Some thoughts on direct action

Insulate Britain are pausing their road blocking actions while they await a response from government to their demands to get on with implementing a comprehensive home insulation programme. This is how the pause has been reported by one of our local news outlets: M25: Insulate Britain to pause protests on roads. We’ve already posted up our thoughts on the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler about the Insulate Britain road blocking actions in our area: Not you lot again! We have subsequently commented on social media about the pause in action – this is what we had to say: “You’d like to think they’d use this pause to reflect on how counter-productive their tactics are but we won’t be holding our breath. At least it gives people in Thurrock time to look at ways round any potential disruption when they resume – we know where the ‘hotspots’ are:)”

We’ll freely admit that when it comes to these particular actions by Insulate Britain, we do have a bit of a bias against them. That’s because as residents of Thurrock, an area rich in strategic ‘hotspots’ that have been blocked or are most likely on Insulate Britain’s hit list, it feels like we’re being picked on! We don’t expect many people in activist circles to agree with us but sometimes it’s useful to have a perspective from those on the receiving end of direct action by a group like Insulate Britain. Having said this, we do acknowledge that on Wednesday 13.10 at Purfleet, Insulate Britain protesters were on the receiving end of spontaneous direct action from frustrated Thurrock residents who felt they had no option left but to drag them off the road.

Direct action has a number of aims. These range from shutting down a location, disrupting events / trying to stop them going ahead, through to blocking and trying to halt the construction of infrastructure projects such as HS2 or a motorway, and occupying and re-purposing empty buildings for social use. While there may be reasons to quibble about the detail of the tactics deployed, that kind of questioning really should remain within activist circles in order to fend off any attempts by the authorities to deploy divide and rule tactics. If we broadly support the aims behind direct action, even if we may have doubts about some of the tactics, we generally keep them to ourselves.

Direct action is what it is. It’s not done to win hearts and minds, it’s done to frustrate, disrupt, block and stop. Inevitably, it’s going to piss people off. We’ve been involved in road blocking actions at targeted locations and have been on the receiving end of abuse from some of the drivers we’ve inconvenienced. Mind you, when we’ve had a chance to explain what we’re doing and why, we’ve also had some degree of understanding from drivers who are being held up by an action. Needless to say, the protocol of swiftly getting out of the way when an ambulance or fire engine is haring down the road was always strictly observed. As was the protocol of swiftly re-occupying the road after they’d passed!

The point about most direct actions is that there’s generally a clear and obvious target. Whether or not the public at large agree with the action or not, at least they can see what the target is and why the action is being undertaken. It’s when the location of the direct action has no relation whatsoever to the demands being made that people a) are just plain baffled as to what’s being done and why and b) understandably get pissed off if they’re seriously inconvenienced by an action they can’t see the point of. When we heard about the first Insulate Britain action in Thurrock back in September, our reaction was ‘what has this got to do with insulation?’ This is how we covered it on the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler: A bit of a disconnect between protest aims and tactics…

Yes, we’re fully aware that the strategy and tactics of Insulate Britain are an escalating campaign of road blocks that result in economic disruption. We’re aware they realise this is not going to win them many friends in Thurrock. The question is, are they aware that their tactics are creating enemies for them? We live in the east of Thurrock near to the London Gateway port. If the tactics of Insulate Britain are an escalating campaign of road blocks with the aim of causing economic disruption, then it’s reasonable to assume that at some point, London Gateway will be on their hit list. We know that any blockage of the road leading to and from the port will lead pretty swiftly to traffic gridlock in the neighbouring towns of Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham. That means bus services get screwed, students unable to get to college, job seekers unable to get to interviews, people unable to get to hospital appointments and worst of all, ambulances unable to reach emergencies. People wouldn’t just be inconvenienced, there would be real suffering.

There are ethical questions about the tactics Insulate Britain have been using and look to escalate when they resume action. We’re generally not ones to publicly criticise direct action strategies and tactics but when we can see the harm they inflict on our communities, we have to speak out. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, people in Thurrock feel they’re being picked on by Insulate Britain and that it’s getting a bit too ‘personal’. That would explain the anger shown by Thurrock residents to the protesters blocking the road in Purfleet on Wednesday 13.10. We watched the footage of the road blocking and the interaction between the protesters and the increasingly pissed off drivers. What struck us was the stony faced lack of empathy from the protesters to the frustrations of the drivers and local residents who were not just being inconvenienced but made to suffer. A stony faced lack of empathy born out of a sense of virtue signalling self righteousness that any reasonable, neutral observer would see as a provocation.

As we mentioned in our piece over on the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler, as a result of the lockdowns and dislocation people have been subjected to since March 2020 plus the clusterf**k situation we’re now entering, a lot of people are feeling pretty stressed out at the moment. Thurrock is a mainly working class area and as such, people towards the bottom of the economic pecking order already feel like they’ve got enough on their plates to deal with already. The last thing they need is to be held up by what they see as mainly middle class, virtue signalling protesters indifferent to the frustration and suffering their actions are inflicting. Should Insulate Britain decide to resume and escalate their actions in Thurrock, then the scenes at Purfleet on Wednesday 13.10 may seem like a genteel tea party compared to the rage that could be provoked. Whether this will get through or not, we don’t know but – we ask Insulate Britain to use this pause in their actions to seriously rethink their strategy and tactics to avoid inflicting harm on the public. If they refuse to rethink, then they will have to accept the consequent reaction from pissed off members of the public…

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