“Beware of tents when running through Wales at night”

Yesterday I spent the day at Climate Camp 2008 near Kingsnorth in Kent, and, as a result, my face and name are now back on the UK Police National Computer. This follows a 20-year period since I was involved in actions intended to overthrow the state (joke).

Gate standoff at Climate Camp 2008

Most of the Climate Camp action took place earlier today, and included dozens of protestors breaching two fences at the power station, forcing station managers to switch off the inner electric fence. As for the meticulously planned amphibious assault on Kingsnorth, at least one pirate boat in the Great Rebel Raft Regatta (Grrr!) made it to the station jetty. I have no news as yet on the planned aerial attack. There is now a massive party underway at the power station gates.

I hadn’t intended to attract the attention of the boys and girls in black jump suits, stab vests and pockets bristling with electronic gadgetry, blue rubber gloves, tubes of alcohol rub and sundry implements. But following orders from central government, and a pot of Home Office money estimated to contain some £12 million, the campsite is now subject to near lock-down by police. I was stopped and searched three times in all, as were other journalists. I did, however, speak with two News International reporters who told me that they were allowed through police lines without being searched.

Up to 1400 police officers from 26 regional forces across the UK are currently barracked on the Hoo peninsula. The police are using special powers under Section 60 of New Labour’s Criminal Justice Act to search each and every person entering and leaving the main campsite, and there are roadblocks throughout the area. A police helicopter often buzzes the campsite, timing its visits perfectly with major site meetings and press conferences. Other psychological operations are said to include playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers attached to a police van, and a claim by police that their operation has been made carbon neutral through the use of wooden knives and forks, and biodegradable plates.

The policing has been highly intimidating, even where individual officers have behaved with due professionalism and courtesy, as I understand the vast majority of them have. Given that I was displaying a press card at all times, my own experience may not be typical. But I did witness campers’ interactions with police, and am confident that in most cases the officers acted properly. However, the friend who invited me to Climate Camp was treated badly after he declined to give his name and address, as was his legal right. Section 60 allows for stopping and searching, but personal details may be withheld by those detained.

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act covers anticipation of violence. Given the non-violent nature of the climate camp, stop and search powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act would be more appropriate, but then officers exercising those powers would require reasonable grounds to suspect that an individual was acting contrary to the law. The question now is whether the state will escalate this confrontation by use of the Terrorism Act.

Allegations against the police made by campers include vandalism and theft of vehicles and bicycles. What is certain is that the police removed bike locks from a fence surrounding the campsite, and put up notices within the camp advising those affected to seek “recompense” for their loss. But why the police undertook such action in the first place is not known. Another credible story is that a 76-year-old man had his walking stick confiscated as the item in question was deemed to be an offensive weapon. I’m told that the walking stick did not contain a sword.

Direct action has been planned and implemented by campers, but not violence against the person. Many of those involved would self-describe as ‘anarchists’, but they are not of the “black block” type we see trashing city centres during Mayday riots and global economic summits. Yesterday I spent some time with people in the animal rights tent. They are a pretty hard core bunch, but they are certainly not violent by temperament.

Earlier in the week the police called a press conference during which they declared that a “weapons cache” had been found near the camp. This turned out to be a block of kitchen knives of the type used to chop up the tonnes of vegetables brought in to feed 1500 or so camp residents. The police version of events was reported widely and uncritically, and few media organisations chose to seek a response from camp representatives.

According to campers, the police have also been spreading stories of diarrhoea outbreaks. The reality, according to camp medical workers, is that only a few cases are treated each day. That can in no way be described as an epidemic, and is, in fact, to be expected in such a gathering.

Looking around the site, I could see a number of well-constructed toilet facilities, and an impressive network of plastic water pipes. Wash basins are in plentiful supply, all well stocked with antibacterial hand-wash. Given the numbers of people handling food on-site, such stringent sanitary precautions are essential.

The level of organisation is impressive, and the camp appears to have coped well with the logistical problems despite the best efforts of the police. An exhausted-looking activist from Cambridge, who is part of a team responsible for physical infrastructure, told me that police had confiscated sections of two-by-two, bolts and tools used for constructing toilet facilities, and that only half of the planned loos had been assembled. Given how well the camp is coping with what they do have, this is further evidence of the detailed planning that has gone into the project.

Camp decision making is by consensus. One sees busy individuals who are clearly key to the organisation, but they are not running the show in a hierarchical manner. The camp is organised geographically with ground areas representing the nations and regions of Britain. Information flows between hub and regions on a constant basis, and a form of sign language is used in mass meetings to indicate assent or opposition to propositions under discussion.

If you are wondering about the title of this article, the words are taken from a sign on the “Westside” of the camp. I would like to have taken a photo of this, but was asked not to use my camera unless escorted by a camp media worker. Unlike last year’s climate camp at Heathrow Airport, the PR operation at Kingsnorth is relatively media friendly. Most journalists are restricted to a two-hour window in the middle of the day, and are chaperoned at all times. I was allowed to wander around unescorted (save for a few designated areas), speak with campers and take notes. But I was allowed to do this on the understanding that I respect the camp as a residential area.

I visited Climate Camp 2008 at the invitation of one its supporters. In the 1980s I was part of this same broad counter-cultural movement, and was heavily involved in direct action protests against nuclear weapons at Molesworth and elsewhere. After that I entered higher education, and then spent a decade working at the scientific coal face, all the while pretending to lead a life of blameless bourgeois domesticity. With little time for anything other than work and doing battle with the wife, I soon drifted away from political activity, and my friends in the green movement.

Yesterday’s visit to Kingsnorth was something of an emotional shock for me. It would seem that others of my own age have carried on the struggle, and I must say they are looking very well for it. And then there is the new generation. At Climate Camp there is a good mix of ages, genders, skin colours and nationalities. I didn’t spot any twin-set and pearl NIMBYs in residence, but some of the day visitors looked as if they had come straight from shopping at Bluewater.

In the circumstances I can make no pretence at strict journalistic objectivity. The camp visit was for me a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I thank those I spoke with yesterday for their warm welcome and trust. I may be critical of some of the political specifics, but I’m more than happy to associate with people who are attempting to show that another, better world is possible. Contrary to what I’ve written before, I now see Climate Camp as an antidote to the cynicism that over the years has eaten away at me from within. This year’s protest has been a tremendous success, and I applaud those who have taken part in it.