Monthly Archives: June 2012

Whose Land? | The Occupied Times

Finsbury Square has been evicted, the Diggers are digging in, Rio+20 was useless except to highlight the negative influence of multinational corporations on the global environment, Simon’s been given a two-year ASBO for trying to save Leyton Marsh from development, Climate Sirens locked on to the gates of Buck’ Palace and hung banners quoting Prince Charles saying that we need to act now on climate change, Counter-Olympics campaigns are burgeoning as the torch gets trapped in the flooded North, organic farmer in court for trashing GM wheat, GM-pusher Monsanto amongst worst ‘Green-washers’ along with Olympic sponsor BP… All this swimming around in my head, and I write, for the Occupied Times:

Whose Land?

The Occupy movement was not, initially, about land. It was about the economy, democracy, justice and climate change. It was about bank bonuses, public service cuts and being the change we wanted to see. It was also about joining the dots between apparently disparate issues and, recently, the realisation has dawned that land is one giant polka dot.

The London Occupy movement unwittingly flagged up the privatisation of public space from the outset. On 15th October 2011, protesters were prevented from entering Paternoster Square by an injunction brought by its private owners, Mitsubishi. Occupy has always been about using land for temporary camps, originally for the purpose of making a political stand and later – as the movement engaged with immediate local issues such as homelessness – to enable those without homes to enjoy shelter and community. Occupiers are now working with the Diggers 2012, a group of activists who claim disused land and use it to practise sustainable living. Occupy is joining with international campaign groups and indigenous activists to highlight landgrabs by mining corporations Xstrata and Glencore in Asia, Africa and Oceania. Occupy activists are also kicking-up a fuss about landgrabs closer to home, for example the appropriation of Metropolitan Open Land in Hackney for the London 2012 Olympic Village.

In the eight months since the Paternoster Square injunction, land issues have come to the fore and even the mainstream media has taken note. The Guardian recently referenced the Occupy movement, while describing just how ubiquitous and restrictive private ownership of outdoor space can be. Character, community and biodiversity are frequently subjugated to profitability and showcase ornamentation in privately owned spaces. Canary Wharf has practically been declared a no-protest zone, whilst in Northern cities such as Liverpool, quirky districts stuffed with recycled-furniture markets, independent bookstores and community cafes have been stripped bare and sterilised.

Occupiers have been educating themselves on the subject of land. In squatted social centres and tent universities, Anna Minton’s Ground Control (2012) jostles for bookshelf space with Kevin Cahill’s Who Owns Britain (2002). Minton considers the deeply undemocratic nature of private land ownership and the harm done to communities when open spaces are corralled for profitability instead of being tended for the public good. Cahill underlines the inequities inherent in land ownership, whilst uncovering the myth of land scarcity. He reports that less than one percent of the UK population own approximately 70 percent of the land and that land is nowhere near as scarce as we are led to believe. Only a tenth of the UK’s land mass is built upon. Rural landowners pay no taxes on land and actually receive subsidies simply for owning unused acres. Cahill’s conclusion is that a redistribution of land could go a long way towards addressing economic and social problems, not just in Britain but globally.

As Occupy supporters marched through the City of London during an international day of action on 12th May, issues of land ownership were raised with the chant: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Later, whilst temporarily kettled, protesters broke through police lines, only to be arrested a couple soon after simply for having an assembly, hanging out and playing music on “our streets”. Elsewhere, squatters are continuing to fight for the right to use derelict buildings for the common good; bailiffs evicted Occupy’s squatted Bank of Ideas and went one further with the School of Ideas, razing it to the ground. Between April and July the Nomadic Occupy group was taken to court by Tower Hamlets council, evicted from a Hackney park and threatened with arrest when tents were erected on Hampstead Heath. The stated aim of the ‘nomads’ is to set up small, purely temporary encampments for outreach purposes while maintaining good relations with their neighbours and lending a compassionate ear to vulnerable members of local communities.

Politicians decry the decline of community and yet attempts to use our outdoor spaces for collaborative, creative activities are regularly thwarted by injunctions, health and safety regulations or trumped-up public order offences. Red tape and bureaucracy frequently prevail in preventing unauthorised gatherings, protests, celebrations, leisure or pleasure from occurring even in public places – unless, of course, the activity in question is an Establishment-bolstering Jubilee party. Policies instigated in the Thatcher years – from redevelopment of the London Docklands by an unaccountable, but publicly-funded Urban Development Corporation, to the Criminal Justice Act (no more subversive partying in fields) – have served subsequent governments well, while enshrining in law the separation of people from land.

Taking their inspiration from Gerrard Winstanley’s True Levellers, the Diggers 2012 are attempting to redress these injustices. On their simple website the Diggers “declare our intention to go and cultivate the disused land of this island; to build dwellings and live together in common by the sweat of our brows”. They believe that “…every person in this country and the world should have the right to live on disused land, to grow food and to build a shelter. This right should apply whether you have money or not”.

These latter-day Diggers set off to walk from a community allotment in London to the Crown Estate in Windsor on 9th June, with the intention of starting an eco-village on disused Crown land. The True Levellers attempted a similar project in 1649, with a view not only to planting vegetables on common land but also to reforming the existing social order. By the time the Diggers 2012 reached their destination they had an escort of police and an injunction had been slapped on the entire area. A walk along the banks of the Thames ensued, the peaceful Diggers tailed by police and Crown Estate officials. A succession of temporary camps were set up, despite attempts by police, council, estate and park officials to run the Diggers off the land.

On 11th June, as the group scouted for a suitable location to grow vegetables and community, one of their number was arrested. Simon Moore was deemed to be in breach of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order he was given for his participation in a peaceful Save Leyton Marsh protest. Jailed for a night, Simon rejoined the Diggers the following day. By then the group had managed to ‘dig in’ to a piece of woodland on the edge of Runnymede Park, the birthplace of our modern democracy.

Gathering around the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede – a memorial inscribed with “Freedom under the Law” – the Diggers discussed land, freedom, democracy, irony and injustice. Planning law is used to prevent groups like the Diggers from solving their own housing issues and is abused by those in power, who can declare ‘exceptions’ when it suits them, as they have done on the Hackney Marshes. For now, the Diggers 2012 are camped on a piece of disused land that was sold by Brunel University to developers in 2007. They are beginning to build structures from natural materials and are inviting all – but especially forest gardeners and permaculturists – to join them for a spot of guerilla gardening.

Todmorden’s Incredible Edible project, dreamed up by a couple of self-proclaimed ‘old birds’, shows just how successful guerilla gardening can be. In an unusual community-spirited ‘landgrab’ the town’s residents planted up roadside verges, roundabouts and council-owned flowerbeds with fruit, vegetables and salad crops. Now locals and visitors alike can grab a handful of fresh food as they walk down the street and international eco-tourists are flocking to this formerly down-at-heel South Pennine town. This project is a baby-step in the right direction. It is an example of the kind of dignified, creative, co-operative solution that Occupy in London is exploring in its ‘Creating Alternatives’ assemblies.

Regaining control of land and buildings, claiming space and building communities, living on the earth and protecting it from rape and pollution – these endeavours are at the heart of Occupy, even though we didn’t trumpet land rights in our initial statement.

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A wild, weird, wired, wet weekend in London Town

It began sedately enough with a small assembly on the steps of St Paul’s. Activists returning from the Stop ACTA demo joined us after defending internet freedom and privacy rights. We discussed the upcoming series of assemblies ‘Creating Alternatives’, to be based on nurturing connections between community groups and grassroots campaigns. These assemblies will look at ways of working together which take us out of the competitive ratrace, away from notions of victimhood, and towards community empowerment. We’ll be considering Co-operatives, a Community Bill of Rights and the notion of ‘The Commons’… alongside topics brought to the assemblies by participating groups. This series will begin on June 16th and will continue throughout the Summer, every Saturday at 2pm on the steps of St Paul’s, culminating in a community picnic on August 19th (location tbc).

It was a sunny Saturday so some of us continued sitting on the cathedral steps after the assembly wrapped up. Thus we were treated to the sight of several hundred nude and semi-nude cyclists (plus a few scantily-clad skaters and scooterists) participating in a mass Naked Bike Ride to promote cycling and cyclists’ rights. This was impressive, beautiful, slightly shocking and seemed terribly, eccentrically British… although we later discovered that naked bike riding is a global phenomena. American and Japanese tourists who’d obviously never experienced the phenomena in their own countries were flabbergasted. Especially when the entire procession became embroiled in a traffic jam and came to a halt wound around the cathedral. “In front of a church!” exclaimed one, while trying not to catch the eye of a naked person… nor to stare too long at flabby or private body parts. When propriety proved too difficult she closed her eyes.

Next stop, the London Green Fair in Regent’s Park. A whole festival surrounded by city towerblocks – quite surreal. Wholesome foodstalls, fairtrade clothing, crafts, eco-products, bars and music. Lovely. Luckily, still sunny. The Occupy London Energy, Equity & Environment group met here and sat chatting in the park until dusk, stumbled across by an Occupied Times editor, some Finsbury Square folk and a few Anons.

Having found my way to the latest Nomadic Occupy Camp in Ion Square Gardens, Tower Hamlets, I caught up with the nomads’ news around a fire. I heard that relations with local residents – who had arranged portaloos for the camp and many of whom visited daily – were good. Preparations for a court hearing were in progress, however, and there was some disagreement amongst the camp’s inhabitants over whether to fight the case or simply slip away to the next site. Some felt that having cleaned up the park they had evidence to prove that Nomadic Occupy provides a valuable community service and that they could petition for temporary camping permits. I slipped away to bed while the debate continued.

Having slept well in a borrowed tent I was woken by scorching sun on Sunday morning. It looked to be a perfect day for catching up with the Diggers2012 who were en route to Windsor to reclaim disused Crown Estate land for an eco-village settlement, so I took a train out of London, hitched through a police cordon and joined the Diggers. I later wrote about our adventures for The Occupied Times: Diggers2012, A Walk to Windsor

On Monday London (and much of Britain) was treated to monsoonal weather and the Nomads were in court. Their pleas to remain in Ion Square for another two weeks were rejected and they were given until 9am Wednesday morning to depart. At a hastily convened and rather damp meeting there was consensus to move to a new borough. Overnight it was decided that Hampstead Heath would be an audacious but appropriate move.

By Wednesday morning I was back in Yorkshire and the Occupy Nomads were ensconced on Hampstead Heath. The Nomads told reporters that they were “building a space for political discussion” in an area of the Heath known as the Vale of Health. The Vale is managed by the City of London Corporation so the Nomads were poking an old enemy. They managed to stay on the Heath for less than 24 hours before being threatened with arrest if they refused to pack and leave… but during that time they highlighted controversy over plans to commercialise the area, as well as refocusing attention on the continuing existence of the Occupy movement in London.

Evict us and we multiply.

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