It may seem disproportionate, carrying such a large article on one action. However Timbnet 3 well demonstrated the problems of the way we relate to each other on actions. - editors.
On Monday 24 May, 150 to 200 people occupied the yard of Timbmet Ltd and stopped the yards work for the day. Timbmet was chosen because they are the largest supplier of Brazilian mahogany in the South of England. They deal with three of the worst Brazilian logging companies, whose names are stamped across all their mahogany. They know what they are doing and do not intend to change voluntarily. They have been caught red-handed with illegal timber twice, an almost impossible feat, considering the corrupt system they operate in.
At 6am half the protesters entered the yard from the front making a diversion for the other half, who entered from the back shortly after. Timbmet put up no resistance - the gates were wide open, the Group 4 security men standing over to the side and the workers gathering at one end. The company had learnt its lessons from the previous years occupation well - the workers had been bussed in very early and most of the day’s work had been done on the weekend. The only part of the yard still working was the office, frustrating the plans of the 20 strong women’s only group which had planned to blockade or occupy the offices. Although 6 protesters lay in the entrance to block access, their arms chained inside metal drainpipes, there was no attempt to move goods in or out.
After hanging banners around the yard, protesters carried Mahogany from the main warehouse and dumped it in a pile outside the entrance, under a sign reading ‘stolen property.’ According to the Timber Trades Journal (TTJ) about 2 tons was moved. Mahogany was also piled up around the car of Dan Kemp, the managing director. A 50 foot inflatable chainsaw, on loan from Friends of the Earth, was also inflated in the entrance yard.
The problem remained that the office continued to work and take new orders throughout the day. The women’s group had been planning to charge it when representatives went in to meet management, but they were ordered back. At around midday the focus moved onto the office and the protest escalated from the banging of sticks and drums outside the windows, to the banging on the walls of the wooden office building, to jumping up and down on the roof and attempting to storm the building by climbing up planks of mahogany inserted through windows. A few of the workers then intervened and started laying into the protesters. Had it not been cooled down the situation looked as though it could turn into a total fracas.
There then followed extended group discussions between protesters, management and workers. The management offered to stop buying from companies proven in the Brazilian courts to be involved in illegal logging - a far weaker position than the campaigners wanted. The main area of debate was about the continued working of the office. Initially the management refused to close the office, this they said was not negotiable. Dan Kemp (the owner) stepped in and ordered the office workers home but they refused to move - an incredible situation by any standard. In the end the office workers set their own conditions - that they would only leave if the mahogany piled up around the yard was returned to the warehouse. Management refused to negotiate on five members of management remaining in the office.
The storming of the office had already split the protesters, and discussions over whether to accept this deal widened the split. Those favouring the deal pointed out that time spent in reaching consensus was time wasted during which the office would keep running. Those opposing the deal, pointed to the five managers who would remain, and were very uncomfortable about having been caught up in such negotiations and compromises at all. The vote on the deal showed a large majority in favour of accepting it, but there were many abstentions. Those favouring the deal started moving the timber, but those opposing the idea were angry and many of the abstainers refused to be involved. Most of those who had agreed to the terms felt humiliated by moving the timber back - as though they were legitimising Timbmet ownership of stolen property.
Problems and Solutions
The following are some personal comments - I am still not sure what exactly I think about the action, so these are some observations which I hope are shared by others.
There was a wide range of problems with the action. The main one surrounded the group decision making. Discussion with management became negotiation and compromise without group agreement on whether there should be such negotiation at all, and, even if there should have been, there was no agreement on the demands.
There was certainly a major failing in the group processes, caused by inadequate and untrained facilitation of what was a large and varied group. Some people did not have a chance to speak, and at one point Tony James from management appeared to take control of the discussions. Many felt that management and workers should not have been involved in all group discussions, and that to allow them to join in was a decision that also should have been taken by the group.
Because there had been no preparation for group decision taking during the action, the burden unfairly fell on Kate (OXEF!) who was far from objective, having been one of the main movers in organising the protest and having spent several hours in discussions with management.
It was clear that the group dynamics had fallen apart and that, in actions like this, far greater attention needs to be given to them. Many people, including myself, felt very uncomfortable with the separation of a substantial number of women into a women only group, many women were unhappy with it too, feeling forced into the women only group by an unspoken law. It meant that we were divided from the outset. The lack of communication from the womens group was also a problem if you were outside the group.
In the de-briefing following the action, there were continued complaints about ‘bravado and negative statements for egos sake’, and sexism and inverted snobbery on the part of some protesters. There were similar comments at the EF! gathering over discussion on the ICI injunction. Each problem fed the other - poor facilitation and aims made people feel that a true consensus was not being allowed, feeding more posturing and leading to an even greater unwillingness to cooperate as a group, leading in turn to even more haphazard decision taking.
Personally I do not see that the carrying the timber back in was a compromise if, by doing it, we would have cost Timbmet more in terms of time and money. How one feels about it should not be all that relevant - after all we are in this for the earth, not just our personal pleasure. However, I do not think that it did cost Timbmet anything of much measure and it was certainly not worth splitting ourselves over.
In any case – ‘no compromise’ is rather difficult to apply to Timbmet, or protests of this kind for we were not directly defending an area of wilderness. Protesters hot from Twyford were still high on the direct defence, but here the issue was far more complicated than just stopping the company.
The action was largely symbolic and this symbolism was not recognised - moving the timber out of the yard had been symbolic - moving it back was a bad idea, largely because it felt like shit and the symbolism was bad. Whether the timber was moved, left out or shoved up Dan Kemp’s arse wasn’t really that important in itself.
In theory the action had two aims: to close down the yard and to get the word out to the general public about one timber in particular - Brazilian Mahogany.
In many ways this was a compromised aim - why, some activists asked, is this a mahogany protest when the yard is stacked high with timber from all the world’s endangered forests? It was a limited aim because we felt years of bashing on to the general public about timber as a whole has made virtually no mark. At least this is one issue where some momentum can be made, and where the industry is fighting itself.
Over 50 million people in Brazil saw a large item on the action on their evening news, giving them awareness and empowerment. It was also covered by BBC World Service in Brazil and Brazil’s largest newspaper.
Why then, did so many people feel so badly about it? What had happened was that, the aim of closing down the yard had come to take over the whole event. Thwarted at closing down the office, negotiations had started over how to close it, a partial closure had been offered with conditions. We should not have become involved in that process at all.
I suggest that in future we approach such actions with a sense of proportion - what is important is hassling the hell out of the company, getting the message out and empowering new people, and stopping this murderous trade. Ultimately what counts is that we build the movement, and this means that we need to put far more work into working together, holding back on our own egos and ideas and being prepared to listen.. Certainly we must never again charge into decisions without reaching full consensus, however long that takes. Everyone is going to have to find that time, and ensure that group decisions are reached as, and occasionally by shutting up.
- George Marshall, Oxford EF!