What a weekend last weekend was.
FRIDAY – St Paul’s and Mile End
I arrive in London in time for an Occupy General Assembly in the portico of St Paul’s. Then make my way to the Mile End Nomadic Occupy Camp where I spend the wee hours discussing politics around a fire with a diverse bunch of occupiers – English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Jamaican, Congolese, Philippino, Polish, Iranian and Bangladeshi – some street-homeless and unemployed, some unemployable, others working in a range of jobs as varied as their accents and origins. A bicycle-courier-cum-DJ tells me that Occupy needs to focus on getting through to ‘da yoot’, possibly via the medium of an app or computer game. An estate agent laughs as he describes the incredulity of his friends when he updates his facebook status to ‘living in a tent’. Hippies sit beside bikers and debate with builders and musicians who explain the Occupy message to recent immigrants. Ex-soldiers brew up mugs of tea for chefs, kitchen porters and ex-security guards. Many of the Nomads could be described as ‘down on their luck’ but their passion for social change goes further than self-interest and some have deliberately chosen to avoid the rat race in order to achieve a freer, more sustainable existence. These guys want a better world and are prepared to put their all into achieving it. On the whole they are self-policing, self-reliant, respectful and dedicated to both their own fledgling community and the global Occupy movement.
SATURDAY – International Day of Action
12M. A Day of Action across much of Europe and beyond. It dawns warm and sunny – I wake sweating inside my tent after a cold night.
Several Occupy Nomads take the bus to St Paul’s Cathedral. Approximately 800 people assemble to hear rousing speeches by Occupy supporters including a Norwegian student; two local ladies from Leyton Marsh who have been protesting against Olympic land-grabbing; a wheel-chair user fighting for the rights of disabled people; and John Cooper QC, OccupyLSX’s barrister in the St Paul’s eviction court case.
From St Paul’s we set off towards Ludgate Circus. Floating tents, a samba band, silly costumes, wheeled sound systems, sunshine and the chance to catch up with Occupy friends make for a carnival atmosphere. The procession trundles along Fleet Street in high spirits, accompanied by apparently relaxed police. However, on turning into Fetter Lane we’re halted by a line of police across the road. Confusion ensues – are we kettled? Why have we been stopped? Cheers go up as a posse of occupiers appear on the other side of the police line, having taken an alternative route. The police are now kettled – surrounded – by us. We have no interest in fighting them but neither are we inclined to obediently wait for them to decide what to do with us; and so we begin – individuals at first, then the whole crowd – to make our way towards the Bank of England despite the police. They try to stop us but their line is permeable and eventually, bowing to the inevitable, it dissolves.
First activist lesson of the day: we don’t have to blindly accept the demands and restrictions imposed upon us by authority.
Several more times as we march, amble, dance and jog our way along Newgate, the police use tactics variously described as odd, absurd and pointless in half-hearted attempts to hold us back, as these films illustrate:
Some of us make the mistake of rushing ahead to evade containment while others are being held back. This does not demonstrate solidarity and leaves the middle of the procession hollow. It would perhaps be better if everyone who finds themselves forwards of a police line returns to make a cop sandwich.
Second activist lesson of the day: let’s try not to lose cohesion in the face of silly police manoeuvres.
Outside the Royal Exchange, near the Bank of England, after taping off and stickering a few corporate HQs, we assemble again. The Royal Exchange has steps, portico, columns and courtyard very similar to those at St Paul’s so we immediately feel at home. Open mic speeches, music and mingling ensue. Banners are hung, tents pop up and children play amongst them. The atmosphere is ‘first-day-of-summer-let’s-have-a-picnic’, until a crackly tannoy system mounted on a police van announces that we must disperse by 5.45pm or face arrest.
Some Occupy supporters leave during the next hour. Some stay, prepared to risk arrest to defend the right to assemble and to protest. Others do not believe we’ll be arrested for peacefully assembling in a city square on a sunny Saturday afternoon. With the procession over we’re not obstructing traffic. It is not a residential area and few (if any) businesses in the area are open, so we’re not disrupting the life of the community. A proposal to set up an overnight camp receives a cool response; however, many express a desire to stay for another two hours. This seems a reasonable amount of time to allow for more speeches, announcements, a celebration of Los Indignados anniversary, and a discussion of what to do next.
The square is still fairly full when the first phalanx of police sweep in and pounce on a well-known male Occupier. Cries go up to ‘sit down’. Some people are already sitting on the steps of the Royal Exchange and others join them, linking arms. Several times, in an increasingly aggressive manner, peaceful people are dragged from the steps and prostrated on the pavement before being bundled into police vans. Police snatch squads move in tight formation, a leader giving orders while the rest bark “Get back!” and push bystanders away. Much of the time little can be seen of the arrestees because their arrests are shielded from view. Shrieks, yells and chants of “Shame on you!” from protesters suggest that the cops are not being gentle.
A guy in a pop-up tent is almost trampled by police before being dragged away, still in his tent. I am grabbed and shoved out of the immediate vicinity of the steps. Police lines form, isolating those on the steps and separating protesters in the square from supporters who are arriving from elsewhere. Police then begin arresting people who are not seated on the steps, including a reporter for the Occupied News Network and someone standing on a bench in an attempt to obtain a good view. They chase one guy down the street. It seems they want to be rid of anyone they see as a potential ‘leader’.
Third activist lesson:
a) The cops can make and change the rules of the game to suit themselves.
b) We might want to protect certain people from arrest, perhaps by keeping them in the centre of a crowd (say, if they’ve been arrested before and bail conditions/fines are likely to be particularly harsh; or if they’re likely to be making an important contribution to an upcoming action which would be compromised by certain bail conditions).
After an hour or so a hiatus occurs. Some police leave and others arrive. The new cops are fluffier and treat us with a lighter touch. They continue to isolate the ten or so occupiers huddled in the centre of the steps but lose interest in the rest of us. Supporters from Anonymous UK and the Occupy London Environment group arrive with music and supplies; sandwiches are thrown in to the group on the steps and the party begins again in the Royal Exchange courtyard, just feet away from the police. Myself and a few friends occupy the western end of the steps, soon to be joined by many others. We are now just a few feet away from those still under threat of arrest and are doing exactly the same as them – sitting on the steps of the Royal Exchange, chatting and eating sandwiches. Soon we’re dancing to Manu Chao and conversing with the police who seem to want to go home. A battle of wills ensues: Cops want the Steps Ten to give up and come out of the cordon; we want the police to admit that their presence has not stopped the celebration of the Indignados’ anniversary and is utterly pointless at this stage.
The cordon dissolves, occupiers from east and west sides of the steps reunite and the police drive away, leaving just a few to protect the portico, presumably from graffiti artists. Our celebration is mixed with incredulity at the earlier behaviour of the police: the implementation of a Section 14 when there was no serious disruption occurring or likely to occur; the attempted taking away of our right to protest and to peaceful assembly; the unnecessary nature of the entire police intervention which, if anything, probably lengthened our stay at the Royal Exchange; and mostly, the excessive force and aggression used against entirely peaceful people.
By around midnight most of us were tired enough to stagger ‘home’ to tents at Mile End or Finsbury Square, or to precarious housing in this unaffordable city.
SUNDAY – Mile End to Haggerston Park in Hackney.
On Sunday an Occupier from Little Rock, USA drops by to visit Mile End. We pack up the camp around him, ready to move to a new location in Hackney. A local woman stops to say how sad she is that the Occupy Nomads are leaving: “People used to be scared to walk through the park,” she tells us. “People would get attacked, there were fights… Since the camp’s been here it has been safer. Pensioners have begun to use the park again. The people in the camp have kept the place clean and they’re always polite. They keep the troublemakers away.” She looks away. “Can’t you stay?”
The Nomads have agreed with Tower Hamlets council that they will leave this weekend. They don’t want one of the poorest boroughs in London to have to pay the costs of evicting them and they want to build a reputation for sticking to their word. If they rock up in a park and locals and councillors know they’ll be gone in a month, it’s far more likely that they’ll be accepted. By moving around they hope to avoid some of the deterioration problems of longer term camps; being nomadic will also enable them to connect with and learn from numerous communities while spreading the Occupy message far and wide.
A borrowed van, a wheelbarrow, two shopping trolleys, a suitcase on wheels and a hand-built wooden cart are used to transport the structures and contents of the kitchen and information tent plus the camping equipment and personal belongings of approximately fifteen people to the new site. We convene beside the pond in Haggerston Park in late afternoon sunshine and plan how to set up the new camp.
Top priorities are to avoid upsetting local park-users and to minimise impact on the environment. To this end we decide to pitch the kitchen against a high hedge, where it will not block the view of the pond from the path, and to squeeze the other tents into a half-hidden circle of grass behind the kitchen, again to avoid spoiling the view and to ensure there is still plenty of space around the pond for families to picnic and children to play. We agree that nothing of ours must pollute the pond – no washing up slops and certainly no pee!
It takes the rest of the evening to set up camp. At dusk we’re hanging an ‘Occupy for Social & Economic Justice’ banner. At midnight we’re having a camp assembly around the fire (which is raised off the ground in a metal bucket to avoid scorching the ground). Notes taken at that first meeting are here:
MONDAY – from Hackney back to St Paul’s and the Dalai Lama
By 10am the camp has been visited by the local police, park wardens and councillor. We explain ourselves, reassure them, offer them cups of tea. It’s raining.
We eat egg sandwiches then three of us take the bus to St Paul’s. The Dalai Lama arrives to receive a prize for his spiritual contributions. He immediately gives the million pounds to charity. I believe he is a force for good on the world stage; this is a heart-felt thing rather than an intellectual, reasoned or knowledge-based position. He’s only a few metres away and his presence brings tears to my eyes (and down my cheeks). It has the same effect on a rough, tough biker from the Nomad camp.
And then it’s the slow coach back to Yorkshire.