Modern day outlaws
“I first met members of Plane Stupid and then Climate Camp when I was asked to play the role of
“videographer” filming them breaking into and occupying the runway at Stansted airport. It was very exciting to meet people who understood how serious the climate problem was and were under no delusions about the scale of the task of turning it around. Their response was not to put their heads in the sand, but to carry out bold actions unlike anything that had been done before.
On that occasion, the tape that I was shooting went off to the news stations, which played only the juiciest 30 seconds on repeat. Alongside the pared-down footage, they ran surprisingly critical, at times clearly antagonistic, commentary, all in the name of objectivity. Within 24 hours, the news cycle had moved on and the footage was filed away into a dusty digital drawer.
“Far from being ranting, know-it-all cranks with an axe to grind, these people put a great deal of thought and discussion into their goals and tactics”
I told the guys at Plane Stupid that if they would allow me to film the run-up to things – the planning and the rehearsals – we could make something that had a much longer shelf life, with far more context, and everyone could see what kind of people they really were. I had seen for myself that the truth was very different from the media headlines and wafer-thin reporting.
During the course of the project, I saw a common denominator among the people I was filming: they are all the sort of people who, if they saw a crime happening, would try and stop it. They’re the sort of people who would come to your rescue if you cried help. They’re not prepared to look away. And that’s not really something that I had thought about as a character trait before. On some level, they’re fighting a battle for themselves, but by and large they’re fighting battles on other people’s behalf, because they know that it will be others, more than them, who will really suffer the effects of climate change.
Far from being ranting, know-it-all cranks with an axe to grind, or thoughtless vandals just looking for kicks, these people put a great deal of thought and discussion into their goals and tactics. Indeed, internally they were almost painfully critical of their own actions. As I was filming them I discovered an incredibly self-reflective community: never could you accuse them of being thoughtless or unconsidered. If anything they are a bit self-flagellating.
Marina, one of the main characters, was a fantastic find. There is a spirit in her that felt indicative of many of the groups I was filming. She’s not afraid to get arrested. She’s prepared to put her body on the line, and get in the way. She’s also very polite, very friendly, slightly tongue-in-cheek, and has great wit. She likes to serve tea and she frequently offers to make cups for the police. There is a playfulness in her combined with really radical action. That was something that had initially excited me about the Plane Stupid actions – their name is a pun, their banners would often be witty. Like Marina, they wanted to be
captivating as well as really hardline with what they were doing.
I remember one day Marina said, “We’ve got to tear down capitalism!” and then she paused and said, “and when I say ‘tear down capitalism’, I mean ‘dismantle it gently and put in the cupboard’.” That wit, combined with an unabashedly radical stance, was precisely the tone I wanted to capture for the film.
The activists are of necessity incredibly secretive, and go to great lengths not to leave incriminating paper or digital trails. If you think about something like the Stansted action, they didn’t use any mobile phones or email to co-ordinate – all information was handed over face-to-face.
Plane Stupid in particular operates a high level of security, a kind of presumptive level. It is possible that their phones are being tapped and their emails are being read, so they just assume this is happening and act accordingly. Two days before one particular action, I got a text message saying, “Can I come around for a cup of tea?” and then my contact turned up on her bicycle and knocked on the door and whispered, “The meeting time has changed from five to seven… Okay?” and then headed off to tell everybody else.
It was pretty impossible to plan: I had this vague idea that I would follow the wider community around Climate Camp, Plane Stupid and Climate Rush. The information I would have ahead of time was often very limited – just a meeting point and maybe an idea of the target. And it would be completely inappropriate to ask who was coming and what was happening. But it meant I didn’t know what I was getting into each time: I had to just make the most of whatever happened and do my best to keep up.
Not everyone on every action agreed to be filmed, and frequently people would feel differently from one action to the next, depending on the context. This situation was made slightly easier by the fact that during the time I was filming, a lot of the actions going on were a specific type known as “fully accountable”, which means people go on the action knowing that they are very likely going to get arrested and have to give their name and address. So they’re not wearing masks or trying to hide their identity. When the plan is to superglue or chain themselves to something for the police to then have to unstick them, what good would a mask be? For the purposes of filming, this meant that people did not need to keep their identities secret, and I had much more room to manoeuvre.
In early 2009 it was clear that a fairly heavy year of action awaited, as the drum-beat built towards the Copenhagen UN Climate Summit in December. Kicking off with the G20 on 1st April, when multiple demonstrations shut down key arteries of the City of London and were met with brute force from lines of riot police, action then simmered into the summer with worker occupations and solidarity camps on the Isle of Wight supporting workers who had occupied a wind turbine factory which was set to close. By mid-year, Climate Camp had held their largest camp ever, this one targeting the ‘root cause of climate change’, and putting the blame squarely at the feet of capitalism. That autumn a coalition of groups worked together to storm Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal power station in Nottinghamshire in a mass attempt to shut it down, and preparations began for a mobilisation in Copenhagen.
Copenhagen was horrific. It was incredibly cold, so it was physically challenging. It was also psychologically challenging because the policing was just so over-the-top. Pre-emptive arrests, regular stop-and-searches, turning over the place where we were staying with no warrant… People outside of the activist community aren’t really aware of the fact that Denmark passed a law a few months ahead of the Copenhagen summit which gave the police almost carte blanche. The police themselves didn’t even know how much power they had, they were really testing it throughout the summit. Which meant that you’d be treated differently from one event to the next and from one police officer to the next, and you were never quite sure what rights you did and didn’t have. You’d have legal briefings and then the police would act differently, saying: “Oh, that’s the old law, now we’re following the new law.”
This new law had eliminated some key rights that had been enshrined in every European country. Things like the right to be told why you’re being arrested. At one point in the trip (which was then captured in the film) our producer Lauren was arrested. We didn’t know why – they didn’t give out any paperwork for her arrest, they took my journalistic material and didn’t give me any paperwork for that either. One of them took pity on me and wrote down the name of the police station they were taking Lauren to. You could be stopped and searched with no reason, people were arrested and kept in cells and then not charged, they were incarcerated before committing a crime. The police tear-gassed parties in enclosed spaces, left people sitting on the cold ground for hours, and stripped people of their humanity. One of the girls who was there was mauled by a police dog off its leash. She hadn’t resisted at all, she had lain completely still, and yet she was bitten five times, leaving deep wounds. It was awful.
On the grand scale of things the story of Copenhagen was the complete and utter failure to address climate change. But on a civil liberties level and from the point of view of people who are active dissenters, it was an even bigger travesty. And all the while, during what the scientists were saying was the absolute last chance to do something about climate change, the people in power didn’t manage to come to an agreement. So we all went home, having been beaten both figuratively and literally – the final chance to save humanity had passed, and hey, it was Christmas!
“What is fantastic about that story is that it shows that campaigns can be – and often are –
successful if people work together”
People were incredibly depressed when they came back. And not just the direct action community but the entire campaigning world around climate change. There had been such a drumming-up of energy around this concept: “Oh my God, this is it! This is the last chance! We’ve got to do something about it!” And then it didn’t work. Where do you go from there? Where do you go from, “This is the last chance to save humanity”? You come home and you go, “Ah, maybe we oversold that one a little bit.”
But out of the ashes of that failure, and through the prism of the current “economic crisis”, messages from Climate Camp are growing in power: they, and others, have been saying for some time that capitalism is causing this problem and we can’t address climate change without addressing capitalism. We can’t just have green capitalism and it’s all going to be fine – capitalism demands infinite growth, and you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. As we navigate a post-Copenhagen world, it seems more and more of us who are concerned with the climate are prepared to confront this.
The death of the third runway at Heathrow was a boost. The film follows the Plane Stupid third runway campaign, and on some level it’s a success story, because the combined forces of nimbyism, Plane Stupid and the Tories have managed to put an end to the runway. But of course there are other runways that are being built instead: nobody has made any commitments to really stop the growth of the aviation industry. That said, what is fantastic about that story is that it shows that campaigns can be – and often are – successful if people work together.
Another success that we highlight in the film is the actions which took place against Kingsnorth power station in Kent. It was set to be decommissioned and they were going to build a new coal-fired station to replace it, but they’ve now shelved their plans for this. E.ON, the energy company that owns the plant, are never going to come out and say, “We cancelled this because we were scared of the protesters and what they were going to do if we went ahead with it.” But it was the site of frequent, heavy action from Climate Camp and others and there was every reason to believe that they would have been in there sabotaging
the construction if E.ON had gone ahead with it.
There’s no doubting the conviction of anyone I spent time with. They believe that they are fighting for justice for the people who are the real victims of climate change. Not allowing society to run for the hills. But that’s what’s most likely going to happen: when times get tough, people will take care of their own. People who have money will protect their standard of living and will continue to consume, trying to buy their way out of the problem.
For the activists I met, convincing these people not to do so is the battle of their lifetimes.”
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