What follows is a critical report on the “Great Climate Swoop” a mobilisation by Climate Camp on Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station. It took place on 17–18 October.
Because of the diversity of tactics employed and the splitting up of the demo into several “blocs”, each with a distinct mission, it was difficult to tell exactly how many people had been mobilised for the action. The “bloc” I participated in —“Footsteps to the Future” — probably had around 200 people on it, with maybe another 300 on the other blocs.
Throughout the day, we received text message updates informing us that “people have got inside!” or that “people have got onto the coal pile!” But it was never clear — except to those already in the know — exactly who the brave direct action buccaneers were.
The Swoop had been beset from the start by a bit of an identity crisis; no-one was quite sure whether the aim was simply to stage a symbolic protest in opposition to the expansion of coal power, or to “take over” or “shut down” the station. The division of the action into the diverse “blocs” (some of which aimed to “get to the control room and take the power back”, others of which aimed simply to rally by the plant gates) was a convenient way of sidestepping that problem.
The politics of the “Footsteps to the Future” bloc were a little crass and in some places downright peculiar. One man rode around on a bicycle with a megaphone shouting things like “we are the makers of music and the dreamers of dreams.”
There was an abundance of placards with slogans such as “RIP UK coal”, “Bury coal” and “Leave it in the ground”. Chants included “Ratcliffe-on-Soar, filthy to the core”, and one piece of direct action theatre involved a “funeral to celebrate the death of UK coal.”
There was little evidence of the progress that has been made in getting the climate movement to take class issues seriously, and not treat polluting industries as homogenous entities to be straightforwardly opposed, but rather related to on the basis of supporting the struggles of workers within them and empowering those workers to change the way their industries are run.
A demonstration taking place at a coal-fired power station in Leicestershire — an ex-mining county — that cannot develop more nuanced slogans than “RIP UK coal” needs to think about what kind of change it actually wants to see in society, who it thinks can deliver that change and what kind of “future” it is actually taking “footsteps” towards.
At the brief rally that my bloc held outside the plant’s main gate, I spoke as a Workers’ Climate Action activist.
I talked about the work that had been done by WCA activists in the run-up to the Swoop engaging with Ratcliffe workers, about the perspective of worker-led just transition and about the legacy of the miners’ strike.
That was a struggle by coal workers, I said, for a different vision of how society might be run — in the interests of the working-class majority rather than the interests of profit. Now the task was to build a movement in which workers in coal-fired power stations like Ratcliffe took the lead in fighting for a worker-led transition to a sustainable economy.
Everyone clapped and cheered, but no-one seemed to see the difference between the ideas I was raising and “leave it in the ground”-type slogans.
The speaker from Climate Rush, after me, confidently announced that “most people here are from a middle-class background” and laid claim to the legacy of the suffragettes who were, apparently, “middle-class women who dared to break the law and go to prison.” Unfortunately, her views are probably a more accurate barometer of the politics of the climate movement than my WCA speech.
How effective the Swoop was in terms of its impact on the functioning of the plant may not become clear until some days after the event. A heavy police presence meant effective liaison between the blocs was difficult. As I left, many activists were preparing to attempt to reconnect with other blocs and set up camps for the night.
A visual protest against an unsustainable source of power is worthwhile, and it is positive that worker-engagement was considered at all by the event’s organisers (something that did not happen automatically, but rather because of the hard work of Workers’ Liberty members and other WCA supporters in arguing for such perspectives within Climate Camp). But there is still a long way to go to build a movement for a sustainable future that is accessible to frontline workers and bases itself on their struggles.
Views from the Swoop:
Pete Radcliff, Workers’ Liberty and trade union activist from Nottingham:
“I think targeting the power plant is probably the wrong focus. This isn’t about this power plant as such, it’s about e.on’s perspectives and policies as a corporation. It would’ve been more effective and politically better to look at occupying their corporate headquarters rather than organising an action that could be seen as targeting workers.”
Anna, involved with Workers’ Climate Action:
“The Swoop will help maintain the whole profile of the debate around energy generation and the climate, and that’s important. But I think worker-engagement was under-prioritised. The organisers treated it in quite a tokenistic way; in the email they sent out before the Swoop, it was only the seventh or eighth item.”
Ryan Bernard is involved in Climate Camp and helped organise the action:
“I think we did really well considering there was relatively little preparation. The organisation of the action into blocs gave it a feel of several different, disparate groups coming together and I think that’s important. The fact that some activists were able to pull down the fences that the police and e.on put up quite early was also important; it showed we can be imaginative.”
Greg Marshall, activist from Nottingham:
“This is a worthwhile and valid protest. In terms of whether the workers are a target, I think it’s clear that the grievance is against the policies of e.on and the government and their commitment to an unsustainable source of power.”
Police at it again...
Despite some half-hearted attempts to clean up their public image since their brutal marshalling of the G20 protests, the police can’t help jumping at new opportunities to prove that whenever the interests of big business and corporate profiteering are threatened, they’ll be there to put the (figurative and literal) boot in.
Reports indicate that more than 50 people were arrested over the Swoop weekend, ostensibly for attempting to breach the fences that police and e.on security had erected around the perimeter of the site.
Police also pushed, shoved, and set dogs on activists doing nothing more than assembling near one of the fences. Some of the newer and younger activists mobilised by Climate Camp learnt some tough but important lessons about what the police represents as a social force and who they’re there to protect.
“This was my first demo and it was one of those experiences that change the way you think about yourself. When the police got nasty, I had to make a decision whether to back off or to join the people sitting down with dogs barking in our faces and the police lined up with raised batons. The guy next to me was given a few sneaky jabs in the ribs with a baton when the cameras weren’t watching. It was strange to see two officers who I’d been having a friendly chat with earlier follow orders to threaten the peaceful protestors amongst us with batons and dogs.”
Sam Crace, activist in the Woodcraft Folk