Your riot cops are no match for our RHINO SIEGE ENGINE
I’ve just returned from 5 days of occupying the land of the Royal Bank of Scotland, a piece of direct action that yesterday successfully achieved its objective of shutting down RBS’ headquarters. On Monday when we looked across at the building we could see there was nobody working there apart from cops and security guards.
A quick recap: for the past few days hundreds of activists affiliated with Climate Camp have targetted the Royal Bank of Scotland. Having previously taken direct action against projects like Kingsnorth coal fired power station and the (now cancelled) third runway at Heathrow, they’ve moved on to a target that’s slightly less obvious.
But for people concerned about climate change, RBS is in fact at the heart of the problem. As a financial institution, they are the biggest UK investors in fossil fuels, styling themselves “the oil and gas bank.” In an economy that is now kept firmly in the stranglehold of financial capitalism, banks and other investors must be held responsible for their leadership role in a socio-economic system that is destroying the ecological basis for civilisation.
This system is now in the early stages of falling apart at the seams, due to the interrelated crises of the environment, the economy and social collapse. In the UK, RBS is at the heart of this process.
The current economic crisis was caused by the fact that the dominant financial institutions, like RBS, had used debt and self-delusion to try and keep the economy going. This bubble lasted for a while, until the myths that underpinned it began to unravel. The UK government then gave RBS and other massive banks huge injections of our money. RBS is now 84% owned by the British state. However, they refused to take any control over the banks in return for this money, leaving RBS under the command of its previous owners.
The people that run RBS have one priority: finding ways to invest their money (which you and I gave them) that will generate them more profits and then more money to invest. That’s what they exist to do as an institution. One of the main ways they can do that is to put our money into energy projects. As the world’s supplies of fossil fuels dwindle, the ones that remain will become more profitable to extract, at least for a while.
So RBS has poured our money into projects and companies like the Alberta Tar Sands, ConocoPhilips who are destroying the Amazon rainforest, and E.ON, the energy corporation looking to cover Europe with new coal fired power stations. They do this not because they’re evil, but because they are designed as an institution to do a specific job, and they’re doing that job.
As it is currently structured, it would be impossible to make RBS act otherwise, which is why we should demand that instead of being controlled by private capitalists the wealth of RBS is used collectively and socially to solve problems in the world, instead of being used to create huge problems that will make the world a less habitable place for humanity in the coming decades.
This is all the more appalling when you remember that the working class is about to face one of the greatest austerity blitzkriegs of all time, after the government chose to facilitate RBS and its chums taking the money that should have been spent on public services, jobs and wages for the people who actually keep our society running – public sector workers. In this context, it’s clearly time for radical action against an institution which is poisoning our society.
Camping it up
The camp itself took place in an incredible location. If you’ve ever got the Glasgow/Edinburgh bus you’ve passed by where the RBS HQ is at Gogarburn, just near Edinburgh airport. You’ll have seen the bridge over the motorway with their logo hanging from it, and the massive office complex. What you can’t see from the road is that it is set in an unbelievably large area of land. At the back of the building is a small river, and then a big expanse of grass and woodland, which obviously must cost them quite a bit to maintain, and it’s not clear what they use it for. This was the site that climate campers were able to claim last week, and where I arrived on Thursday.
I originally went along with the intention of checking it out for the day and then going home to return later in the week, but what greeted me on arrival was too exciting to leave. Everywhere I looked there was practical work underway, with people constructing kitchens, marquees, toilet facilities and a whole infrastructure for a temporary community. To see the ingenuity at work was inspirational. The welcome pack made clear that what was going on here was an attempt to build a mini free society, a space that would prefigure how we would like the rest of our lives to be, without hierarchy and command structures, and with tasks shared equally and through voluntary participation.
To see what the climate campers are able to pull off as a left activist is pretty humbling. There’s pretty much no one in the organised UK socialist movement who could currently pull off getting about 800 people together on a site, making sure they were fed, watered (climate camp was able to plumb in its own water system that ran separate drinking and washing water pipes throughout the massive site) and provided with toilet facilities. Over the initial setting up days, the main contribution I made was as part of security teams, making sure the police couldn’t make an incursion into the territory we had claimed from RBS by guarding the points of entry, and then later helping co-ordinate these different defensive positions by working in the radio tent where we monitored communication from those on the gates.
This was a great thing to be part of – climate camp had a whole system in place to try and give early warning of police activity and be able to mobilise people to counter it. This may not have been necessary in Edinburgh, where Lothian and Borders had decided to take a hands off approach, concentrating their forces as a defensive line around RBS’ actual buildings, and effectively tolerating our presence on the wider grounds. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Talking to people about the repression meted out by the police at previous camps, where riot cops invaded their site night after night to physically attack people was a stark reminder of the militarisation and politicisation of the policing of protests in the UK over the last decades, as the government has used the climate of fear around terrorism to clamp down on any form of dissent.
Two Liams ready to take down monopoly finance capitalism
The point about all these infrastructural achievements is that they were achieved in a way different to how hierarchical capitalism would have met our needs. Nobody was forced to work with the threat of poverty, work got done because as people came together as a community based on solidarity towards a common objective; they recognised the need to collectively accomplish tasks. Although obviously some of the raw materials had to be purchased on the capitalist market (although less than you’d think with some of the scavenging skills that campers have), the building of the camp and its structures was done without money by people working in solidarity. Food wasn’t charged for, and the camp itself was free. Although the organisers clearly needed to raise money, this was done by encouraging those who could afford it to donate, rather than applying flat prices to everything that would have hit poorer participants hardest, in an attempt to facilitate the participation of all.
This was why I decided I wanted to stay on the Thursday, because around me was a real living, breathing attempt to build a new society, albeit for a few days, in a small, restricted space. Nevertheless, being part of that even for a short time was invaluable experience for those SSY members who were able to be there about how to run a huge event in a decentralised, non-hierarchical, anti-capitalist way.
Political discussion began in earnest on the Friday evening with a session that I caught some of, talking about the history of climate camp, how it got to where it is and where it’s going. It was listening in to this that I came to realise that this was quite possibly the biggest gathering of anti-capitalists to take place in Scotland since the G8 protests. The political level of what I heard was great. People clearly understood that climate change is caused by the need of the capitalist system to constantly expand, and that the current economic model is a cancer destroying the global ecological system necessary to ensure human survival. People were talking about the need to establish a new society, founded on ecological sustainability and human solidarity and love. Although maybe not everyone there would describe it as ecosocialism, to me it showed the growing strength of ecosocialist ideas throughout the world as a real alternative to the apocalyptic future we are sleepwalking into under capitalism.
One of the most interesting discussions I got along to at the weekend was about jobs, workers and the role of the working class in a just transition to a sustainable society. Speaking at the workshop were local trade unionists in the form of representatives from the Edinburgh Trades Union Council, the local UNISON branch and the Scottish Hazards campaign, which deals with the right of workers to health and safety at work. There was also a comrade involved with Workers’ Climate Action, an alliance of socialists and trade unionists trying to build an ecological movement based firmly in the workplace and on the power of the organised working class.
Workers’ Climate Action has done some really impressive work, especially around the Vestas dispute on the Isle of Wight. Vestas was a wind turbine factory that its owners decided to close despite the fact they were making huge profits, at the cost of 600 jobs to the community. Thanks to the intervention of WCA and the RMT union, workers were able to carry out an inspirational occupation of the factory, challenging the closure. Although Vestas did eventually withdraw, former workers are now in the process of relaunching the factory, with the formerly unorganised workforce all now members of the RMT.
They also have worked in solidarity with the striking BA cabin crew, and internationally with striking Colombian oil workers. It seems to me that their focus on linking the struggles of workers in industries important to the debate on climate change with the struggle for an ecologically just and sustainable society is the key way to take forward the anti climate change movement, and I hope very much that SSY can have a serious discussion in the next wee while about getting involved and using its resources for similar work in Scotland.
The discussion, involving local trades unionists, was able to talk concretely about the links between the unprecedented cuts being promised by the ConDem government, the bank bailout to RBS and co., and the use of our money to destroy the ecosphere rather than on the priorities outlined by trade unionists – full employment of working class people to tackle the climate emergency.
Outside of formal discussion, perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of climate camp is the ability to network and chat with hundreds of fascinating people from around the UK and the wider world. Night after night I found myself involved in deep chats about class, ecology, racism and how to build a better society. Although there were lots of people coming at things from quite a different perspective from me as a socialist, I frequently felt like I was gaining something important by engaging with them, and that we were learning from each other.
Walking around the camp and chatting to folk gave you a sense of just how much of a broad, direct action based ecology movement there is all over the place, that the socialist left has allowed itself to be ignorant of. Local groups proudly displayed their banners on their tents, and sitting in the toilet you read stickers and posters for campaigns like the occupation of Bilston glen near Dalkeith against a new road bypass, or West Midlands Climate Action digging into tunnels for a long term occupation against a new coal mine, or the local campaigners organising a weekend of education and action for those willing to come help them try and prevent the construction of a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley in Somerset.
On Sunday and Monday I was able to take part in direct action, which had mixed results (more on that later), but ultimately did achieve its objective of shutting down the bank HQ yesterday. By far the most exhilarating piece of action was on Sunday afternoon. A portable soundsystem provided music for what originally looked like a nice friendly dance around the camp, which kept the cops off guard, until a group of activists pushed down to the bridge over the water separating us from the RBS HQ, the principle frontline between our camp and the police held territory.
Taken completely by surprise, the cops were unable to hold back our numbers at the bridge, and we quickly broke through their lines. After days of staring across the river at the mirage of the manicured lawns and offices on the other side I was finally there, giving the police the run around. They struggled for a long time to regroup, although they eventually did, forcing us back to the bridge. However, after that the bridge, which had been held by the police up to our side, became neutral territory, with fencing erected that prevented us from crossing but also stopped the cops idly walking along to try and gather intelligence in conversation with whoever was on guard duty.
In the process of action as well I saw a lot of inspirational stuff, like several successful de-arrests, when the cops tried to snatch someone from our ranks we were powerful enough to get them off and rescue our comrades before they were able to arrest them. Being part of the frontline holding back cops at the bridge while we discussed the way forward was an excellent chance to see the consensus decision making process in action under pressure, and holding the line was something I remain proud to have participated in.
Siege engine FTW!
Yesterday I was part of something I never expected to be able to write up here: I helped push a siege engine into police lines. For days I had walked past what looked like a guard tower at the camp before on Saturday night I wandered up to it in search of the good tunes I heard from those building it. In conversation with these folk, I came to realise that what they were building was actually a mobile tower with wheels and an internal space as well. On the front was a paper mache rhino head. When I first got to go up the tower late at night and look across at the enemy we were going to target was incredible. From the first moment I arrived at the site I had been struck by its similarity to some kind of medieval battlefield, and now here I was on a piece of equipment that wouldn’t have looked out of place laying siege to some 13th century Duke’s castle. Although its eventual deployment wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d been hoping for, that people were able to pull off the construction of such a thing is itself pretty amazing. One of the things I’ve taken away from climate camp for future actions is the need to study a bit more closely olden days wars, and how to build things that can be deployed as a way of coping with the militarised cops.
A couple of criticisms
I hope that all of the above has emphasised how enthusiastic I was about climate camp and how glad I was that I went. However, it is absolutely necessary to raise some criticisms of what I saw there. These are meant with full respect to the people that pulled off such an amazing event, and are intended to be useful for strengthening similar events in the future rather than idle sniping or having a go. They’re also offered with humility, given that I am a latecomer to a movement which has been taking place for several years now.
Eat silly string, riot cops!
The first thing to say is something that was widely discussed and acknowledged at the camp: the participation is very middle class. This is a chicken and egg problem, because if other people don’t come to take part then on one level you can’t apportion too much blame to those that do. But it is discouraging and disheartening to working class people to feel like they are in a space that is not their own, and will drive people away, as it in fact did for some people that visited the Edinburgh camp while we were there. People who aren’t working class will find it hard to understand the subtle psychological processes at work here, but that is part of their unearned privilege that they gained by the accident of being born into a luckier family. We know when we’re in a space full of people posher than us, people who were born with access to greater amounts of social and cultural capital which they absorbed through their upbringing and education and which they deploy effortlessly through the way they speak and act (without even thinking about it) to their own advantage.
People can’t help where they come from, and they shouldn’t end up handwringing and beating themselves up about who they are. I’m not for a minute saying people from these kinds of backgrounds shouldn’t be welcome at climate camp. But real, concrete thought needs to be put into how to encourage the participation of working class people, so that those of us who come are able to connect with more people who look and sound like us. Within the event itself that means paying a lot more attention to people who are new to it, or activism in general, and making sure they’re properly integrated. It also means being respectful, and trying to be aware of your own class privilege as part of combatting it – at least one Scottish activist who came along felt talked down to and patronised at a workshop, and stuff like that will prevent the movement from growing.
A focus on working class activism is essential not just to ensure that the camp itself is a safe and welcoming space for everyone who wants to participate, but is key to an understanding how to properly take forward the movement trying to save civilisation from climate change. The working class are not just another interest group that we should tick off on our list of making sure everybody is happy. They’re the majority of people on planet Earth, and the ones with the power to shut down the economy and transform society if organised and prepared. Climate camp has declared itself as explicitly anti-capitalist, but it hasn’t yet fully understood that the people that have the power to end capitalism and build a better society are, by definition, the working class. The Vestas dispute and the work done by Workers’ Climate Action points to the way climate activists could put the working class at the heart of their strategy.
Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?
The other reason this is a chicken and egg problem is that those members of the working class who do have, on some level, a duty to engage with the camp are not doing so. As far as I’m aware, myself, Liam T and Liam M were the only members of the organised socialist left in Scotland to be there consistently there throughout the camp. We were joined on an off by a few different SSY members, and a couple of older SSP members on the Monday day of action. There were comrades from groups down south, and the Socialist Workers’ Party did make an intervention, but it was largely to send their big speakers on the issue along on Saturday for the workshops in order to try and convince people to come along to their latest front projects and demos – they weren’t there consistently from the start like SSY was.
No real significant effort was made by the Scottish socialist movement at large to organise and be there. There are of course barriers to participation, like cash, getting time off work etc., and this is NOT a slagging of individuals with perfectly reasonable individual reasons why they couldn’t be there. Yet again it is an illustration of the fact that the left has lost a lot of its orientation to broader movements that, in Scotland, we were strong on in the earlier part of this decade. Just compare the climate camp to the SSP’s participation in the G8 protests five years ago. If the camp had took place back then there would easily have been a delegation of 20-30 working class activists from the SSP, who would have transformed a lot of the political content of the event. This is a symptom of our weakness compared to a few years ago, when we would have discussed the event in advance and made sure the preparations were in place to allow members to fully participate. The fact that this stuff isn’t happening now means that SSP members are missing out on a lot of the best stuff that’s going on in the wider activist left, like climate camp or the Scottish Anti Fascist Alliance.
The camp was organised by geographical neighbourhoods, and for those of us in the somewhat amorphous ‘Scotland and Newcastle’ region, it was clear there weren’t that many Scottish folk there. I think there are probably organisational reasons for this which I’ll come to in a minute, but a little bit of sensitivity that the majority English participants were in a different country wouldn’t have gone amiss. A big Union Jack tent near the Scottish neighbourhood was pretty grating, but even more annoying was more than once having to say why we weren’t comfortable with a Union Jack being put on the siege engine. We did do this loudly and vocally, and thankfully some folk got the point and confiscated it. Putting the flag of British imperialism in our faces, with everything that connoted for us in Scotland, especially those of us who are of Irish descent, shows a basic lack of a grip of history and sensitivity to where you are, and did discourage Scottish people from participating.
There’s been chat from some quarters that this may be the last climate camp event on this scale for a while, with the group maybe turning to smaller local events as part of an attempt to keep their tactics fresh and stop things getting stale. But another reason may well be what I recognised as classic signs of a movement that hasn’t managed to grow and renew itself – I felt like I had arrived rather late in the life cycle of the climate camp.
This also relates to a problem with the desire to rigorously deny any kind of hierarchy at the camp. There was a hierarchy of sorts. There was a group of organisers who were pretty much the only ones who knew everything that was going on at one time. A lot of these people are clearly exhausted after years of doing the same work again and again, whilst their numbers slowly dwindle. I have a lot of sympathy for them, as I’ve been in a similar position myself more than once. The problem with voluntarism is that when people don’t volunteer easily the same people end up shouldering a disproportionate burden. This understandably leads to disillusionment and frustration, which it’s all too easy to displace on to the wrong targets – those left around you who are trying to help.
These problems were for me reinforced by some of the planning processes involved for direct action. As I said, we achieved our goal of shutting down the bank. But for me personally, I was also attending to get experience in taking part in collective, mass direct action. But when we went to plan for what we would do at an initial session, we were told the plan was that people would form affinity groups, which would then autonomously develop their own plans and then feed back to a wider spokescouncil. This is immediately a difficult thing for anyone who’s new and doesn’t know other people yet, or who has just come along as an individual. There were sessions that were trying to group people together who didn’t have a group, but this kind of defeats the purpose of having affinity groups because the whole point is supposed to be that it is a tight knit group of people who know and trust each other.
We and others argued in the planning session that an overall goal should be set for direct action – are we trying to blockade the building? Enter the building and occupy it? We were basically told by those running the workshop that there wasn’t time to do this, and that the process had already been decided and couldn’t be changed. To argue that these people in this context weren’t acting as leaders clearly isn’t true. Although we did a “temperature check”, where people stood on opposite sides of the room based on whether they wanted to blockade, occupy or somewhere in between, a concrete decision was never taken, and this weakened the action we did take.
When I crossed the river on Sunday it was exciting, but once there I wasn’t at all clear what I was trying to do there, in a chaotic situation trying to outmaneuver police lines. Windows of the building got broken – I wasn’t near by and didn’t see what happened. But later I heard that the intention had been to smash windows in order to enter the building. With proper planning this would have been a totally achievable aim at this point. We had at least 100 people on our side, and the police were in disarray. If we’d known what we were trying to do we could have all piled in and made a serious attempt at taking the building. The possibility of digging in for a longer term occupation would have cost RBS a lot more than a planned one-day shutdown, and possibly would have given us a position to force concessions from them in negotiations.
This didn’t need a detailed battle plan being unveiled to everyone (which obviously would quickly be learned by the cops), but simple clarity on common aims which is needed for mass action to succeed. From our experience confronting the Scottish Defence League, we have been successful because the people involved have had a clear, understandable objective: find the SDL, surround them and prevent them from being able to march, occupying the space.
American feminist Jo Freeman, author of the influential essay ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness,’ has argued that pretending there is no hierarchy itself is highly pernicious because it allows the hidden leadership to excercise greater control than if leadership was recognised and democratically dealt with. I don’t think anyone wanted this outcome at climate camp, but the fact is because things were not always done in a collective way, it could be pretty alienating for new people like me. There was a large number of people milling about who didn’t know what was going on, waiting for stuff to happen. Those who did have strong affinity groups and experience didn’t plan for a mass action at the site, because they didn’t have a common objective to plan towards, but in the end peeled off to do small actions in town, against the offices of energy companies or the RBS sponsored Fringe festival.
The one and only
I’ll post more about these as I learn more about them, but on the day info was very patchy, so I’m going to find about more on the internet first. This isn’t a criticism of the folk who did stuff in town – good on you, great work. But the point is that there wasn’t ever a collective plan for what the mass of folk should be doing on Monday, and a lot of us spent a lot of time standing around in miserable rain wondering what was going on.
Mass, collective, organised direct action is possible. I know because I’ve been part of it before. It’s very difficult, and mistakes are easy to make, especially when you’re within an easily heard (on a directional mic) distance from a huge police presence. But alongside the denial of the existence of a leadership group comes an incongruous vanguardism from some participants – thinking that they are the enlightened activists ahead of the rest of society, trying to wake them up and drag them forward with what they do.
I am not someone that thinks that direct action per se is elitist, I am very much in favour of it. But there needs to be proper democracy, communication, and sensitivity to varying levels of experience and understanding among participants for it to work. A true commitment to mass action at the weekend could have achieved far more than we did. Direct action should also never be fetishised as a means of struggle, and seen as part of a wider engagement in the everyday lived reality of ordinary people under capitalism, outside of the utopian bubble of the camp. The world where people have to go to work and earn money, pay their rent and buy food. That’s where we need to organise to build the strength we need to make direct action allied to it successful. In alliance with this kind of work, mass action can absolutely achieve dramatic results.
Again, I would like to stress that these are not gripes, but part of a genuine attempt on mine (and SSY’s) part to engage constructively with something that was a successful and inspirational event, in order to strengthen it for the future. Having been part of climate camp has given me a lot of hope that we have the power to organise and defeat a system that is marching us off the edge of a cliff. The best way to take it forward in my humble opinion is to focus more on community and workplace organising, and build up the links between people in struggle in those spaces with the ecological struggle. In the specific case of what we were doing this weekend, I think we could learn from the many people outside (including chatty cops!) who said we should also be talking prominently about the role of RBS in ruining the economy and destroying people’s livelihoods, as well as their naked profiteering from their customers through things like bank charges. We in Scotland need to have a discussion about what we are going to do about this massive national institution of our country putting our national name on the destruction of communities and ecosystems across the globe.
There’s to be a follow up meeting to the camp next month, on the topic of linking of climate and workers’ struggles. I don’t know much about who’s organising it, but I hope it should be an opportunity to take forward organising beyond just the days of the camp. I very much hope we can get representatives of Edinburgh workers in struggle against job losses and wage cuts there again, as we did at the camp. Hope to see you there. The details are:
September 13th, Digger’s Pub, Angle Park Terrace, Edinburgh. More details will be posted as I get them.