G7 in Cornwall: greenwash, gibberish and glorious rebellion

Extinction Rebellion protestors in Falmouth

It’s been a crazy few days here in Cornwall.

The skies have been buzzing with police drones and weird-looking military aircraft, like monstrous black insects. Police with machine-guns have been hovering around the entrance to my local Tesco. And down at Carbis Bay, inside their ‘ring of steel’, world leaders concluded their deliberations on the pandemic that has destroyed so many lives and livelihoods, and the climate emergency that threatens to destroy our future.

How? With a beach barbecue of sirloin steak and lobster, while enjoying the spectacle of the Red Arrows burning up several tonnes of fossil fuel overhead, just for fun.

It was one of the most astonishing displays of cognitive dissonance in human history, and no-one should be surprised that the leaders convened by Boris Johnson in Cornwall failed to agree on any action remotely on the scale demanded by the multiple crises we face.

Depressing as this was, there was a much more uplifting side to the weekend, in the shape of some of the most impassioned and creative protest I’ve ever seen.

This got off to a great start with a stroke of genius by the anti-Brexit campaigners of Cornwall for Europe. With the help of a friendly farmer, they mounted a giant banner with the message #StillEuropean on a barn just next to the runway at Newquay Airport.

As they’d hoped, this did not go unnoticed by incoming dignitaries. Barend Leyts, spokesman for the EU Commission, took a photo of it as he was coming in to land and (deliciously) tweeted it to Boris Johnson with thanks for the warm welcome. There was no response from Johnson, at least publicly.

Near the summit hotel, Extinction Rebellion were waiting to remind G7 leaders of the gravity of the climate emergency that they were – supposedly – gathered to address, and of the yawning void between their rhetoric and the reality of our situation.

They were there again the following morning with Ocean Rebellion, rousing Johnson and his guests from their slumbers by sounding a foghorn at 5.15am. Through the early morning mist a boat emerged with a sail carrying the message AS THE SEA DIES WE ALL DIE, dramatically reinforced by dead mermaids and mermen on the beach at St Ives.

Ahead of the summit, Ocean Rebellion co-founder Rob Higgs, who lives in Penryn, had been intimidated by police threats of arrest and confiscation of equipment. But this failed to deter the Ocean Rebels, who organised several spectacular interventions over the weekend, including (with Surfers Against Sewage) a flotilla of several hundred paddleboards and kayaks in Falmouth Bay.

On Saturday, I joined a massive march with Extinction Rebellion and other protest groups through Falmouth, where the media hub for the G7 was based.

Twelve years earlier, I’d helped organise what was (I think) the first big climate protest in Cornwall, at the time of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. When I say  “big” – we’d been thrilled that around 150 people turned up. It was incredibly moving to see how the climate movement has snowballed since then, as thousands moved through Falmouth’s narrow streets, drumming and singing as they carried a giant burning globe and banners calling for action to match the enormity of the emergency.

Myanmar protesters

We were joined by activists from Myanmar calling for sanctions on the murderous regime that has seized power there, by hundreds of people from Tigray calling the world’s attention to the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian regime and the looming famine in their country, and by Kashmiris protesting violence against their people by Modi’s government (with which Boris Johnson hopes to announce a trade deal shortly).

It felt like the world had come to Falmouth, and it was inspiring to stand with so many others against repression and environmental destruction. Moments like this bring it home that these struggles are all deeply connected, and that environmental and social justice are inextricably linked.

Falmouth garden becomes a mini protest site

It was also deeply heartening to see how warmly these people were welcomed by Cornish folk. After the march, the Tigrayans headed down to my local beach.

Tigrayan on Gyllingvase Beach. Photo by the author

Meanwhile, world leaders’ visits to local landmarks were being milked for maximum political benefit by the most dishonest UK government in living memory. One clumsy attempt to do this backfired: when Jill Biden visited the open-air Minack Theatre at Porthcurno, culture secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted a false claim that the government was providing financial support to the theatre during the pandemic. The Minack responded curtly on Twitter.

An attempt by environment minister George Eustice to present himself as an advocate for the environment also went gloriously wrong. When Eustice showed up to conduct a ceremonial beach clean at Porthtowan, with journalists from The Sun in tow, quick-witted XR protesters immediately surrounded him with ‘climate crime scene’ tape.

Saturday evening in Falmouth saw rebels project messages onto the huge cruise ship in the harbour that housed about a thousand of the nearly 6,000 police brought into Cornwall for the weekend. I was pleased to see that one of these was about home secretary Priti Patel, who – if she gets her way – will soon be making “seriously annoying” peaceful protest a criminal offence.

Anti Patel protest

As it turned out, the police behaved better than many had expected over the weekend, though their vast numbers seemed like enormously expensive overkill given that none of the thousands of protesters were bent on violence.

Breaking heads would clearly not have been a good look for the government. However, animal rights activists who had taken over a McDonald’s in Falmouth were singled out for heavy-handed treatment when their camp was raided and 22 activists arrested.

The protest that many local people in Falmouth had been most worried about was a ‘Kill the Bill’ event on Sunday. I joined a group of local residents organised by a town councillor to act as a friendly presence in the hope of defusing any potential violence.

In the event, it turned out to be a fairly small though very angry crowd of protesters who showed up, and our worries proved unfounded. After blockading the gates of the G7 media centre, the protesters,  many of them clad in heavy black balaclavas on the hottest day of the year, decided that they’d made their point and it was time to head to the beach.

People in Cornwall have been fed a lot of gibberish from Boris Johnson about the “legacy” of the G7 in Cornwall. We have been promised handouts from the government’s pork barrel (non-Tory constituencies need not apply, and note that this is a tiny fraction of what Cornwall has lost in EU investment funding). We have been told that the summit has “put Cornwall on the map”, as if we were previously inhabiting some outlandish Celtic terra incognita.

The most obvious immediate ‘legacy’ has been a dramatic upsurge in infections by the Delta variant that Johnson has allowed to go forth and multiply since failing to shut down flights from India in the spring. Many pubs and hotels here have had to close after reporting outbreaks, and there were even cases on the police cruise ship in Falmouth.

It’s probably true that people around the world will have been favourably impressed by the idyllic coastal scenery behind reporters covering the G7 for the international media. Perhaps some of the wealthier of them will indeed decide to head here on holiday. More international tourism is hardly a great legacy in the context of a climate emergency, and nor will it do anything to solve Cornwall’s deep structural problems of poverty and inequality.

But for me, the legacy of the G7 will be the solidarity between the many different movements that united here over a few days to protest the abject failure of international leaders to rise to the linked crises the world faces.

We need to keep the pressure up between now and the COP26 climate summit in November. And with Johnson’s government aiming to push through the Police and Crime Bill in the near future, we need to remember the old adage: if protest changed anything, they’d make it illegal…