Protests are sport to British activists Wit and grit: From eco-warriors perched in trees to animal rights groups disturbing fox hunts, ingenuity is key.

January 22, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEWBURY, England -- Simon Chislett lives 60 feet above a forest floor in a tiny treehouse, where he sleeps in a hammock, plays a flute, and reads Thoreau's "Walden."

Mr. Chislett and dozens of others perched in nearby trees, are front-line guerrillas in what is billed as the Third Battle of Newbury. With their wit and their grit, they are trying to stop construction of an eight-mile bypass highway through unspoiled English countryside near two 17th-century English Civil War battlefields.

"With direct action protest, you have to do it big, clever or dangerous," Mr. Chislett says. "Big, so the authorities can't contain it. Clever so they can't work out what you're doing. Or dangerous so they won't risk breaking it up."

In Britain, a direct action protest like the one in Newbury is more than a passing fad -- it is a national sport. And in the past year, made-for-television confrontations have grown sharper.

Anti-hunting groups crash estates and blare horns to lure the hounds away from the fox. Anti-road campaigners ride bicycles in packs to create gridlock on London streets. Animal rights groups try to block animal exports to the Continent. Teens fight for their right to party at illegal outdoor "raves."

"We've always had a fundamental right of protest in this country," says Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation in London. "What we haven't had before is such well-organized protest and protest that is drawing in others.

"Mr. and Mrs. Average are suddenly waking up to the fact that an environmental matter and an animal rights matter affects them, and not just a group of fanatics."

Protesters say that the old ways of dissent -- letter-writing campaigns and petition drives -- no longer work. They say that after nearly 17 years in power, the ruling Conservatives no longer listen to the people.

The atmosphere has triggered unusual alliances, eco-warriors and animal activists joining with housewives. In the tiny English Channel port of Brightlingsea last summer, grandmothers took to the barricades and yelled "scum" at truck drivers transporting live veal calves to the Continent.

But it's not all fun, games and words on the protest lines. In February, Jill Phipps was run over by a truck and killed while trying to stop animal exports from leaving Coventry airport.

"She was no martyr and she didn't want to die," says her mother, Nancy, a longtime animal rights activist. "Jill's death has made me more determined."

The British government has long sought ways to defuse the impact of protesters. Scotland Yard's Special Branch, which deals with national security and intelligence matters, compiles an Animal Rights National Index. The index enables officials to track activities of radical protest groups that send letter bombs or destroy animal research labs.

Dealing with the less radical protest elements has proved just as challenging. Parliament passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which strengthened trespass laws. The bill was seen by supporters as a way for police to clamp down quickly on protest activities. Civil libertarians said it limited the public's ability to protest peacefully.

The daily demonstrations in Newbury, which got under way in earnest last week when road crews tried to clear the site of 10,000 trees, provide a case study in British protest, 1990s-style.

The environmentalists, led by a local chapter of Friends of the Earth, say the road isn't needed and will blight one more corner of rural England. Most in the city of 27,000 see the road as a way to ease congestion for a community choked daily with 50,000 cars and trucks traveling an existing route.

"They ought to put the army out there and get rid of those anarchists," says Roger Little, a taxi driver. "We'd still be in horse and carts if those people had their way."

Along the proposed route, the battle lines are clearly drawn. The protesters are on one side, the road builders and hundreds of private security guards on the other. Standing between is the Thames Valley Police, which is spending more than $50,000 a week to secure the site.

"To build a road is a lawful activity," says Sgt. John Moore, the police spokesman. "To peacefully protest is a lawful activity. It's only when somebody steps out of that that we take action. We're not on anybody's side."

But the law is clearly on the side of the builders, so day after day, the protest drama proceeds with clockwork efficiency. The builders try to cut down trees. The protesters try to stop them. Eventually, police arrest the demonstrators for aggravated trespass.

Still, the protesters refuse to give up. They may be dressed in dirty jeans and live on "veggie slop" and mugs of tea, but they come armed with cellular telephones and firm convictions.

"My parents used to think I was nuts," says Mr. Chislett, a bearded 23-year-old with a degree in environmental pollution science. "But not any more."

More than a year of planning has gone into the Newbury protest. There are the treehouses that are connected by a system of ropes, and a network of tunnels dug into the hillside serves as a last line of defense.

The protesters have chained themselves to vehicles, lain in the path of bulldozers and climbed trees and refused to come down. Some, like Mr. Chislett, have found a way to blockade up to 500 security guards in a compound.

In a pre-dawn strike, Mr. Chislett and two others blocked the entrance by standing on 20-foot tripods and using bicycle locks to padlock their necks to the poles.

"They can't reach you and they don't like that," Mr. Chislett says. "Besides, if they knock you down, they might break your neck."

On that day, the security guards decided to remain in their compound. One of the activists rejoiced by announcing a score: Protesters, 1; road builders, nil.

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