An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 135-136.
The aim of this piece is to share some thoughts and experiences of what it felt like to first come into contact with people involved in Earth First! in one city, through to becoming more directly involved in a local activist group in another city. While it's very much a personal account of the journey of a white, middle-class, university-educated female - from feeling like a conformist 'outsider' to believing in our collective power to achieve radical social change - I also know it's not a unique experience.
It relates to many discussions over the past few years within the Earth First! network to address questions about the exclusivity of the movement, and how we function as groups so as to include new people. This is simply one more perspective within these conversations. It's not meant to be a personal attack against particular individuals, or a worshipping of others, and it is meant to be a self-reflective piece to act as a reminder to myself not to fall into exactly the same traps that I'm questioning, now that I've joined the clique!
One of my overriding memories of first meeting Earth First!ers was my inability to understand about a third of what was being said. In the midst of mostly fascinating conversations, I kept stumbling across a whole range of completely new and alien words, acronyms or names of places: tat, CAT, yurt, permaculture, bender, action, lock-on, pigs, RTS, PGA, nicked, Whatley, Fairmile, Twyford... the list could go on. I quite quickly started to feel stupid after stopping and asking people to explain what they meant a few times. It was like being a foreigner that had stepped into a strange land.
This reminded me of how I felt when I met evangelical Christians or other fervent, sect-like groups at university, where a core of people, generally close friends, believe passionately in the same values, speak a common language, look very similar and on the surface seem to have little contact with people from different, diverse worlds and experiences. Where I expressed ideas or views that were based on a lack of information rather than a lack of concern, I found they were often met with a combination of disbelief and disgust, and with arguments along quite simplistic and black-and-white lines (e.g. everybody who works for a multi-national company is inherently an evil bastard). It felt to me like a stifling atmosphere with an unhealthy consensus, and a lack of debate and openness as to where other people are coming from and why.
At the same time, it was a genuine inspiration for me to come across people with so much energy, commitment, rage and desire to challenge and confront the system which is causing so much social and ecological devastation. It was incredible to realise that such a small number of people in their twenties with apparently so few resources, had such a wide range of skills and experience and could achieve so much. They were simultaneously researching the issues behind specific campaigns, writing and printing leaflets, getting people involved, using practical blockading tactics, building tree-houses and walkways, dealing with the press, knowing their legal rights, being arrested and prepared to go to prison for their beliefs. These were people who weren't waiting for or expecting anybody else to do things for them, but getting on and doing it for themselves.
I was also fascinated and amazed by some of the daily life choices that went along with political action which were obviously part of a long-term vision of society. These included living communally, eating locally grown organic food, not buying new consumer items, rejecting car use, taking collective decisions with no apparent leaders, forming strong supportive friendships, trying to live ecologically in an urban context - there was even an indoor compost toilet! All quite bizarre to me at the time...
However, I think that the combination of feeling judged, lacking in self-confidence and having hardly any free time meant that I made very few steps towards getting involved in any sort of direct action. There is an irony in the fact that a group of very strong, empowered individuals actually made me feel daunted, inadequate, and unsure of what skills I had to offer or how to get involved. I think this is compounded as a woman coming into what is still a sexist environment. What seemed to be valued were actions taken mostly by men, often with very large egos - activities like tree climbing, building things, staying in tunnels for long periods, or just being loud, funny and cynical and not listening to quieter people, especially women.
I also felt that taking direct action and being willing to break the law was a major barrier for me to overcome, coming from a privileged background. I was shit scared of getting arrested, of not knowing what my rights were or how I would respond to the police, who up until that point had been the upholders of justice and protectors of freedom. I never heard anybody expressing fears or difficulties that they had overcome themselves. More than a few times people started to mention something about a (not-so) covert action and then realised that I wasn't involved and hadn't yet been accepted as trustworthy, so the subject was rapidly changed and hushed over. This sense of being around a small cell of underground revolutionaries only added to the feeling of being an outsider with a few more hoops to jump through before proving myself worthy of joining the clique!
When I finished my course, I knew that I wanted to get more involved in campaigning and direct action. I very quickly decided to move cities (in a typically mobile, rootless kind of way) and a significant reason for this was my quite different experience of another active group. A friend who was involved at the time made a clear effort to introduce me to people and to help me feel included.
Others also made a genuine effort to include me in the group's activities. As a recently formed 'forum' for diverse campaigns and issues, there was an enthusiasm and a commitment to make space for people to develop new skills, as well as a commitment to share those skills people already had - for example, through practical workshop days. I felt there was a healthy awareness of the danger of informal hierarchies developing, and of people falling into particular roles (such as regularly facilitating meetings) which skill sharing and rotation helped to overcome.
The lack of overbearing egos and dominating personalities, even though some had over ten years of direct action experience, was incredibly refreshing. So was the honesty of both established members and newcomers within the group about their own fears - of arrest, or of violent confrontation, for example - which we talked about in small groups, and acted out in role-play situations. The two years that I was involved in the group enabled me to stand up for myself with others against what I believe is wrong, to say NO!, to overcome my fears and feel powerful. I began to recognise our collective strength and to realise that we don't need leaders or politicians to do things for us.
As I've become more involved in the Earth First! network, I've tried not to forget those first impressions. I feel they still raise some key challenges and I've heard quite a lot of other people (from many different backgrounds) express similar feelings. And it's very easy for me to be a complete hypocrite! Only last week, I was talking to a woman I had just met about my involvement in a campaign against biopiracy. I was about to carry on when she stopped me, looking totally confused and asking, "What the hell is biopiracy?"
There are a few questions that I try to bear in mind (with very variable amounts of success!): Am I slipping into jargon that excludes everyone but those 'in the know'? Am I making other people feel judged and disapproved of for having different politics and lifestyles to my own - almost guaranteed to put potential activists off? As I become more confident and experienced, am I becoming dominant or arrogant and preventing other people's skills from developing and being valued?
It is important that we keep on asking ourselves: what do we value as a movement? It goes without saying, but it's not only people who are willing to be arrested that are committed and caring. For instance, do we value the work of bringing up children, of providing them with a loving community and supporting their parents, as well as trying to create a better future for them to live in? I think that one way of being less exclusive is to reflect more deeply on what it is that prevents more people from getting involved, and to try to set up ways to get round this.
Finally, when it comes to gatherings and meetings, I feel that it's essential to try to keep some kind of boundary between what is purely social interaction and what is meant to be the political discussion. When a few people from the group I was involved in came along to a Winter Moot (their first time at any Earth First! event), they felt as though they had walked into roomful of mates who didn't have much time or inclination to meet anybody new or genuinely include them in the process.
One of the great strengths of the Earth First! movement is that - like any healthy organism - it is constantly changing, adapting and evolving. However, we still need to be aware of the mutation which can entrench us as a clique of 18-35, overwhelmingly white and educated, similarly-dressed friends who (used to) have funny hair.