Save Yourselves

I Spent 24 Hours with Greenpeace on Their Latest Illegal London Action

I joined the group as they wheeled a polar bear the size of a double-decker bus in front of Shell HQ.

by Michael Segalov
04 September 2015, 11:27am

When I was first approached by Greenpeace to join them on an action, I imagined cruising through the Arctic on a speedboat for some piracy, or scaling a skyscraper to hang banners off the walls.

So, when I find myself with one shoe stuck in some sludge on a campsite just outside the M25, I would be lying if I didn't say my inner child wasn't slightly disappointed.

The plan was pretty simple: move a giant polar bear puppet to Shell's central London HQ, and keep it there until Shell stopped drilling for oil in the Arctic – or, failing that, until everyone ended up in prison.

Greenpeace believe Arctic oil drilling is disastrous for the planet; researchers this year concluded that it's incompatible to drill if we want to hit the target of limiting global warming to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. Shell – well, they disagree.

As I made my way through the mud, on the eve of the action, the field looked more scout camp than mission control. But the 60-plus people milling around canvas tents on the grass weren't singing "Kumbaya" as they piled into a muddy gazebo for the final meeting before the following day's protest would commence.

The camp, in a muddy field somewhere near the M25

An Australian bloke called Pete was stood at the front of the assembly, responding to questions about how to deal with the cops.

"We're not going to get ourselves arrested just to protect the lair pieces," Pete was explaining, as he referenced some secondary structures that would be accompanying the bear.

"We're going to be OK at the start, they're pretty big, and the police won't know what to do with us. At some point they'll act, but we have to play it by ear and go from there."

The protest itself was going to be far from legal, so getting a rise from the police would be just a matter of time.

Sat in the middle of the road outside Shell HQ, the protesters would be obstructing the highway, which has a maximum penalty of a £1,000 fine. If they ventured too close to Shell's private property, aggravated trespass might be thrown at them too, and a conviction for this could see them spending up to three months behind bars.

Conversation soon turned to Shell's on-going injunction, which bans Greenpeace UK staff and activists from crossing a line drawn around Shell's offices. The plan was to breach this – a fuck you to the British legal system – which could see everyone nicked there and then.

On the canvas walls of the mucky gazebo were lists of names and responsibilities; "paw prints", "Aurora's head", "lock on minders" and "traffic" included.

Another Greenpeace staffer, Abby, explained how they'd be shutting down the road from the get go. "There'll be a lot of press when Emma Thompson turns up, and the press like running into the road; it's not your responsibility to stop them getting hit," said Abby. Solidarity, eh?

By 10PM, most of the teams had been sent to bed, with the 4AM start edging closer. I hung back, with the six who planned to "lock on" – a technique used at protests that sees activists physically attach themselves to a site, to ensure the police are forced to physically remove them and cause as big a disturbance as they can.

"I'd like to make sure we have at least one person on outside duty at all times," Pete was telling them, as they discussed the best way to hold their ground. "The door has a lock, although it's not particularly strong.

"These aren't the strongest locks in the world," he continued, "our plan isn't to keep you there forever, we want to force a response from the police, so you get arrested."

I couldn't help feeling that the lock-on guys had the most at stake, so we grabbed a cup of tea, as the rest of the troops hit the hay, so I could find out what had driven them to agree to get nicked for the cause.

Janet Barker, 36, studied environmental science, but became disillusioned with her work. "I ended up going to teach energy saving in schools, but it ended up being sponsored by N-Power, it just made no sense."

Barker doesn't seem a hardened criminal, but she was planning to break the law in no time at all. "I'm going into this aware I'll be arrested," she told me, "but your gut instinct overrides any fear of arrest."

"They need common sense drilling into them," she proudly quipped, "they don't need to drill in the Arctic. Write that down!"

I ask if she thinks it's oK to break the law.

"It's all scale, right? A massive oil slick in the Arctic – that is legal, apparently. But us messing about in front of Shell HQ isn't?!"

Barker was to be joined by Barry Broadly, a 48-year-old ex-army geezer, not your stereotypical eco-activist.

"A cop once said to me, 'Is it worth it getting a criminal record?' I said, 'What, saving the planet? I think so.'"

Mark Crutchley, now in his late fifties, would be shackling himself down too, alongside 64-year-old Irene Statham, and Dorset-based Len Herbert, 59.

The first five I spoke to all have previous when it comes to Greenpeace actions, for them getting arrested now something of a norm. Herbert proudly recalled the time he mounted the roof of parliament to demand action on climate change before ending up in the back of a meat wagon.

But for Hannah Boustred, 31, this would be a first-time cuffing.

"I'm confident that if there was ever any reason to go through the trauma of arrest and courts, then this it," she told me, as the others headed off to their sleeping bags.

"I'm humbled to be a part of it, how many opportunities in life do you get to be the person standing in front of the big machines, saying 'No'? Not many."

***

At 4AM the campsite drearily reawakened, as the activists filed onto coaches to take them to site. "I've never been awake in a field at this time not fucked off my tits," someone chuckled, as we made our way quietly through the muck.

An hour or so later, we pulled up to a car park round the corner from Shell HQ. There was a crowd of people already milling about, including Emma Thompson, the Oscar-winning actress, who'd be the media pull for the day.

Protesters looking jolly on a very early coach ride into London

"It's not that bold to do this, and risk arrest," said Thompson, as the bear started to move behind us in the dark.

"The law is only as sensible as the people who've made it. It's man made, sometimes good and sometimes bad. This time it's bad, because the law is in fact upholding the rights of a company who have no right to be in the Arctic, threatening our habitat in the way that they are."

The puppet made its way through the quiet South Bank roads, moving serenely as it edged closer to Shell. A fully functioning marionette, those involved had gone through days of training, as the bear's legs and head stirred into action. A team of impromptu, self-appointed traffic wardens – fully equipped with stolen road closure signs – held back the traffic as they went.

As the bear pulled up into position, in the shadow of the London Eye, I caught up with Iris, who'd been stationed on one of the bear's legs.

A close shave with the RV1 as the bear as pulled through the city

"I've just helped puppeteer a polar bear the size of a double-decker bus through the streets of London," she said, breathing heavily as she went. "We've got plenty of things planned to make our presence felt, and we'll be staying here as long as we can."

At this point, I put a call into Shell's press office; an Australian woman answered the phone. I asked her straight up, "Is Shell going to stop drilling because of this?"

"You mean to say, will we stop drilling, because there's a puppet outside my office... What do you think?" she drily replied.

By half six the lock-ons were in place. Two guys were stationed on high seats poking out of the top of the structure, with another two chained to the railings inside, while down below the final pair were sat on platforms at the bottom of the staircase. A police car showed up, but disappeared pretty quickly to leave the bear be.

Every good Greenpeace protest needs a cellist

I tracked down the youngest looking protester, 15-year-old Gaia, who turned out to be Emma Thompson's daughter.

"I've not been dragged here by my mum," she assured me, as we leant against the security barriers. "Global warming is the biggest problem facing my generation; if we don't open our eyes to the catastrophe that's happening, we're basically all fucked.

"I don't think Shell want to accept the fact that what they are doing is actually killing our species."

It was 2PM when it all kicked off again, when Emma T and a band of the activists regrouped in front of a media throng. After reading a poem that she'd penned for the occasion, Thompson turned to the imposing office block.

"Listen up you guys, it's your children and grandchildren. This is an act of monumental greed and selfishness, and it has to stop," snarled Thompson, as the bear roared alongside.

Suddenly she was sticking some paper to the windows of the building, as other activists joined in to give her a hand. Shell security watched on, bemused, as a copper took out his pocket camera to film the affair.

Elena Polisano, an Arctic campaigner, explained what was going down. "Activists are placing giant polar bear paw prints onto Shell's building, and in doing so are breaking the injunction. They're made up of thousands of names of the over seven million people who've signed the Arctic petition.

"Shell are up in the Arctic now, with all their permits from President Obama, but we want a line in the ice, and a ban on Arctic oil drilling."

Obama is currently on a visit to the Alaskan Arctic to highlight climate change, although there's no mention of Shell or Arctic drilling in pieces he's posted, it's a confusing message from a President in his legacy stage.

With the stickers temporarily covering Shell's windows, Emma Thompson was whisked away, the UK's media suddenly interested in talking about global warming for a time. "See you later everyone," she waved, as the team headed off to do Newsnight. As she left, I caught up with her a final time.

"I was slightly disappointed not to be arrested," she said. "I was all ready for the cuffs and the police."

It began to settle down for the evening now, as slowly the press and supporters headed home. As dark drew in, the bear was illuminated with floodlights, so I went to chat to those locked-on who would be bedding down for the night.

"I'm feeling triumphant," Barry Broadly told me, as he sat in the drizzle atop the bear in the dark. "I'm wired and pumped up full of excitement, we're doing something right."

I couldn't help feeling that it was now a waiting game for the cops to come, as the A-list celebs exited, taking the media frenzy with them. "Not at all, it's like having one mosquito inside your mosquito net. That constant niggling that never lets up. We're a thorn in their side and we'll carry on."

There's something quite heroic about watching people lock themselves to a fucking giant polar bear on a rainy London night, fuelled by their passion to stop the planet flooding and warming and generally going awry. It'll be interesting when the Met try to move them, too.

@MikeSegalov

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