|Do or Die No 8.||BACK| INDEX | NEXT||page 105 - 108|
It All Began On Mayday… The First Year of Tyneside Actionfor People and Planet
|[IMAGE] Decontamination ofthe Edge House Farm GMO oilseed rape field in Summer 1998|
|In Newcastle 1998 didn’t look like beinga very good year for revolutionary eco-warriors. The Tyneside AnarchistGroup (TAG) had stopped meeting, the radical Alleycat Books Co-op had closeddown and the animal rights group had fallen apart due to paranoia and in-fighting.|
But there were still a few dodgy individuals around whowanted to do some ‘Reclaim Mayday’ activities as TAG had done in previousyears. So a small group of leftovers from the Cradlewell Bypass road-protest,Alleycat, the animal rights group, the Green Party and the University Greenand Peace Action Societies met to discuss what they fancied doing. A solidarityaction for the Darlington Magnet Strikers was planned, and we made a hugebanner reading ‘Sacked Magnet Workers - Sold Down the River’, which wedraped over the Tyne Bridge.
As we were planning this Mayday action it was announcedthat a European Agriculture summit was to take place in Durham and Newcastleduring May. The genetics issue had been quietly beginning to raise itsugly mutated head, and a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) test sitehad recently been announced on Edge House Farm near Ponteland. People inthe Reclaim Mayday group figured that if we were meeting to plan one action,we may as well plan several, and so a week of action against the geneticsthreat was declared.
First we held a public meeting below our favourite pub.This attracted a damn good crowd through word-of-mouth and posters. Somelocal Greenpeace folk explained the ins-and-outs of genetic engineeringand the May actions were announced and support gathered for them. We decidedon a name for ourselves; Gene-No! (taken from an old Dexy’s Midnight Runnerssong), and before taking action we raised awareness with information stallsin town.
At the summit in Durham, the agriculture ministers wereseated round a lawn beneath the Cathedral expecting to see a nice militaryband play. Instead they got a gaggle of face-painted weirdos storming thefield supported by some local kids and wielding ‘Stop the Genetix Experiment’flags. We were rugby-tackled by plain-clothes security and five peoplewere bundled into a police van, later to be released without charge. Undauntedand buzzing from adrenaline the next day we held a well-received check-outblockade at a Prestos supermarket.
After that the agriculture ministers were meeting at NewcastleCivic Centre so we organised a noisy party to greet them. Meanwhile roundthe back a commando-style squad of nutters were seen running up with avery long ladder. Three lasses climbed onto the roof and D-locked themselveson with a banner for the arriving delegates to see. Arrests followed butso far we’ve had a 100% success rate on charges being dropped against Gene-No!
The week wasn’t over yet. We hired a coach for people,dressed up in white suits, and with giant fish and tomato costumes wentto go and inspect Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant oil seed rape out nearPonteland. We then saw the ministers off at the hotel where they were meeting,with one protester being arrested after infiltrating the conference andquestioning whether the canteen food was genetically modified. The Mayweek of action was great fun, and it served to bond the new group togetherby opposing the evil state-capitalist forces together.
Later in the summer, the Edge House Farm crop was ‘decontaminated’by concerned locals who took the collected GMO plants to the EnvironmentAgency to be destroyed as ‘hazardous waste’. As a result of this and thedecontamination of all other Northumberland GM fields, Edge House Farmdecided to cancel growing GM crops.
Forming Our Group Identity
After the anti-genetics week was over, we didn’t wantto stop doing things together. After such a Newcastle lull it felt goodto be in a group of people who were willing to act on their beliefs, andcould work together with respect and real friendship. So we did a coupleof actions not on the genetics theme. We protested against the blockingof the Keelman’s Way cycle route, picketed the Countryside Alliance AnnualGeneral Meeting (AGM) and blockaded the regional Shell depot on the anniversaryof Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution. However we were still a little bit unsureof what we wanted out of the group and so we had a meeting where everyonecould discuss their aims and dreams.
We discussed what our aims should be—and even whether weactually needed them, as maybe the aims were determined by each issue.Our principles are held individually by each of us, but as far as groupprinciples go, we’re decided that we’re non-authoritarian, non-coerciveand non-hierarchical. And that’s it. But what’s the point of the group?Were we a mix of representatives of different campaigning groups, or aseparate activist group? Do we back up existing campaigns or create newones? Well, we felt there’s no necessary difference. If, for example, Tynebikesgot organised, we’d support them. It’s the energy of individuals committedto their causes that gets us activated. The rest of us join in.
We had a competition to choose our name. Some of us feltwe were an Earth First! group whilst others preferred a more inclusivename without the macho connotations of (American) EF! In the end it wasagreed that in order to be able to draw more people in, we needed a nameto identify ourselves with. We settled for Tyneside Action for People andPlanet (TAPP for short) and became a weekly forum in which different environmental/socialjustice campaigners could meet.
At a later meeting we described ourselves as an awareness-raisingnon-violent direct action group, and in order to be allowed to use an office-spacein the city, we defined certain limits on our activities. These included;respect for individuals, no physical violence and no harm to people orplanet. However we’ve got no set rules or policies, and in fact TAPP doesn’treally exist outside the weekly meeting.
Early on, we decided to try and reach out to all the othercampaigning groups in the area. We first held a pretty dismal meeting withthe anti-nuclear groups, where common ground for action was not reached.
Next we had a slightly more successful ‘activists’ meetingin September 1998, where we brought together all kinds of folk from moreconventional campaigning groups and environmental projects. Our most ambitiousevent, however, was our most successful. That same September TAPP joinedwith other (permaculture and solutions-based) environmental groups to holda weekend of discussion, inspiration and direct action training. It wasnamed Gathering Visions Gathering Strength (GVGS) after the national conferencethat some TAPPers had attended and been inspired by.
Not only did it get many new people involved but it demonstratedthe amount of knowledge and skills we had between us, and proved an amazinglyenjoyable bonding experience. I feel this weekend saw TAPP come of age,and soon afterwards we were having up to 25 people in meetings.
New Action Groups Set Up
The TAPP forum quickly spawned issue-specific groupslike Tyneside Action on Nuclear Convoys (TANC) and Tyneside Action on Transport(TAT) to do the acting whilst TAPP did the talking. Convoys of trucks carryingleaky Trident warheads up and down the country regularly go past Newcastle.TANC got together to pounce on these and hold them up, raising awarenessby leafletting the people in the cars jammed in the traffic.
Meanwhile those with a bent for bikes had formed TAT andwere holding monthly Critical Mass-style ‘Safer City Street Parties’ throughouttown. As winter drew on, the costumes got sillier and our energy levelsdropped, so we called it a day when we found ourselves dressed as Santasand snowmen stomping through the city streets.
How The Group Works
After our GVGS weekend TAPP had reached a critical masswhereby if you planned an action, you’d know you’d get enough support todo it well. How we managed to create a healthy group is hard to pin down—perhapsit’s just because we’re new and fresh. Certainly at the beginning we werelucky in that it felt that there was nothing happening before we got together,so we could start from a clean slate and create something small, but cool!There was space within the meetings to discuss everything we fancied doing,and we were very chuffed to find common souls to work with. Now thingshave changed and expectations have been raised.
We have made conscious efforts to share our skills around,from doing good press-releases to facilitating meetings. I can’t say we’vehad a complete success however, and within the group certain hierarchiesof knowledge, skill and experience have persisted. Nevertheless, we tryto be open and reflexive enough to guard against such hierarchies becomingtoo entrenched, and most agree that the TAPP forum has proven to be a welcomingand democratic space.
‘Key members’ have taken months out and so nobody has cometo feel too indispensable. (We don’t really have any ‘full-time’ activistsin Newcastle so it was early on accepted that everyone needed time outto have lives.) Many participants have had experience of more dysfunctionalgroups, and keep the communication flowing, and us aware of the pitfallsand dangers they have seen in other groups. Individuals have also beenpretty determined at keeping personal disagreements separate from gettingthings done.
How We Do An Action
In a meeting, someone will raise an issue or an eventwhich they feel is important—maybe the anniversary of Indonesia’s invasionof East Timor, the proposed felling of some trees for road widening, orthe visit to Newcastle of some arch-demon like Eddie George (Bank of Englandboss who said unemployment in the North is good for the economy). Peoplewill make enthusiastic noises if it grabs them, and maybe help the initiatorto find out more for the next meeting. Then they’ll propose an action relatedto the issue, we’ll sort out a suitable date, chase up the materials weneed, and assign roles like press releases and checking the legal situation.We’ll meet up on the day, together with other interested parties we’vecontacted, do our blockading, leafletting or whatever stunt we fancy. Ifthe press are there we’ll chat to them, get some photos and try and embarrassour target as much as possible. If the police turn up to play, we’ll eitherface them off or avoid arrest by doing what they say—ideally in our owntime and on our own terms. If there are arrests, someone will wait forthe naughty law-breakers to be released. And often as not we’ll spend therest of the day in the pub.
We’ve tried to use the group to do something more thanprotest however. We made nice photo-posters about local direct action togo in peoples loos, we researched and put together a booklet about historicalradicalism and resistance on Tyneside and we joined together to put inmass food orders. We also shared computer login codes, dog-sat, got allotmentstogether, had mass orgies… oh no, that was just a dream. Oh well, I feelsafe in saying that taking collective direct action has enhanced our sadlittle lives and given us back as much as we put in. And it’s dead easyto create something extra from protest —TAPP recommends it!
Debates We’ve Had
We have quite good arguments in the pub sometimes. Asperhaps an unusually diverse bunch (ages, backgrounds, lifestyles, faiths,ideologies, dress-sense, hairstyles, taste in music—is Bruce Springsteena god or not?), we can’t help but tolerate each other’s peculiarities.Issues discussed have included; the welfare state—defend it or let it die?,support people wanting jobs or encourage them to drop out? using violentlanguage or images, being ‘reasonable’ critics or chucking rotten tomatoes,working with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) against the war or refusingto deal with them, being public about something or keeping it hush-hush,how to attack the consumer lifestyle without pissing people off, christianityand spirituality, having waffly meetings or being a fascist facilitator,gobby people dominating meetings, individuals taking too much on, how toget new or shy people activated, whether to try and kick-start other groupsinto action or just do our thing and of course, the usual jostling of causesand priorities.
Use Of The Earth First! Network
Our group formed spontaneously from the need of NorthEast activists to join together. A handful of members had previously doneEF! stuff but others didn’t even know what EF! was and we basically formedoutside of that network. Much of what drives us does not easily fit intothe standard Earth First! ideology—we’re our own distinct group. When sevenof us travelled down to the EF! Winter Moot in January 1999 it was thefirst time that we as a group had encountered EF! properly. We found anetwork that presented itself as being in crisis and we went away feelinghappy that our little group was free of the stresses and strains of thosemore established. We heard groups vow never to use the media again, butwe were finding both TV and press vitally important in carrying our messageacross to people. We thought about how we’d deal with ‘problem people’and felt we’d so far skillfully avoided everyone locally we wanted to avoidand that we communicated between ourselves enough that we could deal withpotential problems. We were baffled by the elaborate facilitation strategiesneeded to co-ordinate such large numbers of people. But we’ve gained fromthe sharing of experiences, like burn-out and accidental elitism. Now we’repretty well networked in with EF! and other national circuits, and we findit really funny that we’ve acquired a reputation as a ‘sorted’ group—cheers!
More Recent Developments…
Radical activities and campaigns in the North East thisyear have outgrown TAPP, and it is now only one node in a diversified network.But TAPP played a very useful role as an initial catalyst-group for submergednetworks to get going again. I’ll not list the active groups in Newcastlenow, officer, but it’s all changed in the last few months, with more goingon than I can keep track of.
Last week there was a blinding West End house party withthree rooms of DJ’s backed by huge Reclaim The Streets and ‘Take Action’banners, the Toon is covered in stickers and posters of all types, fromJune 18 to anti-Asylum bill, the police regularly ask after us and there’sway too many meetings to go to each week!
Perhaps the most positive and life-giving development forus has been our growing involvement with artists, musicians and other creativelygreen people. And all this while the Think Globally Act Locally newsletter,which was going long before TAPP formed, has provided monthly coverageof local protest activities and issues, with a rotating editorship andan inclusive line keeping it on-the-ball.
The International Centre For Lies[IMAGE]
The International Centre for Life (ICFL) is a high profile £50million lottery funded project based in Newcastle. It’s composed of threemain parts:
•ÊThe Helix visitor attraction. This turns genetic engineeringinto a Disney exhibit, hiding the important questions and selling the message‘Isn’t DNA wonderful, let’s celebrate progress!’
•ÊNewcastle University’s expanded Genetics Institute.
•ÊThe Bioscience Wing, filled with commercial biotechnology companies.
There is also a ‘superlab’ where schoolchildren are indoctrinated bythe businesses themselves. The ICFL basically mixes business and sciencein a way that places our bodies and futures under the increasing controlof the corporate state.
Focussing mainly on awareness raising stunts Gene No! has charted itsown independent course alongside the TAPP adventure. It was excluded fromthe ICFL’s first public conference ‘Making Biotechnology Happen’ in February1999. After this Gene No! linked up with Disability Action North East (DANE)to picket it. Due to the visual protest and the press interest it attracted,it forced the ICFL to allow two speakers from Gene No! in to make a fiveminute response to Monsanto’s ‘Feeding the World through Biotechnology’talk.
Due to occurences like this, and the executives being well trained inthe ‘good cop’ tactic of trying to contain, co-opt and stiffle dissent,the ICFL has proved a most complicated target, stimulating debate on co-optionand the right strategies for the group to use. An information pack on theICFL is available from Gene No! For a copy send a large SAE to Gene No!at: c/o PO Box 1TA, Newcastle, NE99 1TA, UK.
To contact TAPP, and for a copy of Think Globally ActLocally, send some stamps to: PO Box 1TA, Newcastle, NE99 1TA, UK.
|Do or Die No 8.||BACK| INDEX | NEXT||page 105 - 108|