authorities cannot accept that this is the end of the story. Something is awry. What are these people thinking and doing?
Indeed, it seems plain from stand-offs such as these that the State does not like being challenged, and will necessarily work to both defend its actions and preserve its own agendas, even in a supposedly “democratic” society such as Britain. But even more unsettling than this, is the apparent reality that a political superstructure such as a government reaches a point when it is no longer a mere collection of people working within a hierarchy, but rather becomes much more than the sum total of its parts, to the extent that its individual members no longer have control over it, much in a similar manner to how certain members of the police truly don’t want to be ambushing a protest, but have nonetheless found it a necessary part of their function to be co opted into doing so.
Some of you will know that, in October last year, I was arrested for taking part in a protest to blockade the entrance to the UK’s nuclear weapon base in Faslane, Scotland. I wrote about the experience here, but the ultimate point of my intentional arrest was to draw criticism toward the state, in that it was forcing its police service, an institution supposedly in place to serve and protect the general public, to instead protect and serve the state’s own interests and violent inclinations. My primary observation was that while these individuals of the police service doubtless had integrity and sincerity about them, perhaps having joined the force to help establish justice, these values were nonetheless being suppressed by the overriding authority of state service. Having encountered a similar spirit in the police authorities during this year’s climate camp, I am convinced now more than ever that not only will police function ultimately be forced into subservience to the state’s own interests, but that this function is characterised by an insidious violence. I would submit that within these professions, one’s individuality is lost and coerced into silent conformity by the Empire. For these reasons, I would not encourage any Christian, or even any person who is willing to fight for justice in this world, to join in such ranks, lest their personal values become either corrupted, or else left intact and met with inertia. The best thing someone of sincerity and integrity could do within the police service is, in my opinion, to leave it and begin asking questions about a better way to lead the way for justice in this world.
Social movements such as Climate Camp may be proving themselves quite powerful, but they are still in a process of growth and adaptation, and the hope for many involved is that these movements are the beginning of a new way to fill the void left by the crumbling state authorities. While the world still has a need for these powers and their military/police wings to exist, it may be that a new way of formulating peace and establishing justice in the world is emerging, and it will be through the cultivation of the human spirit through communities holding a common vision and practicing an alternative way of living in the here and now. As a Christian, I believe that this is something the church must necessarily be doing if it is to stay true to those Biblical values of peace (shalom), justice, mercy, equality, and everything else we could possibly think of which is the outworking of God-inspired love. I don’t know how sorry or encouraged I should be in saying that we could stand to learn a lot from these radical political groups, who often seem to have the Image of God shining forth from them far more than we holy people do.