Monthly Archives: July 2012

Festival Of Resistance

It felt like summer, at last. It was the first weekend of the school holidays and everyone was heading south, down the M6 to Devon and Cornwall, to sandcastles and seaweed and surf. I was on my way to Devon to meet a bunch of occupiers, anarchists, socialists, greenies and unclassifiable objectors-to-the-current-system at the Festival of Resistance.

I was going along to spread the word about the Occupied Times and to help a fellow OT editor convince anyone who needed convincing that creating our own indymedia is vital. I didn’t know what to expect, just knew that the festival was organised by ‘Globalise Resistance’ who have been accused in the past of being a front for the Socialist Workers’ Party.

M arrived before me. His text said: “I always suspected the leftist insurrection would start from a Devonian stately home.”

Italian terraces and smooth lawns with views to the coast. A walled tea garden, trapping the sun. An unlikely location for a hotbed of revolutionary zeal, for the harbouring of undercover SWP members and for having many kilowatts of solar panel in a meadow around the back.

The caretaker of this stately pile was recently in court accused of trashing a GM wheat trial site at Rothamsted Research Institute. An organic farmer and passionate about permaculture, he’s concerned that genetically modified crops could cross-breed with conventional plants and become impossible to control. One of the weekend’s talks was on this subject.

Economic meltdown in Greece, anti-capitalism, food sovereignty, community rights, undercover cops, William Morris, the Olympics, imperialism, debt and austerity, the banking crisis, radical design and the Leveson inquiry were also on the agenda. A great speaker from the New Economics Foundation explained “just how fucked the economy is.”

There were probably a couple of Socialist Workers in attendance and possibly a cop or two. There was a guy in an Anonymous mask, a few anarchists, the odd geek and more photographers and livestreamers than some attendees felt to be prudent.

Those identifying as occupiers were reminded that Occupy didn’t invent the idea of pitching a tent and clamouring for change, nor was it the first movement to see the personal as political or to understand that things have gone wrong on a global scale. Amateur activists learned a little history from veterans of Greenham Common, of anti-globalisation protests and road protest camps, of Stonehenge Free Festival and the poll tax riots, of Reclaim the Streets and Climate Camp.

A recurring theme was the importance of networking between radical groups that are broadly leftwing, of focusing on our similarities and agreements rather than squabbling. The Festival of Resistance proved that this is possible. We’re moving away from the old isms – capitalism is rubbish but what we have isn’t even capitalism any longer, it’s corporatism and cronyism and corruption. Likewise socialism and communism are old hat. For now we’re refusing to be trapped in boxes and are steering clear of labels.

One big question that we returned to repeatedly was ‘What is Our Alternative’? Sure, we know the current system stinks. We know that profit-chasing, planet-raping and power-mongering are bad. We don’t believe austerity and privatisation are the answers to anything. So what are the answers? The words and concepts that keep cropping up are: Community, Co-operation, Transition, The Commons.

The weekend ended with the question “So what do we do now?” Answers were thrown into a pot:

“Support Greece and Spain – they’re the canaries, huge experiments are being conducted over there, we should travel there en masse, by train…”

“We need to be connecting globally, with the majority world, with the global South, not just across Europe and the States.”

“For alternatives look to South America, to Argentina, and to some extent to Greece. They’re learning new ways of organising and co-operating, through necessity.”

“Give people what they want in order to gain their support – we can’t expect them to join us just because we’re right!”

“Focus on debt. Refuse to pay unjust debts.”

“Link up with the unions, we need mass action… help to radicalise the unions, as ‘the Sparks’ have been doing.”

“Everything needs doing and we need to reach out to everyone! Transition towns, freeware geeks, faith groups, co-operatives…”

“We need to engage and evoke a visceral response, not just an intellectual one.”

“We need to move fast, there’s not much time, climate chaos is just around the corner.”

What I’d have liked to do next was for everyone to say which of these answers resonated most for them and to link up with others of like mind. Form affinity groups. Note down action points. Instead the bus to London arrived and most everyone rushed off to pack up their tents, bolt a bite of lunch and squeeze onto a sweaty coach.

I went to the beach.

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Occupy Nomads, the Inside Story

Earlier this week I visited the Occupy Nomads in Haggerston Park and the Diggers2012 at Cooper’s Hill, Runnymede. Despite repeated evictions, court cases, loss of belongings and the wettest summer anyone can remember, both groups are in good spirits.

My last post, ‘Whose Land?’, focussed on the Diggers’ story. Since then they’ve faced two attempted evictions. Eco-villagers have been carried away from their wooden longhouse and dumped in the mud further down the hill. But, both times they returned before the hearth went cold, rekindled a fire, boiled a kettle, had a cuppa and got back to digging in. Compost toilet construction, an extension to the longhouse and a garden are all underway.

This post tells the story of the Occupy Nomads, largely in their own words.

Stephane is Corsican. He’s fiery and proud. He joined the Nomadic Occupy group in March, at the group’s first camp in Limehouse. Before that he was a politically-motivated, community-minded squatter.

I asked Stephane why he joined the Nomads.

I support Occupy, because if Occupy wins it will be a nice little step in the right direction,” he said. It took a while to untangle what he meant, the rapidity of his speech and his strong accent hindering me far more than explaining complex concepts in his second language hindered him.

Stephane wants to take down the capitalist system we live in, but not via revolution. He knows it’s not going to happen overnight, that if it did we’d be in a mess because we’re not ready to live self-sufficiently and autonomously in the anarchic communities he would like to see emerging from the death throes of neoliberalism. For him, Nomadic Occupy is a training camp, an opportunity to live in the future he wants to see, and a physical, visible reminder to the authorities and the wider world that dissent has not gone away.

Stephane doesn’t see camping as the be all and end all of the Occupy movement but he does believe that keeping a tented presence in the public eye is important. He sees the Nomads as forerunners of change, taking back our right to live on the land, to build our own communities and to practice self-sufficiency. The Nomads are, to some extent, supporting themselves by recycling items destined for landfill and by foraging. Old appliances are expertly taken apart and rebuilt or stripped into useful parts, food is plucked from skips or donated and, as summer unfolds, fruits and herbs can be picked for free in London’s parks.

I asked Stephane what Occupy “winning” would mean and why, for him, such a win would be only a “nice little step”. He said that as he understands it, the Occupy movement is pressing for redistribution of wealth, which for him wouldn’t be enough – we’d still be living in a system he wants to reject. For Stephane, anarchy is the answer and he explains anarchy thus: “Everyone has individual responsibility, first for themselves and then to their community. You look after yourself, but also you share, you co-operate. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Tim camped at St Paul’s before becoming a nomadic occupier. He believes that the OccupyLSX camp, being in the City of London and thus visible mainly to city workers and tourists, failed to connect with ordinary people in the way Nomadic Occupy does. He says “The nomads engage with people at the arse end of society, the people who are massively affected by the big issues – politics, globalisation, corporatisation – but who’re least engaged with those issues. We encourage people in local communities who have never been politically active, who’ve always assumed they can’t change anything, to think and talk about these big issues and to start connecting with activist groups and grassroots campaigns.”

Nomadic Occupy also provides a valuable social hub which is particularly appreciated by the disenfranchised, according to Tim. Pubs and cafes are too expensive to be viable meeting places for many and squatted social centres are often too hidden, or too intimidating, for people outside the squatting community to take advantage of. A small camp in a public place is far easier to approach. The kettle is always on and “we probably provide the only free al fresco cafe in London”.

Encouraging participation in political issues is a big part of the Occupy mission. Tim is passionate about recruiting new people and about “bridging the disconnect between the local and the global”. He accepts that the Nomads have made some mistakes and that they’re still on a steep learning curve, working out how best to connect with communities and how to avoid antagonising the very people they want to reach out to. On the whole, he says, the dispossessed – those with insecure housing, troubled relationships, unstable mental health or little to lose – welcome Nomadic Occupy. Those upset by the encampments tend to be clinging to privileges and a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude. Some of those who are initially, perhaps naturally, suspicious, relax and engage once they understand the remit of Nomadic Occupy and the temporary nature of the camps.

Tim explains how residents around Mile End and Ion Square found that the presence of a Nomad camp reduced crime and antisocial behaviour in the area, making local parks – once no-go zones for pensioners and families – safer and more hospitable. He also reminds me that as eviction loomed at St Paul’s we brainstormed about what Occupy should do next. Going ‘on the road’ and engaging with local communities was high up the list of priorities and the Nomads have found a means of doing that. “St Paul’s was probably one of the largest activist training camps ever,” Tim says. “Since the big camps have been evicted the activists have scattered but they’re still spreading the word in their own communities and workplaces, on the streets and in the parks.”

Steve describes himself as “a typical East End person”. He stumbled across Nomadic Occupy in Ion Square Gardens and wasn’t impressed at first but was invited to sit down for a chat. “I had my eyes opened,” he says. “These guys educated me about social issues which I’d always felt powerless to engage with or change. They made me think about the things that matter. Most of us don’t think about those things because we’re blinded by TV or by our own struggles.”

Steve decided to join the Nomads. “I want to help them engage with local people. I want ordinary people to understand that the banks and the media manipulate people and how it’s all for the benefit of the one percent.” Regarding the camp, Steve argues that land should be for the people, for all people, and that camping out, cooking over a fire and creating a social space for discussion and education is a better use for it than most.

Nomadic Occupy has given Steve hope for the future. “The Nomads are fighting for the dispossessed. I want more people to know that there are people prepared to do that. I want more people to experience what I have, to have their eyes opened and to feel hope. The Nomads are the embers of Occupy – from this a phoenix can rise. I have a vision of more camps like this, of increasing numbers of people without fear being prepared to stand up against those who take away our rights. I feel empowered now, when I didn’t before.”

Kay was at St Paul’s. “We knew that after eviction we’d need a new strategy. I was part of the ‘Next Steps’ working group. We, like others, came up with the idea of mobile occupations and eventually what came out of that was Nomadic Occupy.”

The purpose of Nomadic Occupy, according to Kay, is to spread the ideas and aims of Occupy more widely while reaching out to communities and recruiting people to the movement. The Nomads are particularly well-placed to highlight issues around homelessness and land use and Kay concurs with the Diggers2012 who say 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.”

Occupy London prepared a statement about homelessness when it became apparent that many homeless or insecurely-housed people were joining the camp at St Paul’s out of necessity or a desire for community. As Kay explains “Homeless people have no choice but to Occupy space which is not ‘theirs’. The Occupy movement brought this to public attention but the issue is still misunderstood. Charities and other organisations set up to help the homeless often cannot understand why someone they have placed in a hostel or other accommodation will leave and go back to the streets. They don’t realise that a home is not just about having a roof over your head. Being socially isolated is worse than being cold or damp. That’s why people will return to the homeless community rather than sit alone in a bedsit. That’s why camps such as this are such positive developments – we are creating a real community of people who care about each other here.”

Kay believes it to be important that Occupy maintains a visible presence on public land, not just for community-building purposes but to remind people that the issues which brought occupiers onto the streets in October 2011 haven’t gone away – and in fact, are becoming more and more apparent what with the Barclays interest-rate fixing scandal and the militarisation and corporatisation of the Olympics (and the negative effect that’s having on many East-Londoners). “We will Occupy until the one percent start to address us and propose solutions,” Kay proclaims.

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