Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 24-26.

Newbury: An adrenaline junkie's idea of heaven

This is an article of limited scope - it is not intended as any kind of a history or analysis of Newbury. It's aim is rather to give a sense of the day to day realities of living in that situation. As such it is bound to miss out a lot of what happened at other times and places within the campaign.

I spent the initial clearance/evictions phase of the living at several of around thirty camps constructed along the route. Every camp developed a very specific character, and had a different mix of people living there, from those who constantly built defences on site, to others who put in long hours at the office, to those living on a camp because it involved the shortest stagger back from the pub. Newbury continued the road protest 'tradition' of totally unsafe climbing practices - people teaching others to climb when they can't do it properly themselves. People trying to figure out how to get into a treehouse for the first time, pissed, tripping or in the dark an dodgy constructions ,(one treehouse turned out to be completely suspended from one piece of 4mm rope with two half hitches tied in it). Fortunately the tradition of largely getting away with it also continued, and despite some serious injuries nobody was actually killed during the campaign (despite the efforts of some of the bailiffs, climbers and chainsaw operators).

There were two distinct periods during the clearance of the route - the first involved taking the offensive and disrupting their cutting and bulldozing wherever possible. However, after the legal battles over possession of the land covered by the camps were decided in favour of the Department of Transport, a much more defensive attitude emerged and people became unwilling to leave their home camps undefended while they hunted out the mobile chainsaw crews and generally concentrated on building more defences.

During this first period the day would start early (4 or 5ish) on site, waiting for confirmation over the C.B radio or mobile phone of where the destruction work was taking place and sorting out transport as quickly as possible, either via the office or using anything available near site. Visiting journalists were always useful for this as they needed to get to where the action was just as much as we did .People would arrive at the worksite until we had enough numbers to begin trying to breach the security cordon.

During the first week of (attempted) work there were so many of us and so few security guards that they were quickly reduced to asking if they could please have their diggers back so they could take them back to the compound for the rest of the day. However, massively increased security and a far greater willingness on the part of the police to get involved soon made this level of disruption very difficult to achieve. In the gaps between attempts at breaking the cordon, people would often harangue the security guards with an incredible variety of techniques. Some would simply play music to them, others would try rational arguments about road-building, or confronting them with hippyish rants about raping their mother the earth, while others would just stand nose to nose with a guard and scream abuse at him (there were very few female guards). About the only form of interaction that most people seemed to agree on was throwing snowballs at them, weather permitting. Some activists also made a hobby of stealing security guards' helmets while they stood in line - the rank and file white helmets were almost too easy to be worth taking and the red or yellow hats of the management became more of a target.

There was often a surreal feeling to events such like two people dressed as a pantomime cow being arrested, or a person in a yeti costume sat up a tree surrounded by grim faced police and security. Stranger still was the local foxhunters coming down on their horses to take direct action against the road that would cut through their hunting land, protesting alongside activists many of whom were hunt sabs!

The security guards themselves were there for a wide range of reasons. The vast majority disliked the job but saw it as their only option to earn a living A minority were there on a hippy-bashing mission, and their were some with bizarre justifications such as one ex-squatter who was there to gather material for a new play he was writing.

There was a marked dislike of the police amongst security - many of them had previous convictions themselves and there were quite a few ex-miners who had been involved in confrontations with the police during the 1984 strike. This dislike occasionally extended to warning potential pixies of police teams lurking in the woods at night (a common police tactic especially when construction machinery and fencing were brought in) and advance warnings of when the police had been called in to deal with a situation.

Bypass Police Condemn Dangerous Protest Tactics

"Police on the Newbury Bypass site today condemned the tactics of protesters who last night took a heavy tractor from roadworks unconnected with the site. They drove to a construction area off the Andover Road, where they damaged compond fencing, lighting equipment and a portacabin building. Police were called but the offenders ran away before they arrived at the scene."

- Thames Valley Police Press Release, 11/11/96

Later in the campaign relations between security and the remaining activists (mostly) improved. With all construction work going on behind razor wire fencing, actions became centred around trashing things at night. Given that numbers fell dramatically when the last of on-route tree camps were cleared, there was little that could be done during the day, so security had an easy job and nothing better to do than chat and share cigarettes with us. Also many of them realised that they only had a job at all because we were there.

As the threat of camp evictions loomed following the court cases, many people diverted their energies into building up defences on-site. This was done with such manic enthusiasm that the actual usefulness of what was being done was sometimes overlooked; for example a lot of effort was put into building a moat and barricade, complete with scaffold poles and barbed wire, whose only effect on invading bailiffs equipped with diggers would have been psychological. The far simpler action that prevented any machinery accessing the site was flooding the area with two dams.

With the variety of people living on site conflicts were inevitable - one of the most persistent being between those with a strong work ethic who disapproved of alcohol and drug use and those who saw no problem with getting wrecked a lot. This often degenerated into mutual insults ('fascists' and 'brew crew') and general bad atmosphere. It is obviously unacceptable to have people on site who's behaviour is totally selfish and anti-social people who never contribute with either their effort or their money because they're too pissed to care and too skint after spending all their money on getting that way. Such people are simply parasites. However it is too easy to ignore the contributions that people do make by slipping into lazy assumptions - just because somebody drinks more than you do or takes drugs it doesn't follow that that is all that they do. An important part of this type of campaign is that it is often an enjoyable thing to do - amidst constant stress a party or trip to the pub can be an important relief. Very few people are attracted to live in an atmosphere of self righteous sacrifice and guilt tripping. Fortunately there were enough camps at Newbury for people to find one where the atmosphere suited them, which, to an extent at least, helped to resolve such problems. One camp for instance was exclusively vegan, while another was called 'Camp Carnivore'.

During the campaign, and especially during the first months, we were constantly visited by the media, both British and international; from national TV to magazines for teenage girls. It very quickly became obvious who loved the attention and who saw it as basically irritating to be hassled by reporters while trying to do something useful. More welcome visitors were the anti-bypass locals who came up, often with bags of food. While this support was much appreciated it is unfortunate that so few locals felt able to become more actively involved in the campaign, (much respect to those who did!).On the other hand some locals became actively involved in attacking the camps and vigilante attacks became a regular feature of the campaign - petrol bombs, guns and catapults were all used against camps and their vehicles. Less seriously but more often, people from camps were attacked in the town centre, especially on weekend nights. The courts showed their approval of these attacks when one man who had been arrested for petrol bombing an occupied bus was found not guilty despite admitting making molotovs and taking them up to the camp while drunk, (too drunk, he claimed, to remember what he did with them when he got there). The obvious comparison that springs to mind is what the same court would have thought of an activist caught throwing petrol bombs at a digger....

By the autumn/winter of 96 the overt on-site aspects of the campaign had mostly ended, although a few people remained near the route. Resistance continued however, and the 6th Jan saw a determined effort at disrupting Costain's EGM in London. Like the previous two meetings infiltrated by shareholding activists, security was heavy. After earlier experiences of the causation board's ability to completely side-step so-called awkward questions about their company's environmental policies, many activists immediately tried to storm the stage and prevent the meeting happening at all. Attempts continued for the duration of the meeting, with pauses for some of the more interesting questions being fielded, such as the apparently 'genuine' shareholder who complained that the board had no understanding of the beauty of geometry and proceeded to ramble on about dodecahedrons for a while. Bringing the same mixture of serious struggle and the blatantly surreal which characterised the on-route actions to the costain meetings seemed rather appropriate. A few days later hundreds of people converged on Newbury for the reunion rampage, marking the first anniversary of the start of clearance work. The event had been promoted as a symbolic fence decoration and candlelit vigil, but it quickly became obvious that most people were not prepared to stand passively around a working construction site. Quite spontaneously, many people began to shake and kick the fence, and several holes appeared. Mounted and foot police intervened and attempted to secure the gaps in the fence, but more and more people were becoming involved by this stage and it seemed likely that a large scale site invasion would occur. At this point, however, the crowd was encouraged by event stewards into a neighbouring field to hear the planned speeches, from the likes of the FoE leadership, and the situation was diffused.

Upon returning to the compound however, people almost immediately began to enter the site, more and more holes being cut in the fence. The outnumbered police and security were unable to prevent this situation developing and soon retreated to a corner of the compound, leaving the crowd in control of the site. Machinery was occupied as operators retreated with their security, leaving people to vent their anger on the symbols of destruction around them. Despite the blatant wrecking going on everywhere the police were totally impotent.

The machines, supposedly safe behind hundreds of security guards and miles of razor wire turned out to be vulnerable. For many of the people attending what they expected to be a passive rally the day must have been a short shock of an education in what people are capable of doing when they act together. There have been many rational arguments about the usefulness of this action to the campaign, but to anyone who watched the route being transformed from beautiful countryside to churned mud and charred stumps, there is at least a sense of natural justice to the sight of the last tree on route silhouetted by the flames of burning machinery.

Do or Die DTP/web team: