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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8 thoughts on “Occupy Nomads, the Inside Story

  1. Great post, thank you. I hope you’d consider sending it to The Land magazine http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/ for publication. It could provoke an interesting debate. There are so many parallels with the 1980s/early 90s.

  2. Sam Smith says:

    As a member of the community responsible for transforming the orchard from unloved shrub land to what it is today. I’m confused why it’s been chosen by this particular group an an occupy site. It seems to fly in the face of what the group are trying to achieve and sadly i have to agree with the resident mentioned in the Hackney Gazzette article. It does seem a little selfish. A community space such as this shouldn’t be monopolised by a few, whatever their political views.

    • Hazel Hedge says:

      Hi Sam, I do empathise with that viewpoint, as some of the Nomads do themselves. Please try to read this reply with an open mind and carry on through to the end where I suggest a possible solution or two! 🙂

      This was not their first choice of place for a camp in the area. They were previously tucked away in more suitable corners of Hackney/Tower Hamlets but after a series of evictions/threatened evictions they needed a respite and so have temporarily settled where they now are. Try to bear in mind the nomadic nature of this group and therefore the temporary nature of the camp. Perhaps the local community can find it in their hearts to share the space by accepting the camp for a limited period? I saw a very tidy camp, with access still free to the strawberries, plums and herbs and through to the yard behind. The Nomads are not trying to monopolise the space and are very happy to make anyone a cup of tea and to share the space. For anyone needing a larger area than is currently available to run around/play on, the rest of the park is right there – there’s abundant space for those activities.

      I can’t help thinking – how selfish are they, really, compared with how selfish everyone else is? Ten people (approx) are living in tents in a small grassy space. They are using very little of the planet’s resources. They’re not using electric, they’re using offcuts of builders’ wood for fuel/cooking, they’re using very limited water. They’re not taking possession of a tract of land each, putting buildings on that land and then enclosing the area around the buildings to make private gardens that keep everyone else out.

      Some of the Nomads are doing what they do purely for political reasons. Others are doing it for political reasons but are also otherwise homeless. Surely it’s better for them to be here in a healthy, supportive community than desperate and isolated in a shop doorway?

      For all these reasons I hope the local residents can see the bigger picture, have patience, try talking with the Nomads. Please try to bear in mind that they’re not all the most eloquent of people, and that some of them have been kicked and put down by society and so are defensive for self-protection, which is why I – who they have learned to trust – am trying to get to know them more and help to tell their stories and explain their motivations. I’ve visited the Nomads in almost all of their camps, since March, and on each occasion have departed feeling more hope for humanity than when I arrived.

      Perhaps, you could talk with other members of the community and with the Nomads and ask if they could shuffle their tents into slightlyu different positions if you feel access to certain areas of the garden have been too much monopolised/access restricted. If you approach with good intentions, and trust in their good intentions, compromise may be possible.

      Thanks for reading my blog and for commenting.

  3. Sam Smith says:

    Thanks for replying Hazel. I read your post through to the end keeping an open mind at all times.

    Let me say now that I do sympathize with the groups situation and any hardships members may have experienced in the past.

    I still believe however, that their current choice of occupy site to be ill judges. This isn’t based on my connection to the area. Much more than this, I believe that their message and beliefs (at least the ones outlined in your posts) are undermined by their very presence there.

    This isn’t a bankers back yard, prominent council park or plot of disuse land. This is an area which was once overgrown and unused (except by drunks), until the community reclaimed it, restored it and gave it back to the community. This isn’t an area where both the occupy group and other community members live side by side. I’m sorry but I do think it is selfish for any group to monopolize a community space, whatever their aim or views. Perhaps other members of society are just as selfish in different ways but if I was making a stand against these types of corruptive elements in modern life I would make sure to lead by example.

    The group have been in the current location for a month, and perhaps you can argue that if it’s a community space, it’s time to share it with this group within our community. That being said, they have been there a month so perhaps it’s time to move on, spread the word and let others share this space.

    • Hazel Hedge says:

      Thanks for the open mind, Sam and for your very valid points.

      I think it is not quite a month but coming up to a month that the Nomads have been there, and a month is usually about as long as they stay. The longest they stayed anywhere was Mile End (6 weeks) and as they packed up a local pensioner begged them not to go because they’d made the park into a safe and friendly space that she and her friends felt happy to walk though for the first time in years. I say this just to reiterate that the Nomads have had positive effects on the local area in some places.

      I will pass your comments to the Nomads, Sam and I hope that they find a more suitable location very soon on a piece of less-used and less-loved land. Until then, I hope people in the area can practice patience and empathy and save their rage at injustice for the Corporate Olympics!

  4. Sam Smith says:

    I think your last post further illustrates my point. The camps ideals are best supported where the can contribute to a community. As you wrote about Mile End, the group made the park safe and had a positive effect. I just don’t think the same can be said for their current location and i’m really not alone in this belief.

    I’m not exactly sure when they moved to the Orchard but it’s nearing a month and instead of waiting for the council to act. I just think the group and it’s message would be best served by moving on. There are plenty of green spaces in the area that would benefit from a tidy and a friendly presence.

    Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to respond to my posts and good luck in the future.


    • Hazel Hedge says:

      A MESSAGE FROM THE NOMADS (this was emailed to me this afternoon, along with a reassurance that the Nomads will be moving within days):

      “To those who felt affected by our presence in the park orchard and had to put up with the inconvenience of us taking up the beautiful orchard space to regroup and plan our action camp:

      We never intended to be a protest camp in this park, due to the delicate and small environment. We are glad to say that having made good use of our time for reflection we are now able to go forward and support a local campaign elsewhere, where we have been invited.

      The taking of public space will always inconvenience some, for that we are both apologetic and helpless because we do not wish our message about unity and community participation in local, national and global issues to remain underground or restricted to squatted social centres.

      We hope the bad weather can take some responsibility for the community not using the orchard so much this last month and that our contribution was minimal. For those who have worked in the orchard we are sorry to have seen so little of you but we fully understand that some may have found it difficult to have strangers in the park.

      The people united have a better chance….may we all aspire to live in beautiful orchards of our OWN making in this most green and fertile island. Again many thanks and we hope you like the pumpkins we planted :¬)

      Tim Sullivan & the Occupy Nomad crew x”

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