|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Just Do It: a tale of modern-day outlaws
Directed by Emily James
Released on DVD by Dogwoof films
90 mins, £14.99
Reviewed by Sarah Wrack
JUST DO IT follows several direct action environmental campaigns throughout 2009. We are shown snippets of campaigns like Plane Stupid, the Vestas occupation, the G20 protests, and the annual bringing together of most of the activists involved at Climate Camp. With a new emerging anti-capitalist movement taking up similar tactics around the world, it is important to look at the benefit and attraction of this type of campaign.
The events we see do seem exciting and creative - chaining themselves to buildings such as Peter Mandelson’s house, blockading bank headquarters, trying to find ways into power stations without the police or security seeing them - all the time with the idea in mind that these individual actions are challenging the capitalist system. The activists the film follows talk of the sense of power they feel through taking part.
Their determination is impressive. One, Sally, was studying medicine at Cambridge University but decided that activism had to be her priority and so quit the course. Another, Lily, moves with two friends to the village of Harlington, which was set to be partially demolished to make way for a third runway at Heathrow airport, to allow them to build a campaign against the plans. They all say they are willing to be arrested if necessary.
And it cannot be said that this determined attitude never pays off. Just Do It ends by explaining that the campaigns to stop a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth and the third runway at Heathrow were successful. The last protest shown in the film is a group of activists chaining themselves to parts of Didcot power station and managing to stop production for three days. But it seems that these victories are limited and far between and that, in fact, winning is not even the main point.
Only twice in the film are people asked if they think they are making a difference. Marina pauses for a long time, looking awkward and then says: "I think you can’t do nothing". She goes on to explain that thinking that you cannot make a difference is depressing so you have to think that you can, to take back control of your own life. Similarly, a young activist, Rowan, says: "Of course they’re not going to listen. Of course it was futile but you’ve always got to have hope, you’ve got to try".
It is true that sometimes you have to show your opposition even when you know it will not change policymakers’ minds. But it is frustrating that these activists seem to see no other use in what they are doing than to make themselves feel better. In fact, even their limited tactics have more effect than that: stunts can be important for getting people’s attention and getting people involved.
These groups need more than just a series of actions. If they were linked up into a movement that had a strategy to win they would feel more confident that they could achieve something. It appears that part of the point of being involved in such campaigns is to reject organisation, strategy and everything associated with the traditional labour movement. Perhaps this is a reaction to some of the failures of the labour movement.
Referring to things like demonstrations, Sally says: "State-sanctioned protests are good for one thing but we need to start actively doing things that will directly impact on the offenders". She’s right. But the most effective way for that to happen is workers going on strike, an idea that is not raised once in the course of Just Do It.
This lack of strategy means that there seems to be very little effort to reach out to ordinary people and get more people involved. No leaflets were visible on any of the actions shown. At one point a group from Climate Camp decide to occupy the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland while others blockade the entrance from the outside. They are highlighting the fact that the government bailed out RBS while the bank continues to be involved in ‘carbon intensive’ investments.
They impressively manage to get inside and to attach themselves to the revolving doors at the front of the building. But, as hundreds of people walk past the central London location, they seem more excited by when the police will arrive than by trying to explain to passersby what they are doing and why. They see the importance of press coverage – which, as demonstrated in the film, this sort of stunt can be very good for - but not of the most important possible result of that coverage: helping to get the mass of people involved.
For some at least, this seems to change over the course of the year as their experience of taking part in these actions grows. When Lily moves to Harlington it is because she sees the need to get the local community involved in the Plane Stupid campaign rather than turning up as outsiders every so often. And the attempted shut-down of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station was explicitly advertised to the public in contrast to most similar events which are kept secret to avoid the police finding out. Rowan says: "The point of the swoop was to publicly say, ‘we’re going to shut down this power station and we’re going to do it on this day and we’re going to do it with loads of people. And anyone who wants to come and help can come along and do it’."
Although they do not seem to change their tactics accordingly, most of the activists in the film come to see that capitalism and environmental destruction come as a pair. This is particularly the case after the protests at the UN climate-change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009. They were violently attacked by the police, pre-emptively arrested and kept in caged cells nicknamed ‘the chicken coup’ by the police.
Despite warnings from scientists that Copenhagen was the last chance to have a real impact in stopping climate change, no decisions were made by the governments attending. Afterwards, Sophie said: "I think a lot of us came back disheartened. I realised I have to spend more time thinking about the system rather than what the system does. I went to Copenhagen talking about climate change and came back talking about capitalism".
In this way, the film really highlighted the impact of young people getting involved with campaigning. Both the inaction they saw from the government and big companies that have the power to change things and the repression they saw from the police forced people to realise that single-issue campaigning can never solve the problem.
This does not mean that they drew socialist conclusions about the necessary alternative. Sophie decided to stand for election as an independent candidate. We see her walking around the streets asking people to vote for "post capitalism - it’s better than what we’ve got already. I’m not sure how we’re going to get there, I’m not sure of how it's going to work, but I think we can give it a go".
Thousands around the world are getting involved in a new wave of anti-capitalist protests. Many of these new activists are young and angry and want to do something to show it. Direct action certainly has a place in doing this. But we need to be more radical. As all of the activists came to recognise by the end of the film, we need to change the system. That means we need a few things that these campaigns do not have: organisation, a socialist understanding of the power of the working class and, perhaps most importantly, a strategy that strives to take action involving the mass of people.