Mother Earth's vociferous children

May 3, 1996

George McKay reports on the rise of small-scale 'in-yer-face' non-violent protesting. In his 1960s classic, The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak pointed to parliamentary stalemate as one factor in the development of the British hippie underground. "The Labour party, angling always for the now decisive middle-class vote, is little more than Tweedledum to the Tories' Tweedledee," he wrote. Sound familiar? In the 1990s the popularity and strength of what is called the "New Protest" is born of dissatisfaction with today's parliamentary democracy.

The rise of New Protest is a symptom of anger at the perceived ineffectiveness of official channels for dissent. Emma Must of the anti-roads coalition Alarm UK explains that in the 1990s "there have been 146 public inquiries into trunk roads and on only five occasions has the inspector found against the Government. So it is no wonder that people end up in trees." Non-violent direct action has filled the "green hole" left by large international environmental organisations, which were seen in the 1980s to be more interested in fundraising for overseas projects than in grassroots campaigning in Britain.

Roads and animal rights are to the 1990s what the bomb and organised racism were to earlier decades: focuses of campaign and youth mobilisation. Yet strategies are different today. The time of the mass national marches through London has passed, to be replaced by small-scale, "in yer face" actions across the country. This form of protest came into its own early in 1992, during the final stages of the (unsuccessful) campaign against the M3 extension over Twyford Down, near Winchester. Here many of the now familiar sights of road protest were first seen: alliance between "crusties" and the local twin-set and pearls brigade, frequent obstructive action by groups of travellers and eco-rads squatting the land, violent confrontations between private security guards and protestors. Perhaps most significantly, 1990s heroes the Dongas Tribe formed at Twyford.

The Dongas (the name is taken from the ancient tracks across the Downs) were a disparate group of young people initially united only by their desire to do something about the imminent destruction of the down. Debatably, their actions were to transform the national debate about the environment, to lead to changes in government transport policy, to kickstart non-violent action as a significant protest strategy and to offer a semi-utopian mode of living replicated in road protest communities across the country.

The homology between Donga lifestyle and politics is fundamental: their mundane yet practical environmental respect evident. As Donga Alex explains: "Every time we **** in the earth it becomes fertiliser I flush it out to sea, it becomes a poison."

What is striking is the extent to which this is an energetically cultural protest movement. At the M11 Link Campaign in East London, a condemned street was transformed into a public art and living space.

A rewriting of Englishness has been going on, one using a different language of Albion: Dongas, Wanstonia, Scaffoldistas, digger-diving, cherry-pickers, lock-ons, lunch-oits, twigloos, arooga. Trace the 1990s protest camps at Newbury back to the 1980s Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common to Ubi Dwyer's Windsor's Free Festivals of the 1970s to the Aldermaston marches of the 1950s and you construct a surprisingly radical recent alternative history.

Want to find out more? Activists in the camps against the A30 in Devon have set up the University of Road Protest. Student numbers are rising I George McKay teaches American studies and English, University of Central Lancashire. His book, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties, is published in May by Verso.

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