It was about 5.30 in the morning when the shout awoke me, and the moment we were waiting for announced its arrival. My sleep-weakened hands struggled to pull on my boots – we had all been sleeping fully clothed for days, in readiness – so by the time I struggled from my tent in to the grey light of morning, just a few seconds later, my partner and many others were by then disappearing across the field. The summer sun was already high, but obscured behind the mist that rose off the tidal river at the bottom of the grassy hill and still hung damp in the air. At that moment, everything seemed hazy. It would have been beautiful, had I had time to stop and gaze, but my heart was beating fast and my feet were running faster to join the crowd that was growing along with the day.
As I emerged from the village of recently-emptied tents and started up the far side of the valley, I could see that the sun had managed to struggle through the fading mist. Its light was bouncing off the helmets and shields of the ranks of men ahead of me, armed with sticks and gas, and off the windscreens of the speeding vehicles rushing in reinforcements behind them. I saw my partner a field ahead of me as he disappeared into the crowd that was forming in front of them – the next time I would see him would be 30 hours later, injured, behind a screen in a court room. A few seconds later, I was in the midst of it all - the shouting, cheering, laughing, chanting, struggling, spinning mass, trying simply to keep my feet on the floor. "Stay at the back" I said to myself. "Observe what goes on, help those who need it, add your support" I intone. But then, placing my feet firmly on the ground, I looked up, as the sun shone its early light on what was to be a very unusual Sunday morning, and found myself at the very front, face to face with the riot police.
This was Climate Camp 2008. Not, as it may have seemed at that moment, a frontier in a police state, at least, allegedly not. Nor, as certain authorities were trying to convince the media, was this a full scale terrorist attack that threatened the underlying fabric of our society, flawed and threadbare as that fabric may be. Rather, this was maybe 1500 eco-types – community workers, ecologists, scientists, activists, journalists, concerned citizens – come together for a week of courses, contacts, conversation, compost loos and couc-cous in Kent. At the end of which was planned a peaceful march to the gates of Kingsnorth Power Station, the proposed site for the first of the "New Generation" of coal fired power stations, for a bit of family flag waving, banner hanging, bad drumming, and admittedly, perhaps the odd touch of fence snipping. Our intention was to highlight the catastrophe that such "progress" could cause: How can we continue to base our energy systems on carbon and "capture" technology that simply doesn't exist in the face of the imperative to reduce our emissions by at least 80% (if not 95), and our economy on fossil fuels which are all but exhausted? Our aim was humanitarian and environmental, our commitment non-violent.
Bizarre as this scene was, in the face of the weeks events, it was nothing less than I had expected. Over the previous four days of set-up, I had been searched by police maybe a dozen or more times. Everyone had been subject to this blatant intimidation - on two occasions I witnessed police search inside babies’ nappies for weapons. A black man was arrested because he was unable to produce his passport and so accused of being here illegally. Items "intended for criminal damage" and therefore confiscated included water piping, felt tip pens, board games, playing cards, wood for building compost loos, food, clothes pegs, spoons, parts of marquees, string, even an elderly lady's crutches. A few tools had been seized - clearly intended for the site build - but very few. Throughout the whole camp stories and eye-witness accounts were rife. For further details there is ample footage available on Indymedia and the Climate Camp website.
Whilst the land owner had not known in advance that we were coming, once we arrived and stated our aims he gave his full and happy permission, provided we obeyed a few rules regarding the welfare of his sheep, which of course we were happy to do.
On this Sunday morning, however, the Police response was no friendly walkabout. These were troops of riot police, up to 100 at a time, armed with shields, bullet proof vests, CS gas and batons, vans of dogs and horses. Facing them were a few hundred committed though slightly unwashed people armed with herbal tea and chocolate, guitars and an endless litany of protest songs of questionable musicality.... who says the spirit of ‘69’ is dead???! And neither side were afraid to use their weapons. By the time I left eight hours later, of our small group of ten who I had been with at the gate, one had been arrested, two had been hospitalised, six had been first-aided (including myself - my left arm was out of use for two days and my right leg badly bruised and swollen after baton blows) and only one remained un-injured. However we had also sung ourselves hoarse, made new friends, and defended the entrance from police vehicles by setting up a yurt and throwing a party. During that time, despite much debate as to the purpose of all this, the police had not gained an inch. We had not so much as raised an angry hand against the police, even insults or swearing was shouted down by the group.
Two moments in these hours warrant further description:
The first was early on after half an hour of pushing and shoving, when in a moment of stillness I found myself at the front. I was face to face with the row of riot police, all of whom were standing with their batons raised, gas in hand, waiting the order to attack. Everything seemed to freeze as I realised that things had come to the crunch. This was the moment I had somehow known would come ever since I joined my first protest a few years ago. I had seen others get hit, some injured badly. I had been insulted and jostled. But this was the moment when for the first time in my adult life I was about to get hit. It was no big deal. It had been on the cards all along and all we were talking about was a bit of a battering. But that hypothetical question we all ask now became a reality.... was I prepared to suffer violence for what I believed?
I looked at the armed woman in front of me, younger than me, no longer able to meet my eye and clearly scared, and the older man next to her clearly spoiling for a fight. I knew why they were here. They had been telling us all week. They were getting paid £35 an hour. And I knew why I was here - because I believed wholeheartedly in the purposes of this camp, that it was a small part of a process to prevent the degradation of this planet and the lives of all generations to come. I looked at the young woman, smiled, and quietly said, "Don't be scared, it's ok". And then the order was given, and tentatively at first and then more strongly, she and the man with her, started to hit me.
The second moment came later, after the initial onslaught had died down. Again an order went out, apparently this time to stop hitting people, and the police re-formed themselves into a line. I formed part of another line, sitting on the ground with our backs to their legs. An hour or two passed. Songs were sung, food and jokes shared. And then one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced occurred. Someone suggested that we share with one another our reasons for being there. Maybe 30 or 40 people took a few minutes each to share their personal motivation, why they believed what they believed, and why they were willing to put themselves on the line for it. I shared about how, when travelling in Asia, I had met poor people, who became my most valued friends. People, whose lives were already devastated by the effects of climate change. The depth of insight and emotion from the whole group was profound to say the least. Many people were moved to tears - including, remarkably, two of the riot police. These were not tears of despair, they were tears of deep solace at being with like-minded people who understood and who together were committed to finding a solution.
As I sat there, in some ways still only half awake, in others more awake than I had ever been, people started passing refreshments around. A kind of late breakfast, as it must now have been ten or eleven o'clock. People camping near by had brought porridge and a few cups of hot coffee. I took a sip of black tea from a dirty mug and passed it to my neighbour. A few moments later a bar of vegan chocolate was passed from hand to hand for people to take a piece and pass it on. And as I took my piece of chocolate I realised, that like thousands of others around the country that Sunday morning sitting in their pews, here in this field in Kent, sitting in front of a line of riot police, I had just shared communion. As the sudden shiver of recognition thrilled through me, chilling me on what was now a roasting hot summers day, in absolute silence yet clearer and more penetrating than the sirens, I heard The Voice say, "Here I am, Miriam, this is where I am”.
Dozens of times, since I left the church six or seven years ago, I've wondered whether I've done the right thing, whether in my attempt to let God be free, I've actually let him go. But equally, several times since I started mixing with activists, slum dwellers, asylum seekers, the homeless and the mentally ill, I have found God in the most unlikely of places (or likely? it all depends where you expect him) , grinning at me toothlessly in the face. And here, yet again, but perhaps even more poignantly than usual, as I sat in the gap between riot police, with all the weight of state and corporation behind them, and a field full of exhausted, stressed, unkempt, colourful, committed and passionate people, with all the lightness of belief behind them, I knew without a shadow of a doubt where God was, and where I wanted to be.
Wednesday, 14 January 2009
What is church?
There is an organisation called Spirited Exchanges which is for those who ... perhaps it is best if you look it up on their web site - I will struggle to summarise it. However, they have a newsletter which is not currently available on the web (work in progress) and the following article was in the last edition and I thought that it was worth sharing more widely and commenting on. Although perhaps the only comment that I can add is that for me this enacts more of God and Jesus than much I see in church. The willing powerlessness of the protestors, the acceptance that they are going to be beaten, the sharing together.