On Saturday 18th August I saw over a thousand people form a human chain
The face of the fossil fuel industry. Coming to a village near you.
around a gas fracking site in Balcombe. It was a powerful sight. A large oil drill towered menacingly in the air, circled by a tall razor-wired fence. The razor wire was circled by police officers and elite Ghurkha soldiers from Nepal. The officers were circled by extra fencing. The fencing was circled by chanting, clasped hands, Mexican waves and song. It was a day I will never forget and one that connected me not only with the hopes and fears of thousands of protester, but also with South America, the Indian Sub Continent, the future, the past, the young, the old and the thumb of a Nepalese soldier.
The first time I saw the drilling site I was taken straight back to Colombia. In 2007 I worked in human rights, visiting communities affected by the arrival of British mining multinationals. All the ingredients that we documented in the oil regions of Casanare and Arauca are present in Sussex now: conflict and social division, the militarisation of the countryside, the unequal sharing of short term profits (often appearing as corruption) and the industrialisation of once peaceful communities with lorries, widened roads, bridges, traffic, light and noise. This is before you even count the pollution of air and scant water supplies (millions of gallons of which is used and contaminated by fossil fuel exploration).
The global ‘oil curse’ that has divided societies, decimated ecosystems and destroyed economies has arrived in the rolling wooded hills of Tory heartland. What happened next outside that fence was one of the most remarkable moments of solidarity I have ever witnessed.
At demos you will usually see me dressed as a copper. I do this for a number of reasons:
1/To make people laugh. You’ve got to have fun at a demo, otherwise you will be seen as angry looser and people will not join in.
”]2/One of the purposes of FIT surveillance teams, the use of under-covers, uniforms, weaponry and police brutality it to intimidate, provoke and discourage people from showing up to demos. I have seen regiments of clown armies doing such good work that protesters have decided to stay inside kettles even when it was possible for them to leave!
3/ To poke fun at the coppers. Let’s face it they do lay themselves open to a good ribbing sometimes.
4/ For no other reason than being able to stand at the end of a line of cops with a sign that reads ‘Police say no to fracking’. I once wrote the words ‘Police say no to cuts’ in chalk on the pavement in front of police who responded by laughing. One officer thanked me “because we can’t say that ourselves.” They should have arrested me. Chalking a public highway is classed as ‘criminal damage’.
Outside the perimeter fence, dressed half as gorilla and half as copper and armed only with a megaphone, I informed the uniforms on the other side of the fence that our campaign of gorilla warfare had been cancelled. They were outnumbered, after all, and it would have been unfair. Eighty five percent of local residents oppose fracking and there were shitloads of protesters from as far-an-oil-field as
”]Ireland and Scotland. The fact that we follow a tradition of non-violent civil disobedience also made the ‘warfare’ bit tricky. To compound this I wasn’t actually a gorilla.
But some form of conflict had to take place. The Ghurkhas are some of the bravest, best trained, most loyal soldiers in the history of modern warfare. They were far from their home and (as I was told by protesters camped next to the site) resentful that they were being used as private security for this corporation. In Colombia they have a word for militias used by companies and corrupt politicians – paramilitaries.
But these officers were no terrorists. I could see it in their giggling faces. They were agents of the public realm; there to serve and to protect. They (we hope) get
out of bed in the morning wanting to be part of something noble – an organisation working to reduce crime and the fear of crime, to uphold justice and the survival of the democratic values that we so cherish. Isn’t that why we were there?
It was decided that the best way for us to resolve our apparent differences, in a non violent way, was through sport. Thumb war to be precise. It was a risky decision. I didn’t know if thumb war shared the same success of Coca-Cola and the happy birthday song. Could it have permeated the climbs of the Himalayas? The stakes on this reaching a peaceful resolution depended on this going well, but
”]physical conditions were stacked against our mini-Olympiad. A large fence meant that it had to be either thumb war or pole vaulting. The latter would have presented problems for the officers, who had no access trees since they were chopped down to build the fracking site.
I elicited the help of a demonstrator, to… well demonstrate. A nine year old girl volunteered herself. I could tell she took the discipline of thumb war very seriously and had obviously been training (as well as probably having some sort of genetic predisposition to strong thumbs). She won. But that was only a
demonstration so it didn’t count.
It was time for the big bout. Both sides were now aware of the rules and a large crowd had assembled. Tensions were at fever pitch (one of the police officers was pissing himself). We faced each other, two gladiators separated by a fence, an ideological conflict, an economic apartheid and a multi-billion dollar global security apparatus. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. I nervously extended my hand through the fencing and into enemy territory. If my opponent rejected it a major opportunity for peace would have been lost. I would also look like a massive tit.
I could see the Ghurkha was nervous. He was faced with a big risk and having to draw on all his training as a peacekeeper and a killer simultaneously. He stood alone, disciplinary hearings ringing through his head. He looked at the police officer stationed four meters to his right. He looked at the rest of the world staring in: anarchists in balaclavas, clown army soldiers, a slightly desperate looking police gorilla, one arm hanging through the cage, grandmothers, fathers,
The battle of Balcombe, courtesy of Stewart Marsden, Sun Prints
daughters. The seconds ticked bye like a dying heartbeat. Nothing happened. Shit. Then, slowly, the small brown hand of my enemy combatant came timidly to mine. We locked together. One! Two! Three! Four!
The crowd erupted in an outburst of struck oil that shot up from a place deep inside of us. Someone called out “Namaste” (the Nepalese greeting) and he pressed his hands together and made a slight bow. Then one of the most extraordinary things happened. A circle opened up in front of the gate and a discussion started over the fact that we were not the only victims standing in this field. In April of this year the Ghurkhas (who have been dying alongside British soldiers since 1815) threatened to go on hunger strike if they did not receive pensions equal to their British counterparts.* There was genuine anger and gut felt solidarity among the protesters that our brothers on the other side of the fence, who were prepared to die for a Queen and Commonwealth, were being so blatantly denied.
The assembly’s discussion widened. It was mentioned that there are police officers living in emergency BnB’s because of the lack of affordable housing. Most officers can’t afford decent schooling in a privatised education system. Neither can they afford to look after their elderly parents in a landscape of NHS cuts. Gas companies, like Cuadrilla operating in Balcombe, get tax breaks, stripped back regulation and a special office to support them in Whitehall. The rest of us get disability cuts, homelessness, debt, stress and suicide. Our elderly population gets
”]left battle scarred and impoverished, shivering to death for substandard housing and the rising costs of gas.**
The Ghurkha was genuinely touched by the outburst of solidarity. We, in turn, were touched by the trust he put in us. For a moment there were no uniforms, no razor wire and no fence – just a bunch of people standing next to a giant drill that doesn’t need to be there.
We are all in this sticky puddle of bituminous sludge together. If I was reminded of anything at last weekend it was that I am part of a global movement standing against energy cartels who have a strangle hold over our democracy, our
economies and our climate. I was reminded that chains of people are much stronger than chains of hydrocarbon molecules and much more volatile. We are the most powerful source of energy and our reserve remain largely untapped. Join the growing grass roots resistance against fracking, fossil fuels and corporate greed. The time for action is now. All power to the thumbs.
And as for who won, well, let’s just say it was a draw.
** Despite the misinformation on gas prices, Cuadrilla themselves have admitted that the impact on shale gas will be “basically insignificant” (p29 The Guardian, Tuesday 20th August, 2013)