A diary from the 2010 Climate Camp in Edinburgh. Originally published in September 2010.
“I hope the weather stays good for you. Enjoy Climate Camp.” The officer from Lothian and Border Police waves us through to the site’s entrance with a smile.
Our first impressions of Climate Camp in Edinburgh are dominated by the surreal nature of this year’s location – right in the Royal Bank of Scotland’s back garden (which is some kind of carefully landscaped site of woodland, wild meadows and nature trails). Just 200 yards across the tiny Gogarburn stream are RBS’s headquarters, a 3-story building of glass and concrete. We can watch some of the 3,000 employees sitting at their desks, and they can watch us erecting our tents and straw-bale toilets.
On the way to pitching my tent, I can’t help shaking my head in disbelief at seeing a group of uniformed police officers carrying water canisters to the camp’s main entrance. Apparently, until the water supply has been established, the cops are lending a hand.
One officer is nonetheless impressed by our organisational skills. They are on 12-hour shifts, he says, and despite being promised a hot meal for lunch they only get a sandwich, an apple and a packet of crisps. Some lucky ones got hold of an extra Mars bar.
The cops stood on the little footbridge that is the most direct way to RBS HQ (and to the bus stop on the other side of the building) complain that the stab-proof vests and their ‘tool’ belts are weighing down on their backs, and are sure that their changing night/day shift patterns will have the effect of shortening their lives by several years. With the government’s new pension plans they are now facing a 35 year (instead of 30) service. It’s like I walked in on a shop stewards meeting. But what do they think of RBS, I ask instead. ‘If I see one of them I’ll ask for my bank charges back’, says one PC, laughing.
There are many newcomers at Climate Camp again this year, and again many of the old faces have stayed away. Nonetheless, it feels a lot less ‘trendy’ and ‘gap-year-like’ than the previous camps in and around London. The obligatory strategy and evaluation workshop asks the question: ‘what are we good at, and what not’. The newcomers tell us enthusiastically how welcome they feel, while those who have stayed away are not around to say why. The person next to me mumbles: ‘we’re good at telling ourselves what we’re good at, and shit at realising what we’re shit at’.
Back on the gate by the footbridge to RBS, the friendly banter between cops and campers continues. It gradually becomes clear that the officers positioned on the bridge haven’t actually been briefed to stop protesters from crossing. A polite ‘excuse me’ is enough, and some 150 campers cross for the first time with a sound system on a bike trailer for a walk and dance around the HQ.
Today is the official start of the camp. It’s all about the day of mass action to shut down RBS HQ, and wider strategy discussions about the future of radical climate activism. At one of the meetings, most applause is reserved for a passionate defence of the climate camp’s ‘process’: ‘After Drax, people complained about the lack of community engagement, so we went to Sipson and set up a permanent space near Kingsnorth; then people said we weren’t action-focused enough, so we organised the Radcliffe Swoop; then people criticised that we weren’t anti-capitalist enough, so we put up a ‘capitalism is crisis’ banner at Blackheath and now we’re at RBS’. The camp has certainly had a dynamic and responsive process, and I dread to think where it would be now had it not been for its informal hierarchies, but I wonder about the ‘you criticise – we do’ distinction that I’ve heard several times already. It’s almost as if debate, argument and criticism excludes you from the ‘we’ of the climate movement.
Eco-Wombles? Not padded out, but dressed in white overalls and with a handful of hammers between them, a couple of hundred campers make good use of the negligible police presence on the footbridge and push back the few officers who stand in their way. This time it’s not just for a dance, but for a semi-determined attempt to enter the RBS building, while a 3-person slingshot launches a balloon filled with molasses at the building. A couple of the large windows are broken with hammers, but there are still too few to hold back the police who quickly regroup and manage to push the crowd back towards the camp.
A ‘de-brief’ for the day’s events comes with a surprising twist. The breaking of windows is not condemned by ‘pacifist’ campers but by two indigenous Canadians who describe themselves as ‘guests’ of the Climate Camp and as representing their nation, the ‘Frog Clan’. Back in Canada they are responsible for their activities abroad, they say, and feel they can no longer stay at the camp. They ask for ‘respect’ from the rest of us and that their workshop (which was interrupted by the incursion towards RBS) is rescheduled. The camp seems split, or unsure how to react. While some strongly defend ‘property destruction’ as part of a ‘diversity of tactics’, others apologise unreservedly for it. Only one person commented that we should ‘not put indigenous peoples on a pedestal’, though it was reassuring to hear much approval for this sentiment around the camp fires later that night.
The day of mass action. With the rain having set in, it wasn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea to get up early to shut down RBS offices and branches across Edinburgh. A few groups of activists did use the morning however to leave the camp (sometimes without even encountering a police officer) to disrupt activities at a couple of offices and the main RBS admin building.
Most were back in time for what had been rumoured to be the spectacular highlight of the day: an assault on RBS’s headquarters with the help of a wooden siege tower complete with a mounted rhinoceros battering ram (made out of paper-maché!). It turned out to be more farce than action, yet surreally spectacular it was. Built on wheels too far away from the camp’s exit it took some 50 activists, ‘armed’ with bows and arrows, with painted faces and animal masks, more than 3 hours to pull and push it in front of the police lines. A marquee that stood in its way had to be swiftly taken down, just like a few branches of a tree (after much discussion and apology to the tree) that stopped the rhino’s slow progress towards RBS. It ended with an underwhelming ‘bump’ into the bonnet of a police van, amidst shaking heads and murmurs of the ‘Camp for Climate Comedy’.
Despite all, I must agree with Harry Giles’ assessment on Indymedia Scotland: ‘I defend to the hilt any action’s right to be utterly absurd and completely unworkable’.