I joined the Camp for Climate Action near Heathrow on Sunday, a few hours before the start of the 24 hours of ‘mass action’. As I walked up from the A4, chased by the dreadful roar of planes landing behind me every 30 seconds, I wondered if I was heading in the right direction. Where were the posters and stickers on every lamppost – the typical signs of being in the area of a demonstration? Around me an ordinary west London morning was happening, with people picking up papers and catching buses as usual.
Then I remembered. The people I knew were at the climate camp were real greens; not into careless vandalism, but practising what they preached; literally ‘being the change’ they wanted to see; building a camp based on self-reliance and low-impact living. I bet myself right then that there wouldn’t be single piece of non-biodegradable litter left in that field at the end of this.
I finally got confirmation I was on the right road when a police roadblock came into view, followed by the camp itself. I went in, past the Met photographers and a press enclosure worthy of a Big Brother eviction (but with much longer lenses).
The atmosphere was satirical, serious, determined and friendly. I got my bearings, bumped into plenty of people I knew - some I hadn’t seen for ages - and everyone I spoke to was excited at the attention created by the camp. The compost toilets were excellent and, after a short visit, and joining up with some fellow (capital G) Greens, I discovered the range of ‘actions’ I could take part in.
I decided to go for whatever the biggest group was doing, which was a press photo followed by a ‘family-friendly’ march. Joining a large group preparing for the press call under a banner with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘We are armed – only with peer-reviewed science’. We all took copies of the executive summary of a Tyndall Centre report to attach to our hands (“Without swift action to curtail aviation growth, all the other UK sectors will have to almost completely decarbonise by 2050 to compensate” - quite).
After brandishing our scientific reasons for protesting at the press, we set off for the village of Sipson – along with nearby Harlington, set to be subsumed under the planned third runway and new flightpath. Other, smaller, groups took a range of routes to the headquarters of BAA, of which several made it. They are still dug in there as I write, while others have reached the British Airways cargo terminal.
At Sipson we were joined by protesting locals and marched – very slowly thanks to the police halting things regularly for no reason – along the route of the proposed runway, accompanied by music from the Rinky Dink pedal-powered sound system.
The self-discipline and seriousness of the camp has wrongfooted most of the press pack. Earlier in day, I was sent to review the Sunday papers on Radio 4, so had to read almost every word of the coverage – of which there was a huge amount. On its own, getting so much attention for a neglected, yet massive, failing in government policy is a real achievement. But I also noticed how the nature of the coverage had changed over the week.
Every paper had sent in undercover reporters in an attempt to root out any shred of trouble or hypocrisy they could find. But their attempts to paint the protestors as a fringe outfit failed by their own admission. Again and again these journalists brought up caricatures of the green movement, but all were forced to qualify their reports with phrases such as ‘of course the protestors are right’ and ‘I found it hard to find anyone without a PhD’.
The thing is, this is no longer the 1990s, and protest camping is no longer something only a tiny minority can conceive of. The policy changes the campers want to ram home with this week’s actions are now desired by a majority, and there are now many, many people with first-hand experience of direct action who make up the constituency the camp emerges from.
These might include people whose first experience of marching was in February 2003, who then joined the World Development Movement or got on a coach to Edinburgh with Oxfam for the G8 in 2005. Not flying and holidaying in the UK also means that, for many more, camping holds no fear.
Will the camp succeed? I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports and ruining all our other efforts to stop climate change is a good idea. Whatever the other achievements of this week’s camp, whole pages seriously questioning the government’s aviation policy – including in the Mail on Sunday – can only help.