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How I joined the 15 foot high club

Camilla Berens describes her most empowering experience of direct action

January 18, 2012
4 min read

If you haven’t yet experienced the subversive joy of sitting on top of a 15-foot bamboo tripod, I recommend you put it on your ‘to do’ list for 2012. Tripods are one of the most effective and versatile inventions in the direct action movement’s tool kit. In terms of political empowerment, their potential has yet to be fully exploited.

For me, empowerment is about overcoming fear. It’s about dismissing my fear of going outside the established social boundaries to make my voice heard. It’s about conquering the fear of being arrested and how a criminal record might affect my future. And in the case of tripods, it’s about learning to ignore my ingrained fear of heights.

It has taken me ages to get to grips with all these things. But on April 11 last year, I think I finally graduated. The plan was simple. We needed to challenge the government fallacy that the UK needs eight new nuclear power stations to combat climate change. All our efforts to highlight the dangers of introducing a new generation of untested EPR reactors (and to put forward viable alternatives) had fallen on deaf ears. The sense of frustration was crushing.

Our only option was to take to the streets. Or, to be more accurate, the central London artery that runs outside the headquarters of EDF Energy. The French state-owned energy giant has spent millions marketing itself as a champion of sustainability, but behind the scenes it is spearheading investment in the government’s highly questionable ‘nuclear renaissance’.

After weeks of painstaking planning, Operation Nukem went like clockwork. Dressed as a highways maintenance crew, we created two traffic diversions and then coned-off the road outside EDF’s HQ. Two 15-foot tripods were erected across the four-lane highway and, bingo, a half mile stretch of tarmac was suddenly quiet enough for passers-by to hear birdsong and to fully absorb our fluorescent banner, strung between the tripods and safely out of reach. The area was now a ‘nuclear disaster zone’ – we wanted to remind Londoners what a Fukushima would be like in their own city.

From my position on top of the tripod in the south-bound carriageway, it felt like the world was at my feet.

Red-faced police inspectors came and went. Expensively-suited EDF executives paced. People came out of their offices to see what was going on and to talk to our ground support. Time ticked by: the specialist unit called in to remove us from the tripods had been caught up in the traffic tail-back.

I have no idea how EDF’s offices are laid out but as I explained what we were doing through a megaphone, I imagined that the chief executive’s desk was on the other side of the window that was parallel to my crow’s nest. It felt deeply satisfying to tell EDF’s big cheeses that new nuclear was a quick fix that would undoubtedly come back to haunt them – and us.

Our tripod protest lasted six hours, and the event hit the business world’s newswires. This was our first clear warning to investors that buying into nuclear energy also meant being on the receiving end of some seriously empowered activists.

During those six hours, I began to think that the tripod is not only a great piece of kit but also quite symbolic. A tripod’s three prongs could represent the three pillars that support an effective campaign: a sound argument, a sense of humour and enduring tenacity. The tripod’s crow’s nest reminds us of the need to keep an eye on the bigger picture and to find a calm space when everything around us seems to be in chaos. Let’s hope many more potential tripodistas empower themselves in 2012.

Camilla Berens is campaign co-ordinator for Boycott EDF. This article is the winner of our direct action short essay contest

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