Air pollution: facing the music

  • Written by  Matt Maynard
  • Published in Cities
Karan Matthews is a keen cyclist and was attending her first Stop Killing Londoners roadblock Karan Matthews is a keen cyclist and was attending her first Stop Killing Londoners roadblock Matt Maynard
03 Aug
Air pollution campaigners hold a disco roadblock, but can it make a difference to public opinion?

It’s rush hour on Marylebone Road in Central London. As the traffic lights change, three lanes of cars, buses, taxis, vans and goods vehicles grind to an orderly stop. The green man lights up and pedestrians begin to file across. But then something unusual happens. Instead of continuing to the other side, 15 or so individuals sit down across the road’s width. A banner is unfurled. Backed by the giant words ‘Stop Killing Londoners’, a young woman with a microphone addresses the stationary traffic:

‘Hi everyone, we are only going to be here for ten minutes. Please turn off your engines. We are Stop Killing Londoners, a non-violent, direct action campaign group raising awareness about toxic levels of air pollution on our streets. The very air we breathe is killing us. 9,000 people die a year within London, and 50,000 across the UK. This is a national health crisis. The government however, is refusing to take this seriously. Recent clean air plans have been weak and lack urgency. We are demanding the government implement real, immediate change. Thank you for your patience, now let’s dance!’

A few car horns are beeping now, but a pumping, upbeat Ska track begins. The campaigners get to their feet, and the disco begins...

discoThe disco gets underway (Image: Matt Maynard)

Four hours earlier, the Stop Killing Londoners campaigners were holding their final planning meeting inside the King’s College London university building on the Strand. There’s seven of them around a table in a massive function room, and they seem to have snuck in without permission. Tonight will be the third disco roadblock, all held within the last month. There’s no leader (a deliberate tactic to complicate policing), but 51-year-old Roger Hallam – a PhD researcher investigating protest groups and campaign strategies at KCL – seems to be chairing.

The others – including 23-year-old anthropology graduate Annie Randall who would later pick up the microphone –– are mostly students in their twenties and thirties. Several of them have been involved with campaigns at UCL and Cardiff University to encourage the institutions to divest investments from oil and gas industries. In March this year, Hallam chalked up what he regarded as a ‘massive victory’ when his 14-day hunger strike ended with KCL committing to divesting an estimated £8million of fossil fuel investments. Their discussion this afternoon focuses on flyering future events, maintaining social media presence and choosing sympathetic campaign groups to reach out to.

Tonight each of these organisers will be responsible for managing their own small cell of campaigners. ‘The strategy is called swarming,’ Hallam explains. Once on the busy streets, the organisers carry out mini briefings, which the researcher believes are ‘much more efficient, more intimate and human’.

The disco in full swing (Image: Steve x)The disco in full swing (Image: Steve Merrick)

Camaraderie is clearly important to this relatively small and new campaign. When the official meeting finishes, they regroup in a nearby coffee shop. The atmosphere is of nervous excitement. ‘Marching down a street is a pressure valve for people,’ Randall says critically of traditional permissive protest. ‘But when they go home,’ she says raising upturned hands, ‘what’s changed?’

It was Randall and Hallam who came up with the music and dancing concept. ‘By framing it as a disco,’ she explains, ‘it’s more of a celebration, and we are not hitting people with depressing facts.’ Other campaign leaders are more circumspect. ‘It’s more partying than preaching,’ says 31-year-old Reeta Lehtonen from Finland. But when the possibility of arrest is raised, she admits it does concern her as it may affect her application for citizenship.

It’s certainly a diverse group that convenes at 6pm for the roadblock. An office worker rolls up his sleeves to dance, alongside a dreadlocked man who lives in the Transition Heathrow squat, campaigning against Third Runway plans. Both, however, are directly affected by dangerous levels of air pollution, for which there is no safe level of exposure (see the recent Geographical air pollution dossier). Once in the road and dancing together, the two men have far more in common than with any of the idling motorists or surprised passersby.

roadblockThe Stop Killing Londoners roadblock (Image: Steve Merrick)

The plan is to dance for ten minutes. Most of the pedestrians are sympathetic with the campaigners aims, but not all are in agreement with the action they are taking. ‘More electric cars is the answer,’ says one of a group of young women. ‘I’d definitely buy one if there were enough charging points.’ The disco breaks up shortly after when a rumour of an approaching ambulance is started by a bystander.

Twenty minutes later they are dancing again further down the street. One of the inconvenienced motorists is actually driving an electric car. ‘I chose it because it’s more economical,’ he says. ‘And less air polluting,’ he adds, after a pause. Others are less impressed by the disco, including a foreign businessman in a taxi who is late for a plane, and the driver of a white van who throws water on the protestors from his cab and threatens to drive through the banner.

A protestor faces down oncoming traffic (Image: Matt Maynard)A protestor faces down oncoming traffic (Image: Matt Maynard)

It all feels quite dramatic and radical. But as the campaigners leave the road, there is a surprising coolness and calm about them as they make their way to a picnic in nearby Regent’s Park. Most of these people are not radicals; just deeply concerned members of society. ‘Driving creates an aggressive construct that makes people awkward and inward,’ states Ruth Mayorcas, a recently retired associate producer from the BBC, who just a few minutes ago was facing down a revving white van.

Achieving ‘critical mass’ is the talk of much of the picnic: the point in a campaign, according to Hallam, where two to three per cent of an electorate are involved and the government is forced to make serious change. Hallam’s SKL campaigners are not alone in their thinking. Environmental journalist George Monbiot recently wrote: ‘Let no one accuse this government of ambition,’ regarding the 2040 diesel scrapping policy, and called for a complete rethink to a transport system that gives so much road space to polluting cars.

It’s true that Stop Killing Londoners have a long way to go in their campaign. But as keen cyclist and generally law-abiding citizen Karen Matthews said jokingly before dancing in the street, ‘if I’m getting into activism it must be getting pretty mainstream. Normal people are now willing to go out and do these things.’

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