I’m standing in front of a line of riot cops, arms raised to demonstrate my non-violent intentions, chanting ‘peaceful protest, peaceful protest’ as their batons twitch menacingly two feet from my face. The 2,000 people around me are doing likewise – well, apart from those busy staffing the compost toilets, powering the bicycles that make the microphones work, running the communal kitchen and being interviewed live on the BBC. It must be another climate camp.
This one was different though. Whereas before, we had pitched our camp in fields near major fossil-fuel-munching villains such as Heathrow airport, Drax power station and Kingsnorth, this time we went straight to source. We occupied a street in the financial heart of the City of London, just as the G20 leaders were touching down. Specifically, we had chosen to pitch our camp outside the beating heart of carbon capitalism: the European Climate Exchange. This is where carbon traders buy and sell permits to pollute, making millions for themselves and their clients, ensuring windfall profits for some of the world’s worst polluters, and contributing sod all to the effort of actually reducing emissions.
Unfortunately, world leaders haven’t learned a thing from failure of the financial sector to achieve anything other than lining its own peoples’ pockets. Yet when it comes to sorting out climate change, the G20 are putting all their eggs in the carbon trading basket. So we had come to expose carbon trading for the sham it is, to point out that the G20 leaders were trying to patch up a broken economic system with the same economic growth policies that are tipping us over the edge into runaway climate disaster, and to argue for just getting the hell on with the transition to a zero carbon economy.
For most of the day, the cops just let us be. They were keeping an eye on us, of course, but when at 12.30 sharp we all swooped in to block off the street at both ends, flinging up pop-up tents and rushing in all the infrastructure, it was ridiculously easy. The street was immediately thousands full. The atmosphere was joyful, humorous and determined; the symbolism striking. A stall set up against a gleaming corporate wall, under the banner ‘farmers’ markets not carbon markets’, purveyed the very best local London fare: home-baked bread and cakes, fruit and veg grown in the city and honey from Hampstead Heath. There were workshops on carbon trading, the Copenhagen climate talks, and climate solutions. A square of lawn appeared and we picnicked upon it – complete with china tea set and free flapjacks. A samba band played in the party atmosphere. Check out the many photos here. There was not a sniff of violence from this movement, which has always been doggedly, inspiringly peaceful.
Which made the first attack by riot cops, around 7pm, all the more shocking. With no warning, they had gone from happily letting people wander in and out, to enclosing us, pushing us back and randomly attacking peaceful campers with batons – as this footage shows.
It then became clear that we were in what’s known as a ‘kettle’ – trapped by Her Majesty’s finest until they deign to let us go. Which wasn’t a problem for those who were planning to stay the night and had brought tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes and provisions. But plenty of people had just wandered in after work to see what was happening and had not intended to stay. They were trapped for four and a half hours with no food or water. One guy near me was just wearing a t-shirt: ‘I only came out to watch the football’ he told me, totally nonplussed by his predicament. ‘I’m bleedin’ freezing!’
The police are justifying this tactic by saying they were only targeting a small minority bent on violence, and that those kettled in the camp were all planning on staying the night anyway – which, having actually been there, is just laughable. Instead, what we were being treated to was a display of naked power by the state. Like a bully that lashes out at what it doesn’t understand and can’t control, it felt like we were being punished simply for daring to protest. The fact we had no violent intentions was irrelevant. The plan was to scare every single one of us into never stepping out of line again. How else could you explain the extraordinary scenes I witnessed at about 11pm, when a fleet of police attack dogs suddenly appeared, in formation, to fill the space between those of us kettled in, and the growing crowd in the street opposite (including climate campers, an MP, journalists and legal observers) who were being kept out, and had stayed in solidarity with us. It was pure theatre. The dogs snarled and strained under the floodlights for a few minutes. Then we watched in horror as they were launched, with an army of pumped-up police, at our friends opposite - who were kicked, beaten and chased down the street.
It was, indeed, terrifying. The police then swept through the camp, trampling tents and possessions (the china tea set got smashed) and physically dragging out those who had linked arms to try to stay. My friend Harry got knocked out by a riot shield. In his words: ‘The small group I was in braced itself, linking arms and smiling nervously at each other. The police lines moved closer; I could see people collapsing under strikes from the police and being carried away. There was no space behind us to move; the crowd was panicking; I couldn’t see what was happening. All I could see was the police coming closer. Then they got to where I was sitting. I scrambled to my feet. Not able to make out what they were saying, I just saw a mass of angry faces shouting at me from behind helmets. I looked behind me and could see the crowd backing away; on either side I saw protesters being knocked down. I looked to the front again and then a single policeman, roaring at me, struck me bodily in the chest with his shield…I blacked out.’
If anyone was in doubt that the right to protest is under threat in this country, Wednesday should have convinced them. But what I never fail to find extraordinary about the climate camp movement is that, even in the face of such extreme provocation, every single person stayed peaceful yet again. The police action had the opposite effect to what was intended. It brought us closer together, strengthened our resolve and radicalised a whole new swathe of people.
Which isn’t to say the experience wasn’t traumatic. It’s taking me a while to process it. Yesterday anger, frustration and dismay bubbled up. I was exhausted and found I needed to cry. When I closed my eyes, visions of riot cops ran through my head.
Today I’m more able to remember the glorious vibe of the camp; the huge numbers of people who turned up, determined to reject false solutions to climate change and make real ones happen; the sense of power that comes with getting together and taking direct action; the sophisticated discussions about climate policy I heard all around me; the sense that we’re riding the crest of a wave, sweeping more and more people along as we go…
As one placard put it: ‘the beginning is nigh’!