There are two interesting pieces about the Heathrow protestors in today’s newspapers well worth comparing and contrasting.
The interest comes from the markedly different descriptions the writers have of their involvement in political protest movements, and the diverse motivations that each had for them. Unsurprisingly Monbiot comes across as an elitist dictator, presuming to know what is good for the rest of us, whereas Hume portrays a proper sense of history and solidarity with serious protest movements.
Monbiot, as you would expect, sings the praises of his fellow protestors. Describing the set-up of the camp he says:
…in other respects it was better organised, more democratic and more disciplined than any I have seen before. It drew on the protests of the 1990s but introduced two new elements: much better logistics and a model of popular democracy imported from Latin America.
All the facilities that 1,500 people would need – including running water, sanitation, hot food twice a day, banks of computers and walkie-talkies, stage lighting, sound systems, even a cinema – were set up in a few hours on unfamiliar ground, in the teeth of police blockades. A system of affinity groups and neighbourhoods, feeding their decisions upwards to general meetings, permitted a genuine participatory democracy of the kind that you will never encounter in British public life. The actions themselves were disciplined and remained non-violent, even when the police got heavy. I left the camp on Sunday evening convinced that a new political movement has been born.
Hume, a veteran of direct action alongside striking miners and others in the 1980s pours cold water on Monbiot’s warm praise:
…I feel obliged to point out that young eco-protester puppies today don’t know they are born, are degrading the good name of direct action, and would not know a police state if they found one in their muesli.
The news has been full of spokespersons from the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow comparing their campaign of direct action with noble struggles of the past. One summed up the camp’s aims as being “to show it’s possible and pleasurable to live sustainably” (the joys of the composting toilet), and “to show that non-violent direct action works. Civil disobedience has in the past led to things like black people getting the vote.”
Grow up and get an education. The campaign against Heathrow expansion bears no comparison to those that led to “things like black people getting the vote”. Direct action is neither good nor bad in principle. It is just a tactic, used by all manner of protest movements. What matters most are the political aims and outlook informing the protests.
Hume goes further, contrasting Monbiot’s egotistical moral posturing with the genuine suffering of past protestors:
In the past, direct action was employed by people fighting to defend their own interests – working people struggling for jobs and better pay, women demanding the vote, black people seeking civil rights. The pursuit of self-interest was the driving force for political change. Others such as we on the Left supported their struggles, but we acted in solidarity, not as self-appointed substitutes for the miners or disadvantaged minorities.
Today, by contrast, to take political action in your own interests seems frowned upon as greedy, even sleazy. Instead, the Heathrow protesters insist that they are acting altruistically “on behalf of” others, speaking for the “voiceless” – the poor of the developing world, unborn generations, or simply the planet.
Finally Hume contrasts Monbiot’s moans about the police getting “heavy” with the genuine violence that old school direct action types (and some more recent examples) have been forced to face:
Yet such are the rising levels of self-deluded preciousness among the protesters that some seem to believe they were subjected to historic levels of police oppression, because some officers “acted aggressively”. They might care to look at what happened in the past when protests challenged the Establishment – the direct action did not remain nonviolent for long once the riot police started swinging. By contrast, eco-protests are now so mainstream and respectable that they are treated with kid gloves rather than the old iron fist. The only ones to receive that treatment in recent years were the pro-hunting protesters outside Parliament – they were the “wrong” sort of conservationists.
I may not have agreed with every cause Hume marched for in his youth, however I do know which set of protestors I admire the most.