Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Tale of Two Courts

On trial in The Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street – the OccupyLSX camp

Through airport-style security into a hallway of imposing arches and mosaic floors, past a glass case containing relics of Guy Fawkes’ trial, push open heavy doors and enter the gallery above Court 25, where Occupiers are crammed onto narrow wooden benches.

All rise!” Judge Lindblom enters the court and the day’s story-telling begins.

As with all the best stories, there are moments of humour and tears too. Pomp is kept to a minimum – no big white wigs but a few “M’Luds”. The judge appears genuinely interested in the peculiarities of the case. He advises the untutored litigants, adjusts the schedule to allow every witness a voice and accepts mountains of paperwork, promising to read every scrap of it.

In cross-examination, Tammy is put on the spot about the cleaning of St Paul’s camp before Judge Lindblom’s visit. “That’s normal,” she says. “If I was expecting an important visitor to my flat, I’d tidy up before they arrived.” A down-to-earth answer that pleases his Honour as much as it does the rabble in the gallery. Equally believable is Tanya’s assertion that if she wanted to enter a church to worship, nothing would stop her – certainly not a few tents. Reminding the court that Jesus was a protester and St Paul a tent-maker, she shoots down the notion that the right to worship has been compromised and is backed by Reverend Green, who says that Occupy brings more blessings than curses.

Economist John Christianson claims that the public debate stimulated by Occupy is absolutely necessary and must be given space to continue. Historical use of the area around St Paul’s for ‘folk moots’ is discussed. Veteran Matthew Horne sheds light on what most have never come close to experiencing – the horrors of warfare – and surprises many by drawing parallels between the devastation of Iraqi citizens’ lives by war and the devastation of British citizens’ lives by debt, poverty, unemployment and home repossessions.

George Barda, litigant-in-person, is overcome by emotion on more than one occasion as he struggles to articulate the enormity of the dangers we face – climate change, resource scarcity, mass poverty – and to impress on Mr Justice Lindblom the urgent importance of the Occupy message. Tears are visible on more than one Occupiers’ cheek, as our hands wave in agreement.

According to the City of London, the Occupy encampment has increased crime figures, reduced visitor numbers and caused an untenable narrowing of the highway… but their statistics fail to stick. Our second litigant-in-person, Dan Ashman, has been out with a tape measure and reports that the narrowest bottleneck on the ‘highway’ in question is not even within the camp. The court hears that police assessments continually rate the risk of serious disturbance at the camp as ‘low’.

The CoL Corporation appears somewhat confused about what they object to – is it the protesters, or the vulnerable and sometimes challenging people who’ve found community in the encampment, or the physical tents? It is tents they are seeking to remove; our QC raises a chuckle when he asks whether it is the tents that are getting drunk, making a noise and committing the crimes that the City complains of.

Dan argues that conventional forms of protest have failed, which is why Occupy tactics are vital. Pressing social need and the desperate importance of the Occupy work are the main thrusts of our defence. Surely these weigh heavier in the scales of justice than petty health and safety qualms and the minor inconvenience of pedestrians?

Fat files of supporting documents are presented to the judge. He has homework to do over the holidays. OccupyLSX is granted a Christmas reprieve and now awaits an early January judgment day.

On trial in the Old Street Magistrates Court of Occupied Justice – the 1%

Knock on a heavy wooden door, speak the password, get eye-balled through a spy-hole, hear the drawing back of bolts, step into another imposing hallway. Tigger, my tour guide, gestures to a grand, sweeping staircase. “You want to go up to the courtroom or down to the cells?”

I choose the cells. It’s cold and damp in the basement. Plaster crumbles, unidentifiable stains hint at previous occupants. The cells are equipped with rock-hard sleeping ledges, seatless toilets and metal doors with sliding grills. In the corridor outside each cell is a blackboard with a name scrawled in chalk.

JP Morgan”. “Tony Blair”. “Goldman Sachs”. “George Bush”. These and other members of the 1% – those responsible for war crimes, ecocide and economic chaos – will soon be under the spotlight at Occupied Justice.

We’ll be putting them on trial,” Tigger explains. “The accused will be invited along but if they don’t show, we’ll try them in absentia.”

Rumour has it that legal professionals are keen to be involved. A thorough investigation of City of London corruption is promised. The financial services industry will be brought to account in this, the Court of the 99%.

The wood-paneled courtroom is grand. A maze of ante-rooms, including one with parquet floor and French windows opening onto a balcony, provide plenty of scope for the expansion of Occupy London. Squatters’ rights have been claimed. A peace flag flies from the rooftop. The back yard is big enough to park the Occupy Veterans’ Tank of Ideas.

Despite imminent threat of eviction, there’s a strong sense of fun as well as outrage here, in evidence at the Occupied Justice New Year Cabaret. A theatrical performance sees protesters and party-goers thrown into the cells by a wicked ‘Establishment’ Judge, before reappearing on the grandiose staircase to juggle, dance and recite political poetry to a rapt crowd of visitors. Perhaps the only cabaret where the hecklers call “Process!” and “Mic Check!”. The grand finale – aerial acrobatics on ribbons strung from a stained-glass dome above the Hall – leaves everyone awestruck.

Tigger’s finale is to lead me up spiraling wrought-iron staircases into the night sky. Wobbly- legged on the highest pinnacle of the roof, five storeys above neon-lit pavements, I marvel at the view of Canary Wharf all flash and brash, then turn around to see east London bathed in the lilac-pink of a winter dawn. It does feel like a new beginning.

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

Occupy 2012

Looming evictions combine with a desire to stay fresh, engage more people and keep on kicking the system. There’s a vertiginous sense of standing on the brink of something massive, of making history… and a parallel fear that Occupy could stumble and disappear down a crack leaving only a cyber-echo and a few thousand flyers to remember us by. The one percent would surely like us to shut up and go home now but in assembly after assembly strident voices reject that idea. New Year resolve is strong.We’re here to stay.”

For some Occupiers it’s all about the tents. Symbolic tents, tents for practical reasons, strategic tents, even tents as costume for comedic effect. Tents allow a sustained presence and protest that has proved so much more effective than one-day marches and demonstrations. Tents make Occupy special and there’s no way all the tents will be packed up… and yet many envisage Occupy 2012 looking a little different.

Occupy is ingenious, Occupy is branching out in multiple directions. There are so many things wrong with the current system; so many methods of protesting and raising awareness; so many different priorities; a myriad potential solutions. Evolution, revolution, direct action, dialogue. There’s no need to choose one route, one tactic, one answer. Occupy is strong in its diversity. Occupy can and will mount attacks on all fronts. Peacefully.

There will be more occupations, of buildings and land. Outreach to schools and community groups will expand. Watch Occupy work with Transition communities, permaculturists and co-operatives to set up practical, grass-roots alternatives to current unsustainable systems. Finsbury Square may become the first Occupy eco-village. There will be solidarity actions alongside Unions, low-paid workers and students. Tent City Universities will go On Tour. There may be excursions into mainstream politics. Church liaisons are likely. Temple, mosque and synagogue liaisons too and perhaps a strengthening of links with the quietly radical Quakers. Look out for General Assemblies springing up in town squares and on village greens across the land.

Occupy London’s Criminal Investigation Unit will be delving into the dirty secrets of the corrupt and greedy elite. There are plans afoot for an Occupy festival and an Occupiers’ Handbook. A diploma in Occupied Economics was launched by Tent City University in the last days of 2011. Button badges and pop-up debates will tickle the fancies of city-workers and tourists. Flash mobs, street theatre and Occupy Circus will provide generous sprinklings of irreverent frolicsome fun and to balance that there’ll be more tough learning and hardship. Dedication and a commitment to the long-haul will be required for building the kinds of communities we dream of. Everyone – including the top dogs at the Cathedral but perhaps excluding the City of London Corporation – is keen for Occupy to keep a presence at St Paul’s, where we can keep the London Stock Exchange in our sights and maintain a steady pressure on the City.

The Occupy Movement is not going away. On the contrary, it’s a hydra sprouting new heads daily. Preparing for crisis, planning for Utopia.

Come, join us!

Sheffield will be hosting the UK National Occupy Gathering January 21-23.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Week 9… in the Life of LSX Occupier Hazel Hedge

Occupy has its ups and downs. Living cheek-by-jowl on the city cobbles in winter, with a bunch of disparate rebels, isn’t easy. I mentioned this to a wise old man who said  “Well, you didn’t expect revolution to be a walk in the park did you?”.

The City of London Corporation is attempting to evict us for obstruction of the highway. I sat in court for a couple of days and found the witness statements on our side humbling, moving and inspiring. There were chuckles, tears and standing ovations from the public gallery. The Judge appeared genuinely interested in the peculiarities and importance of the case and gave us a stay of execution until at least January 11th. He will be weighing the evidence over the holidays.

On the one hand: An immature ragtag movement is claiming that democracy, the economy and the earth itself are in peril; therefore there is a pressing social need for us to continue stimulating debate, raising awareness and campaigning for change… and that in order to do those things effectively we must remain in our strategic and symbolic location between St Paul’s and the London Stock Exchange, right in the heart of the corrupt CoL.

On the other hand: The City of London paints a picture of a gang of rowdy wastrels frightening innocent city workers and school children, clogging up the pavement with banners and buskers, peeing in corners and making the place look untidy.

The City has some valid points. It’s true that the camp has attracted homeless and mentally ill people; consequentially there is a certain amount of challenging – sometimes downright disruptive – behaviour. However, OccupyLSX didn’t create these people and behaviours out of thin air. One of the camp defendants pointed out in court that the City of London has been a major contributor to the exact social problems that have now landed on its doorstep – and that this could be considered poetic justice.

The Judge asked whether poetic justice is a good thing or a bad thing. Our defendant said “It is instructive,” and we all waved our hands in the air.

Whether the camp’s evicted from St Paul’s or not we’re a strong community now and we’ll stick together to fight for what we believe in.

An end-of-year Occupy round up looks something like this:

There are 950 occupations worldwide, approximately 25 in the UK. A national Occupy conference is held in a different city every month. Live-stream links occupations across the world. Occupy has more online platforms than anyone can keep abreast of (in London alone we’ve half a dozen websites, a forum, a handful of twitter accounts, facebook pages, wikis, livestream, youtube, mumble and tumblr). The Occupied Times is eight issues young and going strong, the Occupiers’ Toolkit has been widely disseminated and an Occupiers’ Handbook is being created. Time magazine’s Person of the Year was The Protester and in column inches Occupy is definitely a winner. Links are being forged with Transition communities. Occupy Edinburgh has the blessing of the city council. Quakers support us. We’re in dialogue with the faithful from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Teenagers are putting Occupy messages on youtube and ordinary people are discussing the big issues on buses and in laundrettes. School parties are taking educational tours of Occupy encampments and museums are archiving the OT for posterity. Bishops, American preachers, financiers, famous musicians and a billion journalists want to talk with us.

We must be doing some things right… but where to from here?

Occupy 2012 may look a little different.

See my next post…

Tagged , , , , , ,

Week 8 and a half… In the Life of LSX Occupier Hazel Hedge

Is it week eight or week nine? I may have missed one. Every day feels like many. A week is eternity and yet gone in a flash. So much happens so fast.

I’m in Yorkshire. Had a blissful bath. Missing LSX and my friends there. They are friends now, I believe we’ll stay in touch whatever happens. But family is important too. Torn. No, it’s right to be here at Christmas. I’ll return to St Paul’s for New Year.

I’ve been dabbling in the writing of Press Releases. Big up to the Occupy London Press Crew. I’m often still writing and emailing at 2am… they go on until 3.30 and beyond; I’m not sure when they sleep. Big up to the gentle grafters of the camp too. Joey, Earthian, David, Vernon, Mandy, John, Phil and scores of others, some whose names I haven’t even learned yet.

We took a new building – Old Street Magistrates’ Court, now renamed ‘Occupied Justice’ and all set to bring the 1% to account. Occupying the streets with the Peace-Tank of Ideas was fun.

General Assemblies have been heated as we attempt to hone our act and define Occupy’s remit… still, in the last week a number of us have remarked on an increased sense of community. Maybe the threat of eviction has helped to bond us against a common enemy. Maybe we’ve been infused with festive good will. Either way, barriers are being broken down.

I’ve learned to be calm except for rare occasions when I feel I need to make a point and rational conversation won’t or hasn’t worked. I’ve learned to be tolerant and compassionate, more than I was before.

Occupy has become my life. I’m not sure how or when or whether I’ll be able to shrug it off. I don’t want to lose my home, my relationships, my business. I have to find ways to balance these things.

Changing the world is exciting. Exhausting. Exhilarating.

Roll on into 2012 and the era of Radical Change. With all its chaos and all its beauty.

Tagged , , ,

Occupy London’s Financial ‘Crisis’

Written for The Occupied Times

Certain sections of the mainstream media would have us believe that Occupy London is as bankrupt – monetarily and morally – as the financial sector on our doorstep.

The money has been lost! Donations have been siphoned off into individual bank accounts and shady eco-activist charities! We’ve spent thousands of pounds on fags and dog-food!

Well, no. What happened was that an assortment of people passionate about changing the world for the better set up camp in the city. They had no collective money and initially they didn’t have much of a plan beyond making themselves heard, raising their voices in protest at injustice and demanding a fairer future. Their voices resonated. Members of the 99% who couldn’t camp out showed their support in other ways and cash donations trickled in.

The money was put in a tin and used to buy food, teabags, stationery and to print Occupy leaflets. People were clamouring to donate online, so an unused Climate Camp bank account was adopted as a temporary repository for electronic funds. Meanwhile, the fledgling OLSX Finance Working Group sought advice on whether a motley assortment of unincorporated radicals could legally accept donations and open a bank account. The answer was yes. The irony was not lost on the Occupiers; nevertheless, it was decided funds could help us spread the Occupy message and so should not be rejected. A Co-operative bank account was deemed the ‘least evil’ option.

OccupyLSX began to save and then to spend. Swept up in the excitement of media scrums, church resignations, secondary Occupations and national strikes, we didn’t sit down and thrash out spending priorities and financial policies from the outset. This inevitably led to instances of conflict – what’s more important, political Direct Action or weatherproof tents? Is feeding the homeless part of the Occupy remit? Do we need to chain down our cash-box? Should we form a not-for-profit company?

Occupations worldwide have struggled with similar issues. OccupyLSX initiated a temporary spending freeze during which issues of transparency, accountability, spending priorities and creative use of resources were discussed.

After an intense week of debate, during which a few people became frustrated and stamped their feet, a proposal was put to and accepted by the sovereign body of OLSX – the General Assembly. From now on budgets will be set weekly; spending will not exceed donations received in any given week barring exceptional circumstances; priorities will be discussed and reviewed regularly; all working groups will keep clear and transparent records; the movement will aim to source materials via freecycle and similar schemes where possible; and all decisions regarding spending will be made by the General Assembly. As for the bank account, the paperwork is at the Co-op bank and there is a short-list of potential signatories.

If this was a financial crisis, it was a microscopic one; nipped in the bud before it festered, unsustainable systems recognised and replaced within the space of six weeks. Perhaps the Financial Service Authority and its new offspring would like to learn a thing or two from us?

Occupy Everywhere Dec 15

Occupy Everywhere – you can do it too!

You don’t need to camp out, just have some fun on the 15th.

Check out the Occupy Toolkit and Press Release, via link above, for some ideas you can try in your home-town…

Week 7… in the Life of LSX Occupier Hazel Hedge

Beneath the Bank of Ideas is a post-apocalyptic labyrinth. D and I found ourselves down there one night – after a dead-serious game of spooks, smoke and mirrors – with no guide. We tried door after door, peered into bust-up elevator shafts, crunched over debris, wiped inch-thick dust from vast battery banks, entered cupboards and exited them, climbed spiral staircases and concrete ramps, crawled through railings and up ladders… and kept finding ourselves back in the same place, a derelict underground carpark.

After the third or fourth loop D was muttering “it’s like Doom, it’s just like Doom”. Apparently Doom is or was a computer game but having largely avoided geek-dom in my youth it didn’t resonate with me; I was in one of those American gangster-thriller movies expecting baddies with blazing guns to be chasing after us any minute. I mentioned this to D as we crept into a dank, dark stairwell.

If I was in a film right now, it’d be… uh, no, I won’t say,” he replied. And both our minds filled with lurching, drooling, dead-eyed zombies. We stopped wandering away from one another after that.

After forty minutes or so we decided to head upwards via an open, metal staircase. We were in the dark, dead centre of the four office blocks that comprise the Bank of Ideas – one block was blazing with light, even the odd bark of laughter – that was where we wanted to be but the only door we could find that might lead into that block was boarded shut. My fingernails scraped on stone as I tried to prise it open. No luck. Then, a shout from above. People were standing, smoking, relaxing on a flat roof-top several metres away.

How do we get to you?”

This way…”

Following shouted instructions we climbed railings, leapt over concrete chasms and clambered across a roof laced with pipework. It felt as though we were five or six stories up; vertigo scrambled my mind and trembled in my belly. A hand reached down and pulled me onto a box, over a final set of railings and onto a balcony. D followed, we walked through a glass door and into the Bank of Ideas Block One, a warm and chaotic rabbit warren of a squatted social centre where we found mugs of tea, radical artists and a very special gig.

Massive Attack and Thom Yorke of Radiohead played at BoIs ‘Alternative Christmas Office Party’. Occupy poets, dancers and songsters performed and a grand time was had. Next day, BoI folks were back in court, fighting eviction. Who’ll be kicked out first, them or us at St Paul’s?

Back at OccupyLSX I was volunteered to go to the meeting between Occupiers, Hector Sants of the Financial Services Authority, Ken Costa (self-styled compassionate investment banker), the Bishop of London and Rob Gordon of St Paul’s Institute at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. I came away thinking that the FSA is rather toothless. Hector’s main message seemed to be that the FSA agrees things have gone wrong (der!) but it’s not their fault because they can only do what government tells them to do but don’t worry, government is making changes, but even government can’t really affect what happens because a lot of it depends on International finance… yawn yawn, excuses excuses. It was interesting to hear our economics-graduate-Occupiers ask some difficult questions of Hector – some he had obviously predicted and prepared for, others caught him slightly on the back-foot and made him squirm or at least hesitate and fumble. He didn’t seem particularly keen on talking about hedge funds.

And then we had John Papworth, renegade radical ex-vicar, who came to celebrate his 90th birthday with us and wrote us ‘An Occupationalists Prayer’. I felt honoured to host this wise old man. Thanks for the hug, John, and for leaving your Communion wine for us to drink… Here’s to another ten years at least of your being a thorn in the side of the Establishment. Cheers!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Week 6… in the life of LSX Occupier Hazel Hedge

Lots of big discussions at St Paul’s, Finsbury Square and the Bank of Ideas.

What are our aims and objectives?

Are we a direct action group that risks alienating some of the 99% with radical stunts or a more moderate campaign group? Are we here to feed London’s waifs and strays? Or to focus on politics? Do we want to become a not-for-profit limited company, thus making ourselves a more acceptable recipient of donations from wealthy well-wishers? Or would that be a betrayal of our principles?

What are our principles? Can we agree a set of core values that all Occupiers would be happy to commit to? Should we shut down the generator and manage with the limited amount of power our winter-sun solar panels can provide?

What are our priorities for spending? Food for the homeless? Increasing outreach operations to spread our message far and wide? Direct actions that spotlight those responsible for crashing our economy and pillaging our resources? Fuel for the generator so we can keep charging laptops and phones?

Do we want to enter into dialogue with powerful establishment bodies? With the Church? With the Financial Services Authority? Are they trying to co-opt us, fob us off with tweaks to the system, jump on the bandwagon we’ve set rolling?

If we get evicted from St Paul’s will we try to keep a symbolic or informational or educational presence here? What else will we do in the future?

There are a lot of questions this week, the week that the weather finally turned and the chill crept into our bones.

Seeking answers will be challenging because we’re a movement comprised of such diverse voices but it’ll be exciting and eventually fruitful, I’m sure… and there’ll probably be some surprises in store for people who think they know what we’re all about.

Tagged , , , , ,