ACTION AT ESSO HEAD QUARTERS, LEATHERHEAD, SURREY

24th July 2001

One way of stopping traffic from moving is to erect scaffolding tripods across the carriageway, with people perched on top so that removing them without causing injury requires specialist skills and equipment. If the scaffold clips are all in place beforehand, these tripods can be put up remarkably quickly. I joined a group (actually two small groups, from Oxford and Glastonbury) who blocked the front gates of the Esso Headquarters in Surrey that way. If you happened to tune in to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme at 8.30 that morning, or if you read the Surrey Advertiser, you may have heard about it. We had to leave Glastonbury at 4.30 am in order to get there in time for the main influx of office workers, and it had been worth getting up that early just to see the dawn: mist on the levels and a portentous flame-red sky.

Esso, as part of the largest oil corporation in the world, carry a good deal of responsibility for global warming. They have lobbied against the Climate Change Treaty, and given financial support to George Bush’s election campaign, as well as being implicated in atrocities in the Third World. Two of these tripods were set up in front of the main entrance to their Head Quarters site – which includes not only the building itself but acres of car parks and a bit of landscaped countryside. There was a protester sitting on a cross bar up each tripod, each with a complicated system of ropes and dangly bits, to secure them in place, to help them climb up, and to haul up food and drink from their supporters down below. There was one man and one woman, wearing rubber masks of George Bush and Tony Blair.

The gates were thereby blocked at 8 am and 1,000 cars were forced to park somewhere else.  Esso HQ has over 1,000 employees, and they nearly all arrive at work in cars, one in each car. The HQ building is immense, you couldn’t see the far end of it, a huge thing looking like an overgrown warehouse made of chrome and glass. Such buildings shouldn’t be allowed. Anyway, most of the Esso HQ employees had to walk to work that morning, some from up to a mile away, and some were not very fit and clearly resented it. Some looked like they felt hreatened, others were much more cheerful, a few were even supportive, as we handed out our leaflets to them explaining why Esso is such a disreputable firm to work for. It was a lovely sunny day, and the pair up the tripods soon had to remove their satirical rubber masks. Two more protesters ‘locked on’ to the feet of the tripods with citadel bicycle locks around their necks. Graham was seated awkwardly on the road with his back against a scaffold pole and the bike lock round his neck together with – originally a statement about melting ice caps and rising sea levels – a mask and snorkel. He was bellowing out to every passing middle management employee “Good Morning Sir, Take A Day Off From Global Warming. Turn Your Back On President Bush’s Special Buddy Asso … I mean Esso. God Bless Your Children Sir.” The rest of us were being much more polite, but we didn’t get so many laughs.

Once the employees had all finally trudged to work, two of the protesters were granted an audience with Esso’s Marketing Director and PR man, who must have been concerned that the ‘Stop Esso Campaign’ shouldn’t escalate and get out of hand – or at least attract a lot of publicity to the questionable areas of Esso’s behaviour. They had an information pack all ready and waiting, including a briefing document which had already been distributed to their employees. They were also concerned that the protest should finish before everyone wanted to go home – a nuimber of cars had got into the site before the entrance was blocked, and now couldn’t get out, whilst a serious police action in the evening might get onto the national news.

The police were already there in considerable number. A couple of senior officers and their minions directing operations from a traffic island outside the gate, with several cars which came and went from time to time. The general message from them was “I can see that you are experienced protesters, and understand the dangers and the legal implications. At the moment you are on private property, not on the public highway, and it’s up to Esso and their security staff to decide what to do about you. We will assist if so requested.” Another bunch of six policemen arrived in a riot van dressed in special uniforms with special kit – clearly the ones who would do the business if the tripods had to be forcibly removed. They went off for a briefing inside the HQ. Then there was the police cameraman of course; two of the protesters danced up to his camera and asked him to take close-ups. They ended up laughing and chatting with him. And someone had spotted six more vanloads of police tucked away down the road. There was also quite a contingent of Esso’s hired security men in attendance, though they mostly stayed inside the fence or leant on their firmly-shut security gate.

All down the road – it was a narrow lane leading half a mile up from the main road – were parked cars, with more on the far side of the main road and all over the place. The event was certainly something which got talked about locally – not least inside the HQ itself I should imagine. It must have been the main topic of conversation in tea breaks. Several senior personnel had to be on the case all day,  and quite likely the work efficiency of the establishment as a whole was halved, what with people arriving late and quite a lot of them out of breath and flustered. They all must have been distracted. One man was even watching us from the roof.

Our two negotiators returned from having coffee and meaningful discussions with the Esso Execs. Then we all sat in a circle, for a substantial amount of time, discussing what to do next. The two had exchanged views with Esso on the nature of the global economy and in particular its relation to climate change. Esso had assured our people that carbon emissions had nothing to do with climate change, and also that they were looking at refining technology so as to reduce carbon emissions. Then the discussion had shifted, politely but firmly, to just how  long did we intend to stay there outside the gate? They definitely wanted us out of the way by 3.30, and even tried emotional blackmail: “We’ve got two pregnant mothers here, and a woman needing to get home to care for a cancer patient” they had said. “I’m sure you can afford to order them taxis” replied our star negotiator, and I am sure that she said it with lashings of charm.

When we all came to talk about this some wanted to go and some wanted to stay there and push it to the limit. The deciding factor was that one of the people up the scaffolding – Tony Blair, it must have been – was getting badly frazzled in the sun and needed to come down. Meanwhile the message arrived that if we weren’t gone by 2.30 then the police would be asked to remove us. So at 2.15 the first protester climbed down from his metallic perch and the first structure was dismantled. This operation was filmed in every detail by the police cameraman, with Rich trying to figure out how to use the ropes to get up and saying “I hope you’re not going to use this as a training video.” Rich was doing the dismantling, and had also been one of the ones chatting to the cameraman before. The cameraman told us later that they have a scaffolding tripod down at the police station to practice on, but that they were pleased to have a record of how it’s done “by the real professionals.” So it probably was going to be used as a training video.

After that the second protester descended and the second tripod was dismantled, to the accompaniment of some energetic drumming which turned to theatre as two of the drummers put on the Bush and Blair masks, and then all the scaffolding was stashed on the roof of the van from Oxford, and we gradually wandered off and drove away home. That morning, as it happens, George Monbiot had suggested in the Guardian that “It’s time we started pulling down corporate headquarters.” Places like that will take a bit of pulling down; but we had been there to poke it and prod it a bit, and to declare our intention to come back again in larger numbers.