An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 48-53.
This interview was done in a park in Brighton, after bribing the East Devon EF! activist with a can of lager.
What was the run up to the Fairmile eviction like?
For a long time, up to the eviction of Fairmile, there was a huge amount of disillusionment, both at Fairmile and around the country in the movement at large. A lot of us thought that in many ways the eviction was going to be a flop. This was down to two reasons. Firstly what happened at the Allercombe and Trollheim evictions and secondly internal politics at Fairmile.
Contrary to the media representation of the Trollheim eviction nobody from Trollheim had actually gone to the Newbury Reunion Rally, [one of the first and biggest actions this year- see the Newbury article in this issue], so it probably wouldn't have got much bigger. Nonetheless it was quick. Everybody thought it would last longer than a day. Allercombe was caught completely off guard because they came in immediately after Christmas. That was quite demoralising. As a result none of us had expected Fairmile to be quite as big as it was in the end.
The second reason for disillusionment was that Fairmile had been around for a very, very long time, and had in many ways brought into question a lot of what we do. It was the longest community we've had, and at no point did anybody ever think that it was going to be that long. But it meant that, over that two-and-a-half year long period, we had the opportunity to explore community living in a community of resistance.
At some of the camps, people grew crops on the land they were defending, which then fed them. That's a really strong sense of connection, isn't it.
Definitely. Those gardens weren't as big as they might have been. The problem with gardening is that you need to think in terms of one year, two years; you can't build a garden for tomorrow. It was an amazing thing. I wasn't involved with it, but I got the buzz. Herbs from the garden were put in the meal we were eating at the end of the day; it meant that it wasn't just a protest camp, it was a community, functioning as an experiment, an exploration of alternatives.
As I was saying before the second reason for disillusionment was internal problems. Fairmile developed a definite elite, mainly those people that were there most of the time, more than I've seen at any other camp. When there were loads of visitors, you would see less Fairmile residents about. Most of the residents went up to their treehouses, or down to the tunnels, which is insane. It meant that the people who were there talking to those who had just turned up were the people who had less of a connection with Fairmile, who perhaps had only turned up themselves three days before. So whatever was needed to be said wasn't getting across.
There was an attitude at Fairmile. There was a certain way that things were done. It alienated a hell of a lot of people who would have been part of that campaign. More people were turned away from Fairmile than became a part of it. Many of those people ended up at Allercombe or Trollheim. They were the ones that got fucked off with Fairmile, went to check out the other places, and felt happier there. As far as I know, no one left Allercombe or Trollheim to move to Fairmile, except after those camps were evicted.
Many of the issues brought up were related to peoples' reasons for being at Fairmile in the first place. At a meeting during the autumn, it was suggested that, when the eviction kicked off, we should all leave. We'd be showing that we were still in control of the situation, and the camp would then be seen as a statement, a symbolic act, rather than another set-piece confrontation with the state that we've been through many times, loved and hyped up by the media.
The meetings for that lasted for about three days, each about four or five hours long. I didn't go to all of them, but it was a massive process of discussion and dialogue. And even though the suggestion was one that I myself found insulting, I acknowledge that the actual process of discussion brought a lot of issues to the fore.
For instance it brought into question whether what we were engaged in was a symbolic protest, or an attempt to cost large amounts of money to the road builders. A lot of people thought that the symbolic relevance of what they were doing was more important than the actual act of fucking up the roads machine.
It does sound as if there was a lot more discussion than at Twyford, M11, M65 and so on. For all that we talk about being a tribe and so on, we rarely open up to each other.
I totally agree. At the meetings everyone was listened to. What they were saying ranged a lot further than whether we should leave; it was about their perceptions of why they were there and what they were doing. As such, it can only be seen as a positive thing. People got a lot out of those meetings.
A lot of questions were asked. How far would we take our resistance? Tunnels are a step on from what we were doing in the trees. The danger of death is there up in the trees - we've all taken fucking massive life-threatening risks - but in a tunnel, if it collapses you're dead. Simple as that. Have we got a bit of a martyrdom complex?
Were we doing tunnels primarily to prove to ourselves that what we are doing is right? If not it was definitely true in relation to the digging of the Fairmile trench, which was months and months of blood, sweat and tears. It was something that, at the eviction, only served to keep us out, and didn't prevent the state forces from coming in at all. It looked good; ...fort mentality...but it was quite a major waste of energy carried out by people who felt they had to do it because they felt they had to do something. There was an atmosphere of guilt-tripping, which I actually think meant that less stuff got done. Certain people did things and then attacked the majority of the camp for not doing them, whereas on sites in the past, people walked on to site and worked on their own projects. This was very disempowering. It was less D I Y and more Do It Now.
The discussions also brought to light whether we wanted to make a symbolic stance which all the group were happy with, or whether we were prepared to make compromises that could potentially turn it into a mass/larger struggle. The KLF sound system prompted a lot of discussion. We could have kicked off a massive festival, bringing a lot of people in that wouldn't otherwise have been there, but people agreed that this could damage the land, and we morally couldn't do that. This was opposed to the point of view that we should fuck up the road-building programme at all costs. We had one of the largest sound systems in the country parked up on a road-protest site, and never really used it to its full potential.
However its wasn't all black and white. There were people who came into both categories. Some thought that we should walk out of Fairmile because it was a defensive struggle. They argued that when the state came we should pile onto somewhere else, maybe shutting down the present A30.
Fairmile had, for two-and-a-half years, been on red alert. If it had been envisaged as a two-and-a-half year project from the very beginning, then it would have been a very, very different place from the place it was.
Can you describe what happened during the eviction? What kind of forces were put up against the people in the tunnels, the trees, and what strategies did you have?
The start of the eviction was a skillful move on their part. Coming in at 9.30 on a Thursday evening was a fucking clever tactic. Not to the extent that it was played up in the media, but hippies by and large at that time on a Thursday evening are in the pub. Though in fact the majority of people at Fairmile were in Fairmile, and weren't in the pub, what is significant and quite odd was that a lot of the people who were in the pub were the long-term Fairmile residents.
The state used tactics they'd developed at Newbury - of sending in a snatch squad. Trevor Coleman, the Under-Sheriff, described them as "a core of hand-picked men". They were sent in prior to the main eviction force, and crept across the fields behind the site, stormed in out of the blue, grabbing all the people they could on the ground. Then the main eviction force came in. But despite that, as is always their weakness - and it is something we really have to work at capitalising on - they were crap at throwing up perimeter cordons rapidly. Once they've got them up, they're in control, but anybody at Newbury must have seen the chaos that often ensued when they were trying to move several hundred blokes who obviously didn't really want to be there, around into an orderly line.
During that period most of the people who were in the pub actually broke through the cordon and got into the site, and got up the trees, so in fact the state's advantage was nullified. Then what happened, which was odd, was that they didn't do anything for the first night. That's something I've never seen before. It gave us time to get our act together. It gave us breathing space, because although the eviction was obviously kicking off, we weren't dealing with things happening that second, we were able to get our heads around the fact that we were about to enter into protracted eviction.
The tree eviction was mild. Very little happened. There weren't many people in the trees. There was still a reliance on walkways, which I think was a tactical mistake. We'd learned that the only way we can resist climbers is en masse, by congregrating on individual trees and individual places, because a climber coming vertically up a tree cannot go through four people. But Fairmile was still conducted as a spread-out eviction, where one person was on one tree, one person on the next tree, and they pick each person off one-by-one. Whereas if all those four people had been on the same tree, the time delay would have been longer.
At Stanworth [see DoD 5] there were quite a lot of 'tree defence gangs', weren't there?
Yes, at Stanworth for the first few days we just spread ourselves thinly. Then on the Wednesday we ganged up on four trees. Whereas they'd mowed through most of the valley in the days prior to that, we stopped them dead for an entire day on four trees. That was a tactic that we learnt then as a movement, and that we should have carried on. Although people talk about violence and non-violence, it doesn't really need to enter into the equation; it's just a physical fact that four people on top of you, above you, are fucking difficult for a climber to remove.
One guy was locked on to one of the lock-on barrels in the trees, the climbers came up and were drilling him out, they then got down for their lunch break. He got out of the lock-on and removed and cut all the climbing ropes that they'd left up there. He then scaled up to the top of the tree. The climbers then, a bit pissed off, started the operation again. They chased him all the way to the top of the tree, failed to get him down because of the resistance he was offering. Then got down again. At which point he climbed back down to the lock-on he'd been in before, and locked himself on. So they'd wasted about three hours chasing somebody who, three hours later, was in exactly the same position he'd been in before. I thought that was something that is worth remembering. Lock-ons don't necessarily mean you have to be stationary all the time. He had an opportunity to move, so he did, and he capitalised on it.
What was significant about the tunnel eviction was that they were incredibly gentle. They were going so softly, so slowly, so over - cautious, it took them a day-and-a-half to shore-up to the first door; which is a difference of about six feet. I think in the future we have to be aware that if we're going to use tunnels as a tactic, the state is not going to be anything near as nice. It's also worth remembering that most of the people in the tunnel were either tricked out, or after giving them the run-around for a long period of time, gave themselves up; there was no full-on resistance in the tunnels. That's not a comment on the people in the tunnels - it would have been pretty suicidal - but it's something that's likely to happen in the future.
One of the best things that's happened on campaigns in the last year, really during Newbury, was that the eviction climbers were really heavily targeted by people in the climbing community. British climbing magazines were quite openly talking about these people, who'd been quite well respected in the community beforehand, as being scabs, and there was an article in a leading climbing magazine, calling for a united front between ecologists and climbers, a la 'The Monkey Wrench Gang', which was a novel about a group of highly trained wilderness types who go out and start smashing things up in quite a serious way.
Climbers working on evictions were banned from climbing walls. On at least two occasions physically chased off crags when out on a climbing holiday. An amazing level of politicisation for a scene that, since the mid-80's, has become for many a yuppie accessory lifestyle. It was one of the major reasons why evictions take as long as they do, because so many climbers were put off from going anywhere near that money. Is that likely to happen to the potholers?
Yes - the pot-holers learnt from that. All the pot-holers had balaclavas on throughout the entire period, Even while they were doing TV interviews. They were live on the Ten-o-clock News wearing a balaclava, which was quite weird. They obviously were shit scared that we'd find out who they are. I suspect that in the pot-holing community, as in the climbing community, there is an a respect for the earth and a connection with the issues that we're fighting for. We need to build links with the pot holing community.
There have been fewer people at evictions recently, Fairmile in particular. One of the reasons for that that I know, is that people tend to think, "once the compound is up, we can't get in".
Fairmile proved that was wrong: twelve people managed to get in on the first night. There were repeated attempts during the eviction to get in, including quite innovative ones. Fishing wire, invisible from the ground was strung from inside the compound to trees outside. People tried to haul a line but were stopped. Lots more creativity and thought is needed.
I think that overall the eviction went better than planned. It was almost certainly the fluffiest eviction. Partly because of the state's gently-gently policy. They didn't steam in like at Trollheim, which the media almost totally ignored. That was a much more violent eviction. There, they cut all the usual corners they cut when it comes to safety. The tunnels at Trollheim were evicted far more rapidly than the tunnels at Fairmile, because they just dug people out. They told people that somebody was injured down there, which meant that some unlocked. They pressure-pointed people with Maglites. At Fairmile it took them two days to get through the first door; at Trollheim they just winched the door off.This was partly because of the nature of the fort, it meant that the media was kept out, and nobody could see what the fuck was going on inside.
Do you think then, the kind of barricades you would put up if you were, say, street fighting are not automatically applicable to these situations?
The barricades have both positive and negative effects, both practically and on peoples' perceptions within them. They created a real feeling of being in a temporary autonomous zone. When you entered Fort Trollheim, you entered a fort. As far as I know, before the eviction the state wouldn't set foot in Trollheim. As at Fairmile, if the police turned up looking for a runaway or whatever, they could just be fucked off. The drawbridge would be pulled up. Someone would come down and talk to the police: they were there on that side and we were there on our side.
There were classic moments, like when the bailiffs came to put up the eviction notices. Trollheim had this huge "gunge bucket"; after locking the door and barricading themselves in - they poured it onto the bailiff - half a tonne of sewage. Trollheim was a free area, quite clearly marked - you cross that line and you left British state control. If there hadn't been such a definite line, there would have been more of a seeping in of capitalist thought.
But the negative side of it is that it puts people into a defensive mentality. Defending that spot becomes the sole purpose of being there. Of the actions that happened outside the area of the site in the time I was there, only one involved a significant number of people from the site. All the pro-active actions outside were done and even organised by people who'd come from outside. They came down for eviction mornings, and with nothing to do, went off and did an action somewhere. That's really quite sad. There was one action I remember, where nobody from the site was on it, which is a shame really, because this was the A30 campaign, and activists from all over the country were coming down and doing their actions for them. That defensive mentality is harmful to the movement, and something we need to move on from. It focuses you into a single space and not onto the wider struggle. On the other hand it's an amazing feeling, I felt it, a feeling of connectedness, the place has meaning, has some sense of realness, you're defending something, some actual physical thing, rather than some abstract thought, and that's good.
I think it's worth nothing that, more than any other eviction, Fairmile became a media spectacle, and that was partly our own creation. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing; I'm not a person who believes in not talking to the press at all; I just believe that we've got to try and remain in control, and know when to pull out. We've gained a lot of good publicity, and have, hopefully, changed some consciousness in people. There were national press articles that copied sections of our press releases verbatim.
Part of what we do is try and make an issue which is otherwise boring sexy, make politics real. That's what has happened, exemplified by the M11, where we began to realise and harness the fact that our resistance to the roads was graphic, was real, and that people could relate to its immediacy. The tunnels were the end of that process - the ultimate insane thing to do.
On the day we were going to to issue our demands, the Under-Sheriff cut off our intercom communication with the tunnel, which the press had been filming and using directly; "And now we go to the people down in the tunnels". We put out these demands and they just cut off all the communications! In the end it was probably better than if they hadn't!
The demands were 1) All the Design Build Finance Operate (state organised private road building) documentation should be made open to public scrutiny; and 2) All road-building should cease until they'd been reviewed. At a critical time when media interest was slacking off, putting the tunnelers in danger, the demands got us loads of media interest. You looked at the demands and just thought, "Well that's pretty fucking reasonable. They're just asking for a few bits of paper to be made available to the public." But the reality was that the DBFO is a cover-up by the state and making those documents public is something that the state wouldn't be able to do.
We asked for them because we knew that they wouldn't be able to give them to us, or if they did, then it would open up a can of worms for the roadbuilding industry. We knew from day one that they were never going to meet the demands. We'd deliberately balanced them so that they appeared reasonable but in no way were actually meetable by the state. We didn't ask for a plane to Cuba, but then nor did we give them something that they could do, like "Don't arrest us" or something like that.
We were able to say that the demands were us opening the negotiations, and the state's response was to cut our communication lines. We managed to present ourselves as the reasonable ones and the state as being the nutters. We were the ones asking for negotiation, and they were the ones in balaclavas!
It was at this point that the media attempted (quite successfully) to turn our struggle to defend life into a personality story. They wanted to know the backgrounds of all the people down the tunnels, and all we'd tell them was their names and age. There was quite a diverse range of ages there - everything from early 40s (John) down to sixteen (Animal). Which was why we decided to say the ages, because we thought it would shatter that media-generated impression that it was just young activists that were doing these things. In the end they created a situation where millions knew what colour socks Swampy wore down the tunnels, but not the name of the site the tunnels were in.
Most people don't realise how many of us go to prison on quite a regular basis. It's not news. A large proportion of activists in our movement have now been to prison quite often, for varying small sentences, some for up to three or four months (some longer), and it's just never noticed.
In the end, four people were remanded to prison, and two of them then went on hunger strike, resulting in quite extensive publicity after the eviction. The only problem was that the asylum seekers were on hunger strike at the same time, and there obviously was a serious difference in scale between us and the asylum seekers. There was a feeling on our part that we didn't want to detract from their struggle and their hunger strike, which was a lot more immediate, because they were people that would be killed if they were sent back to their country.
Usually when people go to prison they get a few letters, a few books and that's about it. But there were a few pickets outside prison weren't there?
The picket started off as a candlelit vigil, and progressed into a fire show every evening outside the prison. Loads of really creative stuff happened there, smashing the doors, people attempting to scale the side of the prison building, windows getting broken. Our fireshow was not just for the activists inside but for all the prisoners.
We were outside the prison wall, and all throughout the night they were shouting out for us to make more noise. People were scaling the trees opposite the prison, so they could be seen directly by the people inside. The imprisoned activists, said that after the one night when it really went absolutely mad out there, they suddenly had a level of solidarity and understanding from the other prisoners that hadn't existed before. John, who was on remand, described the prisoners almost lining up to shake his hand. It gave him a lot of strength, because he'd been on a wing where he couldn't actually hear or see what was going on, but all the prisoners on the other wing had, and had been shouting and shining their lighters in the window because the lights were turned off, just so that we could see that they were there.
It made a lot of connections between us and prisoners, many of whom share some of our values, but feel alienated due to the media-generated perception of us as a bunch of hippies. Prisoners are going to react to and respect a group that looks after their own inside. Prison pickets are something that should be repeated in future. It also meant that all the people driving past, and anyone watching the news, was aware that there were people inside. The windows of the prison getting broken from the outside was front-page news in the local paper. It highlighted why they were inside: they'd been found guilty because the state had ordered them to stay out of a twelve-mile long, one-mile wide section of Devon, and they'd ignored the exclusion zone. I think a lot of people can connect with the insanity of being told that you can't walk on a particular bit of land, for a crime you may or may not have committed.
Support for those arrested has been one of our weaknesses across the country.
The system that we'd set up is one that could be used elsewhere; there was one person who coordinated just prison support, and nothing else. She had her own phone on a different number, nothing to do with the main office. That phone number was given out on arrest cards. She built up a liason with custody officers, managing to get round the usual problem where they don't talk to you because you're not someone's relative. She was able to coordinate sorting out bail addresses, getting vehicles to people when they were coming out, getting food, baccy etc.
Prison support is good for those doing the support as well as for those supported. It allowed people with jobs and so on that weren't able to be on the site to still be a part of things. It gave local people a role that was far less conciliatory to the state than 'legal observering'. Legal observers were trying to create this false illusion that they were in some way impartial, when it was blatantly obvious that they were local supporters. But prison support was a bit more overt in bringing these people into a part of our struggle. Every time one of these people went to the nick to pick someone up, they'd hear that person's first-hand story of why they'd been nicked and what they'd done to warrant that arrest. And that's obviously a good educational process for the person doing the prison support.
For once I think we can say we looked after people inside well.
In the first week of June, security at the A30 got a shock. All the previous week campaigners had been covertly digging tunnels by night inside the compound on the old Fairmile site. On Monday morning embarrased guards wandered over the hill, having heard a story on Radio 1, to find a full on camp with a tripod, small tunnel system, benders & lock-ons.
For further information contact East Devon EF!