Power Beyond Borders: What does it look like to use the energy of climate action to challenge the border regime?
ALEXA WAUD | 15 JULY 2019 | LONG READ
Between July 26th and 31st, climate activists from across the UK will assemble in South-East England for a direct-action camp. They will take action against the new gas-fired power stations that Drax Power, the large, UK-based energy company, has proposed to build this autumn. Fossil fuel infrastructure, however, will not be the only fundamental system called into question by the climate activists. The infrastructure of the UK’s hostile border regime will share the spotlight; the environmentalists will act in solidarity with migrants and support migrant justice campaigns.
The camp highlights links between climate and migration (in)justice that have previously been abstract. How do we embody this intersection and take direct action for both migrant and climate justice?
This is the question Reclaim the Power (RtP), the grassroots organising group behind the camp, sought to explore. They knew they wanted an action camp at the intersection of climate change and migration. However, they did not know how to best carry out this collaboration, act of solidarity, education or whatever form it may take. I sat down with Milo Phillips, an RtP member, in advance of the camp to discuss their journey to the camp, called Power Beyond Borders. Their journey is one story of ‘how’.
Environmentalists decide to resist the ‘hostile environment’
RtP makes decisions by consensus. Instead of letting majority or authority win, all members of the UK-based, direct action group must agree with a proposal before it can move forward. Decision making, then, is delicately choreographed by a facilitator, who invites questions, mediates suggestions, allows the group to incorporate revisions, and helps the group reach a point of agreement.
‘We feel that gives people a stake in the decision that’s made,’ Milo explained to me, ‘and empowers us as a group to take that forward and make it happen.’
RtP is leading by example, countering widespread power imbalances in society and demonstrating how to make non-hierarchical decisions. The climate activist group, born out of the anti-globalisation movement, has been living their values since their creation in 2013. At the large action camps for which they are well-known, RtP creates the sort of community that they want to see in the wider world. Therefore, alongside the spikier actions — shutting down gas power plants and coal mines, and blocking fracking development — RtP camps show what a community looks like with communal living and collective decision-making at its core.
At the Power Beyond Borders camp, RtP will once again be living its values. The group is responding to the political landscape as they see it in the context of Brexit and white British nationalism. ‘We’ve seen the rise of the far right,’ Milo recounted, ‘and the intensification of xenophobic attacks and sentiments.’ He continued,
‘There’s a need for people to step up, and there’s a need for us to support the groups that are already resisting these trends. The hostile environment policy is not new, but we see its effects continuing to cause real hardship.’
The migrant justice agenda grew from idea to action plan in January when folks from across the RtP network came to London to plan the 2019 summer action camp. Some activists put forward a proposal that outlined an enormous camp with twin aims: to shut down a major piece of gas infrastructure, and to act in solidarity with migrant groups by targeting infrastructure of the hostile environment. As a group, RtP has always been committed to social, economic, and environmental justice. However, up until this point, their actions have been directly connected to climate change and its drivers. The focus on the hostile environment and migrant (in)justice is a departure from their norm.
In the proposal it was not clear what this act would look like, or what exactly it means to target infrastructure of the hostile environment, but the climate organisers were open about their lack of knowledge and clarity. They were well aware of the need to work closely with migrant groups on the project. As has always been the case for RtP, the priority would be to work in solidarity with those on the frontlines. With minor revisions, the group moved the decision forward; they committed to organising an action camp at the intersection of climate change and migration. Choosing to mobilise in this way, RtP demonstrates the intersectionality that is at the heart of their politics, and proposes an answer to the oft-asked question: what does it look to fight the unjust systems driving climate and migrant crisis in tandem?
From proposal to ‘Power Beyond’
It was five months after the January meeting when I met with Milo to discuss how the camp organising has progressed. I sought to learn how RtP planned to bring this connection between climate justice and justice for migrants to life in their direct-action camp.
Milo reiterated that the group was responding to the external political climate, and its internal political mandate: ‘We have an analysis of politics, which is anti-capitalist and sees that a lot of these issues overlap.’ With the hostile environment continuing to entrench itself in British society, RtP could not bear to stand on the sidelines.
The ‘hostile environment’ terminology entered the UK lexicon after Theresa May, then home secretary, defended her Immigration Bill in an interview with the BBC. The aim of the bill would be to ‘create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants.’ UK policy has continued to focus on this objective.
The UK’s hostile environment is pervasive and multi-faceted. It is experienced differently by different people and it means different things to different people. What did it mean to these climate activists?
‘The hostile environment,’ Milo began, ‘is expanding the border from the physical border into everyday life. It’s citizen on citizen surveillance, and turning hospitals, schools, universities, landlords into borders guards. And by turning everyday people into voluntary, vigilante-type border guards, you’re playing into prejudice and fanning the flames of xenophobic and racist currents... Then, in material terms, we’re talking about deportation, we’re talking about immigrant detention, which has expanded massively in the last 15 years…’
Milo’s description of the hostile environment infrastructure shed light on how ambitious the group’s original proposal was. RtP activists recognise both the immaterial and material infrastructure of the border regime. They also recognise that the people who are at the sharp end of UK migration policy are tied up in both. Any misstep would put migrants at risk, which became clear to RtP as soon as they started to engage with the subject. The group has extensive skills and experience targeting fossil fuel infrastructure, dangerous and delicate in its own way, but this is different.
I asked Milo to explain the transition from the initial proposal to the camp action plan. He admitted that the process was challenging, ‘the process has not been simple, but necessarily so.’
‘…We socialised this [idea] with migrant solidarity groups,’ he recalled, ‘and there was some concern expressed about whether RtP could pull this off, and in the right way… Planning a mass action with lots of people who aren’t familiar with the issues could potentially be problematic.’
A key component of RtP’s commitment to social, economic, and environmental justice is recognising unintended consequences and treating practical tensions carefully. Following conversations with migrant solidarity groups RtP revised their proposal. In April, they agreed that the camp would focus on skilling people up, and education became a key pillar of the camp. The group will be on the lookout for future direct actions, which will make use of the skills that are acquired in July. ‘[The revised proposal] left space for some action to take place provided it was done in the right way, and then to build towards something bigger in the autumn,’ Milo explained.
Milo also gave examples of the type of action RtP activists could support. He drew one of his examples from a talk on detainee support he had recently attended. At the talk, one of the speakers told a story about how campaign groups had successfully stopped a woman from being deported using social media tactics, and eventually lead to Virgin airlines’ decision to stop deporting migrants on their flights. The woman was en route to a plane to be deported when she managed to get information about her flight with Virgin from a security guard. Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, a group campaigning for migrant rights, created a storm on Twitter sharing the flight information and targeting Virgin. The woman did not get deported, and the media attention prompted Virgin to end its collaboration with the Home Office for deportation flights.
These are the sort of tactics RtP imagines climate organisers collaborating on once they’ve been skilled-up. “I think that the focus is going to be on practical ways people can go about resisting the hostile environment,” he specified.
RtP also wants to direct people towards work that is already being done by and alongside frontline communities, like Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, as well as the All African Women’s Group, the Anti-Raids Network, North East London Migrant Action, End Deportations, and SOAS Detainee Support.
The Stansted15 had been on my mind throughout my interview with Milo. I knew that several key players in the climate movement were part of the group of activists that locked themselves to a deportation flight at London’s Stansted Airport in March 2017, grounding the airplane. In the year following their arrest, they generated headlines when anti-terrorism legislation was used to sentence them, blurring the line between activism and terrorism in a way that many people in the movement found deeply uncomfortable. ‘Did seeing the need to step-up coincided with the Stansted15’s actions, and the legal repercussions that followed?’ I asked Milo.
‘A lot of the Stansted15 have a history in climate organising,’ he responded, ‘there was a desire to be led by their example, and leverage the network that RtP has to carry on their work. When you see your friends doing a difficult and courageous thing, you want to support them and carry it on.’
Right now, working at the intersection of climate and migrant justice has several components for RtP. It looks like: tapping into their network of peers who are already organising for migrant justice; supporting existing migrant justice campaigns; and developing more organisers who are fluent in the language of migrant justice, and who have the skills to take direct action against hostile environment infrastructure in the near future.
Coming back to climate
‘Your piece is going to be more on the migrant side,’ Milo began when I asked him to outline the camp’s key messages, ‘but on the gas side, it’s probably worth mentioning that we are targeting Drax Power, which is a UK-based multinational energy company…’
His voice may have trailed-off if I didn’t have an ear attuned to energy policy. But as a ‘climate person’ myself, the language Milo used to describe Drax Power felt very familiar. The UK government committed to phase out coal by 2025, and Drax wants to convert its north English coal units into gas-fired power. The conversion would further entrench the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, locking energy production into carbon for thirty to forty years, the lifecycle of a gas plant. Client Earth lawyers estimate this conversion would represent 75% of the UK’s emissions budget for its energy sector. This is bad news for the climate—missing our emission targets and missing the opportunity to realise renewable energy. To RtP, Drax is a case study of how our energy system is not working, and an impetus to rescue power from the hands of the corporation and place in the hands of the community.
My piece is more on the migrant side of things. So much so, that this energy jargon feels like a foreign body, extraneous and unfamiliar. Is it a problem that it sits uncomfortably in the article? Do I need to tie the theoretical ends together? Do the activists?
The short answer is no. As Milo explained, education is the key component of the camp, ‘I think probably most people don’t know what the hostile environment is, and that’s something that needs to change both in the movement and more broadly.’
The point is to not let the language of migrant justice sit uncomfortably within the climate movement.
As other articles in this issue of Routed show, there are plenty of theoretical connections to be made between climate change and migration. However, RtP’s approach to acting at the intersection of climate and migration show that a single direct action need not address both topics in one fell swoop. It is more important to have twin aims, and to ensure that people coming from the climate movement are well-informed so that delicate actions that target the hostile environment are done properly. The language and style of actions do not need to be perfectly aligned, nor do their connections need to be neat and tidy. That can be the work of academics. On the ground, activists are responding to injustice in their external environment and channeling energy from the climate movement into campaigns for migrant justice.
For RtP, Power Beyond Borders is skilling up, building momentum, and creating connections, which is laying the groundwork for more collaboration between environmental and migration activists. They want to construct something powerful and beautiful in the spirit of humility and determination. The lessons learnt from their experience will benefit both communities, and hopefully, push the needle forward on both issues.
Alexa is a researcher and organizer based in London with a background in geography, political science, and environmental health. She recently graduated from the MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford. Her research interests lie at the intersection of environmental governance and social justice.