Blockading Faslane

News from the frontline - the battle against Trident

When I heard the police car coming up behind us, I just shouted “Run!” and sprinted down to the road. Before I really knew what was happening, let alone before I had thought about it, I was flat on my back on the tarmac, linking hands with my friends through concrete-coated tubes, with police cars slamming on the brakes behind us. It was seven in the morning on a freezing late December day, and I had just defied the law for the first time.

We were trying to stop traffic entering through the South Gate of the Trident nuclear submarine base; not far away, we had friends climbing lampposts at the North Gate to set up a blockade there. We were a small group of Scottish students who had decided to spend some of their Christmas break in the cells. Our blockade was only one of over forty since the beginning of October; our eight arrests only eight among over four hundred and fifty. Faslane 365, the umbrella name for these blockades, is civil disobedience on an enormous scale.

I've been seriously involved in activism and protest since the time of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, when I, as did pupils at other schools across the country, helped organise a mass school walk-out in protest against our bloodthirsty foreign policy. Since then I've attended demos, spoken at meetings and rallies, and organised petitions on many different issues. But what I was part of at Faslane was something very different altogether.

I first realised just how dissatisfied with street protest I had become at London's iCount rally on November 4th—the biggest ever protest on the climate issue, it was a huge, slickly-organised, exemplary piece of inclusive activism. But its messages inspired almost nothing in me: that if we all did our bit then we could avert climate chaos, and that if we just shouted loud enough then the politicians simply had to hear us.

The problem was that they don't. “They” don't have to hear us at all. They can take our protest under advisement, and despite public outcry and opposition from political parties that are supposed to be to the right of Labour, our government won't even enforce measly year-on-year reductions in carbon emissions, buying us off with an impotent Climate Bill.

This should not have come as a surprise. Back in 2003, over a million people marched through London in the biggest protests this country has ever seen—and yet there has been no turning away from our disastrous course in Iraq. We do not have to be listened to.

And so amongst activists like me—especially students, with our luxurious lack of property and power—there is an increasing movement towards more desperate means. The thinking goes like this: if you won't cut carbon emissions, we will invade Drax power station and turn off its equipment ourselves. If you won't act on budget air travel, we will occupy the runways and stop the plans from landing ourselves. And if you won't even do so much as hold a meaningful debate in Westminster on the issue of our nuclear “deterrent” in this the year of its potential renewal, then we will prevent Faslane from functioning ourselves. If our right to speak publicly on these issues is so ineffective, then we will assert our right to ignore the laws of this apparently suicidal country in an effort to set it on a survivable course.

When enough people start to think like this, something very strange starts to happen, as it has at Faslane. The system we are protesting against can't cope. 474 people have been arrested for breach of the peace at Faslane so far, but only four have been prosecuted. The rest of us get a night in the cells and a slap on the wrist. There are simply too many of us to deal with properly; it is system malfunction.

Around a fortnight ago, a blockade of academics and students rushed the North Gate at Faslane en masse, taking the police there so by surprise that they had no choice but to let them stay. The blockade grew and grew in numbers until finally MoD police had to be called in to break it. It lasted a full six hours with a truly celebratory atmosphere; even veteran blockaders were taken back by its success. I defy anyone to find that uninspiring.

Press coverage of Faslane is increasing as the 365 movement storms onward. A lot of people have spent a lot of time, energy, and hours in the police cells to get that far. But there are many more people still willing to take on the cost to push the movement yet further.

For myself, I don't actually hold out much hope that the government will change its mind on this particular issue. But I still spent my time at Faslane hopeful, because what it has demonstrated to me is the extraordinary willingness of perfectly ordinary people to step outside of the law in the name of a cause. I can only suppose that that willingness has always been there throughout the history of activism whenever there is a desperation with the current state of the nation. But for me, discovering it properly for the first time has been a revelation of the most stirring kind. I can only hope that it will continue.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.