Arts & Events

New: Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws

By Gar Smith
Tuesday March 06, 2012 - 11:14:00 AM

Screening at the Green Film Festival in San Francisco, March 7, 7:30/

Closing night premiere and party at the SF Film Society Cinema, 1748 Post St.

Just Do It, Emily James' bright and engaging eco-doc, takes a cheeky reality-show look at environmental activism. A big hit in the UK, where much of the action is set, Just Do It has finally "crossed the pond." (In addition to the Green Film Fest screening, Just Do It will be showing at college campuses and Occupy encampments across the country. For info on scheduling a "community screening" see the contact info at the end of this review.)

With dry British wit and droll commentary, the film documents the lifestyle of a fun-loving clutch of creative and good-natured British activists. Filmmaker James was given rare permission to tag along for more than a year as this eclectic group of "professional domestic extremists" busied themselves by "hiding, running around" and generally proving a good-humored annoyance to the 1%. This is the world of Climate Camp, an ad hoc collective of environmental activists who take their agit-prop cue from Greenpeace. 

The action starts up in 2009 (well before the US Occupy Movement sprang to life) with the studied comments of a proper British lady who insists on bringing tea to her demos—for protesters and police alike. (She believes in protesting sober … and saving the booze for the after-parties.) "I don't mind being arrested," she opines primly. "It doesn't matter if it's small or if it's dodgy. Just do it!" 

The action begins with an April Fool's Day protest of the G-20 summit in London. Our cheery band of outlaws (complete with brass band) joins a protest that turns London's financial district into a street party. Tragically, as the demos are winding down, the police accidentally killed an innocent Londoner walking home near the protests. Because the death was filmed, it became a scandal too large to ignore, prompting a call to reform police procedures and usher in an era of "kindly coppers and tea." (As it turns out, the détente would be tested in the months ahead.) 

An Alliance on the Isle 

A protest erupts at the Isle of Wight after a wind turbine factory is closed and 400 workers are laid off. The workers opt to occupy the factory and the London activists show up to declare their support. 

The plant's multinational owners intend to starve the workers out but this strategy fails when the protesters start filling tennis balls with grub and hurling the green balls over the barricades to the hungry workers. At one point, a crowd of women carrying shopping bags loaded with fresh-baked fish-and-chips breach the factory fence, race across the lawn, and begin hurling the food to workers on the rooftops—as rattled police run back and forth trying (and failing) to deal with the unexpected anarchic situation. 

"We took direct action," one woman chuckles as she recalls that day. "We did it with manners and we did it with courage and we did it with humor." Acutely embarrassed by the publicity, the multinational announced it would start feeding its striking former employees. 

We meet a young Cambridge University student who moonlights as an activist and chains herself to the private home of a government official to protest lack of financial support for clean, renewable energy. No sooner is she out of jail than she's swept up in protests targeting the banks that finance global warming. 

Although the film shows some disturbing clips of police violence, the real focus of Just Do It is trained on the humor and energy of the activists. The message of the movie is crystal clear: Activism! What fun! 

"Climate Camp is all about making things happen," one happy Climate Camper explains. The collective is self-sustaining and consensus-governed and its goal is clear: "Here we are, in London. Taking on the Capitalists. Which is quite scary. For the Capitalists…." 

Listening to properly accented English ladies reveling in recollections of their rebel behavior, you can't help feeling like you're on the ramparts with crew from Monty Python. As one of the more senior rascals warns: "We're prepared to do all sorts of naughty things…." 

Just Do It offers a close look into the intimate group process of debating tactics and finding consensus. Things are a bit different in Britain, though. Instead of holding up a hand to get recognized, our UK colleagues pop up their hands and wiggle their fingers to gain attention. 

Occupying Over a Bank 

In preparation for a raid on the World Bank of Scotland (targeted for bankrolling fossil fuel projects), we get to look in on a rehearsal where the young activists practice the quick application of metal arm-tubes and neck bolts. Rehearsed and ready, the camera tags along for the action. It looks like a normal day in London. People stroll about innocently until, suddenly, individuals begin to coalesce from the crown and approach the bank entrance. Some carry banners and some carry ladders. Dressed as construction workers, they shut off the entrance and declare it to be under an "Ethical Renovation." Inside the bank, the Superglue Crew takes its stand — by sitting on the floor, held in place by superglue. To cement their determination, they all spurt superglue into their palms and join hands. It's a well-coordinated agit-mob action. 

A banking rep steps forth to inform the protestors that they will be arrested if they don't leave. And here's where it gets surreal. Since this is London, and not Oakland, the supervising officer called to the scene actually asks the activists: "Is there anything we can do to convince you not to be arrested." The seated protestors reply conversationally: "Well, could you convince the bank to stop investing in fossil fuel industries and change over to serious investment in renewables?" 

But there are other battles to be waged. A third runway is proposed for Britain's sprawling Heathrow International. The new stretch of tarmac would take out rows of stately middleclass homes (and a local cemetery) to make room for more kerosene-fueled aircraft. 

Quicker than you can say, "Just do it!" banners are being dropped from the roof of the House of Parliament and "runway occupations" are underway to shut down take-offs and landings. These outlaws, who have dubbed their movement "Plane Stupid," have chosen to dedicate a year of their lives to defend an imperiled community from Heathrow Tarmacking. 

Snipping a wire fence, Plane Stupid activists occupy some of the threatened land — an abandoned tract with an old greenhouse on it. They begin what becomes known as the Grow Heathrow Project. A community garden springs up to feed the neighbors. "These young people started something in our hearts," an elderly resident says. "We'll be in there doing something, too," she adds with a laugh, "And it won't be legal. You can bet on that!" 

It's a uniquely British occupation where the day's protests begin with the call: "Crumpets everybody!" As an outlaw encampment sets down roots, hot toasted buns are trotted out for one and all—including the police. As an encampment lingers some protesters and police grow so close they bond. When the order finally comes to dismantle the camp, two ladies embrace. One is a protester, the other wears a police uniform. As the demolition commences, a women is heard screaming: "I'm not going to leave without my kettle! I need my kettle!" 

Looking back on her arrest that day, one of the women reflects: "The only way we can win is if more and more people agree that the law is an ass. Rosa Parks sat down on a bus and the law changed—because a lot of people agreed with her." 

The Goal: Not Coal 

The action next shifts to the second-largest coal-fired power station in the UK. In the past, the outlaws have taken great pains to hide their plans (even going to the point of removing batteries from their cell phones, speaking in code, and passing critical information around on scrapes of paper, to be read, not said). This time, the strategy is different. The plan to shut down the power plant is announced in advance. No secrecy. No surprise. The police take up positions first, behind barricades of razor wire, with helicopters hovering above. 

"Coal industry emissions are directly destroying out planet," the outlaws explain. "It's not enough to protest. We actually need to take direct action." 

James' camera follows one Affinity Group as it cuts its way through woodland fences and travels cross-country to the plant. 

The advance notice not only brought out the police, it also brought in hundreds of volunteers from around the country. So, when the protestors behind to emerge from the forests, it's like a scene from the movie Bravehart! The protesters begin moving across a great panorama of grass toward a line of neon-jacketed police with the stacks of the coal plant towering behind them outlined against the sky. But as they cross the meadow toward the police line, the marchers are singing! Lead by a young girl's voice, a chorus rises over the grasslands. My lord, it is a madly stirring moment. 

Hundreds of young men and women from all over the UK who have spontaneously answered the call to close the coal plant, swarm the high-tech fences and begin to clip away at the steel wall until there is room to climb between the gaps. Fingers reach into the wire mesh and begin to wrestle the barrier to the ground. 

As one of the women observes: "You can do frightfully nice picnics but sometimes you have to get messy." 

This being England, the police are remarkably restrained. Unlike their US counterparts who like to attend these First Amendment events dressed in military camo and battle gear—complete with chemical weapons, tasers and assault rifles— the British troops are armed only with shields and small sticks. 

The outlaws argue for the efficacy of a new strategy called De-arrest. If someone is being detained, he or she yells: "De-Arrest!" This signals other activists to flock to the scene and nonviolently overpower the arresting officer, thereby freeing the individual. As one protestor notes, De-Arresting makes the job of the police "exponentially much harder." 

Although they fail to shut the plant down that day, there is a deep pleasure in knowing that "the spectacle of thousands of ordinary people deciding to become outlaws sent a very powerful message." 

The COP-2 Cop Out 

Back in London, the outlaws prepare for the largest climate change protest in UK history. This time, the activists come to the event dressed in their best capitalist business suits and dresses. In full-satire mode, they march and call for Carbon Trading and "Power to the Privileged." "We're bankers! Give us your money." 

And then the Copenhagen Climate Change conference looms on the horizon. 

Despite having their bus stopped at the border by Danish police who insist on checking passports, our Affinity Group makes it to Copenhagen's Bella Center. They set up shop at an abandoned candy factory that has been turned into a people's workshop that builds, and rebuilds, bicycles. 

The goal of the demonstrations will be to oppose the primacy of "free-market capitalist solutions" to the climate crisis. The host government is determined to discourage protests and gives the police new powers to detain anyone for 40 days for "obstruction." 

More than 200,000 showed up to challenge the delegates' "One Solution, Trade Pollution" approach. The protests are peaceful during the day but toward the evening, the Danish police use their new powers to detain 968 protestors. Denmark's Politi show up with batons and snarling, snapping dogs. Soon, the Politi will begin openly sporting guns. "We have our orders," one policeman apologizes, "We don't know the reasons, but we have our orders." 

Lauren Simpson, the film's producer, is arrested on charges of violating anti-terrorism laws and hauled off to a Danish jail. Marital law prevails as the Politi viciously club unarmed activists. Bikes are seized, arms are twisted, faces are bashed. Activists are forced to sit on road in a blizzard for an hour while waiting to be removed to the "chicken coop," where hundreds of arrestees from all over the world share the solidarity that comes from common confinement. 

The world's second Conference of Parties (COP-2) was declared a "cop-out." Having failed to mandate firm reductions in greenhouse gases, the delegates simply postponed dealing with the planet's escalating climate problems to a future date. The failure of COP-2 was blamed on the US specifically and on capitalism in general. 

Many of the outlaws returned from Copenhagen with a new focus. The violence of the police proved a radicalizing force. Instead of simply focusing on climate change, many were now looking at the bigger problem — "capitalism and social control." 

Ending capitalism "is the only viable solution to climate change," one of the outlaws now believes. "Every time it comes back to money and power and I see capitalism as the epitome of money and power." It is easy to be discouraged when so much effort is expended and so little is changed, he says, "but even if you know something is futile, you still have to try. And, who knows, you might even surprise yourself." 

The film ends on an upbeat note with not one, but three, happy endings: In 2010, a crew of 20 Climate Campers on bikes pedaled through security in the middle of the night to occupy a British coal plant. After climbing the cooling towers and chaining themselves to a conveyor belt, they succeed in closing the plant (and ending its pollution) for three days. After years of protests, the coal company decided to cancel its plans to build a new coal-fueled station. In May 2010, plans for the third Heathrow runway were abandoned. In December 2010, Danish courts ruled that the preventative detention arrests at COP-2 were illegal. 

That's more than enough evidence to justify the documentary's closing comment: "Anyone out there who's thinking of doing something more… just do it!" 


To organize your own community screening, go to: and 

To find out how to get engaged in your own direct action, go to: