A Critique of Newbury

The campaign to prevent clearance of the 9 mile route of the Newbury bypass saw the biggest direct action campaign to date against a road scheme, and so could be seen as the most successful so far. However despite all the hype, and expectations bestowed upon it, (often not from activists themselves, but the media), it failed to stop the site being cleared (it is of course debatable if this was ever possible or expected). The campaign has also showed limitations in the road protest movement- both tactical and strategic that need to be addressed if we are to build on the many successes that the campaign achieved.

 

I wish to make it clear that I intend this piece as a constructive critique of the campaign from someone that was involved throughout the clearance work. It is not a cynical winge from someone that never even went down there. My involvement at Newbury has given me a greater encouragement to continue direct action, when I had been considering giving it up for an easier, hassle-free life. However there are problems in the movement that I feel have always been there, but as they have not previously been dealt with, have grown more apparent as it has grown bigger.

We didn't involve enough people in Direct Action

My main problem with Newbury was its apparent inability to gain mass involvment in direct action. A poignant example of this was the mass rally in February '96 where a coalition of various groups including Friends of the Earth, Third Battle and Road Alert! drew over 6,000 people to walk the route and show their opposition to the scheme.

The rally was a good thing that brought a lot of people to the area that would not have otherwise come. But it was very sad that despite being heavily plugged only about a thirtieth of the rally stayed the night for the next day's action. In the end around 200 people trashed the Tarmac office in Newbury. At least two computers found themselves flying out of the 2nd floor windows and FoE National, the main organisers of the rally, publicly condemned the action. It was slightly ironic that those who were bussed in for the rally had been attracted down by the media coverage of the daily actions, but did not stay to participate in any. Any future involvement would have been limited to joining their local Friends of the Earth group or sending some money.

There is a damaging division between 'activists' and 'supporters'

This illustrates what I feel to be a major fault in the campaign. There was a division of labour which seriously impaired the effectiveness of the campaign. Lines tended to be drawn between fit young activists who would perform direct action, and older, more respectable campaigners, who would offer moral and financial support, but not get involved in direct action. There are of course notable exceptions- those people from the camps who spent long hours in the office doing tedious jobs, and Newbury residents who would try to disrupt the convoys of security coaches going through Newbury- but these too often were the exception rather than the rule. The fault lies on both sides of this divide.

I became increasingly annoyed with meeting people who, when they discovered I was involved at Newbury, would start conversations along the lines of "Oh well done- you're a hero. I wish I could get involved, but I can't cos I'm not able". Hearing this would make me feel that I was the cannon fodder for other peoples' environmental consciences, and apart from feeding one's own ego, there is little use for attitudes like that. Everyone is able to do direct action, (as the disabled direct action network has shown), and it is vital to get that message across. If everyone at that rally had pledged one day off work to take action, had that been organised into a rota of 200 people available to stop work each day, the state would have found it extremely difficult to finish the clearance contract on time- if ever![1] We need to change this disempowering attitude that many of the so-called 'respectable' supporters have. One of the most moving and apt things I heard on the rally, was when one protestor came on stage after a man had given him his war medals as a sign of respect. He said something to the effect that the protestors were not special people or heroes- all they were was very tired, and in need of help.

The acceptance of a division of roles seems sadly all too apparent amongst the direct action campigners as well, who are supposedly anti-hierarchical and anti-elitist. There was a definite 'hierarchy of the harness' [The 'Cabal of the Carabiner'?]. If you were not fit and able to climb trees, then you were relegated to ground support - too often an implicit euphemism for merely supplying those in the tree tops with moral and financial support. This attitude must be countered becuase it put off a lot of people from getting involved.

I would never advocate stopping all forms of tree protests. I think it was an extremely effective tactic for delaying the clearance work, as highly specialised professional climbers had to be recruited to evict protestors at rates of between 700-900 a day. This resulted in eviction costs soaring, and the politicisation of much of the climbing community. However it is one tactic among many, we should never neglect the others which can be just as effective. Ground lock-ons often delayed the bailiffs for a very long time, and if the convoy was prevented from reaching the site, then an eviction could not even happen. I often felt very disempowered while standing outside an eviction cordon. When there were not serious attempts to break through it would sometimes just turn into a spectacle that we were observers at, and not active participants.

Everything should stop for Newbury?

There was also this idea that everything should stop for Newbury. To give an example there were twice weekly minibuses conveying people between Brighton & Newbury. Someone rang up the Justice? office having a go at them them for giving a lift to people that wanted to go to the Valentine's Day Reclaim the Streets in Brighton. Justice? had 'taken away 30 climbers who could have been at Newbury'. Newbury was an important battle, but one of many in a diverse war.

Our image alienates

On a wider level, I became increasingly worried that the cultural vanguardism of the campaign was alienating people from getting involved. If we are to break free from the media stereotype of us as hippy drop-outs, then we should not live up to it. We must not pander to their puerile attempts to shift the agenda from why the planet is being trashed to lifestyle bollocks. If we are going to even talk to them, then we must come across as intelligent, informed, and have a message that people can relate to. Being portrayed as a bunch of spaced out hippies can be incredibly alienating to most people; and if we are going to get mass involvement we need to be as all embracing as possible, (needless to say without compromising our ideals or actions).

You're not part of our scene, you're not part of our movement?

An arrogant elitist attitude was often directed towards people who for one reason or another did not stay on the camps. While I have a lot of respect for people that want to live in trees threatened with destruction, a lot of people do not have the time or the inclination to live full-time on camp. These people are put off by the feeling that if they are not full-time activists, then they are not as 'hardcore'. Although the DIY culture has grown in the last few years it has become more and more of a clique because there seems to be a certain style which one must conform to. If some people do not aspire to a certain lifestyle, we should respect that. I accept that we need radical change in every aspect of our lives in order to be able to save the planet, but I sometimes wonder how radical living on a camp actually is. I often felt that I was having more of an effect trying to gather mass support in my home town rather than living full-time on a camp, detached from the mass of society in a lifestyle that most would find too alienating.

Personal problems get in the way of campaigning

[Editor's note: The following two paragraphs put across ideas that members of the idiotorial collective heavily disagreed with. Rather than not include the piece, or edit it so that it 'conformed', we decided to print it with a reply at the end. We hope this aids discussion and debate.]

Another problem is how to deal with some peoples' personal problems that are brought to direct action protetst. Whether you call them dime-bars, energy vampires, lunch-outs, or whatever, it is undeniable that personal problems can often seriously hinder the effectiveness of a campaign.The free-living, utopian lifestyle of protest camps attracts all sorts of people (and rightly so), but sometimes for the wrong reasons.There can be a conflict between the view that everyone should be free to live their own individual life, and the right for a community to exist free of disruption. This conflict should not exist: a road protest camp is not a community centre to deal with people's problems- it is neither desirable or feasible.

Living on a protest camp can be highly stressful and demanding, and is not a suitable environment for helping people with drug, alcohol, or psychological problems. I heard of at least a dozen people sectioned as a result of the protests (at least 3 people involved with Newbury have also died as a result of alchohol or drugs), and these people obviously need help. However we as protestors are not in a position to be able to help (both because we do not have the energy or qualifications to do so), and I feel it is slightly arrogant to assume that we do. We should leave the job to those who are able, so that we can concentrate on the real reasons for being there. I do not deny the need for setting up proper care networks, as it is often the opppressive nature of modern society that can unbalance people, but this should be separate from the day to day life of the direct action protests.If peoples' own personal problems are causing serious disruption to campaigns, then they should be asked to leave and go somewhere that is more suited to their needs.[2]

Theft on the campaign was also a serious problem. There is undoubtedly room for communality of certain resources such as food, but this should not extend to personal posessions, which all too often went walkies. Having your harness nicked can put your life at risk, but even some of these were disappearing. There was even the case at Kennet where a group of climbers came down to help, and one of their sleeping bags went missing from the mothership (it turned up later after some persuasive talk). There is a simple solution to dealing with thieves- anyone caught nicking people's stuff should be kicked off camp straight away, and others warned about it.

I sometimes felt that there was a lack of any in-depth thought in people's reasonings for their actions. Emotive feeelings towards the planet are very strong, and it is understandable that anyone living on a site that they were attached to would wish to defend it to the limits of their abilities and beyond. However, realisation that the struggle against ecological destruction goes beyond emotive reactions is essential, otherwise, for many, the battle will end when the last tree is felled.

Actions must continue after the trees come down

A brief look at two of the biggest anti-roads campaigns so far will show how important this is. The biggest demos at Twyford happened after the area had already been trashed, and the land defended at the M11 could hardly be described as ecologically rich, but it was still fought for. It is sad to see that actions have been drastically reduced at Newbury, and that there are no longer nearly as many people disrupting work now that the trees have gone - although it is encouraging that there are still activists camping in the area.

We still need to ensure that the struggle against the bypass continues until the road is built and beyond. Only targeting clearance allows the companies to plan ahead and concentrate their force on our weakest point. The security budget is mainly oriented towards pushing clearance work through. When they are on the offensive against us they have hundreds of security. Yet a year or even a few months later you can go back to a site and find hardly any. The actions of 10 early morning surprise crane climbers can be more costly than an action with 100 people, in which they know you're coming and have accounted for it. We are enabling a situation where they don't have to guard the most expensive part of a roadbuilding project- the roadbuilding itself!

We need to go on the offensive

A company simply cannot effectively guard a site 9 miles long 24 hours a day for three years when they don't know when you're coming or what you're going to do. How many times during the clearance did we sit back at 'our' camp listening to the CB and not knowing where they would turn up? This stretched our resources, numbers and sanity. When the trees fall and the cranes go up the roles are reversed. With surprise on our side- they're weak and we are strong.

If you want to break a chain you find the weak links. The state and the main contractors will probably never back down, but subcontractors are a different kettle of fish. With the exception of chainsaw men, cherry picker firms and the climbers, small subcontractors don't take part in a clearance contract. During the construction a myriad of different small firms are moved in - who will move straight back out again at any sign of serious trouble. Doing actions against subcontractors really fucks a contract up. This was proved effectively at Newbury by the campaign against the coach companies that ferried the fluorescent-jacketed army. Select actions in Reading and elsewhere at coach company terminals quickly convinced a few companies to back out. After that the threat worked just as well. For a while security had to hire minibuses from Kent [!]

Simply targeting clearance and practically ignoring construction is becoming a campaign pattern- we need to break it.

We must broaden our horizons

Overall, we need to develop a greater awareness of our actions if we are to be successful in further struggles. Newbury was very good at waking up a lot of people to what ecological destruction is going on in this country. The sheer scale of the campaign surprised a lot of people, including the authorities. Nevertheless the route was eventually cleared, and the protests accomodated.

The state has learnt how to deal with tree protests (they showed a marked improvement in tactics over the months of clearance work), and while I think it is still vital to physically defend areas under threat, we need to evolve our tactics so that we are continually one step ahead of them. The actions in support of the Liverpool dockers are a good example of how we can connect up to other people, and there should be similar links made in other areas. Lots of diverse groups were brought together by Newbury (anarchists, climbers, archaeologists, and FoE members), and we should maintain and strengthen these links if we are ever going to start to gain the mass involvement we need to defend our earth.

Notes

1) A very sucessful direct action rota was organised at the M11, under the name of Operation Roadblock . See 'News from the Autonomous Zones' p21, DoD 4

2) That is not to say that involvement in this kind of lifestyle cannnot be beneficial to people with minor problems. They can find an outlet for their frustration and alienation from society, which they might not otherwise have found. The energy they were previously using in various anti-social activities can be redirected into trashing earth rapists. For some, the close-knit community can bring people together who would otherwise never have met.

If we can't sort out each other, how are we meant to sort out the world?

Despite disagreeing with its conclusions I am glad that the above article mentioned the 'personal' problems that plague us on campaigns, as well as talking about strategy. Hopefully it will start off a useful debate. I agree that there is a serious conflict on camps between on the one hand, peoples' 'personal problems', and on the other the smooth running of the campaign and the wellbeing of other activists. Such problems are one of the reasons why I decided at one point to totally abandon camp-based campaigns, and to concentrate on other things.

I have been woken by someone preaching the Old Testament outside my bender every morning for a week at Solsbury Hill; woken up by someone wielding a stave at my head in the dead of night at the M11 [maybe they just didn't like you?], had to help prevent two onsite suicide attempts at Twyford, been puked on, pissed on, had all my eviction stash eaten by a 'nomadic druid' the day before the eviction; these are just the more interesting events. Not to mention the daily cold drudgery of having your campaign enthusiasm (never mind your will to live) sucked away by assorted 'energy vampires' and 'lunchouts'. It's a big problem, but I think the author generalises too much and that his solution would only exacerbate the situation. Other points also need to be made.

There are four distinct groups of people the above article lumps together. Care in the community types, drug abusers (as opposed to simply users), people suffering mentally as a result of campaigning, and those acting like parasites. Quite often some or all four combine in one person, but to generalise is to write off too many people.

The article gives the idea that there is a clean division between 'sorted campaigners' on the one side and 'lunch outs, 'dime bars' and 'energy vampires' on the other. People with serious mental problemas are rarely 'useful' on campaigns. But the reality is that many of our best activists drink too much, take too many drugs, go through bouts of severe depression and waver on the edge of insanity - I know I do!

Though he does mention that 'the close knit community can bring people together', the author's underlying assumption is that the role of camps is primarily to resist the destruction - "Ask not what the camp can do for you, but what you can do for the camp." He seems to suggest that we should leave our emotional baggage at home and if we begin to crack up, leave the campaign - effectively, we are discarded when we are no longer 'productive'. But I would argue that the primary aim of campaigns is to rebuild communities and create a movement that can really transcend industrial capitalism as a whole. The rather minor effect we have on industry is less important than the way in which our campaigns affect us and our movement. In a socially fragmented world, the mad arena of campaigning is, frighteningly, one of the few opportunities we have for "group therapy' and individual and collective evolution.

If 'Group therapy' sounds too much to you like Alcoholics Anonymous, think again. The real ecological and anarchist communities on this planet are tribes. Tribes deal with their problems collectively, they talk about them.

The article above says in effect that rather than work on healing each other together, we should sort out our problems individually. That we should keep our personal and political lives separate. Even worse it proposes that people 'with problems' should seek help from 'professionals' - presumbly psychiatrists and drug counsellors. While there are many good people in these professions, most of those sectioned at Newbury could point out that there are many others who'll just fuck you up more. Also, the article overlooks the question of how you gain immediate access to such services if you are poor. Why are there so many 'care in the community' individuals on road camps in the first place?

People drink, take too many drugs and sink into delusion for a huge variety of reasons. For instance I know quite a few 'brew crew' who have, when given responsiblity, straightened themselves out. Nobody ever told them that they could be more than they were so they never became anything else. Alcohol & drugs can really badly screw us up. For instance taking acid in a beautiful valley may be wonderful, but taking it surrounded by destruction isn't a good idea. If we can support each other then people will not need to turn to chemical crutches which may further destabilise them.

In relation to those from care in the community I'm in two minds. While they can be very destructive, they can also be a good member of the communty. It depends on the individual. Though protests are not a stable place, what other 'community' is going to care for them? In most cases they are harmless, just strange. It's less a case of getting rid of them and more of getting a greater proportion of relatively sane people.

Another reason for greater collectivity is that some people will just always take the piss. If all else fails I agree that the community needs to expel those that endanger it.

Being radicals means literally looking at the root of the problem. Why does our 'community' bring in such a large amount of alcoholics, drug abusers (rather than simply users), lunch outs, freaks and the blatantly insane?

Firstly, it's a worrying fact that there are substantially more men on camps than women, and the gap is growing. In my experience camps with more women have usually been better able to grasp personal and group problems.

Secondly, our pathetic excuses for outreach, getting new people involved, means that most of our 'recruitment' comes from the British 'alternative' subculture. The subculture is basically a culture of the dysfunctional. Being dysfuctional in a society where function is so destructive and warped is probably a sane move. Hey - we're all misfits - hurrah! However, many in the subculture have been pushed out of 'straight' society becuse they find it difficult to act socially at all. From 'community in care' types to people who just find it difficult relating. While helping each other out, the long term solution is recruting from a wider spectrum. Of course this will bring in people with normative types of insanity. But maybe this would be easier to rationally deal with, though less amusing, than two pissed people fighting each other because they both believe they're King Arthur.

We are more likely to be crushed by our own inabilty to live with each other than by state violence. In our constant rush to action we usually forget to build on our greatest strength- each other. Revolution is Therapy.

Head State Support Group

Direct Action is not without its casualties, at a rough estimate over 15 people were sectioned under the Mental Health Act during and after Newbury, perhaps many more. As someone who was both at Newbury and got sectioned, I am trying now to set up some sort of support providing both letter-writing and legal advice.

If you were sectioned or know someone who was/is, I'd very much like to hear from you. It can be a nightmare for all concerned, but stay strong and all clouds pass over. In the meantime, don't go too manic when you're off protesting and remember to chill out and take breaks.

Much love, Jim

Write to: 'Witches Green', 54 Mill Road, North Lancing, W. Sussex, BN15 0PZ. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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