Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Protest Like It's 1993

It's almost like the 1990s again.

Well a bit.

Okay, so there's no Cool Britannia and nobody's remotely pretending that we're in some sort of classless society any more.

However we have an unpopular Tory government and all the paraphernalia that goes with it: back bench revolts over Europe, cuts, unemployment, collapsing health service, homeless people, soup kitchens etc etc

And we have people camping in the trees trying to stop a road.

I don't know how many people really remember the tree folk of the nineties. In a history of the decade Swampy appears well below Kurt Cobain, Damien Hurst, and the Gallaghers, although his reputation has survived better than New Labour and Lance Armstrong's.

However the tree folk were a grass roots movement that took on and beat the government, which is actually pretty rare.

What basically happened in the 1990s was that amongst the large and growing opposition to the government - the dispossessed of Tory Britain - there emerged a radical environmental group that pretty rapidly found its cause in 'the biggest road building program since the Romans'.

That group was Earth First!

Earth First! wasn't the 1990s anti-roads movement, but it was the yeast in the dough. With it's rallying cry of "no compromise in the defence of mother earth" and it's broader definition of what could be defined as 'non-violent direct action', it made even groups like Greenpeace seem staid and conformist.

Imported from the USA by Jake Bowers and Jason Torrence, who stripped away the Redneck Individualism and spliced in some home grown Anarchism, Earth First! UK was then cross-fertilised by ideas and activists from the then winding down opposition to Greenham Common and Cruise Missiles what emerged was a new and radical environmental group.

(I should add that this ideological transformation was also happening in America thanks to the activist Judi Bari and anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin [amongst others], but some of the yanks who came over to advise the Brits in the early years were misogynistic Mountain Men who didn't exactly hit it off with feminists former peace campaigners.)

The British Earth First!ers spent their first few years blocking nuclear power stations and shipments of rainforest timber, whilst experimenting with innovative tactics such as the ethical shoplifting of clearcut timber.

Then a couple of Travellers started camping on Twyford Down.

They were soon joined by local activists opposed to the planned M3 extension and Friends of the Earth. The latter had allegedly joined the party as they thought Labour would win the 1992 General Election and cancel the road, offering them a cheap victory. When this didn't happen they soon disappeared, threatened by legal action and for the rest of the 1990s FOE and EF! had a bit of a stormy relationship.

Into the breach though stepped Torrence, Bowers and co. With a very British spirit of making it up as you go along, they camped on the path of the proposed motorway and were violently removed on the infamous Yellow Wednesday.

It was a defeat, no doubt, and the despoiled Down went on to have starring role in the opening credits of the Vicar of Dibley, but also a beginning.

Borrowing another tactic from the US, tree squatting, first used in Newcastle by campaigners against tree cutting in Jesmond Dean, future camps were about ground and much harder to shift. In due course tunnels, off-site actions and covert 'monkey wrenching' were added to the activists toolkit.

Success breeds success, and many people who had previously been rioting in the streets or leading the march towards Global Socialism temporarily changed flags and became non-violent, non-hierarchical eco-warriors.

After the Third Battle of Newbury saw over a thousand arrests, the Treasury pulled the plug on the Department of Transport's plan.

With no more trees to squat Earth First! found itself at a bit of a loose end. A proposed new runway at Manchester airport gave them a years grace, but then the crisis came. The type of actions they wanted to do next required the ability to organise activists secretly, which was just not possible with the diverse individuals that made up the movement. Build a treehouse and they will come. Organise a  secret action on a 'need to know' basis and they won't.

Earth First! threw itself into the campaign against GMOs, taking out small test sites in the middle of the night, but they were fringe players in the campaign which was led by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and, unfortunately, the Daily Mail.


With EF! no longer setting the pace, other causes drew people's time; the annual anti-capitalist riot in London, the perpetual camps at Faslane and Huntingdon Life Sciences and so on. Normal services had been resumed.

In a sense Earth First! had played Malcolm X to the other NGO's Martin Luther King. Malcom X, although a  massive hero to many Black Americans, actually spent his time lurching from one ideology to to another, picked up some dubious friends in the Nation of Islam and was eventually bumped off by fellow black radicals.

Earth First!, similarly, acquired some diverse ideologies in its travels, from Rednecks for Wilderness to eco-pagans. It picked up some dodgy fellow travellers from the animal rights movement and eventually shrank to almost nothing as its best and brightest were poached by the big NGOs, who offered salaries, offices and the resources to launch a campaign even if there weren't any convenient trees.

This wasn't so much selling out as just moving up, as many Earth First! groups, especially the good ones, were mini-NGOs; just under funded and under staffed ones which were perpetually having to reinvent the wheel.

But now in Sussex people were back in the trees protesting the Tory's new roads to nowhere. it's not another Newbury - yet - but they were well organised, not scared of the press and had the big NGOs on board. All of which is a big improvement on how we did things.

What happens next will be interesting.

There is a lot of anger out there, a lot of former Occupy people, UK Uncut people, and a heck of a lot of disillusioned ex-Labour people. Somewhere out there is the cause that will unite them all. It could be roads, it really could, but it could be any number of things.

But equally, it might not be fun at all.

I had it easy as a nineties protesters. They treated us with kids gloves. Now the eighties, that was a violent decade.

All told I'd rather protest like 1993.

1 comment:

coyopa said...

Great post - thanks, Martin, and for the linked post about the '80s.

Something's happening again, for sure. Whether it's roads or fracking or wind-farms, I don't know, but there's a new wave of resistance kindling against the march of industrial civilisation. It strikes me that Deep Green Resistance might play the role that Earth First! did back then. Who knows?

Keep on keeping on.
Tom (Dartmoor)