Woolly minded hippies?

Rowena Macdonald went to Climate Camp fearing "woolly-minded hippydom" but found a serious and commi

Forget Southwold. This year’s Climate Camp protest against a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent is where Gordon Brown ought to be spending his summer holiday.

I went to the Climate Camp in the spirit of curiosity and nostalgia, having been taken to the protest camp at Greenham Common missile base as a child in the early eighties. I had intended to go to the camp on Monday with a borrowed tent but was put off by the rain. On Tuesday it also rained. By Wednesday it had stopped raining but it seemed far too much effort to carry a tent and a sleeping bag via public transport to Kingsnorth – I sensed I would be persona non grata if I turned up in my car – so I put on my rarely-worn wellies and just went for the day.

Although I am interested in green politics, as you may discern I am not a die-hard environmental campaigner. I am also suspicious of anything which smacks of woolly-minded hippydom. However, when I got to Strood, where a Climate Camp bus run on recycled vegetable oil was ferrying people between the railway station and the camp, I was pleasantly surprised to find my fellow passengers were not the grubby crusties I had feared. They included a sporty-looking guy who worked for the local council, a student from Bristol University and a smart, urbane photographer also down from London for the day.

We were warned on the bus that we would be searched by the police before entering the camp, and that they would ask for our details but we were not obliged to give them. From a distance the camp, which is on a hill overlooking the existing power station, looked like a mediaeval circus. We were dropped off at the top of a lane leading to the camp which was lined with an extraordinary number of police officers, some of whom had been drafted in from forces from afar as Wales and Yorkshire.

I was alarmed when the female police officer assigned to search me put on a pair of purple surgical gloves but she merely gave me a quick frisk and checked my bag to make sure it contained no weapons or drugs. A “full internal examination” wasn’t necessary, I was told. After refusing to give any details apart from the facts that I am 5ft 6 and white, I was given a pink slip to prove I had been searched and allowed to enter the camp.

Inside, there was a fair scattering of feral looking types and white people with dreadlocks, and overall the campers struck the barefoot, deliberately casual attitudes of seasoned environmental campaigners that I had expected. But, what offset the hippyish vibe and what impressed me most was the serious-minded efficiency of the camp.

As well as eleven large tents for each ‘neighbourhood’ of campaigners from around the country, where three communal meals were produced each day for the 200 or so people in each neighbourhood, there was a group of marquees in the middle where a large number of lectures and workshops about climate change issues were being held each day of the week-long camp. There was a media tent with laptops and internet access, an independent TV station, a cinema screen, showers, sinks and numerous compost toilets housed in temporary wooden huts. Electricity was provided by solar panels, wind turbines and people riding fixed bicyles. A mains water supply had been bought from Southern Water. In short, a fully functioning eco-village for more than a thousand people had been constructed from scratch in three days. All of this had been organised along non-hierarchical lines, with no central committee and people taking responsibility for tasks according to their expertise and inclination.

The level of debate and knowledge in the workshops was impressive too. I went to a talk about Tradable Energy Quotas, a scheme devised by academics in which all citizens are given a quota of energy and large energy users can buy extra energy from those who use less energy. Apparently DEFRA are currently conducting their own feasibility study into this idea. In another tent Dr David Fleming, a writer and academic, gave an inspirational lecture about how environmentally conscious enterprises should be developed in the outside world along the ‘inside out’, non-‘top down’ anarchist lines used to organise the Climate Camp itself. If more people came to this free camp to learn about practical ways of saving the planet rather than wasting money and frying their minds at the numerous corporate festivals that have sprung up, Britain would be a better place.

There were a few downsides. I was told that some of the locals who work at the existing Kingsnorth power station are against the protesters, since they fear their livelihoods will be at risk if the proposals for a new power station are stopped. Landlords in the local pubs won’t serve the protesters as a gesture of solidarity with the workers.

During another workshop when I pointed out some of the impracticalities of alleviating climate change through vegan farming, I had the definite sense that I had upset the workshop’s somewhat complacent groupthink.

However, the overwhelming impression of the camp was of energy, community spirit and open-mindedness and everybody I met was polite and welcoming. On the way back from the camp, as a storm was beginning to roll overhead, I was given a lift back to the station by a band that had played there the night before.

We stopped and stood on top of their van watching lightning fork through the violet sky. The power station, the camp and the police swarming around it was suddenly lit by natural electricity. The level of police presence seemed ludicrous as the camp felt incredibly peaceful, although this might change on Saturday when a mass action to shut down the existing power station is planned. Gordon Brown ought to be tapping into the intelligent and, in the main, practical ideas of these protesters. As was said in one of the workshops, a large problem like global warming does not necessarily need to be dealt with by a large solution; we can begin to tackle it with small solutions inside a large framework. The government is missing a trick by not engaging seriously with the Climate Camp.

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Alfie’s Other Army: the parents and doctors defending Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

To hundreds of thousands, Alfie Evans is the baby condemned to die by cruel doctors – but others condemn the myths and methods used by protesters fighting for his life.

“Over the time we were there, they saved her life three times over,” says John*. “From our point-of-view, we will always be grateful. If it wasn’t for Alder Hey, she wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Six months ago, the 42-year-old father of four nearly lost his five-year-old daughter to a brain tumour. Suffering severe headaches in October last year, she was rushed in an ambulance to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, near where the family lives in Warrington, and a brain tumour was found at the back of her skull.

What followed was every parent’s nightmare. With their three other children waiting for news at home, they waited – living in the hospital – as their daughter underwent emergency surgery to drain fluid from her brain, a 12-hour operation to attempt to remove the tumour, and nearly suffered from sepsis after she developed an infection.

The surgery was successful, and John’s daughter still has regular appointments with the oncology specialist now.

But the scene outside the hospital has transformed since they arrived in that ambulance last autumn.

A mass of protesters have gathered in solidarity with the parents of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old boy with a rare neurological condition whose life support has been withdrawn.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a public surge of sympathy for his parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, which has grown into what’s known as “Alfie’s Army” – a wave of online support as well as a near-permanent rally outside the hospital, where he’s been since December 2016 and remains in a “semi-vegetative” state.

“I feel terrible for Alfie’s parents. I have no idea how they feel; I’ve only been part way down the path that they’re on,” says John. “I can only imagine that they’re at their wit’s end. I applaud them for fighting for their son as much as they are doing.

“What I’ve got an issue with is pockets of the protesters who have caused massive issues and could be stopping other children being cared for, abusing medical staff, and just generally disrupting the hospital on a daily basis,” he adds. “And it’s the kind of place that can’t afford to be disrupted.”

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The protesters support Alfie’s parents, who have lost a string of legal battles to keep their son’s ventilation on; he’s been in a coma for well over a year and has been deemed incurable.

They have attracted a range of people, from other parents to people who don’t live locally – including a mother from Manchester whose son went deaf after developing sepsis during birth – to Christian pro-life campaigners (Alfie’s parents are represented by the Christian Legal Centre, which is part of a religious campaign group called Christian Concern) to a 400,000-member strong Facebook group.

Although Merseyside Police emphasise that “many people have gathered to protest in a peaceful way”, a minority of the protesters have converted their sympathy for Alfie’s parents into hostility towards the hospital, with dozens trying to storm it on Monday, and “instances of verbal abuse and acts of intimidation from those outside the hospital”, according to police.

Protesters have also disrupted traffic, hooted car horns, played music and inflated a bouncy castle. Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Serena Kennedy commented last week that some of their actions caused inconvenience to “people trying to access the hospital”.

A few days later, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson had to “remind the public that this is a hospital for sick children” and asked protesters to “respect families and staff”.

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Online, parents of patients currently in the hospital report feeling upset by the protesters. One says the hospital staff are “still smiling despite the obvious strain of insults being thrown their way”, and claims a couple of them have had “people banging on their car windows on the way into work”. Another whose own child is on life support feels “trapped”, so reluctant is she to face the protesters outside.

This has given rise to a new online movement expressing support for the hospital. The #ImWithAlderHey hashtag is used on Twitter by locals defending the work of their hospital, NHS staff from other hospitals, and people dismissing the protesters as deluded.

There are also Facebook groups in support of the hospital, but they reach nowhere near the numbers of Alfie’s Army. Even its official page is smaller, with just over 60,000 followers.

Supporters of the hospital say this is because both traditional and social media have fuelled a viral movement against Alder Hey. The UK tabloids have been sensationalising the story – “Conspiracy to murder” was the Metro’s splash today – and social media is spreading myths about Alfie’s condition and the doctors’ and judges’ motives.

Some claim the hospital is trying to save money by reducing Alfie’s treatment to palliative care; a few accuse the doctors of a “conspiracy” to end Alfie’s life; others suggest he’s in better health than doctors suggest, because he continued breathing after his ventilation was switched off (doctors say they expected this).

“Everyone jumps on Google and suddenly thinks they are qualified doctors,” says Clare, a 21-year-old mother whose friend’s two-year-old child is being treated at Alder Hey. “Social media especially [has influenced people].

“They [the staff] have done nothing but wonderful things for my friend’s child even during the madness of the protests. It’s so lovely to see their child smile because of the staff,” she says. “I’m disgusted that grown adults think it’s acceptable to stand outside of a children’s hospital… threatening staff and other visitors.”

“I think the people have joined because it’s within the media, it’s talked about, people know about the case,” says Poppy*, a nurse at a different hospital, who knows people at Alder Hey and has a 19-month-old baby.

“I most definitely think they have been influenced by the media, social media. The page ‘Alfie’s Army’ is a huge source of information… [but] they also use the page to slander Alder Hey and their staff,” she says. “There’s no moral respect for anyone. And it’s not just NHS staff they target. It’s everyone who doesn’t agree with ‘saving’ Alfie.”

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There is a cultish feel to a handful of online posts about Alder Hey. While trawling, I even find a picture of the famous Auschwitz gate mocked up to read the hospital’s name.

This kind of tone shows the unintended consequences of a campaign going viral, and puts Alfie’s parents into an even more distressing situation. Last week, his father even had to apologise “to the parents and staff” affected by the protesters. While they are understandably fighting as hard as they can for their child, not everyone joining them in battle is helping.

The upshot is that this case has morphed from a debate about life support ethics into an issue of protecting hospital staff and patient visitors.

Parliament is now being petitioned to “Protect hospitals with exclusion zones preventing protest outside”, and although its low number of signatures is nothing on the petition for the Queen to intervene in Alfie Evans’ case, it does echo the context of a landmark ruling to ban pro-life protesters from outside an abortion clinic earlier this month.

While the swell of sympathy for Alfie’s parents is understood by all I speak to, the myths and methods swirling around it could be doing more harm than good.

“I think people have joined the family’s cause because they care,” a visitor to the hospital tells me. “It’s human nature to protect our young and nobody wants to see a child die... [But] it’s awful to see such hard-working professionals being criticised in such a way when they’ve gone above and beyond for every patient in their care.”

*All names have been changed on request of anonymity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.