Protecting the human

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Hazmat suits, scones and a journey to Royston: Tom Bonnick joins the Glasgow University Amnesty society for a week of protest

I am sitting on a train headed to Buchanan Street, where I will meet members of the Glasgow University branch of the human rights charity Amnesty International, who are going to a Shell petrol station to protest against the multinational’s activities in the Niger Delta. In front of me are lots of adverts. Most of them seem to be for shampoo, and one boasts “a unique cassia complex,” which sounds vaguely Freudian. How many of these products would Amnesty object to, I wonder?

When I reach Buchanan Street I meet Ruth Hickin, the chair of the Amnesty society. Ruth is in her final year of an English degree and not at all like how I imagine serious student activists who are willing to give up their weekends standing outside a Shell station to be — she is very funny, unintimidating, and doesn’t appear to make her own clothes out of hemp or light incense candles wherever she goes.

Gradually more and more people arrive until eventually there are around twenty of us. Those who have gathered are made up of a coalition between Amnesty supporters and members of the Climate Action group in Glasgow whose interests — for obvious reasons — align with those of Amnesty in this instance. Ruth and Cameron Dron, who is in charge of the Climate Action team, both seem happy with the turn-out. “It is a Saturday morning,” Ruth reminds me. Apparently she can predict how many people will come based on a formula of the number who say they will take part on Facebook, divided by three. A few people seem a bit suspicious of my presence. “What angle are you going to take?” someone asks. “I don’t have an angle!” I protest, and think to myself, “yet.”

We have to walk to Alexandra Parade to get to the nearest Shell franchise — a few weeks previously, everyone tried doing this protest at a Shell garage that was thought to exist on Woodlands Road, but when they arrived they found that it had been bought out by Sainsbury’s, who evidently are not an emblem of corporate malfeasance in the same way. At this point I have the feeling that the activities of the Amnesty group are endearingly reminiscent of Dad’s Army. During the walk I try and get the environmentalists to like me by proudly proclaiming my unbroken three-year stretch of not flying anywhere. They congratulate me in the encouraging manner an adult might adopt when talking to a child with a drawing.

I have decided to follow the Amnesty society around because I have no idea what they get up to, or whether whatever that might be takes place to any effect. Although I have only ever noticed them on campus when they are symbolically imprisoning themselves in chalk squares on the hill approaching the library, I have recently learnt — via the student newspaper of another university, much to my chagrin — that the Glasgow body is one of the most active in the UK.

Ruth is emphatic that what they do matters. “We try really hard to raise awareness around campus … in Burma, they have no access to free press, so we went into the library and put these flyers into newspapers [she shows me a flyer with the words ‘You could be in prison for reading this’]. We try and get signatures on a petition or letters signed to a particular politician. And in our meetings, we’ll educate ourselves and then try and do something constructive and get the public to do the same.”

When I talk to Niall Couper, from Amnesty headquarters in London, he is also very enthusiastic: “Student branches are an integral part of how Amnesty operates … I’m always amazed by both their enthusiasm and creativity. It is such dynamism that helps keep the organisation alive and buzzing.” I try speaking to a representative of Shell to find out if the campaigns against their operations affect how they do business, but they don’t return any of my calls.

As we get closer to the supposed Alexandra Parade location I spot what looks like a BP garage in the distance. Ruth appears horrified. “You all hold back; I’ll see,” she instructs. A few minutes later she comes running towards us, slightly out of breath but smiling. “I think I would have built a Shell station if there wasn’t one there!”

Suddenly bags are produced containing the props necessary for the protest: everyone has a white boiler suit to put on, as if they were at the site of a toxic spill, and the plan is to descend upon the garage and stage a clean-up. The boiler suits have a Shell logo on the back with the word “GUILTY” written underneath. The same people who want to know my agenda ask if I will put one on, but I have the unimpeachable excuse of journalistic integrity demanding that I not become part of my own story. I’m also slightly worried that we might all be mistaken for nu-ravers.

All of a sudden things become a lot more disciplined and efficient-looking. Ruth has gone from seeming like Captain Mainwaring to a teacher on a school trip: “If Cameron or I blow the whistle it’s time to leave.” Directions are given for where everyone should stand, what to do if the police arrive and how to treat members of the public: “Just be nice. Let’s be positive whatever happens, and be polite. We’re not doing anything wrong.” Everything is very democratic. Cameron asks if everyone wants to vote on whether or not they should end the protest by stretching the banner across the drive-in to prevent cars from entering, but the group defers this decision until later.

When we reach the Shell station everyone spreads out, walking around the forecourt with mops and brooms, while two people stand at the front holding a large banner with ‘Make Shell clean up their act’ written across it. It is all very professional looking, if somewhat juvenile in spirit. One or two people seem to get a little carried away and actually start cleaning the fixtures.

This brings me to an early suspicion I have about student activism of the sort practised by Amnesty: that it doesn’t really achieve anything, but is still a convenient means for privileged young adults to massage their liberal consciences. Ruth is adamant that this is not the case. “I can’t speak for everyone, but the amount of time and effort that people put in Amnesty put towards doing campaigns — and often not getting a very positive response from the public — I can’t imagine anyone would be doing that to feel good about themselves.”

After half an hour two police cars show up and I hear a whistle blowing. Everyone congregates around the banner and Ruth speaks to two officers. They start writing lots down in a notebook, which makes me feel inadequate. Five minutes later they walk back to their squad car. Ruth tells everyone they’ll be allowed to stand in front of the garage with the banner for the rest of the hour, but that they have to stop the cleaning shenanigans. The police are friendly and eminently reasonable. The forecourt, they explain, is private property, which is why that part of the protest has to stop. They want everyone to leave within the hour because this is near Royston, and do I know what kind of people come here? Local gangs, they claim, choose the surrounding area as the place to settle whatever disputes may have arisen, and we all seem terribly well brought-up and not the kind of people who should stick around. My hands are getting quite cold, so after another ten minutes I leave.

The next time I see members of Amnesty is the following Wednesday. Ruth is selling scones on University Gardens. I ask how many have been bought. “Six so far,” she answers, with the same, there-is-a-Shell-station-there-after-all grin, “but we’re expecting a rush between lectures.”

If external perception of Glasgow’s branch of Amnesty is very positive, I am curious as to how things look from the inside. Is student activism on the wane? On this point, Niall is indefatigably optimistic. “Completely not. For Amnesty, the opposite is true. We’ve seen a growth in student members … and we’ve seen a surge in activism. In a shrinking world, global issues are becoming more and more relevent and students have grasped this new reality better than most.”

On the evening of Scone Day there is a fundraising gig being held at 13th Note. My musical tastes do not extend far beyond Miles Davis or Pixies, so I drag along our Music Editor with the inducement of alcohol. The bands playing are certainly very enthusiastic, although I find it distracting that the lead guitarist of one seems to have walked off the set of Starsky and Hutch, down to velour waistcoat and afro.

Still, there are a lot of people in the audience, and when I ask Ruth how many of her baked goods she managed to offload she answers casually; “Oh, all of them,” as if this was always going to be the case.

I am surprised at how mild the sentiments of a lot of the Amnesty members are — contrary to my initial expectations, it is not the hotbed of irrational and sporadic radicalism or headine-grabbing antics for which its parent organisation has a reputation. In fact, it all seems very harmless, well-intentioned and — to a point — effective. As long as they’re satisfied with spreading the word and keep the chalk-prisons to a minimum, Amnesty’s presence on campus may well grow and grow.

Amnesty hold meetings every Tuesday at 5 pm in the QMU, and on March 21 are holding a gig at Stereo. Doors open at 7.30 pm.