Around 1,400 protesters took part in demonstrations and other actions at Heathrow airport on Sunday of last week, as the culmination of the week-long Camp for Climate Action.
The climate camp successfully provoked a wide-ranging debate within the mainstream media about the impact of air travel on climate change.
And the mere fact that the camp took place is a victory – airport operator BAA tried and failed to serve an injunction on protesters to stop them from using roads or public transport around Heathrow.
Assed Baig attended the camp during the week. “The best thing about the camp was the fact that it focused attention on climate change,” he told Socialist Worker. “It’s been brilliant for media attention.”
Last Sunday protesters – including local residents – marched along the stretch of land that has been earmarked for Heathrow’s third runway.
The march was peaceful, although at one point police penned the marchers in on Sipson Road for over an hour.
Smaller groups attempted to surround BAA’s corporate headquarters, but found themselves blocked by police. For hours protesters clashed with police as they tried to find a way through police lines.
“The police presence was completely over the top,” said Labour MP John McDonnell, whose constituency includes the area BAA wants to develop.
“They have already used anti-terrorist legislation to stop and search people approaching the camp. Many of my constituents feel very intimidated, having been photographed going about their daily business by police.”
Around five people were treated for head injuries at the camp on Sunday evening. Alistair, a protester who was at the camp all week, told Socialist Worker, “Everyone thought the police treatment of us was appalling.
“We were under constant surveillance, and lots of people were stopped and searched for no reason. We were treated like terrorists. The police tried to provoke reactions from people by turning up in riot gear and pushing people around.”
The protesters were buoyed, however, by the strength of support they received from local people. “Local residents consistently showed their support and interest in the camp,” said Alys, another protester.
“Many made a point of personally thanking individual campers. Local residents made up a big part of the march through Sipson on Sunday – and others waved and cheered through their windows as we passed.”
Alistair added, “Local residents have been coming in and out of the camp all week and have been very supportive of the protests. There are pensioners who have lived here all their lives who are facing demolition of their houses if the third runway goes ahead.
“When we blockaded the gates of BAA, local people came down and brought us coffee and chocolate.”
There were debates at the climate camp about how to tackle climate change and what was the root cause of global warming.
“People have discussed how climate changes affects the poor – and how it’s linked to neoliberalism around the world,” said Alastair. “George Monbiot gave an excellent speech where he said we needed to destroy capitalism.
“Lots of people thought we needed to link up with workers. We visited a local picket line at Nippon Express – the airport and cargo workers there were on strike over pay and conditions. The strikers were very friendly and supportive, and very aware of the climate debate.”
Assed Baig said, “George Monbiot put forward solutions including building more wind farms and more use of solar energy. This was challenged by some, who asked how realistic this was and how we could challenge the system.
“There should have been more meetings on the politics behind climate change – a lot of the meetings were on quite narrow practical issues like how to go about chaining yourself to other people. But I’d still definitely come back next year.”
Some of the media coverage of the camp focused on trying to smear the protesters, with talk of “hard core anarchist demonstrators” planning to cause havoc to passengers in Heathrow.
The London Evening Standard ran a front page story with the headline “Militants Will Hit Heathrow”, claiming that protesters planned to plant “hoax bombs” to create security alerts. Protesters have made a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about these misrepresentations.
Numbers attending the climate camp fell short of original expectations, possibly due to intimidation by the police and hysteria from the media.
But despite the smears, much of the media has had to acknowledge the importance of the issues raised by the protesters.
A third runway at Heathrow – and an accompanying sixth terminal – would increase the number of flights from 473,000 to 710,000 every year.
Existing flights already produce some 31 million tons of carbon dioxide each year – much of it released at high altitudes where it causes far more damage.
“The best thing about the climate camp was that capitalism was obviously the target, rather than individuals,” said Sian, another protester. “But there were some problems with the way things were organised.
“There were huge meetings discussing tactics at the camp, but it felt like the decisions had already been made. The way that things were organised narrowed the debate and the solutions.”
Others were concerned about how inclusive the camp was. Assed said he hoped next year’s camp would see more ethnic diversity among campers to make the event more “reflective of wider society”.
Alistair added, “At times it’s been quite chaotic and confusing because of the way things were organised. People thought the camp might be infiltrated so plans were sometimes secretive.
“But this also meant that there were lots of creative and spontaneous actions. There has been a real spirit of freedom, resistance and cooperation.”