This past week over 2,000 people will have made their way to a large field in the quiet village of Sipson, on the outskirts of Heathrow beside the M4, coming together to protest against the effects air travel has on the environment.
The Camp for Climate Action 2007 is working to unite people in the fight against climate change, to galvanise the British public into action and protest against the building of a new runway at Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports.
Activities at the camp involved running workshops, peaceful rallies and a day of ‘mass direct action’ to demand radical reduction in air travel. The protest movement has been hailed ‘the most important protest of our time’, and sparked a flurry of media coverage.
‘We have the power right here in our hands- we can choose what the future holds’, screams the press release. With this rallying cry ringing in my ears, I felt compelled to witness the movement in action and in its closing days, I headed to the camp.
A train and couple of buses rides later, plus a foiled attempt by two helpful railway staff at Hayes and Harlington to send me in the wrong direction with a ‘hippies go that way’, I finally made my way up a country lane to a field with an assortment of multi coloured tents, a couple of large marquees, wind turbines and some large banners with slogans reading ‘Make Planes History’.
The camp is situated on the site designated for the new runway. Local residents have been campaigning against the airport expansion plans, which if they go ahead will demolish a large part of the village, changing life irrevocably for residents, and mark a considerable rise in air and noise pollution.
Startling was the heavy police presence leading to and by the entrance of the site. Earlier in the week there had been reports the police were heavy handed with campaigners, operating a stop and search policy and filming anybody entering the camp. I was told by one campaigner that around 40 police had tried to enter the camp, but campaigners linked arms and formed a line to stop police from entering.
Arriving at the camp I was heartily greeted by a friendly campaigner who lead me into the Welcome Tent to give me a brief intro to camp life. The camp is a fully functioning self contained community, an eco-friendly commune of sustainable living, recycling, composting, solar heated washing facilities, with compost toilets and recycled toilet paper.
Organised into neighbourhoods, campers live, eat (only vegan food) and sleep in marquees labelled London, Nottingham and Scotland. The Wellbeing and Support tent offers a place to relax and meditate, and should the need arise, a place to resolve conflict through a mediator. Workshops run throughout the week with lectures ranging from ‘Introduction to Consensus Decision making and Facilitation’, ‘BAA- the reality behind the spin’ ‘Songwriting for activists’ to practical skill learning like ‘How to build your own wind turbine.’
Climate camp could have been mistaken for a summer festival, with people browsing at the book stall, children running about, a guitar playing while people relax in the sunshine.
And then it all began to go wrong. I asked if I could put a couple of questions to people. I was swiftly escorted to the media tent where I encountered a man that might well make Alastair Campbell wince.
I was informed in no uncertain terms about the camp’s strict media policies; I would not be allowed to write anything while on site, interview, or take pictures freely. ‘People don’t want hassle’ was the justification.
During the camp the press got a one hour official tour, accompanied by 2 members of the camp’s media team at all times, who carry a flag to make the journalists identifiable. “All journalists must be off site by 1pm at the latest and no journalists at all on Saturday, Sunday or Monday,” I was told.
I was about as welcome as the police. Reading the camp handbook on my way home under the section how to make the camp welcoming and inclusive, it read:
‘Avoid branding people as potential police/journalists. Just because someone ‘looks’ the part doesn’t mean they are.’
I left the camp feeling thoroughly disheartened. I had encountered a community which within days had created their own set of stringent rules – oppression, even, and on occupied land.
The media team operated their version of private policing, freedom of the press was once again choked.
A free press in the UK? Not in the alternative society envisaged by the organisers of the Climate Camp.