'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.