The sun was setting over the Reclaim the Power camp in Balcombe when my friend Matt* rung to say he’d be visiting. Matt is a union officer in the biggest trade union in the UK and had been present with his banners at both the giant family march on Sunday and at Monday’s day of direct action. Monday had seen hundreds take part in Direct Action against fracking and for a sustainable, fair future. Cuadrilla’s drilling site was shut down by a human blockade including disabled activists, pensioners and Caroline Lucas MP, Cuadrilla’s websites were taken out by hacker-network Anonymous, Cuadrilla’s Head Office was occupied in Lichfield their PR company Bell Pottinger blockaded in London, and both Lord Howell and pro-Fracking MP Francis Maude’s home and office, respectively, visited by activists.
Matt coming to the camp was a big deal for me. We’d worked together a lot and it was exciting to have someone from what might seem like a different world come into this one, all the more so as he is a local, living less than a mile away in the next village along from Balcombe.
He showed up with a large wooden stick with a crystal on top! Tough-guy Matt is a secret hippy? Not so. ‘This is my land’ he said smiling, ‘I’m connecting to it with this stick here. Thankyou. Thankyou for what you’re doing here, defending my land’ he said proudly. I took him on a tour of the site. This was the first time he’d ever been to anything like this.
Here first is the Welcome Tent, were everyone receives a guide to workshops and decision-making, a site map, our aims and reasons for creating the camp and a pep-talk on participation and orientation. On to the Comms tent near the gate – crackling 24-7 with camp-wide communication via walkietalkies. All gate security volunteers, the Tranquillity and Wellbeing Teams, Medics, Media, Legal, Infrastructure, and Welcome are in constant touch with one another to ensure people are safe and informed and requests and news can be processed instantly. We use call signs to familiarise ourselves with standardising and de-personalising communication to keep traffic down and to ensure only vital information is circulated. One night on a police changeover, a younger officer was amazed that we were using Police-style comms tactics. ‘These people have got radios?’ he said. An older officer went on, ‘Mate, they aren’t a party camp here, these people go to bed at midnight, and they’re on the radios all the time, they’re seriously organised’. The younger cop shook his head, ‘That is frightening’. He said.
Onwards to the Media Tent – the day’s key messages are pinned up on flipchart paper, worked out collectively over morning coffee in response to evolving news. At any given time, six to ten volunteers are sat with laptops, i-phones and answering two non-stop ringing media phones, or taking journalists on tours of the site. It’s a nerve centre. Some have professional media backgrounds, others have been freshly trained up by the group to give interviews, pass on our messages and write their own blogs. One volunteer told me later, ‘It was definitely work, and like the PR work that I’m used to only, with this I was really believing in what I was communicating’. The PR industry’s bible PR Week interviewed us and asked us if we employed a professional PR firm! They were shocked when we told them that our key messages can be worked out by up to 100 people in open meetings and that it would go completely against our principles to employ any firm to create our politics for us.
Out through the Media tent and on past workshop spaces where just 2 days ago we had UK Uncut do a skill-share on social media campaigning and an Algerian Democracy activist explain his campaigning against Gas in his homecountry – Gas which is being used by us in the UK and the profits of which are being used to repress his people back in Algeria. We pass the space where Union leaders Chris Baugh (Public and Commercial Services Union) and Manuel Cortes (Transport and Salaried Staff Association) had delivered a brilliant workshop on making a Just Transition to a sustainable renewable energy economy and how a million climate jobs and a National Climate Service are possible.
Onward past the medics and Legal tents – where Action Medics are on constant standby to deal with everything from truncheon blows to asthma attacks, wasp stings to dislocated knees. And the Green and Black Cross – whose volunteers include some of the top lawyers in the country, who have been fielding calls from arrestees and conducting support for anyone carted off to a Police station. Upon their release, all protesters can find a friendly face from GBC waiting for them with some vegan chocolate or cup of tea and supportive advice. I show Matt a special form developed by GBC for witnesses and arrestees about police conduct to help those arrested and to hold police accountable for any overstepping of the mark.
Next on past two kitchens – the Oxford and the Bradford kitchen tents (named so as that’s where they’re from) – cooking up some of the most delicious food you can imagine – Dhals, fragrant curries, Tuscan bean stews, coconut and red pepper soups, fresh salads, spinach pastas, Rattatouille and more. All vegan and all rustled up by volunteers who put their hands up to help on the day.
Over in the distance, compost toilets, kept functional by the Sanitation team, who stock them up with toiletpaper and change the haybales when necessary. After every number two, people throw sawdust down the ‘toilet’ (a wheeliebin under a wooden seat unit) which mixes to make compost. Both the Pee Bales and compost are used by local farms.
The kids’ space is next, complete with climbing frames and paddling pools and a tent stuffed with crayons and paints and easels. It’s a space ruled by children, but under the close supervision of parents, who sit chatting together as they look over oneanothers children.
Wellbeing and Tranquillity? The Wellbeing tent is a calm, soft-furnishing filled space with it’s own kettle and biscuits, and a counsellor on duty at all times. It’s here that people who feel frazzled either by the days events or by life in general can come and be still and offload emotionally to an empathetic ear. Tranquillity are a mobile team who can be called on by radio to help mediate conflicts or tense situations between people on the site. The site has a ‘Safer Spaces’ policy based on anti-oppression politics that can lead to those who engage in sexist, racist, trans/homophobic etc behaviour being excluded from the site.
‘Aha, Site Office’, comments Matt, approaching a large, green canvas, dank-looking tent with ‘SITE OFFICE’ written on a wooden sign outside. ‘So this is where it all happens eh? This is the HQ’, he eagerly steps in and his eyes adjust to the low light. He peers around perplexed. All he can see are piles of toilet paper, cabbages, sacks of potatoes, bungee cords, bin-bags and wheelbarrows. It’s like a cross between a larder and a small warehouse. ‘No Matt’ I say, pointing back out of the tent behind me to a large 300-capacity Marquee at the heart of the site. ‘This is our HQ, this is where it all happens’.
It’s a strange concept to stomach, particularly coming from a hierarchical workplace background, both in terms of the management he’d regularly negotiate with and the structures he himself would be working within. But it’s true that the decisions on both having the camp and in running the camp day to day have been and are made by large groups of people on a consensus basis. Everyone is a volunteer. And noone can actually be ‘The Leader’ because it’s physically impossible in a horizontal self-managed environment that requires and recognises the voluntary efforts of all involved. The whole operation is transparent and runs on mutual aid and support, consensus and not coercion. Yes there are ‘leaders’ or ‘coordinators’, yes there are hierarchies, created through experience rather than bestowed authority, and yes there is management, but it doesn’t tell, it co-manages and includes, again based on peoples’ experiences and knowledge of the tasks at hand. The result is democracy in action and intergenerational experience shared on the job, with new skills learned and a sense of empowerment through sharing and seeing the direct results of ones labour.
Mine and Matt’s little moment in the Site Tent also showed me that actually, resources are instrumental, and that it is the decisions on how they are used that are political and that hold power. With our camp we had reduced them to having this instrumental role because we’d depoliticised them – they were a commons for all to use – and that it was action, on challenging undemocratic decisions, from Cuadrilla drilling in Balcombe to the UK government’s energy policy, that were the most important and we could engage in dealing with those decisions because our shelter, food, water and warmth had been dealt with and were uncontroversial.
It was time for feedback from the day of action. Matt stood inside our Big Top with hundreds of people, as group after affinity group took turns in sharing their experiences of taking mission-based tactical action on Monday. People had felt empowered and confused, afraid and exhilarated, working together for a common aim. For many it had been their first experience of protest and direct action. The mood was electric. ‘Thanks for giving me this insight’ said Mat, ‘Thanks for letting me be part of this’. ‘But you are part of this, there’s no need for any thanks’ I explained. He walked off into the night with his stick, smiling. I know he wasn’t the only one to have seen democracy in action here at Reclaim the Power.
*Name has been changed