I have just returned from Megawatt Valley, where I joined a small, disciplined and determined tribe of freedom fighters, led by children into battle against the mighty Drax The Destroyer. No, honestly.
I know it sounds too sci-fi to be true, but Drax is actually a monstrous coal-fired power station near Selby in Yorkshire, and has the dubious honour of being the UK’s biggest emitter of CO2. It embodies everything that’s wrong with our centralised, inefficient, coal-chomping, planet-cooking energy system. So on Thursday 31st August, a group of protesters tried to shut it down.
The protestors – about 500 of them – had set up camp a week earlier, squatting a field about two miles from Drax and turning it into a vibrant, sustainable community overnight. The farmer was not best pleased to discover that, despite a large police presence patrolling the area, 80 protestors had cordoned off one of his fields, put up a couple of marquees and built several compost toilets before anyone found them.
With Drax’s 12 massive cooling towers providing a menacing backdrop, the protestors explained to him that it was a temporary, peaceful camp, that they would leave no trace of their presence when they packed up in ten days time, and that they were there because climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity yet the world is collectively sleepwalking into fossil-fuelled disaster. This was, in their words, ‘a moment when people come together and say ‘enough.’’ The farmer came round to the idea and brought his family down to the field to meet everyone.
I arrived two nights before the mass action. I had met a guy called Tom on the shuttle bus who’d been part of the camp all week, and told me enthusiastically that it was ‘beautiful’. He was right.
What I wasn’t expecting was just how well organised everything was. Everyone was camped in ‘neighbourhoods’ with people from the same part of the country. Each neighbourhood had a kitchen, a cooking and cleaning rota, and held daily meetings to discuss any issues arising, such as whether to let the police have a walk round the site, and was there enough soya milk?
All decisions were made collectively, and representatives of each neighbourhood met centrally in a ‘spokescouncil’ to deal with camp-wide issues. All power was generated on site from renewable sources. There was an Indymedia centre with several computers connected to the internet, and a well-stocked bar selling lovingly-procured organic, locally-produced beverages. There were 100 workshops covering all things climate-related. And the vibe was lovely.
The happy campers were equally well-organised when it came to planning their protests. When I arrived, the buzz was all about how a group of 20 had surprised and delighted everybody by blockading a nuclear power station in Hartlepool for TEN HOURS that day. Just to hammer home the point the nuclear is definitely NOT the answer. They arrived back (via various jails) to a heroes’ welcome. And it was only Tuesday.
When Thursday – the day the protestors had publicly vowed to shut down Drax – dawned, the camp was crackling with determination. As clowns, dancers and a giant ostrich gathered to cheer the samba band as they drummed their way around the field, we were raring to go. ‘Come on…’ entreated one impatient 8-year-old from behind a massive banner announcing “The Kids Are Revolting”, ‘…we’ve got a power station to shut down!’
My day was spent on a colourful march to Drax’s front gate with about 150 people heartily singing ‘Hit the road, Drax, and don’t you come back no more no more no more no more…’ We were old and young, some in wheelchairs, some asleep in wheelbarrows, some were hardened activists, many were fairly new to the movement. We were accompanied by twice as many riot cops, a gaggle of media, and, as we snuck up on the colossal cooling-towers, a pedal-powered sound-system blaring out ‘We’re on a road to nowhere’ and ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ (‘…it gets worse here every day…’). The police were playing tiresome, heavy-handed power games, but the protestors remained resolutely peaceful and good-humoured.
In the meantime, the majority of our fellow campers had legged it across the many fields between us and Drax, in the hopes that some of them would elude the police long enough to actually get onto the site and cause a bit of inconvenience.
I don’t think anyone expected to actually shut the beast down – it was far too huge and well-protected. The idea was to cause it some irritation, and draw attention to our cause in the process. Hours of cat-and-mousing with the police ensued. Some protestors made it over the fence, and there were about 35 arrests.
Violence was not on the protestors’ agenda. The only intent to harm that I saw was when we were all sitting on the road outside Drax’s gate, hemmed-in by rings of cops and TV cameras, having a little rest, a bit of a sing and some sandwiches after our tiring trek.
All of a sudden, from behind the rows of riot vans, a tractor careered up onto the curb and headed straight for the picnicking families just metres away. Six police leapt dramatically onto the cab and repeatedly punched the flailing driver until they could finally wrestle him, covered in blood, down to the ground. He was a local farmer and it’s safe to say he was not happy with us.
The debate as to whether the protestors were heroes or idiots was also raging on the message boards. It is summed up nicely by these two posts from locals:
Local #1 objects: ‘Your actions are not big or clever, drax looks a dangerous site (hence the fencing) i support peaceful protests but not ones that endanger life… i and a lot of my locals i lived with for 50yrs around these parts DO not want to see anything like this again YOUR NOT WELCOME’
Local #2 responds: ‘i live about 8 miles away from drax and have often wondered how far the emissions go up before the particles cool and start to descend…Climate change is real, we’ve got to deal with it. Having a go at the protestors is like shooting the messenger…’
Personally, I think the protest was a huge success, not least because the amount of national media coverage was phenomenal, and largely favorable. It got the message out that climate change is a code-red emergency and all of us, particularly the powers-that-be, need to take drastic action, NOW. And that means biting the bullet and starting to make the transition away from the dirty Draxes of this world towards a cleaner greener future.
But there’s more to the camp’s success than good copy. I left feeling inspired. I witnessed there a new movement the likes of which we haven’t seen here since the road protests ten years ago: a movement of committed, disciplined and visionary people who are reclaiming power and creating the change that they want to see in the world before our very eyes. This is only the beginning. I encourage you to get involved.
About the camp: http://www.climatecamp.org.uk/
Blow-by-blow coverage of the protests and lots of pics: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2006/08/349614.html
Reclaim Power: http://www.reclaimpower.org.uk/