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The Creative Protestors, The FT Magazine

“Our tank rolled out of the lock-up, playing The A-Team theme tune, fluffy dice hanging off the front.”

On 12 January 2009, more than 1,000 protesters led by Climate Rush invaded Heathrow Airport Terminal 1 and staged a picnic. Cupcakes were scoffed, lemonade was quaffed, a string quartet played and banners were raised: “Climate change – it’s no picnic” and “No domestic departures”. Many picnickers dressed as Edwardians in tribute to Climate Rush’s inspiration, the Suffragettes. Their outfits linked them with a tradition of creative protest, groups that have gone beyond conventional marches and lobbying to take inventive action: the Abolitionists’ boycott of slave-produced sugar in the 1790s, Chartists with their three-mile long 1839 petition and those window-smashing Suffragettes.

In the 21st Century, creative protest groups are thriving. Plane Stupid has blockaded runways and scaled Parliament. World Naked Bike Ride members cycle through British cities in the nude to protest against “car culture”. Breach of the Peace dances through demonstrations playing samba music. And the design collective UHC covers pavement adshels with tree-painted shrouds (“Trees breathe – adverts suck”) and recreates Guantánamo Bay on Manchester wasteland. Meanwhile, websites such as Urban 75, Indymedia and the anarchist-leaning, far from cuddly Wombles keep the anti-capitalist, anti-war, eco-warrior kaleidoscope informed on actions current and planned.

But creative protest is no lefty eco-monopoly. Captain Gatso, linchpin of a speed-camera-destruction campaign, says: “I am a Labour hater”. Members of the Manifesto Club, whose boozy “Provocation Picnic” in Hyde Park last year defied new public drinking restrictions, are intellectual, anti-regulation libertarians. Countywatch are geocultural conservatives, uprooting signs marking the county boundaries created by the 1974 local government reorganisation and replanting them in their historic sites. And the Daddy of contemporary creative protest, Fathers4Justice, is concerned ultimately with personal, not political, life.

An apparent shift in public attitude helps these groups flourish. Brian Doherty, senior lecturer in politics at Keele University and a noted expert on protest groups, says: “There are polls which show people are prepared to accept the right to break the law. Juries acquit people like the Greenpeace protesters who climbed the tower in Kingsnorth [power station]. I don’t think they necessarily support the protesters. But they recognise they are not posing a threat to public order.”

Tussling with the law and snatching headlines are uniting constants for most creative protest groups. When the Space Hijackers’ tank rolled out against the arms trade (see below) it was with a journalist on board. Even when the press isn’t present at a Plane Stupid action, the group’s own footage will be on its website within hours. But events are not staged solely for the benefit of cameras. To protesters, disrupting an airport or a power station, or moving a boundary, is an end in itself. And creative protest’s effectiveness at generating publicity isn’t the only reason for its rise. Weaker trade unions and the Labour Party’s shift to the centre mean established outlets for campaigning have diminished. The end of the Cold War seems to have created a world with a greater range of issues to protest against.

And there is another fundamental point: creative protest is thought-provoking. Doherty says: “You could argue the scale of the anti [Iraq] war march and the Countryside March taught some groups that the power of numbers does not necessarily get you anywhere. You can achieve more by a bit of disruption. That can be physically disrupting the operation of an organisation. But it can also be disrupting the way we think, doing something that makes people ask: ‘Actually, which side am I on?’”


Agent Jewsky of the Space Hijackers

Mooncup of Anonymous

Jamie Woods of the Faslane Peace Camp

Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club

Tamsin Omond of Climate Rush

Captain Gatso of Motorists Against Detection

Robin Brookes of the Peace Tax Seven

Agent Jewksy of the Space Hijackers

Founded by Agent Bristly Pioneer in 1999, the Space Hijackers are the laughing cavaliers of anti-capitalism. Their “projects” have included midnight cricket in the City, driving a tank to the Defence Systems & Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair in London’s Docklands and May Day conga dancing in business suits at Canary Wharf. Jewksy is in his twenties and works in fashion.

How many Space Hijackers are there?
Two or three thousand all over the world. There are about 30 active London agents. There is Agent Greenman, Diving Underwater Agent, Agent D Titanium, Agent Invisible Parsnip …

What point are you making about space?
Corporations are buying up public space and turning it into private space. We take the space and use it for something different.

Like the cricket matches?
Yes. The point there, as well, is to create discourse with the City boys. We’ll go into one of their bars, drink with them, then at the end of the evening, up on the table, ‘Let’s have a game of cricket. Capitalists versus anarchists’. The City boys love it – the fact they’re not being attacked, that people are trying to make friendly.

Your website suggests the police were bugging you before the DSEi protest.
Definitely. They found out where we moved the original tank to but we just didn’t know how. On the morning of the protest, our tank rolled out of the lock-up, playing The A-Team theme tune, fluffy dice hanging off the front. The police yelled, ‘Stop! Where do you think you are going with this tank? We want to test its roadworthiness.’ Bristly goes, ‘Sorry, chaps, you don’t know about our second tank which is making its way to DSEi.’ We auctioned it off to a member of our group outside the exhibition.

To make the point?
‘You can use this tank for what you like, run over a small child.’ It’s like selling arms, then ridding yourself of the consequences.

Is there an ideology you admire?
I’m not sure there is. We are a group of so many different types. The Suffragettes come up a lot. And the Situationists, their idea of ‘the society of the spectacle’, creating a big event to wake people up, change the space around you.

Is being a Space Hijacker fun?
It is. I say to Bristly, ‘We’ll be doing this when we’re 50.’ When we’re 50, we’ll be able to get away with a lot more.

Mooncup of Anonymous

In January 2008, the Church of Scientology removed an embarrassing video from the internet of Tom Cruise extravagantly praising Scientology. In response, the internet “collective” Anonymous closed down Scientology websites, launched anti-Scientology videos and demonstrated in cities around the world. Mooncup chose to remain anonymous.

Why does Anonymous attack Scientology?
I do it for the LOLs [the laughs]. If something annoys someone, I keep doing it. That’s ‘trolling’. But there’s a spectrum in Anonymous: some people do it because they see Scientology as the biggest threat to the universe. Anonymous isn’t a group, it’s individuals who call themselves Anonymous.

The attacks seemed globally co-ordinated.
That’s the hilarious thing. Despite being completely leaderless, we’re one of the most organised groups in the world because everyone knows what they are good at. Someone said, ‘At this time, on this date, everyone attack.’

But you remain anarchic?
That’s what Anonymous is about, it’s anarchy.

When did people start identifying themselves as Anonymous?
It has always been an in-joke. The places where Anonymous converges are called ‘image boards’ – similar to a forum but no one posts with a name.

Some of the anti-Scientology videos are spooky. Is that part of the fun?
Yes, it’s not just about annoying people. If you can intimidate them, too, that’s a bonus. The spooky image, that is in regard to Scientology: your target dictates how you act.

What will Anonymous do next?
Someone will come up with a good idea. We have lots of little scones in the fire: we invade forums, websites, stuff like ‘trollpaedo’.

What’s trollpaedo?
Trolling for paedophiles. In Canada, Anonymous got someone convicted. They didn’t do it because they wanted to protect children, they did it because it was funny.

Isn’t that disturbing, that to the people doing it there is no moral aspect? Why? It’s only like we do everything else. There are members who only use the good side of the internet, and others who only use the freaky side. The amoral aspect comes from the fact that most members are a mix of the two.

Jamie Woods of the Faslane Peace Camp

The Faslane Peace Camp sits outside the South Gate of HM Naval Base Clyde, home of the UK’s Trident submarine fleet. For 27 years it has been a focal point for anti-nuclear protests, pickets and blockades. Woods, 22, has been visiting the camp for five years and moved there in 2007

Why do you keep returning to the camp?
It makes me feel I’m doing something with my life, instead of sitting in a flat in a city. Just being at the camp is a protest.

What is the life like?
As protest sites go, this is luxury. We’ve got mains water, a phone line, a post box. Every caravan has a wood-burning stove. There are six of us but in the summer it usually picks up. After big protests, it goes quiet for a bit. We operate a non-hierarchical structure: your opinion’s equally valid whether you’ve been here five years or turned up that day.

What’s your background?
I grew up largely in Aberdeen and moved around, then I came down to camp originally for a week. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve met people from all over. We get ex-military people, who’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had survivors from Hiroshima. Sometimes squaddies on shore leave drop in, causing a bit of trouble after they’ve been for a beer. But as soon as we’ve got the kettle on we sit down and talk, and 99 per cent of the time they are really lovely.

How long do you see yourself doing this?
Living in the camp, not very long. Involved in anti-military protests in general, I imagine the rest of my life.

Do you ever lose heart?
Yeah. I don’t think the camp itself is going to get rid of nuclear weapons. It’s very good if people want to protest up here. But if you are sat by the road for couple of weeks and you don’t speak to anyone but who is here….

What gets you out of that?
If a good protest happens, that really does boost your morale. And if someone drops by.

Why protest like this, why not just go on marches, lobby MPs?
That is valid but this needs to happen. I’ve been on marches, like the Stop The War Coalition, that were organised with the police. It seems a bit daft, organising civil disobedience with the police.

Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club

The salonistas of the Manifesto Club battle the state regulation of life: picnics that fight alcohol bans; a children’s sports day against adult vetting; club night debates and discussion salons. It has also published a book of photographs of absurd safety signs, Attention Please. Appleton, 32, is club convener.

What inspired the club’s debating, salon approach?
A realisation that freedom is the biggest political issue of the time but that political organisation and protest are stuck in the past. Things which affect people’s lives are not discussed as political issues.

What things?
Vetting, which puts 13 million adults on a database. There was very little discussion because MPs felt they couldn’t question it.

Isn’t vetting sensible?
It has got completely out of proportion. Paedophilia is a twisted minority crime, not something that requires the micromanagement of everyday lives.

How many of your steering committee have children?
None of us, actually. But most of the people who signed our petition were parents. And everyone who came to our sports day against vetting were parents.

Isn’t history on the side of growing state power?
There is growing anger with that. We try to provide a political theory for that anger, also link up different groups: older people who want to help at scouts; younger people who want to drink on the beach; artists who want to invite foreign artists [who need visas] to show in their galleries.

Don’t some town centres on Saturday nights suggest not everyone can be trusted with alcohol?
There are laws to deal with disorder. These new drinking confiscation powers give police the right to take alcohol off people at any time. That allows them to be behaviour police.

Are your club nights just like-minded people talking among themselves? No, everything we do, we win new converts. We hold the club nights in pubs. People walk in off the street.

How did you make Attention Please?
We just asked the public to send photographs of safety signs. The response was astounding. Signs on benches saying: ‘Caution seats may be wet’. Patches of mud in parks with cones round them. It was a form of protest: citizens naming and shaming signs.

Tamsin Omond of Climate Rush

Climate Rush was launched on 13 October 2008 when more than 1,000 Edwardian-costumed, cake-wielding, sash-wearing protesters rushed Parliament, 100 years after the Suffragettes’ Rush on Parliament. Heathrow Terminal 1 and the UK Coal Awards have been rushed since. Tamsin Omond, 24, founded Climate Rush

Aren’t there enough environmental protest groups?
The idea behind Climate Rush is twofold. It directs itself towards women and puts style and branding into the environmental movement. We have the sash that emulates the Suffragettes, and everything being home-made, having a picnic, all those things.

That’s unashamed marketing talk.
Definitely. The environmental movement has been scared of branding, and it has been a mistake. Because other people will brand you as, you know, hairy, hippy, smelly, likes trees.

There’s a deliberate charm to Climate Rush.
Absolutely, you can really blind-side the police and the judicial system. It’s very different, a thousand women dressed as Suffragettes, to being confronted with a thousand angry protesters.

Isn’t there a danger, with a website and mass e-mails publicising protests, of getting protesters who just want a scrap?
If someone [violent] was to come, they’d feel, ‘What am I doing here? This isn’t the vibe’.

Are your members quite middle class?
Probably. I don’t know why. It’s a horrible thing to talk about. I guess it is about resources. Activism is not a good way to earn money.

Do you worry that by rushing Parliament you undermine an institution which, unlike you, has been elected?
We aren’t on par with the lobbying power of BAA. So when we rush parliament, we’re not trying to supplant the government we’re trying to just amplify our voice. What we are doing is in tune with the fact that we are a democracy.

One of the Suffragettes died. Many were prepared to, on hunger strike, but were force fed. Is it cheap, claiming their mantle?
We are definitely aware of the historical reverberations of who we are sourcing. It’s a way of saying this is as important as that was. No, I don’t think it’s cheap.

Captain Gatso of Motorists Against Detection

Motorists Against Detection, and their Speedaholics website, encourage the destruction of speed cameras. Gatso, campaigns director, is a “family man in my forties”.

The Speedaholics website says ‘a campaign will be organised by direct action to take out speed cameras’. How can get away with that?
You don’t host your site in the UK and US. And it depends on the way you communicate: encrypted e-mail, mobiles – divert, divert, divert and in the end you bin the Sim card. The campaign became big quite rapidly. It’s not, as the authorities portray, just vandalism.

Isn’t it?
It patently isn’t. Speed cameras are not road safety devices, they’re a revenue stream. People are still dying.

Do you vandalise cameras yourself?
I consider myself like Gerry Adams: I don’t get my hands dirty. It’s carefully orchestrated, I use PR and I have a day-to-day relationship with a lot of Fleet Street.

Are there speed cameras you wouldn’t attack?
Anything in a built-up area we used to leave be. But the speed limit’s come down and, with all the tricks they play, we’ve pretty much said everything is up for grabs. Boy racers are clued up on speeding then braking. It’s older people who are most likely to get tickets, for speeding a few miles over the limit.

Why not just demonstrate or lobby your MP?
People are exasperated with lobbying. The socialist government is car hating, it doesn’t want you having mobility and freedom. It’s part of the encroaching surveillance society. You’ve got digital speed cameras that are noting down places where you’ve been, going on the nationwide police computer in Hendon.

What about accidents happening because you’ve destroyed a speed camera?
The accidents are going to happen anyway. Putting speed cameras in is like trying to swat a fly after it’s gone. There are pieces of bad engineering of roads and junctions that could be ironed out.

Is there an outlaw thrill in what you do?
Not really. OK, I use a silly name, because my real name wouldn’t bring anything to the table. Yet when you take this word ‘Gatso’, people’s ears prick up, they know the subject.

Do the police know who you are?
I hope not.

Robin Brookes of the Peace Tax Seven

The Peace Tax Seven are refusing to pay the MoD’s “slice” of their taxes. They hope, ultimately, that their stance and tax money will establish a government fund for non-violent conflict resolution. Brookes, 55, is a Quaker and toy designer

What is your personal impetus in all this?
My conscience. When I saw the Iraq war happening, I thought, this is the last straw, I’ve got to make a stand.

You’ve withheld taxes. What has happened?
I’ve been taken to magistrates’ court and to crown court. There have been two visits by bailiffs. The first time, I’d pinned £10 notes, to the tune of the £700 I owed, to the kitchen wall, with a sign saying, ‘Every 10 seconds Britain spends this in occupying Iraq’.

Did the bailiff take it?
Yes. The second time he spent a long time faffing on the phone, then said, ‘If you don’t pay by Monday, we’ll send it to county court.’ Which is when I appeared in county court. I still owe about £1,700.

The state is powerful. Do you ever get scared?
Not frightened – although it’s quite stressful. There is always this thing in the background. I’ve been earning so little because I have been spending so much time on the peace tax issue.

Do you worry you are burdening your wife with something she hasn’t chosen to do?
She fully agrees with it, but I do worry how much of a burden it brings on her.

But why not just sign petitions or demonstrate?
You need to do those things, but why protest against war and continue to pay for it? I’d feel there was something left out, that I wasn’t doing. We go on marches and get ignored. I think people are looking for more imaginative and more direct ways of engaging.

As a Quaker, do you worry there might be an element of spiritual pride in this, setting yourself up as a martyr-hero?
That is a difficult one. It really does boil down to my conscience. If I was doing it for pride, I don’t think I could sustain it. I feel it’s God at work in me – and there is strength in that.

What about,  ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’? [Matthew 22:21] Isn’t tax a matter for Caesar, not your conscience?
If rendering unto God conflicts with rendering unto Caesar, whose authority should I take?

1 August 2009

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