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6 September 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 1:35pm

Greenpeace activist: “People forget the history of progress is based on peaceful protest”

By Hettie O'Brien

On Thursday night, a video emerged of Foreign Office minister Mark Field forcibly removing a climate protester from the annual Mansion House dinner. The Conservative MP grabbed Janet Barker by the neck and shoved her against a pillar in the Egyptian Hall of the building, before escorting her, still holding her neck.

Barker was one of 40 Greenpeace protesters who took part in a peaceful protest during Chancellor Philip Hammond’s speech. Thirty six of the protesters were women, dressed in red and wearing sashes in symbolic reference to the suffragette movement.

Field, the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, has since been suspended from his ministerial position pending an investigation. The footage has prompted outrage and Greenpeace UK are understood to have made a formal allegation of assault to the Metropolitan Police. But others have rallied to Field’s defence. Conservative MP Peter Bottomley said the activist “was trying to create a fuss. Most viewers would say it’s good that she didn’t succeed”, adding that the incident “wasn’t an assault”, but “a reversal of direction”.

I spoke by phone with Hannah Martin, a Greenpeace activist who took part in the protest last night. During our conversation, which has been edited for clarity, we discussed the angry reactions of attendees, the increasing visibility of environmental protest, and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s approach to climate change. 

What happened last night?

“Last night we were peacefully protesting at the Chancellor’s Mansion House dinner. We were trying to bring across the message that this is a climate emergency, and that the chancellor and the powerful people who were sitting in that room, including the governor of the bank of England, have a real opportunity to take decisive action that we need – like investing properly in renewables, electric vehicles, creating a far stronger target than the net zero 2050 target, and actually putting into action all the words that they say about climate. That was really what we were there to do.

“A number of us walked into the room and I started making the speech that we hoped Hammond would make – which was to do with transitioning to a low-carbon economy.  Unfortunately, there were disproportionate reactions from different guests – particularly the incident with Mark Field, which I think was completely unacceptable.

“I haven’t spoken to Janet, but others from Greenpeace have. I think she’s understandably shaken up. She thought it wasn’t a reasonable response – given that she was literally just walking behind Field with some leaflets.”

What was it like being forcibly removed?

“I was held pretty hard – gripped in a very strong way, which left marks on my arm, because I was at the front trying to give a speech. And when I was removed, the security person that removed me gripped my arm and made my skin burn. I saw other female protesters being aggressively shoved and pushed.

“I heard people applauding at various points. I didn’t see the incident with Mark Field, because I was on the other side of the room.”

Field looks visibly angry in the video that circulated online, and others appear to be clapping. Why do you think your protest provoked this response?

“I think sometimes people forget that peaceful protest is a really important part of democracy. We’re trying to hold to account those in power, and the people in that room are very powerful – they’re the same grey-suited people who brought us into the financial crash in 2008. We’re not going to let them crash the climate 10 years later.

“We’re facing one of the biggest, most existential issues of our time. We’re going to need to push for that change to happen via protest. They’re not prepared to allow those voices to be heard. They would rather slam a woman into a marble pillar and drag her by the throat. People forget the history of progress is based on peaceful protest.”

This comes at a point when we’re seeing increased levels of climate-related direct action. Have you been met with similar levels of antagonism in the past?

“If you talk to any of the anti-fracking protesters who have protested against the fossil fuels industry, they would say that they have received harsh treatment from the police and security services.

“Peaceful protest needs to be met with a peaceful response – even if that response is arrest. It has to be measured and proportionate.

“What happened was wholly disproportionate. There are ways of managing protest that are not what happened last night, that are much more understanding of facilitating peaceful protest – which is our democratic right.”

Why did you specifically target Philip Hammond’s speech? 

“The Treasury have been proven to be a key block to progress on climate change. Only a few weeks ago, Hammond was widely reported to have implied that paying for net zero – for the climate target that May was trying to set – would be too costly. He also pushed for a five-year review point if other countries didn’t get on board. He also pushed for [carbon] offsetting – which is morally wrong in the effect it has on developing countries, and doesn’t account for the emissions that we export and import – through shipping and aviation.

“The Chancellor’s approach is one of caution and reticence, rather than somebody who has the courage and the foresight to invest in what could be a massive economic opportunity for us. We have the potential to invest in hundreds of thousands of jobs insulating homes, working in renewable energy, electric vehicles – and instead, Hammond is doing everything in his power to slow things down, opt for incremental change, and allow the market to fiddle around the edges.

“That’s not the kind of chancellor we need at this moment of crisis.”

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