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CASE STUDY: campaigning against climate change

Laura Sevier

1st May, 2009

She's applying the same principles to environmental campaigning as her forebears did to fighting for universal suffrage. Laura Sevier meets the founder of the Climate Rush

Every individual is as powerful as he or she realises themselves to be. Just divert your being into it.

One day in late August last year, activist Tamsin Omond was struck with a brilliant idea. She was at the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth and reading a book about the Suffragettes. In it she noticed a date: 13 October 1908. It was the day the Suffragettes rushed Parliament, when more than 60,000 people rallied in Parliament Square and groups of Suffragettes tried to force their way past police lines. Thirty-seven people were arrested.

It got her thinking. What if, to mark the centenary of the rush, there were to be a protest in Parliament Square, this time to lobby for climate action rather than women’s rights. And so the idea for the Climate Rush 2008 was born.

Time was ticking, though: there were only two months to go before October.

As a member of the protest group Plane Stupid and one of the so-called ‘Commons Five’ who scaled the roof of the Houses of Parliament in February 2008, Tamsin is no stranger to radical antics – although the bail conditions that arose from her subsequent arrest made a return to Parliament a risky one.

Then there were the nuts and bolts of putting the event together. Spotting a ripe opportunity for a protest is one thing – actually pulling it off is another.

Suffragette city

As it turned out, on 8 October 2008 more than 1,000 people turned up in Parliament Square. It made for an extraordinary scene. Many wore Edwardian costume, hundreds wore Suffragette-style red sashes emblazoned with the slogans ‘Climate Code Red’, ‘No Airport Expansion’, ‘No New Coal’ and ‘Reform Climate Policy’. One banner read ‘Well-Behaved Women Never Made History’.

After hearing speeches from the likes of veteran feminist and sustainable food champion Rosie Boycott and Green MEP Caroline Lucas, a group broke police lines, lightly vaulted makeshift barriers and rushed towards the doors of Parliament. Fists banging against closed doors they chanted ‘Deeds Not Words’.

What began as a single event has now grown into a high-profile environmental activist group inspired by the actions of the Suffragettes. The Climate Rush has since staged the infamous Edwardian picnic at Heathrow Terminal 1 and more recently the No New Coal Awards, among other acts of ‘peaceful civil disobedience’. You’ve probably read about them in the press. The events tend to get coverage because of their innovative nature. More imaginative than protest marches, they blend costume, humour and entertainment with a strong environmental message. They’re planning an event a month until Copenhagen in December.

Tamsin herself has also become something of a poster girl for the green movement. She’s young (mid 20s), clever (with a 1st from Cambridge), pretty (she’s been asked to model for various glossy magazines) and passionate about her causes. And she’s cool. I meet her in her house in Hackney, which she shares with six others, all activists or artists. With her mop of blonde hair, slogan t-shirt, waistcoat and Converse trainers she looks more like an artist herself. She’s also articulate, informed (she can reel off facts about carbon and coal like clockwork) and has a natural charisma. It’s no wonder she’s gaining attention – and new recruits. ‘Every time we go out and do an action it grows by about 300,’ she says.

Sitting cross-legged on the rug drinking tea she tells me her story. After leaving Cambridge she trod an unusual path, combining a calling to the priesthood – she spent a year as ‘a sort of trainee priest’ in Primrose Hill – with Plane Stupid actions on the side. ‘I managed to get my church to change its energy provider and spend a little less time worrying about the organ,’ she says, ‘but in the end I decided I wanted to dedicate all my time to the environment.’ Like a calling? ‘Yes, I guess so,’ she laughs. ‘A calling that everyone has to get.’

She says the Suffragettes have always been ‘a huge inspiration. Their extraordinary actions reshaped society, redefined what people believed was possible. It was a truly radical struggle and it worked. I think there’s tons to be learned from them – organisational, propaganda, all-involving…’

Like anyone who is clued into the science and urgency of climate change Tamsin realises that we need to get things moving more quickly and that we need more people shouting louder for change. And that there is power in numbers.

‘At Parliament Square nothing would have happened if there were 100 people,’ she says. ‘It’s this thing of critical mass. Everyone sort of knew that it was celebrating the 100th anniversary of when the Suffragettes rushed Parliament and that at 7.30 they might be expected to rush. It’s about creating a context wherein something that is ostensibly legal, like standing in Parliament Square, becomes something where so much more can happen just because of a collective group.’

The Climate Rush, intended to be a one-off event, evolved into an ongoing campaign group. ‘There was an unexpected amount of support for it,’ says Tamsin. ‘We had loads of women saying, “We love this and we really want you to do something else.” They liked the creative, inclusive thing about it.’

One of the aims of Climate Rush is to make direct action more accessible and engage average people who would never have thought of themselves as activists. ‘We need to wake up a lot of people to the fact that this really is the defining issue and is going to be hugely impactful on all our lives,’ she says. And for those people who are awake it gives them something they can do that is more than simply changing their lightbulbs or individual way of life, but maybe less than getting involved in a more covert group where you know you may get arrested.

At a Climate Rush event you can go along and think ‘maybe if I do something I might get arrested but actually I can just stand back and watch it happen.'

Following the Parliament Square Rush, newly recruited climate Suffragettes didn’t have long to wait for the next event: ‘Dinner at Domestic Departures’ on 12 January this year.

The mission? To protest against Heathrow expansion plans and domestic flights. The method was inspired and the resulting scene memorably absurd: 250 Climate Rushers were briefed beforehand to enter Terminal 1 under the guise of normal travellers but to wear turn-of-the-century-style clothing underneath their coats (‘think Mary Poppins for style’). In their carry-on wheelie cases were picnics, tea and cake, blankets, cushions, foldout chairs and tablecloths. At 7pm, when the string quartet played its first note, picnic blankets reading ‘No Domestic Departures’ and ‘Climate Chaos – It’s No Picnic’ were rolled out and sat on. Picknickers then tucked into cucumber sandwiches, samosas and cloudy lemonade. After dinner began the dancing – a conga round the terminal.

And the award goes to…

The police were ‘somewhat bemused – and out in their hundreds’, but ultimately, as the protest was peaceful, what could they do? There was no disruption to flights.

The picnic at Heathrow was widely covered in the media, which Tamsin sees as a useful tool. ‘If the climate movement had the same advertising budget as Coca-Cola then we’d be fine. Everyone would want to be green. But in a way the coverage we get is our form of getting the message out there for free. The media is our loudspeaker.’

In March, the Climate Rush organised the No New Coal Awards – an event designed to ‘highlight the ridiculousness’ of the UK Coal Awards Ceremony due to take place in a swanky London hotel. ‘The absurdity at having an awards ceremony for the coal industry at a time of climate crisis… We want to draw attention to the issue of coal being the dirtiest way to produce electricity.’

Rushers were invited to ‘dress formally for cocktails’ in the Landmark Hotel’s Winter Garden, where the awards were due to take place. The idea was to schmooze with the industry and challenge them. ‘What I love about the Rush is that it’s people you can relate to and who could be your daughter or wife or mother – or whatever boy version.

So you’ve got a 19-year-old about to go to university asking you, “Why are you being so self congratulatory? Can you at least be a little bit ashamed?”’

As it turned out, unbeknown to the Rushers, the coal industry had done a crafty change of location. Unperturbed, the mock awards went ahead as planned, giving out six papier-mâché canary-shaped awards, representing the birds used to detect lethal gas in coalmines. ‘They also represent the arctic ice caps, which are the canaries of our world. They have started melting – a warning sign to us.’ Categories included Best Supporting Role, which went to ‘the biggest climate coward’ Gordon Brown, and UK Coal Personality of the Year, which went to the CEO of E.ON for outstanding services to greenwash (while plotting to build Kingsnorth).

Spirited and strategic, it’s a form of protest that does things creatively and yet is still challenging. ‘One of the reasons why our generation is protesting in this way is because we are the anti-Iraq-War-march generation,’ Tamsin says. ‘We understand the Government’s reaction to marches.’ This year, however, she thinks the feeling of disempowerment seems to be turning, what with the Obama frenzy. People are realising ‘they can make things happen and put the right people in the right place – but you have to get a bit more involved.'

Tamsin has a refreshing faith in people power: ‘Every individual is as powerful as he or she realises themselves to be. Just divert your being into it.’

What’s the bravest thing she’s ever done? ‘I don’t know. I think I’m mostly reckless rather than brave…’ Reluctant to appear like some kind of heroine she instead shifts the conversation to the wider cause. ‘It’s the thing with the Suffragettes again: 100,000 women were prepared potentially to risk prison because there was this huge issue. That’s the thing that really inspires me to act – that and the knowledge that how the future is going to look is so much defined by our actions now.’

The next stage

I ask her if men feel excluded because of the obvious Suffragette connection. Tamsin says the movement started off being quite women-led but has opened out to include men. Although she doesn’t like the idea of ‘separate spaces’ she is aware they can have benefits. For instance, ‘at big meetings women don’t actually speak out as often as men. Whereas in a big group of women suddenly you get women you’ve never heard speak out before giving their voice. It’s a good way to empower women.’

Another thing Tamsin recognises is that, in campaigning terms, it’s quite useful to get people together based on the similarities that they already share, and then to bring them into the wider debate on climate change.

As a result there are now 1,000 Climate Rushers on the mailing list, as well as a Facebook group with 1,500 members. ‘There are lots of emails I get from people who are on the mailing list who want to be involved,’ she says. ‘We need to make it clear how easy it is to do things yourself, with friends; to make your own group and just go out and do it.’

The Rush is ‘not an expensive campaign’ to run, says Tamsin. It’s operated out of its members’ bedrooms and various cafés in East London on a shoestring budget based on donations made to the website. To pay the rent Tamsin writes articles for ‘anyone who will give me money’, and is also writing a book – ‘I’m hoping the royalties will fund the Rush. We need more money.’

There’s also now an Oxford and a Brighton Climate Rush. The various groups perform acts of solidarity when mass actions are taking place but ‘largely do their own thing'.

‘To most people, we were just a bunch of hippies. We’ve pulled it off with sheer guts and determination.  I want anyone to use the Climate Rush brand as long as they’re raising awareness about climate change,’ says Tamsin . ‘What we want to happen, apart from these mass actions, is for there to be climate Suffragettes outside every important meeting.’

As well as aviation and coal she says there are ‘loads and loads of targets’. Banks that ‘finance the fossil fuels industry and the arms trade’ are just one example. The Royal Bank of Scotland was targeted by rushers as recently as March. Corporate sponsorship – such as the FA cup being sponsored by E.ON – is another focus.

So what’s next on the Climate Rush calendar? ‘We’re keeping our cards fairly close to our chests, but people just need to keep an eye on our site, sign up to our mailing list and we’ll let them know when and where to get involved.’ There will be ‘something big before Copenhagen’ and an event each month in the run up to it.

‘2009 is a really important, urgent year,’ says Tamsin. ‘Lots of different groups and voices are focused on the same aim, all coming at it from different angles and with different tactics, which I think is going to be such a strength. We’re just one of many. We’re the newest high-profile one, but there will be more.’

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Daily Life Editor

Tamsin's Top Five Action Tips

1. Join the Climate Rush and give us some money

2. Wise-up: read the latest climate science at Climate Safety

3. DIY: grow your own veg, make your own clothes, mount your own protest

4. Have a dinner party and get your friends talking about climate crisis

5. Put December 5th 2009 in the diary - 'Why March When You Can Rush?' - the climax of our Copenhagen campaign

Feeling the Rush...

IN PRINT: RUSH! The making of an activist by Tamsin Omond (Mario Boyars, £7.99) will be published in October.

ON FILM: A Climate Rush documentary is in the making, but the group needs to raise £3,500 to pay license fees for music and archive footage of the 1908 Suffragette rush. All donations are hugely appreciated. Watch the trailer here

 

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