The Movement and the Police

My experience of Climate Camp was a startling and challenging one. A lot of experiences and information in a very short time; my thoughts and feelings are scattered and, to some extent, shattered. More of that later but first a few words about the police.

The police have been an integral part of the experience that is Climate Camp. The camp web site (for Sunday 10 August) says:

Despite […] the most repressive and heavy-handed policing of peaceful protest for many years…

Here are some highlights of my own experience, to give you a taster (this is a longer list than I intended to write, skip if if you want to):

  • an Essex police helicopter buzzed us as our cycle convoy crossed the Tilbury – Gravesend ferry
  • eight officers turned up at the pub in Gravesend photographing us and our bikes while we ate chips and had a drink
  • we were searched, under section 1 of PACE, before being allowed into the road that leads to the camp and all our bike locks, plus some other items like torches, were seized
  • the Essex police helicopter flew over the site frequently
  • when we arrived the police had established a mobile station (in a van) on the site and were making routine tours of inspection; campers were voluntarily accompanying the police on these tours
  • at some point the police removed their mobile station and campers closed and barricaded the gates, no more site tours
  • the next day the police helicopter announced that the van parked in front of one of the other entrances was abandoned and would be removed. I think the campers responded by moving it themselves and replacing it with three other vehicles
  • next day between 5.00 and 5.30am, a cordon of police was formed in front of the three vehicles which, the officer in charge said, had been abandoned and would be removed. There was a confrontation between police and campers during which one police man seemed to behave violently towards the campers (swinging his baton over his head, I have heard unconfirmed stories that a) he was filmed doing so, b) the the film has been shown on TV. c) he was relieved from duty), two campers were pepper-sprayed before my eyes, windows of the van were broken, campers climbed on top of the van,… you know the sort of stuff
  • police shift changes in the early hours of the morning frequently involved deployment of additional officers which was perceived by the camp as a threat to their status quo relationship and to which they responded by calling sleeping campers to attend and “defend” the gates
  • the barricaded gates, where parallel lines of police officers and campers were maintained all week long, became a focus of attention in the camp: parties were held there, food and drinks were transported there, workshops were held there (some of which, I have heard, caught the attention of police in helmets causing them to raise their visors in order to listen to the stories being told). These standoffs and the camp’s attitude (since, I believe, ‘policy; is not an appropriate word to use in the context of the camp’s anarchistic system of governance) were also the subject of a lot of meeting time
  • I was stopped and searched under section 60 of the criminal justice and public order act upon leaving the site
  • I was stopped again under the same act, crossing from Gravesend to Tilbury on my way home, by a gentleman who is identified on my stop-search form receipt as “contractor”

Wow, that’s a longer list than I intended to write; but you see how significant a part of the experience the interaction wiht the police was? After volunteering to accompany police patrols round the site on my first day there, and having had some very interesting and rewarding conversations with Kent and Metropolitan officers I started to think that I would leave climate camp having had more and more interesting conversations with the police than with campers. Some campers disapproved of those who struck up conversations with police officers and this made me feel sad. However the attitude of the camp as a whole is one of tolerance and I felt free to continue to do my best to interact on a human-to-human basis with everyone I met there including duty police officers.

From reading the climate camp web site I had gotten the impression that there would be a week of relatively undisturbed workshops and experiences of facilitated consensus decision making and experimentation with sustainable living, after which I could make an informed choice as to whether to I wanted to participate in the day of mass action against Kingsnorth power station. After two days my head was so full of matters arising from unanticipated interaction, in one form or another, with the police. I attended a workshop entitled “Climate Camp: The Movement and The Police”.

The workshop started by drawing attention to the issue of police at the camp, and what this meant for the participants. Then we were invited to each give our personal perspective and state what we hoped to get from the workshop. Many of the attendees were, like me, first-timers at the camp and I started to wonder if the old hands were accustomed to confrontational situation, or even that they, in some sense, welcomed it. At the end of the workshop someone thanked me for my contribution. I was a bit startled as all I had done was stated my observations and what I hoped to learn. Since that workshop I have learned more and developed my ideas some more and that is what this blathering blog is going to be about. I’m writing this mainly for myself, as usual, but also in the hope that someone might benefit from it as someone did from my half-formed thoughts in that workshop.

Levels of abstraction: the Police

Three levels of abstraction in perception of the police
Three levels of abstraction in perception of the police

I think it is normal for humans to perceive phenomena like the police, and also like climate camp itself, at different levels of abstraction. I believe it is useful to separate three:

  1. The Police refers to the police in the broadest sense: the national or global phenomenon of police as agents of law enforcement with all the connotations that this might have
  2. A Force refers to a particular deployment of officers under specific orders on a particular occasion. In this case I have in mind the combined police forces who were deployed to North Kent this August in response to the presence of Climate Camp
  3. Human refers to individual officers:  men and women who have chosen policing, for whatever reason, as their career

Having identified this working mental model for myself, I noticed that my fellow campers seemed to respond differently when working on different levels. The officer who was enraged and started to swing his baton over his head at a camper was a particular human being, members of the camp called out his number to draw attention to him and his behaviour which resulted from his own choices, his own personal internal mental state and beliefs. His actions were his own and not specifically those demanded by the Kent Police who were, I believe, in charge of the operation to police Climate Camp this year.

I wondered in the workshop to what extend we are aware of these levels in our interaction with the police. I had been enjoying engaging with the officers I accompanied round the camp on level 3. The camper who disapproved of speaking with the police did so on the grounds that “they are trying to get information out of you”, which sounds to me like level 2. When another camper shouted “don’t say that in front of the filth”, I believe he was engaging with the officers there present at level 3., where the idea of the police as a general concept had strong evocative associations for him. I believe I have also experienced campers moving among these levels without adjusting their language to reflect their intention to do so. This might mean that they were unaware of what they were doing or that they were doing so deliberately. For example, the second person pronoun “you” is unchanged in single and plural use. In the small hours of one morning at the camp I found myself in a line of campers facing a line of men and women wearing the uniforms of the Metropolitan Police including helmets and visors. I was having a conversation with one of these gentlemen about growing vegetables; next to me a camper who vociferously attested to having drunk a good deal of alcohol was talking to about five police officers on various subjects. I found him to be very charismatic and amusing as, I believe, did the men he was talking to. And I noticed that having established a degree of rapport with one of the police men on a personal (level 3.) level, he would often make a quip which associated that individual with the police forces entailed for the raid on the camp the previous Thursday. I noticed him doing this taking advantage of the unchanging “you” pronoun: “What do you think about the chief of the Met?”, vs. “You are likely to steal our board-games and crayons”, for example.

Levels of abstraction: Climate Activists

Three levels of abstraction in perception of climate campers
Three levels of abstraction in perception of climate campers

When a camper shouts “Give us back our crayons”, he is, most probably, addressing level 2., unless he recognises the individual officer who confiscated the crayons during the pre-camp raid. That officer is, most probably, not present and the camper is addressing the level 2. abstraction, not the individual officers there present. Notice also that he is using the first person plural pronouns “us” and “our”; he is speaking of the camp at level 2. It has taken until my return home to realise that the same levels of abstraction are useful in considering how one (including police officers) deals with climate camp and its campers. I currently choose to separate them as follows:

  1. Activists refers to the global phenomenon of protesters and those drawn to direct action and campaigning for environmental causes, social justice, etc.
  2. Climate Campers really refers to members of the 2008 Climate Camp at Kingsnorth: a specific set of individuals with their own experiences of this year’s camp having been drawn to it for their own reasons
  3. Human once again refers to an individual member of the Climate Camp group whose views and motivations and choices might or might not seem to be consistent with those attributed to the camp as a whole

The importance of turning this model back as a mirror on the camp itself was pressed home to me on my way home from the camp. Crossing the ferry from Gravesend to Tilbury the man driving the ferry challenged me.

“I suppose you’re from the camp”, he exclaimed.

“Yes”, I replied. He seemed surprised I was willing to admit it.

“I suppose you don’t like us because we use fossil fuels” he continued. I admit I was a bit slow here because already he’s using you as second person plural. I didn’t spot it and didn’t get to challenge him on why he thought I (singular) didn’t like him.

“I’m happy if we get to the the other side”, I replied, still trying to make conversation. He wasn’t listening. In fact he turned his back on me and I asked him, “would you like to hear my reply?”.

The ferry man returned and took a breath: “Have you ever lived without electricity?”, he demanded.


“Do you get up in the morning and put the kettle on?”, now he’s speaking to me personally, “do you have a car?”

“I don’t have a car.”

“You don’t? Well, you take public transport don’t you”. I wanted to point out that I was at that moment standing on a public ferry crossing the Thames, but he didn’t give me time. “They’re protesting against coal power, protesting against nuclear power, protesting against wind turbines in the estuary for environmental reasons, they’re going to have us all in the dark. You can’t live without electricity; do you live without electricity?”

“I do not, but I know people who do, in Africa, where I lived for two years”. (Yeah, I know it was pointless but I was seriously unprepared for this)

“Yeah, in the dark!”, he spat, “It’s the Dark Ages there”, and with this he turned back into the boat so that I could not easily retort as I had to stay on deck to hold my bike from falling over.

I don’t think the ferry man spoke to me at all, I felt he was speaking to a stereotypical activist at level 1. Even when he asked me if I lived without electricity I don’t think he was addressing me at level 3., it felt like a rhetorical question designed to establish my hypocrisy for protesting for something I was not prepared to live with. When we reached Tilbury he rushed over to the other side of the landing stage where the river police (and contractors) were sitting in a little boat, pointed at me and shouted “Eco Warrior”. Grassed up by the ferry man, I was associated with an abstraction of Eco Warriorhood and the man’s actions were in response to this not, I believe, to my personal humanity.

Interactions and stories between layers of abstraction
Interactions and stories between layers of abstraction

I think it’s useful to consider what is going inside us when we participate in interactions such as those I have described among Climate Camp and the Police this month. All the perception happens at the human level. An individual camper must make meaning of his experience of the police inside his own head and heart. In so doing he will be facing some phenomenon such as an individual policeman, a cordon of police or stories within the camp about how the police behave and he must choose the level of abstraction at which he engages with this phenomenon. I think it us useful to be able to engage at all three levels. It is useful to see how an individual officer (level 3) might not agree with the orders he has been given as part of his daily duties (level 2) but will still choose to follow them. Like the story I heard about a policeman at the power station who told a camper, out on a reconnaissance bike-ride before the day of action, that if he weren’t being paid to be there (at Kingsnorth) he would like to support the camp. Similarly it’s useful to be able to identify what abstractions are being used when others, ferrymen, police men or anyone else, is engaging with the phenomenon that is Climate Camp. do they perceive a concerned individual, some “crazy hippies” with composting toilets, or “Eco Warriors”?

The spirals in the diagrams above represent a final part of the story, which is story. Because what influences the abstractions we make about one another more than the stories we tell? And those stories happen to some extent within the individual and to some extent in the communities such as the camp and the police deployment. We all tell stories about ourselves and about one another. Campers make sense of what they are doing and why by telling stories, and by comparing themselves with the ideals and heroes of those stories. Do some of the activists on the camp aspire to the level 1 stereotype of Eco Warrior fighting against the police as instruments of the state an symbols of oppression? I think some do. Similarly I think some of the police officers must be justifying their participation in a campaign of action that might not always have made easy sense to them, by rehearsing stories of green terrorists set on willful criminal damage to private property.

Camp-police interdependence?

One morning while taking a turn to keep watch over one of the gates to the camp a fellow camper asked:

“To what extent do you think that cohesion of the camp is dependent on the presence of the police?”

The four of us on watch duty discussed this topic for about an hour and I don’t propose to over lengthen this blog entry by re-creating that discussion here, but I do want to say that we felt that the siege-like feeling of the camp that arose from being surrounded by police patrolling in the woods, probably contributed to the willingness of the diverse set of campers to get along, and to knuckle down to tasks like changing pee-soaked straw-bales in composting loos and moving wheelie-bins full of shit and sawdust. Besides which, the police are duty bound to respond to the stated intention of the camp “to shut down Kingsnorth coal fired power station”, and by doing so and in the way they did, has contributed hugely to the media attention that the camp has gained. In a sense the camp is defined by opposition: opposition to the abstract and global problem of climate change, but the police make a local and concrete opposition that makes their activism and struggle feel more immediate and effective. Is climate camp, perhaps, dependent on the police? Would it be as effective without them? Effective as a media phenomenon? Effective as a demonstration of solidarity and self-organization for sustainable living?

I think it is vitally important that Climate Camp continues to deepen its understanding of its relationship with the police; I think it’s a hard question and that it will continue to affect everyone who attends the event.

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