Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Sussex road protests- quiet victories vs noisy 'defeats'

As I write this in the evening of Jan 16th, bailiffs and police have ended their first day of attempts to evict protestors from the Combe Haven protest camp that was set up in protest against the Bexhill to Hastings link road. There has been a fair deal of media coverage of this campaign (e.g. by Susanne Rustin in the Guardian and the BBC's Roger Harrabin), which has drawn parallels with the anti-roads protests in the UK in the 1990s, reminding me of how I got interested in the study of crowd behaviour.

I started off as an idealistic 20 something protesting against the M3 motorway through Twyford Down in Hampshire in 1992-3, and then progressed to the campaign against the M11 link road in East London, where John Drury was doing his PhD in psychological change. I was doing an MSc in Environmental Psychology at the time (I remember trying to finish an essay on the edge of the Police cordon at the final eviction!) and decided to do a PhD in the psychology of climate change and how to encourage effective individual and collective environmental action. Part of my research involved an ethnographic study of the direct action campaign against the Newbury bypass  from 1996-9, which involved living and participating with the protestors who had set up camp in the path of the proposed road while openly observing them.

What I thought was interesting about these direct action protests was that protestors often invested a lot of time and resources into making it as difficult as possible for them to be evicted from their camps (such as building tree-houses, and tunnels which required the intervention of highly paid bailiff climbers and tunnelers), and there were some spectacular evictions that went on for days before all protestors were removed. However, the camps were all eventually cleared of protestors and the roads completed (although often costing far more than the initial projected budget). Nevertheless, this did not stop the protestors considering that they had won significant victories, and very few reported to me that they felt they had been 'defeated'. Instead, they would talk about how they felt that the costs of the protests would put off contractors taking on future road projects, and how they had successfully raised public awareness of more general environmental issues such as climate change.

I think that the frequent unwillingness of protestors to consider such events as a defeat is more than just a form of cognitive dissonance to re-frame their perceptions of events (as I talked about in a previous post), and that from the noisy 'defeats' of camp evictions, quiet victories would often emerge. For instance, scores of other road projects were quietly shelved in the early to mid 1990s (from an initial £21 billion budget announced in 1992) as the costs of policing the protests and hiring private security rocketed. General public awareness of the link between car-use and climate change also increased as a result of the huge publicity the protests generated. Furthermore, the campaigns rarely ended after the evictions had finished, with some (such as Twyford Down) seeing much larger protests after all the trees and wildlife had been cleared and construction of the road proper began. This sentiment is reflected in the press release put out by the Combe Haven protestors today;
'This is only the end of the beginning for the protests against the Bexhill Hastings Link Road (BHLR)!'

I talked about these ideas in a paper with John Drury, where we explored the concept of generalisation of efficacy amongst protestors, and found that percieved efficacy of their actions was measured in different ways, ranging from individual to collective, and from local to global issues. Furthermore, short term set-backs did not necessarily put them off from continuing to protest, nor did it prevent them feeling a strong sense of both personal and collective efficacy in their actions. Therefore, however much the contractors and Police may hope that these evictions will spell the end of the protests, I suspect that they won't and we may see more similar protests in future, especially if other controversial road schemes are announced.  

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

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