disadvantageous terms of the Production Sharing Agreements would mean billions of dollars of profit being pocketed by the oil companies, bypassing the Iraqi economy entirely. Shell and BP, with the help of the UK Government have been actively pushing for this law and these contracts since 2003. The Birmingham action took place at a Shell Garage on a busy high street in South Birmingham.
We arrived at the station at around 11am just as traffic volume and pedestrian numbers were picking up on the high street. There was banner drop from the roof of the forecourt and the “S” of the word “Shell” was blanked out so we had effectively re-branded the station as “Hell.” Using two large banners we closed off the entrance to the station and then, as the forecourt emptied, sealed the exit also. One protester went into the shop to explain what was going on and gave leaflets to the member of staff there who was reportedly uninterested. A pirate flag was unfurled and everyone else got to work handing out leaflets to passers-by. We continued the theme of corporate re-branding as suited “market researchers” stopped people with a questionnaire about attitudes to the profiteering of oil companies.
Around 10% of people passing by got angry about the protest. Most of this was about the inconvenience about having to go elsewhere for petrol, or do without. Some of it, frankly, was about the use of the word "shafting" on the banner! Other comments included "Why don’t you stand up for our boys who are fighting out there instead?" and "Stop wasting police time." Some anger was simply about the disruption to the status quo in the area. We were just "causing trouble" and people didn’t like it. Perhaps there was anxiety about it becoming more disruptive or even violent? (It never did.)
A further 20% hurried past looking slightly worried or simply uninterested. I'm willing to speculate that a portion of these people made (and make, generally) judgments about the "type of people who protest." (The police assumed we were students, even though our average age, including the teenagers who joined us later, was probably around 30.) I guess if the protesters look and dress and behave like "not my kind of people" then their concerns probably are "not my concerns." However a heartening majority of all ages, backgrounds, cultural sub-groups and fashion-statements were genuinely interested in, or supportive of what we were about. One bus driver took a handful of leaflets through his cab window and passed them down the bus to his passengers. Even a senior police officer took one as he left and smiled as he agreed to read it! All the leaflets given out were taken willingly because people simply wanted an explanation for the protest. There was frequent honking of horns, thumbs up, cheering and waving from passing cars in response to the banners.
About one third of the people who took a leaflet stayed long enough to hear a short explanation about the illegality of the oil companies' actions and the impact on ordinary Iraqis. Some wanted more information and were surprised by what they heard. Some people readily agreed and expressed their own anger about this. Some commented “You never hear about this stuff in the news do you?” One old lady asked "Can you do one about British Gas next?"
The mock questionnaire surveys being carried out by our suited “market researchers” provoked laughter and good humour as well as raising some really important points about the responsibility and power we have as consumers. All the people who stopped to complete one indicated that they would not want to support human rights abuses and other unethical practices in order to maintain a steady oil supply in future.
A handful of people actually came and joined in immediately they understood that we were protesting about and became our most enthusiastic, almost evangelical members, clearly enjoying the experience a great deal. The station did no trade at all for two hours. It seemed to take an age before the police even arrived and when they did they spent a very long time discussing things inside the forecourt shop before coming out to ask us simply to move a couple of inches forward so our feet weren't technically on the premises. They appeared bemused as to how to handle the situation. More senior officers, some in plain clothes, were summoned, meaning we had around six police officers on site to manage a gathering of around 20 people.
They began by insisting that the children who were with us were in danger of being run over, (although the only car which did attempt to drive through the banner blockade was an unmarked police car) and then moved onto discussing the requirements of the Criminal Justice Act that any gatherings of more than two people needed prior approval from the police. All conversations with the police were conducted by our appointed police liaison person and notes were taken down by our legal documenter. They were also filmed and photographed.
Eventually the police resorted to shoving us out of the way, apparently because they couldn't think of a verbal argument that would stand up, or perhaps because the owner of the franchise had arrived. Ultimately we removed the blockades but continued demonstrating peacefully with musical accompaniment outside the premises for a further period and then ended the demonstration on our own terms.
Photos from the Birmingham Hands Off Iraqi Oil Shell Action