On Tuesday 3rd May, 300 people shut down the UK’s largest open cast coal mine – Ffos-y-fran in Wales, in the biggest ever mass action in a coal mine in the UK. The action was preceded by a 3 day action camp, where people got to know each other and prepared for action.
It was one of the most beautiful and powerful things I’ve ever taken part in – shutting down operations, getting huge local media coverage days before an election and taking the fighting spirit of people everywhere to the centre of this giant mine.
As the dust begins to settle and toes have thawed out, there’s a number of reasons I think the action was such a success, and why 2 weeks later there’s still a smile on my face and spring in my step. Obviously everyone’s experience was different, but here are some of my highlights…
Joining a powerful local campaign
At the opening session of camp, comedy duo and indefatigable United Valleys Action Group (UVAG) front-people Chris and Alyson concluded that it was ‘business as usual, until we win’ – a slogan that became the rallying cry we took to heart of the mine.
The raucous and prolonged standing ovation that erupted whenever UVAG took to the stage was a spine tingling experience. The 10-year local campaign has fought off corporate bad guys including a giant incinerator and the first (and hopefully last) attempt to build a new mine on common land next to Ffos-y-fran, and they were an inspiration to all of us.
It was a true privilege to join their fight even for a brief moment, and celebrate the dedicated and tireless local organising they’ve been doing for years. I thank them for their immense hospitality, open-mindedness, constant stream of delicious cake and fighting spirit. And a sneaky shower when the going got tough (don’t tell the others…).
Being part of a global moment
The hand drawn map of ‘Break Free’ actions going on around the world and the international speakers throughout the camp helped remind us of our place in to this global moment of escalated action against the fossil fuel industry. We were the first action to happen, and we wanted to get it right.
Although taking part meant organising a camp and action in even less time than usual – working already Paris-fatigued organisers around the clock – feeling part of this bigger global moment was incredibly powerful.
Just hours after our action, 10,000 people in the Philippines mobilised against coal extraction in their region. Many of us went on to Ende Gelände to join our German comrades in their fight against dirty lignite.
In some beautiful coincidence, this Tuesday morning was the first time ever that none of our electricity in the UK came from coal, having been our main power source as recently as 2013. This feels like the moment we take on coal and win.
Everyone is an organiser
Through an ‘activist speed-dating’ and ‘mission tactics’ process run at the camp, everyone on the action was joined into ‘affinity groups’ and given a role on the action. These ranged from making sure there was food for everyone, looking out for the wellbeing of others, making sure the mood was kept high and ‘vibes’ were good, to being ready to lock to machinery should the need arise.
The action ran smoothly because it was a group effort, and everyone played their part. By using this tactic we were able to both spread the workload, and empower people to get more involved.
Bringing in new people
Night one, and the question ‘who’s here for the first time’ was met with a breath-stopping, heart-lifting sea of hands across the tent. This action brought in hundreds of new people, ready to step-up and take responsibility for climate action where governments and corporations are failing.
The brave ‘advanced party’ that set off before dawn to block the vehicle routes ready for the mass to arrive a few hours later – a job involving not inconsiderable risk and courage – included 80-year-old Phil from Penarth, Christian Climate Action and people on their first ever action. Huge respect.
Keeping the mood high
A Dutch comrade commented over the washing-up that the joviality and light-heartedness of your typical UK activist was one of our greatest features, and I’d have to agree.
Although I couldn’t go in the mine myself, the atmosphere as the mass set off from camp over the hills to the mine was absolutely electrifying. The beautiful photos pouring out throughout the day showed smiles, singing, line-dancing, volleyball with giant inflatable cubes, selfies with the workers and even a football match. Even the protracted meetings of in-mine consensus decision making didn’t seem to dampen spirits.
A welcome party with music and applause awaited to embrace returners after a successful day.
Nobody got arrested!
When the news came in that the final group had negotiated their way out, despite hanging on in the depths of the mine as long as possible, a huge cheer went up around the camp. A successful action, leaving our powder dry for another day.
The camp as a bond-builder
Organising a 3-day camp – the logistics, the programme, the politics, the money – is no small feat. But it also provides the building blocks for the relationships and the trust that helps us take action. Through workshops, trainings and participation in camp life we were able to start building affinities that enabled us to work together on the action, and hopefully into the future.
Positive messages got out there
The Welsh valleys are not unaccustomed to serious, devastating fights about coal (this article lays it out rather beautifully). The ‘Solidarity Sunday’ event, organised jointly with UVAG, featured speakers from PCS Union and local renewables experts to focus on just transition and the potential for renewables in Wales. As the BBC anchor put it on Tuesday night; ‘hundreds of climate activists are holding a protest at the UK’s largest open cast coal mine…. the campaigners are calling for more focus on renewable power and green jobs’.
It wouldn’t be a review of a UK action without some reference to the weather. Despite a camp with 40mph wind, frozen mist and near continual drizzle, the sun-gods jumped on board for the action day. The momentary rainstorm acted only to encourage a disco under the diggers. We couldn’t believe our luck.
People can be amazing and inspiring
I joined the climate justice movement in 2009, inspired by some of the incredible organisers at Climate Camp. And I think it’s the people that hold you in. Looking around at the passion, dedication, ingenuity, creativity, ruthless organisation and love from everyone involved in that space is intensely uplifting.
From those who did the late night gate shifts, or took turns chopping veg, or kept the boiling water flowing, or pulled the whole thing together, or coordinated the clean-up. All of these people are inspiring and give me hope. Showing appreciation for the many ways everyone has contributed is always my highlight of camp, and this year’s ‘coalys’ awards were no exception – celebrating acts of bravery on the action, through to longest hours in the toilet cleaning crew.
Obviously we are not perfect. There must be ongoing discussion about the inclusivity, accessibility and power and privilege dynamics within our movement. We need to think of new ways to bring in and empower people and to not overburden a small number of organisers. We need to constantly work to fight all forms of oppression and be an effective, non-hierarchical grassroots network.
But there is also a need to recognise our strengths, celebrate the amazing things achieved and the spectacular people involved. I think we did a really good job on this one. Huge love and respect to everyone involved.
This blog reflects just some of my own experiences, but we encourage everyone that participated to feed their thoughts – the good, the bad and the ugly – and come along to the next debrief and planning meeting on 11th-12th June so we can learn from this experience and build into the future.