Powerful nonviolence

IssueMay 2009
Feature by Kat Barton

The atmosphere when I arrived with most of the other campers at 12.30pm and throughout the day was excellent – there were workshops all afternoon, a working kitchen, compost toilets, a farmers market, music - samba, Céilidh, guitars, folk bands – a real carnival feel. The event was entirely peaceful all day with the police calm and friendly, some walking through the camp, at least one holding a daffodil and at least one seen hugging a protester!

At 7pm, the mood changed significantly. I was at the south side of Bishopsgate where I’d set up my pop-up tent and was relaxing with friends. Without any warning, word of explanation or provocation, a row of riot police started charging towards us.

Until that time the police presence had been confined to a few yellow jackets and people were free to come and go to and from the camp. Within minutes, the only police visible to us were black-clad riot police. When they charged I was in the front and so right in the thick of it. The police were moving forward forcefully, using their shields to push people back – many of them used their batons to hit people in the front row (I was in the second row by this point). We all had our hands in the air to show we were nonviolent and were chanting “this is not a riot”, “peace not riot” and “we are peaceful”.

The police also used their shields as weapons – notably by turning them on their sides (I can only assume in order to inflict more damage). I saw several people – including my partner – hit over the head and on the arms and legs. At no point did I see anyone respond to the police actions with violence.

This went on for around half an hour by which time we had been pushed back to the point where we were enclosed by a wall on one side and by riot police on the other side – we were effectively “kettled” in. My tent and some of my belongings were lost on the other side of the police line. After about 20 minutes, I removed myself from the front line and shortly after this everyone within five metres of the police sat down.

As the Climate Camp works on consensus it was felt that meetings should be held at each end of the camp (North and South) to determine what should be done. We were told by police liaison that we were being held for two hours after which point we would be released in groups of 20. Given that the Climate Camp intended to occupy the space for 24 hours, the meetings – which eventually happened around 9pm – began by taking a straw poll of who was intending to stay for the duration and who intended to leave that night. The discussions then focused on how to get the people who wanted to leave out, but more importantly, how those who planned to stay would secure the space. After two hours, the police had not let us go 20 by 20 as they had said and had also cut off all communication with the Climate Camp police liaison team – as well as, we were told, contact with Jenny Jones, who in her role as a Greater London Authority member of the Metropolitan Police Authority was supposed to be involved in the policing of the protests.

Eventually, after a long day, the police began letting people out of the north side of the camp at around 11.30pm. I understand that at least half of us (including myself) left at this point while the others tried to secure the space.

For me the strongest thing to come out of the day was how Climate Campers responded completely nonviolently in the face of violent actions by police. It is worth noting that despite police attempts to disrupt and provoke us, we remained committed to the inclusive nature of Climate Camp, to taking decisions by consensus and to using NVDA tactics such as sitting down and entering into dialogue with police officers in order to calm the situation down.

Whilst police actions that day demonstrate how violence is used against peaceful protesters, the actions of Climate Campers demonstrate what a strong, nonviolent movement for change Climate Camp has become.