In the ‘Next Door Radicals’ series, Sul Nowroz explores individual stories about ordinary people taking extraordinary action to resist injustice and oppression. While corporate and state media often portray activists as ‘other’, defining them by their actions, Sul gives us their personal stories and journeys, revealing nothing more radical than compassion and public-spiritedness.
It’s a 1,200-acre site two miles south-east of Newbury, Berkshire. There are free-roaming cows and ground-nesting birds, and footpaths that snake around lakes and through woodlands are popular with runners, walkers, and cyclists. The local tourist authority boasts of the location: “if you’re lucky enough to catch the sunrise on a good day, you’ll be transported to another world entirely.”
The area wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, it was a £200 million facility and home to some of the most destructive weapons on the planet. It was also home to several hundred women peace activists.
A Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common
September 5th, 1981 was a Saturday. Soft Cell held the number one spot in the UK music charts with their hit Tainted Love. Raiders of the Lost Ark was popular in cinemas, while shows such as Dallas, Hart to Hart and Taxi dominated our television channels. The Rubik Cube was about to catch the world’s imagination and there were 108 reported cases of a virus that would become known as human immunodeficiency (HIV). Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in the UK, Ronald Reagan President of the United States.
It had taken approximately forty hours to travel from Cardiff to RAF Greenham Common that Saturday morning. All one hundred miles was done on foot. Thirty-two women, four men and several children forming a movable protest against Thatcher’s decision to site 160 nuclear cruise missiles on the UK mainland – 96 were to be located at RAF Greenham Common.
On arrival at the RAF base a peace camp was established. The following year it was decided the camp would serve as a women only movement. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp would become one of the longest feminist protests in recent history, with many of its members imprisoned for non-violent acts of civil disobedience.
Rebecca Mordan lived at the camp and summarised its legacy: “The cruise missiles did go, international law did change, the common was handed back to the people. Thousands and thousands of women were radicalised, even those who only came for a weekend.”
We Can’t Go Around Trashing the Place
On a rainy Thursday evening I speak with Kim. It’s our first conversation, twenty minutes ago we were strangers.
“Thinking back, it’s the Greenham Common tents. My dad was driving, and I remember looking out and seeing the tents and the women. I was young, perhaps seven or eight. I didn’t know what it was all about, but that memory stayed with me. Now, I sense I picked up on their power to act, to do something.”
Kim lives near Southampton, studied psychology at university, although never graduated, and is a mother of two. She is a committed animal rights and environmental campaigner.
“The two are linked” she says. “The agricultural impact of rearing animals on an industrial scale is highly damaging to our environment.”
Kim’s journey into advocacy and campaigning was a slow-burn process. It was a gentle awakening, an evolving awareness which by 2015 led her to becoming vegan and to make other lifestyle changes. She attended a series of events, joined various groups, and educated herself on the underlying issues of animal cruelty and the climate emergency. Kim never used the word intersectionality with me, but she has joined the dots and sees the shocking pattern weaved by our warped economic and social systems, and the consequences for all of us who live on the planet – human and non-human.
Kim summarises her philosophy: “We need to look after the world. We can’t go around trashing the place.”
From Advocacy to Acting
As Kim turned forty-eight, she felt compelled to act.
“We’re in the shit, and not trying to climb out of it fast enough. My kids are already experiencing the effects of climate change.”
On Sunday September 4th 2022, Kim joined approximately 100 supporters of Animal Rebellion laying siege to Arla, the world’s fifth largest dairy company. They stopped lorries from leaving depots, sat on trailers and tankers rendering them immobile, and blocked loading bays. Kim was part of a group that scaled milk silos making them inoperative.
The following Thursday, Kim was one of seventeen people arrested at Arla’s Hatfield depot on suspicion of aggravated trespass and causing criminal damage. During the action the tyres of fifty delivery lorries were drilled making the vehicles undriveable.
Kim would go to trial, be found guilty and receive five-month and eighteen-month conditional discharges for her respective actions.
I ask how her family reacted to the verdicts.
“Some were supportive, some not. Those relationships that were strong remained strong. Others ended.”
Activism is lonely, with hardship and sacrifice often unrecognised and unappreciated. To choose to put yourself in harm’s way in the service of others is selfless, yet perversely others are quick to frame these acts as selfish.
Kim shares “It can be hard for those around you to understand what you’re doing, so the activist community becomes like a family. It’s where you get your support.”
Kim’s criminal record could prove problematic. Her record needs to be disclosed to future employers and will potentially disqualify her from particular jobs, she will face visa restrictions by some countries, she won’t qualify for certain publicly-funded educational courses, raising a mortgage or securing a rental property will be challenging, and getting insurance cover for a home or car will come with a premium.
A Long Way to Go
“I admire the women who were at the Greenham Common peace camp. They acted according to their principles. The strength it must have taken to stay the course there [at the camp] for so long.”
Kim is a determined individual who is not easily intimidated. She is directed by an unshakeable belief system and the need to act accordingly. I ask about her past actions and her choices. There is no delay in her response, not a hint of hesitation or regret – she did what needed to be done.
“We’ve got a long way to go, and we have to keep fighting.”
The 11th of May is Eat What You Want Day. It’s a day when you are encouraged to indulge in your favourite meal and take a break from diets and restrictive food regimes. It’s hedonistic and unrestrained pleasure-seeking with little regard for the consequences. The day is so popular it has a book named after it: ‘Eat What You Want and Die Like a Man.’ Reading the inside cover feels like you’re being invited to play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun, each chamber foreboding. “Why choke down bland, mushy steamed vegetables and brown rice when there’s so much fat-laden, calorie-rich, heart-busting cuisine out there? Here are the unhealthiest, figure un-friendly, bypass-encouraging recipes sure to satisfy even the most insatiable glutton. Eat What You Want and Die Like a Man may not lead to a longer life, but it will certainly lead to a happier one.” The day and the book are markers of a culture primed for consumption and prized for immediacy.
Thursday May 11th 2023 was a mild day, largely sunny with a few scattered clouds. It was predictable spring weather for London. Kim had arrived in the capital by train a few days earlier. She travelled light – an overnight case containing a small sleeping bag, a thin sleeping mat, a change of clothes and a washbag. She told her children and a few close friends she was travelling and might be uncontactable for a few days.
By 8am on Thursday Kim and approximately forty other Just Stop Oil supporters gathered at Charing Cross. There was a briefing – the route they would follow, how to de-escalate hostility from any members of the public and some general safety points. High visibility jackets were pulled on, banners and signs demanding an ‘end to any new fossil fuel projects in the UK’ were hoisted and the group stepped onto the Strand to begin a slow march. Police arrived on the scene and within twenty minutes threatened to place the area under a Section 12 notice putting Kim and the others at risk of arrest. The group moved onto the pavement and proceeded down Whitehall, past the Cabinet Office, Downing Street and the Cenotaph.
As they arrived at Parliament Square the group moved onto the road, resuming their slow march. They walked past the black rails that fence in the Houses of Parliament, rounded the corner past St Margaret’s Church, where they were approached by police who threatened a second Section 12 order. About twenty-five of the group moved off the road, the others proceeded around the second corner towards the Mahatma Gandhi statue. They never made it. The police issued the order, and thirteen were arrested, including Kim.
“When we slow march the public often tell us to go and do it where it matters, the Houses of Parliament. So, we did, and we were arrested in less than fifteen minutes. It’s sort of ironic,” said Kim.
I Stayed Because There Were So Few at The Beginning
On Monday February 5th 2024 Kim made her way to City of London Magistrates. It’s an odd building, wedge-shaped and reaching up four storeys – each floor bears a different façade. The first three floors are light caramel, the top floor is slate grey and crowns the building with its large dormer windows and metal railing. The red and white coat of arms of the City of London Corporation hangs above the entrance, its motto Domine dirige nos (Lord guide us) visible.
Kim made her way into court along with six co-defendants. They were charged with a breach of Section 12 of the Public Order Act. The hearing began promptly at 10.30 am. The prosecution laid out its case and presented its evidence. It called three witnesses, the Chief Inspector who authorised the Section 12 and two evidence gatherers, police officers armed with video cameras who recorded the events of May 11th. By 3pm the prosecution was done.
The presiding judge concluded that the prosecution case fell short of the legal threshold required to continue with the trial. He determined the police had no proper measurement to define the level of disruption that occurred at Parliament Square on the day of the action. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and if those rights are to be restricted then more effort must be exercised in distinguishing the difference between an inconvenience and interference. By 3pm Kim and her six co-defendants were acquitted.
“Our acquittal shows the public and political pressure the police were under to get us out of the road no matter what, even in Parliament Square … the prosecution failed to justify the issuing of a Section 12 Order for causing severe disruption, and their case fell apart.”
The final time I speak with Kim, I ask her what the acquittal means to her.
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp represents a very significant moment on the continuum of civil resistance. It informed a generation of their personal power to make change happen, and yet for some unknown reason the movement has been airbrushed out of history. After speaking with Kim, I discover a small Greenham Common archive of quotes and personal stories. There is a contribution by someone called Effie which appears to speak to Kim: “I stayed because there were so few at the beginning … I realised what a big thing we were up against and how immoral and wasteful and upsetting the whole thing was and that most people didn’t realise.”
Kim and Effie – different struggles, same steadfastness.
January 2024 was the warmest January on record globally.
The global mean temperature for the past twelve months (Feb 2023 – Jan 2024) is the highest on record.
Global warming has exceeded 1.5C across an entire year for the first time.
Francesca Guglielmo, a senior scientist at the EU’s Copernicus satellite monitoring service, said scientists were now considering risks that had been unthinkable until recently.
— ©2024 Sul Nowroz – staff writer —