The Spirit of Greenham

Extinction Rebellion seemed to come out of nowhere towards the end of last year and to change the face of the green movement as we know it. Or at least it appeared like it for those of us watching (or marvelling at it, more like) from the outside. And so when I was there last month, when Rebels took over London, blockading bridges and other central locations throughout the city, and a thought occurred to me – comparing it to the Greenmham Common Women’s Peace Camp – it took me by surprise.

That whole week was massive for the movement: watching the media change tactics in the face of the sheer enormity of the action was somewhat heartening; XR seemed to have a never-ending supply of activists ‘willing’ to get arrested; but perhaps most impressively, they managed to force politicians to listen, and within 2 weeks had meetings with both the Mayor of London and the government.

However, the media, despite their awakening, on the surface, have continued to portray XR activists as ‘hippes’ or people who somehow enjoyed the prospect of getting arrested, implying that wasting police resources was an end in and of itself. Yet, what I saw during the April Rebellion couldn’t be further from that.

The slogans of XR repeatedly highlight, apart from climate emergency, love and non-violence

Non-violence, a strong sense of community and love seemed to be the accords of the day. On the opening Monday and last Friday of the London-wide occupation I spent most of the day there, somewhat on the outskirts, but taking it all in, thinking about how beautiful it all was. And how ingenious and easy they made it all seem – the Rebels brought green energy sources with them to each site to showcase just how accessible and manageable those are. And how realistic the ideas – for a bunch of activists, let alone the government!

Families area during the April occupation at Parliament Square

And that’s where the ‘Sprit of Greenham’ came to me. I thought: these people are so beautiful, the spirit of the sites under occupation so warm and loving, despite very many arrests and police presence; the singing so heart-felt and in line with the spirit of it all. The Rebels sang ‘we love you’ to every person ‘willing’ to get arrested for the cause and every person who replaced them when they got carried off by the police – yes, carried off: the protesters did not actively resist, in the spirit of non-violence, but they were not going to go willingly either (like the media would have us believe…), so the police often times had to physically carry them off.

Travelling library at Parliament Square during the April occupation

That’s also why I thought that this version of the story needed to be told. Despite the fact that, in the end, the media did finally start waking up to the very real reasons the protests were going on, and reporting those, they were still very much focused on the nuisance, the ‘wasting’ of police resources (oh, the irony of this statement, when they never think of the ‘waste’ of earth resources when they say it), and the drain on the economy. The media continues to create a needless separation between us (the silly/nuisance-causing activists) and them (the serious, productive citizens), as if we had two separate earths to live on and our was the only one at stake…

The story of the means, and not just the ends, is the one that really captured my imagination when I was there, in person, taking it all in, thinking about it… Imagining another world was really possible, and seeing a sample of it unfold right in front of my eyes, to paraphrase Arundhati Roy.

The presence of feminism during the XR occupation was clear

And that’s why I thought of Greenham while I was there. Not because anyone there was talking about Greenham – not that I’d heard anyway – but because I imagined that that’s how it would have felt being there: a real peace and love dynamic, collective ways of working, a real-life embodiment of the ‘personal is political’ at the heart of the movement. And now, not just at the heart of the women’s movement.

So when I went back home, I started reading a book on Greenham that I’d had sitting on my ‘herstory’ shelf for a long time. Two of the Greenham women, the authors of the book that I’m reading, described the experience of the camp as a work of developing a non-violent approach to everything all along the way of the action:

“We are starting from scratch, developing attitudes and methods that make domination and opting out unnecessary. We try to give every woman a voice (…) We are teaching each other in an intense way. And this means that women who have been identified by the press as spokeswomen have no more impact on decision-making than the women who may have arrived the day before. It is new to us, we fail often, but it must be done, for political change is deeper and more firm when there is personal change too.”

(Greenham Common: Women at the Wire, 1985)

And this appears to be something that is still too hard for the press and politicians alike to grasp. The concept of collectivity is too hard for some to imagine, such is the stronghold on our cultural (hence, ironically, collective) consciousness of patriarchy, individualism and capitalism.

In XR… There are no leaders, although there might be spokespeople for the movement, out of necessity. There are no hierarchies, and the working groups that exists within the movement are there to facilitate new members joining where they can feel most useful and impactful, not to reinforce the same power dynamics that have led us to this most dangerous crisis in the history of humanity… and life on earth as we know it.

And I feel that some of it, if not all, was felt by the general public during the April occupation of London. And some minds were opened, some shifted…

That’s why we need access alternative her/histories – they teach us that another way really is possible. And to have a show of the principles of non-violence in action that permeate XR just as they did Greenham.

In the same Greenham text, the authors talk about the development of the concept and the practice of non-violence:

“Talking through non-violence is an obvious and essential part of our work (…) Some of us have chosen non-violence as a strategy because of its practical advantages to us. After all, we cannot match the resources that could be used against us and non-violence makes it difficult for the forces of law and order to legitimise any mistreatment, especially when the world is watching. Some of us have chosen non-violence as philosophy of life, a principle on which to base all our behaviour not just our political campaign, This comes from a belief that violence breeds violence and damages those who rest to it. Means and ends have to be consistent.” 

This new wave of the climate movement definitely feels like it’s on the right track – including picking up lessons learned from others, like the feminist movement.

You can read more about Extinction Rebellion and its principles, and how they are similar to those of the founding principles of Greenham here.




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