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To camp or not to camp?

Maya Stacey on Reclaim the Power, the climate movement and the ongoing struggle for diversity

December 1, 2014
4 min read

Exciting things have happened since Reclaim the Power (RTP) packed up its canvas in Blackpool earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands have marched for climate justice worldwide. Large-scale direct actions such as Greenpeace’s Cottam coal train occupation have drawn in new cohorts of activists. Universities, cities and even the Rockefeller oil billionaires have pulled out of fossil fuel investments. With the COP21 climate conference in Paris only a year away, and climate scientists stressing the urgent need for immediate action, it is more important than ever for the grassroots climate movement to mobilise widespread support.

So what does RTP’s revival of the mass-action ‘climate camp’ this summer have to offer in this context? The camp was successful in a number of ways. The location, Blackpool, was chosen in response to a call from local communities resisting fracking and the camp was set up alongside a group of ‘mums and grandmas’ who had already squatted the field. For six days, hundreds of people came together to take action for economic, environmental and social justice. Workshop topics ranged from ‘Workfare: know your rights’ to ’Building the culture of resistance’. On top of this there was skill sharing, training, networking and mobilising.

On the day of direct action, 13 co‑ordinated actions took place nationwide, including blockades, lock-ons and die-ins. No one was arrested, there was widespread media coverage and a clear message was sent to the fracking industry: extreme energy and fossil fuel extraction will be resisted. Most importantly, hundreds of people got a sense of their collective power to challenge corporate control.

The return of the camp model, then, was largely positive. It marks a significant change from 2011, when Climate Camp disbanded for a number of reasons. Many then felt disheartened by the lack of meaningful political action at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, and some suffered burnout. Others felt that the movement needed to broaden and shift focus following the financial collapse, the election of the coalition government and austerity. For many years, moreover, some in the movement have pointed to its overwhelmingly white, middle-class majority as a barrier to representing the diverse groups most affected by issues of social, economic and climate injustice.

The UK grassroots climate movement has since made important steps towards confronting these issues. Class and economic justice perspectives have been incorporated with the formation of new groups such as UK Uncut and Fuel Poverty Action. Sarah Shoraka, who has been involved in the movement for many years, says: ‘The climate movement needed to engage on issues of economic justice such as fuel poverty to be relevant. This has created a new intersectionality in the movement. It feels like RTP has a greater commitment to working in solidarity with local communities.’

This was evident in Blackpool, where local women took the lead and campers followed. Long-term community organising, supported by groups such as Frack Off, has built links between affected residents and activists with direct action experience. The result is a strong alliance, in which the distinction between so-called ‘nimbys’ and ‘professional protesters’ is increasingly difficult for the right-wing media to draw. In the camp’s closing plenary session, it was decided that, in order to engage with local communities not usually involved in such campaigns, the network should work at a more regional level.

The network also made efforts to make sure this year’s camp was accessible. Cheap transport was provided, donations for costs were optional, there was disabled access, and funds were available to participants needing to recoup their expenses. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most people would be unlikely to take time off to come to a protest camp. As Nick Bryer, another long-standing participant, points out, ’The potential for confrontation with the police, and the likelihood of being filmed, searched, etc. is likely to make attendance a more intimidating prospect for people from communities who suffer police harassment on a regular basis.’

Mass-action camps may always fall short of being fully representative, but they are an effective method for mobilisation, co-ordinating direct action and empowering groups and individuals. Localising is an important step forward, as is continuing to build solidarity with affected communities. Equally important is the use of diverse tactics. Camps consume huge amounts of energy and resources, some of which needs to be retained for other events and strategies.

Whether or not RTP decides to organise a camp in 2015, the network must continue looking outwards in the battle to achieve social, economic and environmental justice, and to challenge itself to be more representative. It is in solidarity with other tactics, movements and communities that the climate movement will be at its strongest.

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