‘We don’t have time to wait and see’: air pollution protesters resort to direct action | Environment

‘We don’t have time to wait and see’: air pollution protesters resort to direct action | Environment


As the green man appeared on the pedestrian crossing a couple of dozen people dressed in Santa hats and tinsel shuffled into the road at one of London’s busiest roundabouts.

Moments later, in the early morning gloom, a banner was unfurled and the small group of pensioners, students and workers – armed with home-made road signs and leaflets – had blocked both lanes of the dual carriageway.

The action, which saw rush hour traffic quickly grind to a halt, is the latest front in the campaign to improve the UK’s toxic air pollution, and one that could bring major disruption to the capital in the new year.

In the courts, environmental lawyers from ClientEarth have inflicted two defeats on the government over its illegally poor air improvement plans. The case will go back to the high court again in February.

But as public awareness of the UK’s air pollution crisis has grown, a group of campaigners is taking a more direct approach. Frustrated by what they claim is a lack of urgent political action, and horrified by the scale of a crisis which is responsible for 40,000 deaths a year in the UK, the Stop Killing Londoners group has staged a series of protests since the summer in which they have blocked some of London’s busiest and most polluted roads.

So far the campaign has received minimal attention, but the protests have been gathering momentum and last month four of those involved spent time in prison for repeatedly breaching their bail conditions.

Roger Hallam, a veteran of a successful hunger strike protest at Kings College which led to the university divesting from fossil fuels, is one of the leading members of the group. He says going to prison for their beliefs is a deliberate tactic and predicts more widespread action – and disruption – in 2018.

“Evidence from history shows that when faced with a system in crisis and an issue which is killing so many people, it requires people to make a stand and challenge the status quo … to make room for the politicians to move into.”

Hallam, who is a researcher into political campaigning at Kings College and also runs an organic farm in Wales, says the campaign represents “a big shift in direct action protests of the last 30 years.”

“The idea previously is you do something, try and get some publicity and try and not get arrested or sent to prison. But we are going back to a sort of Gandhian philosophy where you court the idea of getting arrested and going to prison because that embarrasses the opposition.”

Back at the protest in west London, 22-year-old student Frieda takes her place on the blockade as rush hour traffic backs up the slip road and on to the M4.

“We don’t have time to wait and see if the promises politicians are making about what they will do tomorrow actually materialise,” she says. “Air pollution is killing people now and it is related to wider issues of climate change and our reliance on fossil fuels. We have to take action now and make people aware of what we are facing.”

Drivers caught up in the protest react with varying degrees of anger and bemusement. One motorcyclist says he agrees with the campaigners’ concerns around air pollution but says blocking traffic “only winds people up.”

Another springs from his car and tries to force the campaigners off the road describing them as “fucking jokers” and telling one elderly protester “I don’t know why you’re bothering, you’ve not got long left anyway.”

But the campaigners hold their nerve and the man eventually retreats to his car cursing and gesticulating.

Each blockade only lasts for a few minutes before the drivers are let through and the campaigners move to another slip road and start again. But the action causes widespread gridlock.

Hallam said he “sincerely apologised” to the drivers caught up in the protests. “We absolutely don’t want to antagonise them because they are the victims of this system as much as anyone else – they have to use fossil fuels which is poisoning other people to get around. But in the end this is a crisis and at some point you need to be prepared to stand up and do something.”

The campaign has a list of demands including bringing forward the introduction of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in London, a comprehensive diesel and petrol scrappage scheme, an “expanded integrated 100% renewable, ultra low pollution public transport system for London”, a pay-per-mile pollution charge for fossil fuel vehicles and a “producer tax” for car companies that still produce fossil fuel vehicles, with any money raised to be spent within the NHS treating the victims of air pollution.

Hallam says: “We want to push for realistic solutions and work with people as much as possible but until politicians engage with these demands more meaningfully we will continue to escalate the campaign.”

Campaigners have also asked for a half-hour meeting with London mayor Sadiq Khan and other community based anti-pollution groups. If that is granted, they will postpone their action.

Earlier this month the group sat down with Khan’s advisers at City Hall but have yet to secure a meeting with the mayor.

“It is disappointing but we will keep going,” says Hallam.

After several short blockades the police arrive at the protest in west London. Officers ask the group to move off the road as the protest is causing “considerable chaos” on surrounding roads and the M4.

After a short discussion they agree. “We made our point and some people were getting quite aggressive,” says Hallam. “There are quite a few new campaigners out today so I think it is time to call it a day … but we will be back.”

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