Going Underground...

Some Thoughts On Tunnelling As A Tactic

 

undergroundTwo years on from when it was first used as a defensive tool at the anti-A30 road camps in Devon (see 'Farewell Fairmile - Road Raging in the South West' in Do or Die No. 6, p. 48 and the Earth First! Action Update No. 36/Feb 97 for some reports and analysis of this campaign), the tunnel has become a cornerstone of site-based direct action - as much a part of the scenery as treehouses and lock-ons. Tunnels have certainly done great things for our ability to resist evictions for longer periods of time, but there are widespread concerns about tunnels in terms of tactics, the way they are seized upon by the media, and about where we are going with them - both as an idea and a tool.

 

So why did this use of tunnels develop, and what have they done to take site-based resistance forward? My view is that the initial enthusiasm was for something new, radical and - as much as anything - something physically demanding into which site occupants could direct their anxiety, frustration and need to 'do something'. Tunnelling was not something that required skill or knowledge, as with some tree work, just physical energy, a tolerance of enclosed spaces, and a certain bloody-minded determination.

By the summer of 1995 digger-diving and blockading had been effectively curtailed by the Criminal Justice Act (CJA). This law, passed in the Autumn of 1994, criminalised a whole range of direct action activities - such as disrupting work - that had previously been legal. I feel the gap this left was replaced with a drive for the height advantage; such as the scaffold tower at Claremont Road (resistance to the construction of the M11 link road in East London) and the treehouses at Stanworth Valley (direct action camp against the building of the M65 in Lancashire). Tensions between protesters and bailiffs were rising, and it seemed as if the risks and levels of antagonism might carry on escalating until something horrendous happened. To me it seemed that whilst with tunnelling the personal risks were greater, here was a chance to re-set the agenda. I had high hopes for it as a bringer of calm - all you had to do (after the months of digging and construction) was sit, wait, read a book and eat your stash of food. State of the art non-violent resistance!

The first eviction of an occupied tunnel was at the Trollheim anti-A30 camp in January 1997, and it was nothing like this at all. The bailiffs were heavy-handed and oblivious to safety concerns as they sledge-hammered at structural supports and doors. One person who was locked on had a rope tied to his foot and was winched until he had to release because of the pain. The eviction lasted less than a day.

Eleven days later, and a few hundred metres away, the approach at the Fairmile camp was very different. Bailiffs and police arrived in the evening, secured the tunnel entrance, and waited until the morning, when a new lot of bailiffs (the mysterious 'Men in Black') appeared for the first time. They went about evicting the tunnel very slowly and carefully, building their own shoring as they went, talking to the occupants, and allowing them to communicate with others outside for a few days. The eviction took a week until the last person emerged voluntarily. In terms of a site eviction the tunnel could hardly have been more effective. It prevented the use of machinery (cherry pickers) and tree felling, and bought time so everyone could focus on what was actually occurring. This succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.

After the Fairmile camp eviction, one tunneller was seized upon and hounded by the media; portrayed as 'spokesperson' and a 'representative' of the movement, dressed in suits for newspaper photo shoots and appeared in a game show. This brought to light some of the drawbacks of tunnelling as a frontline tactic. (For a more detailed account see 'Personality Politics - The Spectacularisation of Fairmile' in Do or Die No. 7, p. 35) Tunnels are efficient; a couple of people barricaded underground will have a large impact. But this brings up issues of how to get more people involved in taking direct action, as well as the problems of domination of the movement by 'elites'. Tunnelling is an exclusive activity, in which most visitors to direct action sites will only be in a position to support. The 'eco-warrior' myth is taken to new heights by the use of tunnels and this perceived 'elite' is often seen as a barrier to wider public involvement in direct action. It also potentially leads to the celebrity-style focus on individuals that nobody, or the movement, needs.

Another reason for not unquestioningly embracing tunnelling as a tactic is that it can epitomise the defensive mentality which has developed since the introduction of the CJA. This is not just a cheap stab at the role of sites in direct action, as I recognise that we cannot always be pro-active and that there are times when sites do need defensive action. The problem is that sites have become almost institutionalised in their format - we turn up, stick up treehouses, dig tunnels and then wait to be evicted. In the past we have been effective by constantly evolving new tactics, keeping ahead of the opposition. If we sit back on our laurels and assume that these tactics are all we need to win a campaign, or at least satisfy ourselves that we have done our best to prevent destruction, then we will increasingly be disappointed. Bailiffs have developed ways of dealing with people in trees, and if we're not intelligent in our use of tunnels then they'll develop ways of dealing with them as well.

We've got tunnels, they're being used and they are a good tactic. However, we need to stay one step ahead of the state. One possible way forward might be to use the space and time created by an extended eviction period to try and mobilise the often considerable amount of local support into taking more accessible forms of direct action; office occupations, security and police blockades, site invasions, or phone and fax blockades, for example. That way people can become empowered and involved in the process, as well as making evictions more effective.

For details of an excellent guide to tunnelling, including the sorts of things you need to think about if you are digging a tunnel, see the review of the pamphlet Tunnelling - A Beginners Guide on page 317 of this issue.

(BOX) Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold

revengeThe 'Men in Black' tunnellers used in many evictions are hired from: Specialist Rescue International, 128 Station Road, Redhill, Surrey, RH1 1ET, UK. Telephone: 01737 244652. It also trades from: PO Box 266, Redhill, Surrey, RH1 1GA, UK.

 

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