An article from Do or Die Issue 8. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 155-158.
The physical occupation of sites threatened by development has been one of the main strategies used by our movement over the last eight years. The last few years has seen an increasing amount of concern with, and discussion about, their effectivness as a direct action tactics. Here are four pieces of writing that raise some of the main points from these discussions.
This piece is critical of direct action camps, since I reckon the negative aspects of protest camps are more important and worthy of analysis than the positive ones. Yes, camps can be great; dynamic, exciting anarchic communities, examples of low-impact earth-centred living, where people live and struggle together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and solidarity. However, I've felt for some time that such ecotopian glimpses are all too often swamped by the other side of the story. I'm certainly not criticising those who are, or have been, on camps, as that's most of us - and it's undeniable that camp-based campaigns have inspired our movement to amazing feats. However, we must consider the tactical effectiveness of camps, and the effects of 'camp culture' on Earth First!
The development of Earth First! in Britain has been heavily influenced by protest camps. Many campaigns, especially against roads, have relied on the central tactic of building a camp, fortifying it fantastically, and waiting to resist eviction. All camps share an identical mindset: defensiveness. Extremely impressive resistance has been achieved with this tactic, but it's a limited strategy. In particular, because camps demand loyalty from those who defend them, spending time or resources on more offensive tactics (office occupations, site invasions, sabotage) can be seen as abandoning the camp, almost to the point of 'treason'!
'Defensiveness' leads to campaigns stereotyping themselves, and makes innovation so much harder - unless it involves taller, madder treehouses or deeper, more impregnable tunnels. Logically, the only way to advance in the 'arms race' between us and the bailiffs/scab climbers/men-in-black is to make ourselves so vulnerable that serious injury or death becomes even more likely. Enough of us have either been hospitalised (or come close) to make us question whether the stakes are too high to be worth it. I don't want any of my friends to become martyrs.
The danger of camp life highlights another problem - camps are highly specialised environments. Not everyone has the agility, stamina, confidence and time to climb trees, hang off bits of blue rope, or live outdoors in all weathers. Therefore, camps divide activists into two; the ultra-committed - usually young - whose lifestyle becomes intertwined with the camp, and the rest who can only support them. This hierarchical dynamic is not a good basis on which to build a radical movement. The image which often underlies it - the individualistic, self-sacrificing defender of the trees - is also a problem. I believe that it is our collective confidence we should be developing, and individual commitment and ability should feed that confidence, not override it.
Camps very often have an aggressively countercultural vibe, which most people will find alienating. Camps can be too easily dominated by macho ego-warriors, complete with harness codpieces, who create an intimidating atmosphere, especially after a few cans. Of course, I'm not suggesting serving McDonalds and installing Sky TV at sites to attract 'normal people' (the counterculture is a good thing!), but we need to question what opportunities camps present for facilitating wider involvement in our struggles.
You don't need to actually visit a camp to feel alienated; the spectacularisation of our movement has ensured that most TV viewers can now safely view eco-direct action as an alien 'phenomenon', rather than a challenge. Our over-reliance on spectacular tactics - perfectly illustrated by the modern protest camp - is a serious limitation to our threat.
Camp-based activism creates a transient, rootless movement, comprised of people who have lived in too many places which end up being trashed. The mobility of the movement has many strengths, and has fed our dynamism and energy. However, it marginalises us as a 'cause' beyond the real lives of most communities, and is not sustainable. There are only so many years of the camp-building/eviction cycle anyone can take, and most activists become too burnt-out, disillusioned or wage-enslaved to 'carry on camping'. It's thus difficult enough to keep existing numbers and energy up, let alone expand! The need to develop new more sustainable and inclusive modes of struggle, without losing any radical edge, is urgent.
I'll stress again that I'm not anti-camp. I hope that camps will continue to pop up like mad mushrooms to vex our enemies and change lives - and hopefully continue to actually stop things, as at Stringer's Common in 1997 (see Do or Die No. 7, page 2). However, the attitudes and assumptions preserved by camps must be challenged. Camps are a huge element of our tradition, but we need to learn from other traditions, and - most importantly of all - develop novel strategies that will really kick some arse. I don't think we'll do that until we analyse honestly the shortcomings of our previous struggles. Camps are not enough!
For many activists, protest sites are a 'thing of the past'. Their tactical limitations and unsustainability, amongst other things, have been under a lot of discussion. However, a huge number of present activists have been involved with protest sites and, regardless of all these arguments, their influence is undeniable. Even if many activists, like myself, have 'moved on', I think we still need to address how sites have influenced the way we work, and consequently how we can go forward without them.
Sites, in a number of ways, helped build and sustain the network that we have now. They have an accessible nature; an open invitation to have a cup of tea or a long-term stay. Of course, this has to be weighed up against many negative aspects; from drunk or offensive behaviour to generally muddy or messy conditions. However, in the past sites have attracted huge numbers and a fairly broad range of people. This, admittedly, was largely due to the mass appeal of the anti-roads movement and hard to relate to the broader global anti-capitalist direction we have moved in, but the point I'm trying to make is that sites provided an open ground for a large number of people to come and fight together.
This is where I think the real significance of being on site comes in. To live with such a range of people, to share the same experiences; everything from trying to light a fire when it's been raining for days to the intense emotionally and physically painful evictions, is a bonding process that I don't feel we have managed to replace yet. On site, I learned to tolerate and trust people I wouldn't otherwise have probably talked to. Yes, it's an overly intense atmosphere, and yes, it's a fast track to burnout, but it also produces friendships that would normally take years to consolidate.
It isn't just a comment on site social life. That kind of friendship is crucial to making cohesive groups and successful actions. None of us are perfectly reliable. It's not enough to know someone has good politics. You've got to know if they'll do what they said they'd do, whether they're likely to be late or just not turn up or if they'll back you up if an action goes wrong. We need to work with people we can trust. But if people only rely on the friends they've known for years, or were on site with, it makes us insular and cliquey; feeding attitudes like 'if you weren't at Twyford or Newbury you don't count'. If we are to successfully grow, new people need to be included and trusted. Admittedly you don't have to live on site to form those kinds of friendships. Actions, even the bad ones, can be good shared experiences. Skill sharing can be done by pairing up with new people. Good debriefings, social events and affinity groups training, especially trust games, are all ways to get to know individuals better. But these things need more emphasis. We've taken for granted the opportunity sites provided for meeting so many new people, for sharing so many intense experiences, crammed into a short space of time, and emerging with a really strong group of friends.
I'm not trying to be nostalgic about sites. I'm not saying they're perfect or irreplaceable. I think we've come a long way from the days of anti-road sites like Newbury. We've successfully broken out of 'single-issues', incorporated an anti-capitalist analysis, and made strong links with groups all over the world. But our efforts to strengthen our own network in Britain has, I think, shown just how much we depend on individual friendships to work well as a group and to make strong links with other groups. We can't afford to take for granted the trust and friendship that is fundamental to sustaining this network.
Like many people my first real involvement in ecological direct action came about on protest camps. I have visited and lived on sites at the Wells Relief Road, the Newbury Bypass, Manchester Airport and Bingley. There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years over what role sites can play and even over whether they have any valid role to play at all. I am of the opinion that sites have the potential to be an effective and progressive form of activism. I am also of the opinion that they generally refuse to address the problems that prevent them from reaching this potential. The result of this refusal goes a long way to account for the fact that I have had very little to do with them for the last two years.
Living on site is a very intense experience, your entire life and identity become bound up with a particular piece of land and what you can do to defend it. There are good things that can come out of this; passion and commitment to your activism, as well as the radicalisation that occurs when something directly relevant to your life is destroyed by business and the state, protected as ever by the police. However, this intensity of immediate experience, combined with the fact that sites are almost always very marginalised from the rest of the society which they inhabit, also leads to many problems:
Sites tend to be very 'single issue' orientated. Those who live on them often develop a kind of arrogance, whereby they see sites, and their site in particular, as being the only worthwhile form of protest. There tends to be very little strategic analysis on site with people content to remain on the defensive, even looking forward to the glorious defeat of eviction as though it was impossible for them to take the offensive in any way.
The level of wider political thought is often even worse; I remember several people on site telling me that they weren't interested in capitalism, class, or animal rights and this being accepted as though there was nothing wrong with it. Someone even voiced the opinion that road building was not a problem, just so long as no trees got cut down!
Sites are often also home to various hierarchies based on gender, expertise and sub-cultural credibility. If you dont know how to climb trees, have a job, look fairly straight or are female, then the chances are that you will be made to feel as though you cant do much to help, and, what you can do will involve you playing only a supportive role for those who are doing the real work.
Connected to the lack of political analysis, and feeding the macho cult of the long-haired eco-warrior, is the obsession that many sites have with the media. The media is treated almost entirely uncritically, with journalists invited on to site and people performing all sorts of ludicrous antics for them, hanging out of trees and even appearing on chat shows to be ridiculed. In this way sites play a key role in their own spectacularisation, turning themselves and the rest of the ecological resistance movement into a sub-cultural commodity, all to get their faces on telly in the interests of a single issue.
Like most forms of activism, protest sites have their good points and bad points. The criticisms I have made of sites can often also be applied to non-site based direct action. The difference is that, in my experience, the issues are more pronounced, and, crucially, less challenged, on-site than off-site.
I have lived on protest sites on and off since the summer of 1996. The few years before that, which many people regard as the hey-day of British protest sites, were well before my time and so I have no experience of them. I first got involved in site life simply because it was the most effective and accessible form of direct action that was around at the time. The sites that I have lived on have all aimed to prevent the building of environmentally destructive developments by almost exclusively defensive tactics. Occupying the land under threat and building as many fortifications as possible with the aim of making the eviction as difficult and expensive as possible for the forces of darkness.
This has proved quite effective, especially since the development of underground defences (tunnels and bunkers) which can cost hundreds of pounds an hour to evict and can last out for weeks. In theory the structures themselves could last months but this has never been tested as people tend to crack and come out voluntarily well before they would have been evicted. This has led the tunnel bailiffs to just wait around for protesters to get bored, mad or run out of food, only putting on the pretence of work when the Undersheriff comes round - thus further lengthening evictions. (This state of affairs will probably continue until the police train up specialist tunnel cops!) The threat of an expensive tunnel eviction was enough to make Guildford Council change their mind about a road widening scheme and who knows how many others have decided against some new earth raping activity behind closed doors.
One of the big things about protest sites is that since you are occupying the area that you want to save it takes over everything. This tends to make the experience fucking exhausting and intense. The last site I lived on I felt like I was on the job every minute of every day. Just when you were about to relax there were pigs at the gate or local nutters in the kitchen and you would have to get up and sort it out. Despite that the all-encompassingness of protest sites this is still their biggest turn-on for me. On site you know that everything you do; whether it's cooking, cleaning, washing up, chopping wood, watching the kids, building defences or going on actions, contributes towards the overthrow of the State. Work becomes something you want to do and get a buzz out of. Living like that is just fantastic. There's something about living communally combined with the edge of confrontation and struggle that makes a protest site a proper autonomous zone and liberated area. Since living on site takes so much energy, with the defenses and preparations for eviction tending to become the entire focus of the campaign, nobody has the energy or time to offensively hit the companies involved. On the other hand having a semi-permanent centre of activity that people can come to any time to help can keep a momentum going. It also allows people new to the movement to become more involved quicker. It can take months to gain acceptance in an Earth First! group but, provided you muck in, only a matter of days at a protest site.
You have to put a lot of energy into a protest site before you can get any out, and there is always the danger that keeping the site running will become an uphill struggle that leaves no time to attack the enemy or fortify the space. Crystal Palace (see pages 154 and 189) was an object lesson in this for many of us. Special Brew was our undoing. Most sites these days have to deal with the demon drink as so many activists are heavy drinkers it has become central to the culture of protest sites. It's the only thing I really don't like about site life. It makes us more vulnerable to threats from outside - pigs, vigilantes, local nutters etc.. It makes us fight amongst ourselves and it causes people who used to have a problem with drinking to either leave or get sucked back in. As Crystal Palace was an urban site this was magnified by local pissheads that came to visit. Sadly kicking people off site became an almost daily occurrence. We didn't like doing it but we had no choice. That part was easy but what if lots of otherwise hardcore activists are big drinkers? What if it's most of the site?
At Palace we used to just let it slide until the communal areas were filthy, the firewood was damp or non-existent, the tools were lunched out and no one could take it anymore. Then a couple of people would have a good shout at anyone they thought was lunching out, we'd kick out the real pisstakers and everyone else would get off their arses and clean up, chop wood and build a big impressive defence. Then we would repeat the entire process again. This pattern was familiar to me from campaigns past, although it has to be said never in quite such an extreme form. We always did get it together but a lot of the time many of us didn't think we would. Although we put up a damn good fight in the eviction I can't help thinking that we could have done so much more for so much less effort if we'd just not lunched out in the first place. Sobriety would have helped - it really would.