Thursday, 27 August 2009

Watching the watchers: Climate Camp and the summer of rage

Shambling through the kitchen with my face in a massive plate of pasta last night, I heard the door crash open: my friend who shall henceforth be known as Activist Polly*, veteran of the summer of hate, had come back from Climate Camp.

'Oh my GOD, Laurie, it was awful,' she moaned. 'Climate Camp was full of hippies!'

The fact that Polly might have expected something different is key to the essential weirdness of Climate Camp. The idea is - well, it's not simple, but stay with me. It's a protest, you see, a four-day sit-in protest about...something. The environment. Capitalism, also. And associated...badnesses. And we swoop, you see, we all gather in various parts of the city and swoop, not walk, swoop, on text-command from our remote superiors towards a target which we don't know what it is yet but we'll definitely be told about on the day. Possibly we'll go to the Bank of England, and everyone will see, because it'll be in London. I'm certainly planning to take lots and lots of photographs. How about you?

Being a young cool lefty kind of person, I'm aware of many people who are at Climate Camp - and every single one of them has gone with the express or primary intention of taking photographs. Photographs of the protesters; photographs of the police, in particular, as public rage over not being allowed to turn the gaze of surveillance back on our beetle-backed overpigs is still simmering merrily away. Hundreds of amateur photographers - and that's not counting the thousands of press cameras, which reports from the frontline assure me practically outnumbered those who were officially there to protest. Every single one of them just waiting for something to kick off between the coppers and the crusties like it did at G20.

The question begs itself: if you have a protest where most people have gone along to take photographs of a protest happening, is that still a protest? If so, what about? In the case of Climate Camp, any original intentions seem to have been lost in a flurry of press taking pictures of the protesters taking pictures of the police taking pictures of us. Political voyeurism: marvellous, and utterly mad.

Climate Camp is, at root, a protest about having a protest. A glance at the extensive and exciting-sounding programme of workshops shows more sessions about - activism for students, community organising, the legacies of the Brixton riots, than sessions about the actual environment. M'ladies from Feminist Fightback, never previously the vegan police, have gone down to lead a workshop about the targeting of women in protest zones, tying it all together with Greenham Common. A glance at the shiny shiny website turns up 'Photos from the Camp', 'Media Circus Twitter Feed' and 'Our Open Letter to the Police' and precisely zero aims and objectives.

This is a virtual protest, conducted on Twitter and Flicker and in the newsfeeds of all the major paper sites, all waiting for something to happen, for the violence behind the screens to transfer to ephemeral meatspace reality. We've set the bar for the ultimate 21st-century direct action: a protest where nobody apart from press, photographers and twitterhounds turns up at all and they all have to watch each other and take pictures of each other in an infinitely recursive loop of pseudo-political voyeurism until we are all drained entirely or someone behind a camera screen somewhere stumbles across the face of truth.

This has been a hard, weird summer. People are in pain, and they are angry, young people in particular: but the response to that anger has been confused. A significant proportion of this summer's protestors have not been politically active before; hopelessness, worklessness or a dawning comprehension that they're all a bunch of bastards who want to screw us and then take pictures of it has driven a lot of young people into political activism, many of whom lacked an initial understanding of the issues involved. That's not necessarily a bad thing: but it changes the terms of this summer's political unrest to something more directionless, more systemic, more fundamentally frightening and exuberant.

All of those lost kids pulling on their flak-jackets and soft-shoeing it down to the police line, all of them have cameras in their pockets. Cameras are the contemporary semiotic equivalent of the concealed bottle, the brick in a sock, the pocketknife: they are understood as power in the hands of the people, gaze and evidence and connectivity and protection, keener than any blade.

Which is just as well, really, because if the majority of this summer's protestors hadn't though it was more effective to bring a camera to a demo than a big fuckoff stick, it might all have got a lot more bloody. There is anger, now, on the streets, in our living rooms, seething. The young are fed up and chancing for a fight. The Met police are on record saying they're 'up for it'; the people on the other side of the cordons want to kick something off; the press and hundreds of amateur photographers want to be there behind a screen taking notes when that thing, whatever it is, kicks off.

The irony is of course, that is IS kicking off - in Birmingham and Codnor and in a score of other places away from the glare of the cameras, neo-nazis are trading blows with anti-fascists, feminists are marching, socialists are organising. But outside London, the press aren't interested; instead, we're drawn to the pretend protest, the virtual protest. Instead, we're all standing on the protest line behind little flashing screens, watching them watching us watching them.



*Activist Polly wishes it to be clear that she does not agree with the content of this article and that any comments about fucking hippies were made strictly in jest.

17 comments:

  1. It's very difficult to argue with this analysis of climate camp. But there is real content at the site. For example, the Vestas occupiers will be there "sharing best practice" as they would say in a Labour council. I'm also organising an event with a bunch of people called Mutiny titled Money on Trial which hopes to combine the spectacular (in the original sense) with beefy political discussion (or soya based, if you are vegan). See jointhemutiny.org.

    One final thing. Is this blog post part of the narcasistic media loop which you criticise? I can't blame you if it is. I find it incredibly hard to resist the temptation to slag of the MSM and in particular the Guardian and instead find real life, honest, interesting stories instead for the-sauce.org. Today I've noted how Vestas has joined a consortium hoping to run schools in the Isle of Wight - after shutting down a factory because £34,000 in profit per member of staff was not seen as enough.

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  2. Oh, I'm not saying that nothing useful is happening - merely that it's radically different from what it says on the tin, and extremely fucking weird to boot.

    And this post is totally part of the media loop, apart from the distinguishing fact that I haven't actually been there at all. Irony duly noted.

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  3. I think you do have to bear in mind that the current Climate Camp is happening with the very recent events of G20 and Kingsnorth (which I don't think is in London) in the forefront of people's minds.

    Obviously, the police response to those events was not in the same league as, say, Burma, but the right to protest was still being attacked. Some people hold that right very dearly, and were rightly shocked by the police behaviour.

    It is a testament to the danger that the police potentially pose to our free democracy that if it weren't for the photographic evidence, their aggressive conduct would most likely have been shrugged off, denied, or covered up. Like the Jean-Charles killing, and countless other police misdemeanours. The protesters NEED cameras for their own protection, not as substitute weapons. That is an evidence-based need, given past experience.

    To some extent, this Climate Camp is therefore about the right to protest peacefully without fear of being attacked, stalked, intimidated or criminalised. It may not be as sexy or as specific as many other causes, but the right to protest is fundamental to all of them.

    On top of which, the issues surrounding climate change are complex and often ill-defined, and still subject to a certain amount of discussion. I don't think you can blame the protesters for that, or for protesting about the bigger picture regardless.

    I'm not sure it's fair either, to say that the protesters are spoiling for a fight. They are ready to defend their rights, yes, but I think that's as far as it goes. It is the police, I think you'll find, who love a good rumble.

    If you'd been on the receiving end of police brutality and misconduct, you'd understand how important this Climate Camp is, and what an important victory it is that the police have (so far) held back from inciting and abusing people.

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  4. Perhaps it is also noteworthy that the media wouldn't have leapt on the Climate Camp as they have, were it not for the stories of police brutality that came out of it. The implication, according to the agenda-setting function of the press, is that proper police behaviour is more important to all of us than any other individual cause.

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  5. It does seem accurate to say that Climate Camp doesn't have an explicit set of positive aims, but what they're against seems fairly clear - they were at Heathrow two years ago to protest airport expansion, and at Kingsnorth last year to oppose new coal power. Activists often get flak for not offering positive solutions, but I don't really have an issue with a protest that opposes policies which are clearly totally misguided (like expanding airports and coal power generation) but which remains agnostic on the right positive course of action. As critics of the protestors so often like to point out, these are complex issues, so the right answer may not be as obvious as some of the wrong ones.

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  6. This is an interesting post, and one close to my heart because I a) love taking photos of stuff and want to be a photojournalist and b) have just got back from the climate camp. For the record, I didn't see anyone else taking photos, and I took precisely 4 photos all night of my friends mucking about in a tent with a red lamp while singing 'Roxanne'.

    What I did see was an extremely well-organised camp, and many large groups of people coming to consensus decisions about What To Do with the bare minimum of arguing. Yes, it was full of hippies, but please remember a lot of those hippies have spent years protesting against environmental damage, and many have been arrested, beaten up, sentenced and in various other ways hassled by the man for their convictions. Don't be too harsh on them, please.

    As for your comments on photographers / people taking photographs, well, I admire your writing, but this once I can't figure out your stance - you're saying both that too many people there to take photos diminishes the protest, but having lots of photos is useful because it provides evidence and a record of what occurred. Which way would you rather have it? I do agree that I felt a bit wierd (particularly in front of the Bank of England a few months ago) just being one camera in a sea of many, and part of me feels that anyone who attends a protest solely to take photos should perhaps go somewhere else, but otherwise surely the more photos the better? Information being knowledge, and knowledge being power, and all that jazz...

    Addendum: I think you've got a skewed impression of the camp; at least go and spend some time there yourself. I've got some friends there who would be happy to show you round; drop me a line if you want me to put you in touch with them.

    hope all else is well.

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  7. A painful irony - (essentially) protesting "the man", and getting marching orders from, erm, some other (anonymous) people.

    Which also begs the question: is it a protest if you don't know what you're protesting? Where does individual protest come into this, or is that not important? The protest bigwigs, who clearly have your interests at heart, act as overall choreographers? Telling all and sundry what to protest, when and where? And all this is expected to be taken seriously? By whom?

    Cameras are, I wholeheartedly agree, more powerful than the weapons some prefer. People have a moral right to take pictures of the authorities, but the authorities have no moral right to take pictures of protesters. That's a worthwhile protest. (The last time I was in England, I was appalled at the sheer number of official cameras. I was more appalled at the general acceptance of them!)

    And in the meantime, the two sides square off like second-rate wrestlers; each hoping the other doesn't do something stupid. But increasing the chance that they both will - at the same time.

    All that popular anger needs to be channeled - not wasted in protesting this, that and the other. And let's not forget this other thing, over there. That makes it all so easy to belittle, and ignore. The whole thing is probably best described as a roving festival - not a protest. You freely admit to not knowing what you're going to protest until some invisible authority tells you. Is that really a protest?

    The ultimate irony? The protests have become the very thing they seek to protest. Especially that secret cabal at the top, telling y'all what to protest.

    My apologies for being cynical about it. I have Alan Price's "Jarrow Boys" going around my head, and the contrast couldn't be more stark. Have a nice few days in London, photographing the folks and the sites. :-)

    Carolyn Ann

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  8. Alan Price'sThe Jarrow Song (5 minutes long)

    Good luck with the protests, Penny. :-)

    Carolyn Ann

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  9. "text command from our remote superiors"... the point is that the location is not announced in advance. I think it is quite a leap from that to assume that the location was decided by a secret central cabal, lording it over the other activists. I have not been involved in the organising this year, but could it not equally have been that the group chose a short-list of locations and then threw a dice at the last minute to choose one randomly? Well that's how I would have done it anyway :-P

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  10. What Ben said! The whole point of not announcing the location in advance is that they need to 'take the site' - which is pretty difficult if the police, council, etc all know where it's going to be - and can therefore prevent that site being occupied.

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  11. Ben, Steph, I guess you're oblivious to the irony?

    It is a secret cabal, Ben. No one knows, except the members of the ruling group, where they will be protesting. Sure, the reason sounds good. The process even sounds "fair" (although it really isn't). It even sounds vaguely successful. But the net affect is a small leadership class dictating to a large group.

    Oh, the rationale is clear, Steph. I have no criticism about the reason why - although I do question the wisdom of it. (But I am not a member of either the protest, nor the secret cabal running it.) I merely noted the rather obvious irony. I found it amusing

    The fact that you don't even wryly acknowledge the irony, tells me far more about the protest leadership than they might want me to know. I can also infer that good intentions led to somewhere, but I forget where*. The good intentions of the leadership will surely lead somewhere else?

    Good luck with the protest. A government should always be a little wary of the will of the people. No matter who that government is. (Sorry - that was a little too easy. That's how obvious the irony is.)

    Carolyn Ann

    *I know exactly where it led.

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  12. Carolyn, I'm not 'oblivious to the irony', I am just apparently slightly more acquainted with the process behind Climate Camp than either you or the owner of this blog, so I am not comfortable to jump to conclusions about how the site was chosen. Maybe you're right; I have only attended one of the many publically advertised and open organisational meetings over the past year at which the camp was planned, so I can only speculate as to how things developed from there.

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  13. And you don't permit yourself even a slight grin at that irony? No permission to even wryly smile at it?

    Oh, I'm sure you're more familiar with the whole process - I don't even live in England, any more. Speaking strictly for myself - I'm sure you would strike the larger number on a rule. But surely life, and its causes, do permit some sardonic observation? And the situation you find yourself in - surely that is wry enough for a belly laugh?

    Not to provide anything but a personal observation: I do find it useful to be able to laugh at oneself. The endless idiocies I've perpetrated provide an almost endless font of stories and anecdotes. For me, and others. :-)

    I love protest. Never did enough of it, myself. I can't say I support you - I have no idea what you're protesting. But have it, regardless!

    Oh, never mind the ramblings of a middle-aged ex-patriot queer.

    Carolyn Ann

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  14. @ Carolyn Ann yes I find protest lovable. I thought the pictures of the swop were great, y'know the ones with the bicycles going through London. Then there's all the funny haircuts and clothes. One of the pictures showed a hokka, the arabic water-pipe. Why wasn't it lit? And it was much cleaner than mine. I much prefer this kind of protest to the one in the middle of the city which by its very geographical nature put people in potentially violent situations. The bicycle swop was brilliant. hats off to the organisers for this piece of genius.

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  15. Not all vegans eat soya, btw. Just in case anyone reading this is thinking about it but has a soya allergy.

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  16. Having been at the camp all week I'd take this criticism more seriously from someone who had actually been there. People playing 'I'm a better activist than you' is very boring, especially when they dont do anything themselves. I wouldn't call the direct action against targets in london on tuesday a 'protest about protest'. The author clearly had no idea how climate camp works either...dont like what we are doing? come along and get involved rather than blogging ur life away.

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  17. Young people are always taking photos, have you not seen Facebook???

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