Out but not down… protest group will not be moved

By Emily Pearce

Friday, September 25, 2009

 

Out but not down… protest group will not be moved

George Hill, aka Peter Pannier, aka James Dean, has a degree from Sussex University in international relations and development studies.

WIGHT LIVINGLIFE at the Vestas camp certainly couldn’t be described as dull.

Although protesters were evicted from their pitch on the Newport to Cowes cycle track on Tuesday, life at the roundabout camp outside the Vestas factory gates — dubbed the Magic Roundabout — is as busy as ever.

Try getting up at sunrise and preparing breakfast for around 20 hungry people, before embarking on a busy day of campaigning, building furniture or attending workshops on your legal rights as a protester. If you want to learn how to cook for large numbers or rush a building, this is where you find out.

The Vestas camp may have been a familiar site to anyone who regularly uses the cycleway or works at the Riverway Industrial Estate but, despite coverage in both the local and national press, this colourful canvas community, adorned with pinwheels and banners proclaiming 'Mandelson’s Green Failure’ and 'Gizza Green Job,’ seems to have escaped the attention of most Islanders.

It is hard to believe some protesters have been camping out for nearly two months now, since Vestas’ Newport factory was first occupied by workers attempting to halt its closure back in July, but they are still there, convinced their presence will make a difference.

The camp had been spread out over two sites, the cycleway and the 'Magic Roundabout’ outside the Vestas factory, and its inhabitants have established a fully functional community, albeit on a small scale.

Some protesters go to swimming pools to use the showers, while others go to the houses of local supporters or use a bucket of water, and everyone has dinner together every evening thanks to donations of gas and food. They have their own chemical toilet and take turns tidying the campsite.

An average day might also include a trip to the police station, to meet fellow campaigners arrested the previous day.

"A lot of people stop by the camp to find out what we are doing. Everyone is really friendly and people who work on the industrial estate donate food and other stuff," said 25-year-old George Hill, aka Peter Pannier, aka James Dean.

George, who hails from Stroud, Gloucester-shire, and has a first-class degree from Sussex University in international relations and development studies, has a wind turbine painted on his face and wears a T-shirt imploring people to 'embrace the revolution’.

He is particularly earnest, and will not speak to the press without a female colleague in a bid to support gender equality.

"People walking along the cycle path are happy to chat and take a green ribbon but it does seem like everything outside the camp is going on as normal. I went into town the other day and it was a bit weird," he said.

"I think a lot of people on the Island assumed it was all over when the workers were evicted but this fight can be won."

Former glamour model turned district councillor turned eco-activist Marina Pepper, 42, from Brighton said: "This is very different from other protests I’ve been involved with,"

"We are so well supported locally, no-one hassles us. Old ladies bring us tea and home-made cake and people are always asking how they can help, whether its lending us their phone, giving us lifts or even doing our laundry."

Marina Pepper with Justin Moody and Missy the dog.
Marina Pepper with Justin Moody and Missy the dog.
Marina, an author and journalist, who has written for the Evening Standard, New Statesman and the Independent, is an old hand at environmental action, having been involved in the G20 Meltdown campaign and the protest against Heathrow expansion.

Contrary to popular belief, the protesters run a fairly strict camp. Communal meals are always vegan, and there is very little alcohol on site.

"This is a living place and a work space, it’s not a festival," said George, firmly.

The protesters themselves are from a wide range of backgrounds, although most are members of climate change pressure groups, trade unions or left-wing political parties. Organisations represented onsite include Workers’ Climate Action, Bicycology, Climate Rush, Climate Camp, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and the Socialist and Socialist Workers’ Parties, while trade unions including the RMT, FBU and Unison have their flags flying next to the tents.

"The campaign is a marriage of both climate change and workers’ issues. They are closing the Vestas factory with no thought for either climate issues or the 600 people losing their jobs," said Marina.

The protesters have taken to the streets of Newport on several occasions, shouting their aims through a megaphone — they want the Vestas factory nationalised under workers’ control, and a guarantee wind turbine production will remain on the Island for the benefit of the whole country.

"We are aware it’s not a policy in this country to nationalise companies, so it’s more likely another company will come in. But production must continue, you’ve got a factory and skilled workers here ready to go," said Marina.

George added: "The debate shouldn’t be about whether or not to have wind turbines, it should be what colour to paint them."

Although the protesters remain convinced victory is just around the corner, they are nonetheless prepared for the long haul.

The campaigners are unapologetic their protest has cost the police £300,000, as reported in last week’s County Press, and denied their tactics — including blockading the factory — were becoming more militant.

"Vestas should pay the policing costs. You have to pay if you run a festival or organise a football match, and this protest is happening because of them," said Marina.

"Anyway, the police have told us we don’t need policing because we are so well behaved."

George added: "The occupation was the most militant thing we’ve done that really was direct action."

"And it will probably happen again before this campaign is over."

Following claims in last week’s County Press that remaining Vestas workers faced intimidation, Marina flatly denied the protesters were involved.

"It’s just not the way activists here would act, but we are easy to blame," she said.

George said: "We are here to support the workers, not intimidate them."

"And while we have been leafleting them, asking them not to go to work, we haven’t stopped them.

"We wouldn’t do anything violent, or anything we think is reprehensible."

The camp is a small community but it has a big message. And it is a message that couldn’t be more pertinent to the Island, where the debate about windfarms refuses to go away. You don’t have to look far to see posters raging against turbines on Cheverton Down but the Vestas protesters nevertheless believe most Islanders are on their side.

"The silent majority do want wind farms, most Islanders want them," insisted Marina.

"Islanders are lucky to have such beautiful countryside and a few wind turbines won’t ruin the view. But it will make all the difference to this Island’s future."

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