After the talks, the action

‘J16’ marks the beginning of UK wave of climate mobilization, writes Morgan Curtis.


Upton, J16 Anti Fracking Protest, 16 January 2016. © Rosy Webb, REW Photography

On 12 December 2015, the gavel fell on a woefully-inadequate international climate change agreement. Delegates still inhabiting the sterile halls of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris were overcome with one of two emotions: self-congratulation or grim disappointment, divided on global latitudinal lines.

Similarly to the previous 20 such annual UN climate conferences, the world’s nations had acknowledged the severity of the threat of global climate change, and then proceeded to contort themselves (and the English language) into a pretence of ‘action’ and ‘leadership’. Unlike in years previous, however, activists were few and far between in these final hours at the conference centre.

We will have the last word! declared tens of thousands of us as we gathered to draw ‘red lines’ in the streets of Paris, at the Arc Du Triomphe and onwards to the Eiffel Tower. D12 it was called, a disobedient action endorsed by an unprecedented coalition of NGOs, unions, faith groups and radical collectives, though legalized by French police at the last moment.

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Red lines, symbolized that day by hundred-meter long banners, ribbons, inflatable cubes and sanguine tulips, are the minimal necessities for a just and livable planet: sustainable energy transformation, justice for impacted people, and the right to food and water. Science tells us that for these lines not to be crossed 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

The Paris agreement does not include the words fossil fuels’. As the banners on D12 said, it is up to us to keep them in the ground.

The red lines meme rippled around the world on D12. It surfaced at multiple locations across Britain, from inside London’s Tate Modern to Manchester Piccadilly Station. It announced the interconnection of our global movement, and our intention to escalate in 2016, to take action commensurate with the leadership that is really needed in this time of crisis.

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We did not rest for long. Before dawn on Saturday, 16 January, alarms went off all around the country, rousing sleeping climate justice enthusiasts from our beds. From Wales to Wiltshire, Somerset to Southampton, Brighton to Bristol, buses filled with people from all walks of life headed to Upton, just north of Chester.

Let’s put a red line around the UK’s fracking frontline, wrote Reclaim the Power, a grassroots organizing network, in their open invitation to J16. I was on the coach traveling up from Bristol, and was excited to see red face-paint once again. Red lines were eagerly painted across 57 noses, and red anoraks distributed with DON’T FRACK THE CLIMATE pasted on them.

With the mood on the coach ever increasingly festive, Simon West stood up to offer a spontaneously-penned poem. His closing verse set the tone for the day.

‘Today the dial's set for adventure!
Our agenda's clear, we will not sway!
Journals and diarists will record it
Our energy will be rewarded
There's one way to go, peacefully forward!
Fracking will be history, one day.’

Rosy Webb, REW Photography

Despite the fact that 85 per cent of Upton residents are against fracking, more than 300 police officers descended on Duttons Lane last Tuesday to evict Upton Community Protection Camp. The longest running protest in Britain, people had been living on site for 21 months to protect the land from IGas, the company intending to drill there. With an elaborate maze of underground tunnels, elevated platforms and creative lock-ons to foil the process, the eviction of the camp took nine hours. Parents of children at Upton High School, just 200 metres from the fracking site-to-be, were advised to avoid Duttons Lane at pick-up-time.

‘Our daughters go to the school next to the site,’ Chloe Randall, at the event with her friend Donna, told me. ‘I feel sick and angry about the whole situation. Frustrated as I feel I don’t have a voice. They’re taking away our safety and security. I can’t even imagine if there was an earthquake under my house.’

Chloe’s dog, Molly the Protest Pug, was also in attendance. ‘It’s her third protest. If you hear her bark – she goes “Frack off!”’

After we arrived at Upton Park the assembled crowd grew and grew, bolstered by retired folk, clowns, children, students, first-time protesters, locals and visitors from as far afield as Newcastle and Brighton. Buckets were passed around for a collection in support of the evicted campers who had lost their belongings, and supplies were collected for Woolston Protection Camp, another community fighting IGas just 20 miles away. Standing in line for pay-what-you-can hot vegan food, I got talking with Chris from Southampton. ‘We need to change all those “keep calm” posters,’ he said. For him, fracking means that we need to ‘sod calm and get angry.’

A colourful, carnival-style walk began to the site of the former camp, with more than 400 people led by a 10-foot tall dinosaur named ‘Cuadzilla’ – that’s after Cuadrilla, the company attempting to frack in Lancashire. Music and song filled the air, while banners and protesters filled the streets. With people stretched as far as the eye could see, I asked Chloe if anything like this had ever happened in Upton before.

Rosy Webb, REW Photography

‘Nothing!’ she laughed. ‘We’re just a quiet suburban community. The last controversy was when a bear escaped from the zoo in 1947. This has really got my heart going. I’m so pleased. I never imagined this many people would show up to support us.’

The community rose to the occasion of this unprecedented spectacle, with not one unsupportive response. Families joined the march from the sidewalks. Shoppers outside the local store offered thumbs up and shouts of encouragement. I saw an elderly woman through a window waving vigorously from her chair, and toddlers dancing in front gardens with their parents.

‘Naugh-ty frack-ers, go a-way! Naugh-ty frack-ers go a-way!’ a little blonde-haired girl began sing-song chanting in the middle of the march. Another marcher lent her a megaphone and we all joined in. ‘Naugh-ty frack-ers, go A-WAY!’

We’re not stopping. We are going to keep fighting. Not just for Upton, but for the rest of the country, for the rest of the world if we can

As the houses of Upton faded away we walked down a quiet country lane and spotted the remnants of the protection camp in a field. It’s here, in quintessential British countryside, that IGas intends to start drilling as soon as possible. Their planning permission expires on 28 May, so the hope of the community is to use every avenue available to them in order to keep the drill above ground until then.

For now, some hibernating newts are on their side. Drilling can’t take place until the controversy of their presence is settled. Natural England says this may not be resolved for at least 70 days.

‘We’ve had amazing support from start to finish,’ said Phil Whyte, to a round of applause, as the crowd gathered around for a series of speeches. He was the first camper to move on to the site 21 months ago. ‘We’re not stopping. We are going to keep fighting. Not just for Upton, but for the rest of the country, for the rest of the world if we can.’

As the rain began to get harder, spirits were never dampened. We heard from Tina Louise Rothery, a member of the anti-fracking Lancashire Nanas, whose impassioned words brought the crowd to tears and cheers. ‘As everyone on this road knows, you cannot find an exit door to this cause. You cannot leave… Always remember the aim, because in the end we are always defending each other.’

News made its way to us that while we gathered in Upton another group of activists had blockaded the construction site of the new Carrington Gas Fired Power Station in Salford, to the north west of Manchester. These simultaneous actions, it was excitedly announced, mark the beginning of Groundswell, a wave of escalation for climate justice supported by Reclaim the Power groups across Britain. Investors beware: these actions will be disrupting all corners of the fossil fuel industry throughout 2016.

‘Oh yes, we can expect more of this type of action,’ Lisa from Bristol assured me with a smile, when she arrived in Upton after having been part of the Carrington blockade. ‘Looking at this landscape, this is a pivotal moment. We need to help the momentum our movement has gather pace.’

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Paris showed us that such pivotal moments require collaboration across both issues and borders. As a groundswell of action begins to draw red lines across the UK, others are being identified around the world. Last summer saw Europe’s largest ever civil disobedience against fossil fuels when 1,500 people flooded a coal mine with their bodies in Germany. Ende Gelande, the action was called. Here and no further. In May, a week of action titled Break Free will amplify this messaging at mines, pipelines, wells and rigs round the world.

‘I have a dream that we will never see any of you again,’ Keith Malcolm Ross from Frack Free Wales, told us on Saturday as a helicopter circled overhead. ‘But we probably will… Don’t forget us in Wales. We may need your help.’