Category Archives: from the frontline

A Calais Christmas

Liquid ball of red-gold rises over frosted fields. Day dawns. In the warehouse it’s cold. Feet cold, nose cold, core cold, Calais cold.

Peel onions, chop tomatoes, wash celery stalks in water so cold it burns. Slice leeks, dice cucumber, peel carrots, make cauliflower florets. Bag up rice, sugar, salt, tea, spices. Load the van.

Drive to Dunkirk.

Bonjour. L’Auberge des Migrants.”

We greet the security guards at the entrance to Grande Synthe refugee camp. I’m with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), a grassroots collective founded by UK-based activists and festival folk; at Grande Synthe we’re under the auspices of French charity L’Auberge, which provides us with insurance and the laminates of respectability required to get us through the gate.

First stop, the ‘German Kitchen’, run by independent volunteers with an anarchist ethos, based in a tumbledown brick building. Local boulangeries donate their day-old bread and we collect it from the storeroom here, cramming bin bags filled with baguettes into the van before driving to Community Kitchen One in the heart of the camp.

We unload the van’s contents into a shipping container with serving hatch which faces into a wooden shelter. The shelter’s walls are blankets and plastic sheets. Rough-built tables and benches create a horseshoe around a central wood burner. This is one of the camp’s community hubs; the attached shipping container is a ‘free shop’ run by RCK.

For the next five hours I whirl around my container.

Give me bread.”

This command is usually accompanied by a chopping gesture on the forearm. It refers to a half-length baguette, the most popular loaf in camp.

Nok, nok. Pias.”

Chickpeas, onions.

Please give me fassouli. Brinch, brinch.”

That’s kidney beans, and rice.

What else is usually in demand?

Patata? Um… tomato?” I offer, having used up my Kurdish vocab.

Most of the residents of the Grande Synthe camp are Kurds. There are quite a few Afghanis and Iranians too, some Yazidis. Most surprisingly, there are about 20 Vietnamese here. How… why…? A volunteer who has a few words of Vietnamese discovers they “ran out of money, so they’re taking the long route”. A newspaper reporter asks how they got here: “By bus and walking,” apparently. A Calais local suggests they were trafficked and escaped a slave labour basement in Paris. We don’t really know.

The Vietnamese ask for spaghetti, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes and carrots. The Kurds mostly choose tomatoes, pulses, rice and potatoes as their staples. Providing familiar ingredients, food that might actually be enjoyed rather than just staving off hunger, is the primary mission of RCK – within the constraints of being a self-funded, donation based outfit.

Sugar… tea… biskweet?”

Sorry, no biscuits today.”

We try to provide something special every day, although the definition of ‘treat’ is sometimes stretched. Today the delicacy is bananas. Tomorrow it’ll be tinned fruit. Yesterday it was washing-up liquid and dishwashing sponges, everyone asking for “shampoo” while making washing-up gestures. We’ve also got free-range eggs this week, sourced cheaply and transported in huge boxes from England – gently – by one of the RCK founders.

Fish, fish… circlee.”

Soon I understand that ‘circlee’ means ‘circular’ and circular fish is tuna rather than sardines or mackerel. Only the Vietnamese prefer rectangular fish.

Some of my customers are abrupt, rude, demanding. Abrupt is easier to deal with than sad and broken. I worry about the timid. The exhausted women, the kids, the damaged in body or spirit, the young men with their brittle bravado, the old men with their tired kind eyes. Everyone. Every one is human, fragile, hurting, enduring.

How come I can get a ferry back to a warm home in England when I’ve had enough?

I genuinely don’t get it. We are all humans, we live on this earth. I am no better, no more deserving, just because I happen to have been born on one particular island. Why do people believe that the country they were born in belongs to them? England’s relative wealth and stability is not of my making, why should I have the right to benefit from it while the people here are kept out? And if England is mine to benefit from, why shouldn’t I share my slice with some of the people here? Gah! I sound like a simpleton but really… Why? No one seems to be answering these most basic of questions. Or even asking them.

Some of my customers speak excellent English. Some speak English with regional accents. How? Because they travelled to the UK when they were young and lived there for years before being deported, usually back to Afghanistan where – with their Western ways – they’re easy prey for the Taliban. So, if they don’t get killed straight away, they set off back to the UK all over again. Why are we playing snakes and ladders with human lives?

These guys, the ones with Brummie or Cockney accents, ask for pasta twirls and want to know where in the UK I’m from.

Some of my customers speak no English at all, we gesture and mime and point. Some speak ein bischen Deutsch, having spent a few months in Germany before attempting to continue onwards to join family or friends in the UK. A few try tentative French, but learning French isn’t high priority for people who spend every night trying to climb into, onto or under trucks to get to England, the imagined land.

Why does everyone want to get to England? Maybe because they speak English, they know people there… or because they haven’t been there yet. They’re still able to dream about a happy future in the UK. England hasn’t treated them like shit yet, unlike pretty much every other place en route. Most of the solidarity volunteers in Calais and Dunkirk are English; perhaps they think everyone will be like us; it’s painful to know that if they do make it to Blighty, the welcome and choices on offer may be a disappointment.

Every night, the people of the camp are out ‘trying’. Trying to get onto trucks, to cross the channel, to escape this place and fulfil their dreams. Every morning, trying to grab some sleep in cramped shabby shelters in this bone-searing cold. There aren’t enough sleeping shelters and the authorities won’t let more be built, in fact they’re gradually demolishing those that exist and they aim to clear the camp by Spring. Clear it? Disappear the people? Like they did with the Calais Jungle, only the people didn’t disappear, they were just dispersed. Now, every day, ex residents of the Jungle are turning up at Grande Synthe and the meagre facilities here are stretched. Every day there are more and more huddled bodies trying to get some rest on the cold kitchen floor when we open the free shop. Officially, these bodies don’t exist.

At lunchtime Refugee Community Kitchen provides a hot meal; in the evening, the German Kitchen does the same. Between-times the free shops are open and we give out food for people to cook themselves over fires or small cooking stoves, or on the woodstoves in the community kitchens. Trying to provide some small possibilities of choice, autonomy, dignity. Small, small.

There’s a Women’s Centre, Children’s Centre, Adult Education Centre. Facilities are limited, volunteers in these centres are kind but often only here for the short-term. The Women’s Centre keeps getting wrecked and burned. I don’t know who by; I don’t think it’s the women.

There are power games in the camp, and there’s corruption. Politics, hostilities between refugees of different nationalities, tensions between volunteer groups, distrust between volunteers and the state authorities nominally running the camp. It’s peaceful here compared with the Jungle, but our camp training covers what to do in the event of fights, fire, tear gas and police violence.

It’s dark and I’m exhausted and dehydrated by the time we’re done. We drive back to the warehouse. It’s warm in the van, cold everywhere else.

I’m humbled. These weeks in Calais and Dunkirk are tough. It’s hard work, long days, in bleak surroundings, cold cold cold. I’m staying in a shared house with up to a dozen other volunteers; there’s no privacy, just one toilet and shower to share. On Christmas eve I come down with a headache and fever; I spend Christmas day shivering and sniffling on my mattress. I feel miserable and I want to go home.

Humbled. The people in the Grande Synthe camp are luckier than those on the streets of Paris or in the muddy ditches of Calais; luckier than those stuck in Moria detention camp on Lesvos; luckier than the families bombed out of Aleppo; luckier than the starving in Yemen, the imprisoned in Libya. Luckier than so many and yet still stuck, deprived of the freedom to be self-sufficient, to progress in their lives, deprived of warmth, deprived of humanity.

And here’s me, whining to myself about having a cold on Christmas day.

Humbled too by the volunteers who’ve been here for months, who’ve given up so much to provide co-ordination and continuity for the grassroots projects here. People who could be with their families at Christmas, who could be working and playing, travelling, progressing their own lives.

It’s not an obvious choice, to come here to chop veg, clean warehouses and serve unpaid in a tin shed shop; and so, if you do it, you become part of a quirky, collaborative community. Doing something, even just a little drop in the ocean of a something, is physically harder but psychologically easier than sitting at home with a sense of horror and disempowerment looking at pictures of dust-covered victims of bombings or people in tents collapsing beneath the weight of snow. It’s less depressing to meet some of the people of the migration, learn a few words of their language, smile and grimace and laugh with them while apologising that the half-length baguettes have run out… than it is to watch the news of Aleppo falling. It can be heart-rending to hear their stories, but less depressing than clicking sad-face social media emojis.

It’s amazing, what ordinary people can achieve, and how resilient humans are. How much compassion and empathy and humour and love still exists.

Go to Calais. Refugee Community Kitchen still needs you. Or go to Greece. Lighthouse Relief, Team Bananas and dozens of other independent, volunteer-led groups still need you.

If you can’t go, donate. Donate money if you can, because then it can be used to buy exactly what is needed and to help the local economies around the camps and borders.

Donate to Refugee Community Kitchen

Donate to Lighthouse Relief

Donate to Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island

Donate to Team Bananas

Do your own research online, donate to sea rescue organisations or medics in Syria or No Borders groups or MSF. Join in conversations, sign petitions, do what you can.

My fever only lasted two days. By the time I took my leave of the volunteer house, of RCK’s warehouse and my tin shed shop, I didn’t want to run away. A part of me wanted to stay in the frozen fields of Calais indefinitely.

I expect I’ll go back.

me-and-janie-mac

With RCK founder and friend Janie Mac, in the Calais warehouse

Tagged , ,

Spring in Lesvos

The olive presses have stopped rolling. Orange season is over.

Lesvos has not been suspended in time since I was wrenched away on New Year’s Eve.

At Skala Sykamineas seafront the scent is no longer sharp cold salt spray but gently decaying seaweed.

Poppies are everywhere, deepest velvet ruby. Also cornflowers, clover, lavender, chamomile and a particularly fine variety of stinging nettle.

The people of Lesvos were running full pelt for months, running on adrenaline, running into a surging tide of needy humanity, plucking people from the waves and holding them by force of love and determination above the waterline.

Then politics happened.

One pivotal moment was that New Year’s Eve. As I flew home from Lesvos via Brussels, rushing to be at my loved ones hospital bedside by midnight, young women in Cologne were being groped and robbed on the streets. This was the counterpoint to the picture of little Alan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach; the pendulum of public opinion swung once more, this time against refugees. It’s highly unlikely that the assaults were perpetrated by recently arrived Syrians or Afghanis – by far the largest groups to be seeking protection in Europe – but you wouldn’t know that from the media furore. The right-wing pounced and we all felt the backlash.

Austria was the first northern European country to bar its gates, with a knock on effect across Eastern Europe. Scandanavian countries said they’d done their bit; Germans lost faith in Merkel’s open door policy; FYROM (Macedonia) razor-wired its border and over 50,000 refugees were trapped in Greece.

The humanitarian corridor was closed by default not design, heads of state flapped and squabbled, people from war-torn countries who’d risked everything to reach supposed safety suffered. Young refugees sewed their lips together in protest. Desperate families forded a river on the Greek-Macedonian border and were tear-gassed. Navy boats patrolled the Aegean sea, but still smugglers managed to send dangerously full dinghies to Lesvos.

Then the “EU-Turkey deal”.

No more refugee boats.

The hurtling, adrenaline-fuelled folk of Lesvos ran on, fell over, hit the dirt, collapsed. Mentally, emotionally, physically and financially exhausted.

Now they’re picking themselves up.

Locals are prepping their businesses for what they hope will be a tourist season. But many tour operators have cancelled flights and packages to Lesvos, on the assumption that an island associated with drowning and a dump full of fake life jackets won’t appeal to their clients. Never mind that Lesvos is a stunning island of lush hiking trails, abundant wildlife, endless coastline, exquisite villages, fabulous food and friendly people with huge hearts who don’t deserve to be economically crippled and abandoned.

Volunteers are scaling back rescue and support operations, furious that we had organically created a system based on solidarity, dignity and common humanity, only to have it brutally squashed by undemocratic EU power. Grassroots organisations dare not pull out completely, uncertain whether those detained in Moria’s registration centre will be released and need refuge while their asylum claims are processed. Plus, while Turkey’s Erdogan plays brinkmanship with the EU, the deal is perceived as super shaky. We’re half expecting the flimsy dinghies to be launched en masse from the Turkish coast once more before the month of May is out.

In the meantime, volunteers laboriously clean the coastline. Tourist beaches were first to be cleared, now we work on the less accessible coves. We pull dozens of torn dinghies from the rocks, slice them with diving knives into manageable sections and stack them (“lovely flat piles, like lasagne!” repeats Mexican Isabel, our team leader). Later, using a reclaimed smuggler’s dinghy towing a self-built raft of pallet wood and blue barrels, we transport the ‘lasagne’ to Skala Sykamineas, where volunteers attempt to reuse as much material as possible, making bags and fixing old chairs in weekly upcycling sessions.

We hand pick smaller rubbish: life jackets; inflatable rubber rings and water wings; pieces of polystyrene loose or packed into five litre water bottles, intended to be used as floats if (when) a dinghy’s engine died; discarded clothes stiff with salt and ripped to rags on the rocks; bubble wrap parcels used to protect mobile phones during the crossing; water-logged snacks; a doll’s head. On one small beach I fill 12 bin bags. Three days later, after a storm, more rubbish has washed up and I fill two more.

So we clean the beaches, and we sort clothes. Winter piles and summer piles; men, women, children, babies. Bagged and labelled and provisionally going to Moria, or perhaps the mainland. Somewhere is probably desperate for baby slings; we have four huge bags filled with them at Lighthouse camp, and no babies. We feel guilty because the lack of needy people here doesn’t mean there are no needy people out there. The people we came to help are just across the water in Turkey, scattered across Europe in makeshift camps, guarded by the army in mainland Greece, hiding in bushes near borders, living in squalor in Lebanon or dodging bombs and bullets in their own countries. We feel guilty and tell each other that cleaning the beaches is important and that on days when the weather is against us or our towing dinghy needs repairing, that it’s ok to rest a bit and even to enjoy ourselves.

I explore hillside villages with cobbled streets wide enough only for a donkey. In old growth forest high above the coast road I find ancient trees with 12 foot girth, hot springs and cold mountain fountains, meandering paths through waist high ferns. I startle fat fast brown snakes, frogs, lizards, huge spiders in thin black and furry grey varieties, bronze-backed beetles and a segmented centipede. There are dragonflies, butterflies large and small, there’s birdsong everywhere. A wild tortoise in an oak grove startles me.

By coralling people in detention centres and military camps, giving them too little of everything – information, clothes, food, blankets, places to sleep, human warmth – the EU instils anxiety, desperation and deprivation. European politicians make the refugees fleeing war and persecution into exactly the poor, craven, dirty, unhealthy people that it fears them to be. Which they weren’t, when they stepped off the boats on the shore of Lesvos earlier this year, shrugging off the fear of drowning as they were warmed by campfires, tea, blankets, soup and friendly welcomes courtesy of grassroots’ volunteers.

Turning courageous, determined, resourceful people into frightened beggars seems not only needlessly cruel but ridiculously counterproductive to me.

On my spring holiday I walk six trails, clean five beaches, take part in four sessions of sorting donated clothes, swim three times in the Aegean, enjoy two slap up Greek taverna meals, do one window cleaning stint and spend a morning in Piraeus port chopping vegetables to feed a thousand.

I travelled overland from the UK to Greece by bus and train; but that’s another story.

I recommend a holiday on Lesvos to anyone with a heart.

This is the situation currently in Greece, it is dire and it is unnecessary: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/refugees-greece-we-did-not-expect-live-life-europe

CHRISTMAS IN LESVOS

Skala Sykamineas hugs a tiny harbour. Aquamarine water laps the rocky shore and fishermen tend their nets watched by curious cats. Inland, it’s harvest time in the olive groves and orange orchards. Free range sheep lazily graze, waiting to be milked. The village shop sells fresh yogurt in unglazed terracotta pots.

Dolphins frolic around a small boat as it heads towards the narrow beach. The dinghy rides low in the water beneath the weight of 40 people seeking new, safe lives. A full moon illuminates the whitewashed Mermaid-Madonna church and Christmas tree lights twinkle in the village square.

Three nights ago a boy child lay blue-white and unconscious a hundred metres from the Christmas tree. He was brought ashore, half-drowned and hypothermic, stretchered to a cabin nearby and revived by volunteer medics. He lived.

Lesvos has seen tens of thousands of people arrive on boats barely seaworthy in recent years. This month, over a thousand people have been arriving almost every day – cold and wet, frightened and relieved, exuberant or distraught. Many of the people in these boats have travelled from Syria and Afghanistan. Others started their journeys in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or Africa.

For many the dangerous journey has been a feat of physical and mental endurance, has cost their life savings, has cost the lives of travelling companions. For many, the journey was made because staying at home meant being terrorised on a daily basis – facing bombs and guns, being repressed by dictators and attacked by militias, fearing imprisonment, torture and death. People don’t leave their homes to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, unless staying at home is no choice at all.

A few months ago people making this journey were referred to as migrants. Media and politicians competed to give migrants a bad name. Compassion came late; so many had died, of all ages and nationalities, before a three year old Syrian boy was drowned off the Turkish coast and the western world woke up. People began to speak of refugees rather than migrants. Even newspapers made the switch. This was good… but ‘refugee’ conjures sympathy rather than empathy.

I’d rather call the new arrivals heroes. If I’d done what they did to get here, I’d consider myself a hero. Wouldn’t you? Escaping a war zone, sneaking across borders, walking through mountains and crossing a perilous sea to land on a strange continent – the people who do this are victims of war, politics and injustice but they’re not helpless. Admiration, solidarity and friendship seem more appropriate than pity.

From the north shore of Lesvos Turkey looks so close; I could jump on a passenger ferry and be there in an hour. It’s ludicrous that people fleeing persecution should have to risk their lives at great expense, making millionaires of people-traffickers in the process, to travel these few miles because of politics. Politics means safe passage is a dream, means fear instead of friendship. Politics reinforces borders with razor wire and tear gas. Politics means some people are free and others are not and bombs fall on people just like us and their children drown because they were born there not here.

I want to break down the borders.

An elderly Syrian man stumbles on the steep rocky footpath leading up from the beach. His shoes have fallen off and he can’t bend to put them back on. I steady him and kneel at his feet, lifting his cold swollen feet back into his shoes. He is pale and frightened and fragile, whispering “Tsank you, tsank you”.

On Lesvos, the local people are heroes too. Fishermen save lives when they should be casting their nets. Amalia, proprietor at Cafe Traverso on the waterfront, dispenses blankets, shoes and handwarmers. Restaurants, travel agents and minimarts in Mytilene have added Arabic to signs and menus. A journalist asks local hotelier Aphrodite Vati “aren’t you worried you might be helping terrorists?” She points out that if a person with a terrorist mission gets off a boat here, the only thing that could change his mind is kindness.

A young Afghan man shivers uncontrollably, his thin clothes soaked, hypothermia and shock setting in. His name is Marwas. One of his travelling companions has collapsed and he’s desperately worried about the child who fell into the water. While medics breathe life into the child, I wrap Marwas in emergency blankets with woollen blankets on top. Another volunteer hands him a cup of hot, sweet tea. I sit beside him, put my arm around him, reassure him, hold him until the shaking subsides as he tells me about his home town of Kunduz, his house that has been destroyed, his parents who’ve been killed and his two brothers who are missing. The Taliban took control of Kunduz in September this year. A friend said to Marwas “let’s go” and over 23 days they journeyed to Izmir in Turkey, then the friend decided to go back to Afghanistan and Marwas got on the boat alone. He has no passport. He wants to go to England but knows that’s probably a pipe dream. I apologise for my country.

I want to break down the borders.

What I actually do is pick up sea-soaked clothing, sort it and bag it and send it to the laundrette, then once it’s clean and dry, redistribute it. I’m working with The Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, to stop tons of perfectly good clothing ending up littering beaches or in landfill. We spend up to 800 crowdfunded euros a day getting appropriate clean warm clothes to those in need, in the fastest and most ecologically-sound way possible.

The Dirty Girls spend Christmas Day sorting through 6000 discarded socks, pinning pairs and bagging by size. Socks with reindeer on, Santa Claus socks, socks sporting the stars and stripes of the American flag, socks embroidered with the French tricolor, Union Jack socks, small socks with frilly lace tops, tiny baby bootees and hand-knitted socks of thick, coarse wool. Every sock has a story to tell.

Skala Sykamineas has a co-operatively run olive press. The scent of freshly pressed olives is subtle and divine and helps neutralise the smell of socks worn on the march across the Middle East. Oil oozes from the olive press onto the cobbled street, where fake life jackets are stacked awaiting collection by the next garbage truck. We save some of these ‘life jackets’ to insulate the floor of the Dirty Girls HQ tent, stuffing pallets with them before laying a plank floor.

History is happening. There’s a huge human migration occurring.

I wonder where Marwas is now, on Christmas night; whether he managed to negotiate Moria, the inland camp where thousands of refugees wait, often for days outside in the cold and mud, to be registered. Registration papers are needed to travel, book a room or buy a ferry ticket. Without registration papers no more borders can be crossed.

Moria is sprawling and confused, dirty and in constant flux. People lie beside the road, wrapped in blankets if they’re lucky. Volunteers collect cardboard and offer it to refugees in place of mattresses. There are a few ‘dormitories’ in unheated, unfurnished concrete rooms behind barbed wire fences in what was once a detention centre. In the dormitories more than a hundred people may have to share a filthy bathroom. Only the most vulnerable can access the dormitories; everyone else is outside, with even less provision. Oxfam is belatedly building toilets but most of the assistance here is pure grassroots. There are tents, but not enough tents. Food is provided by humanitarian organisations, but there’s never enough for everyone. When it rains, it’s hell. Self-organised collectives such as Better Days for Moria offer information and compassion but can barely scrape the surface of the need.

A million refugees have arrived in Europe and politicians have no plan other than to keep bombing the countries people are fleeing from. NGOs and aid agencies seem hamstrung by bureaucracy. On the Croatian border, razor wire has been decorated with Christmas baubles by local activists. On the Macedonian border a pregnant woman is beaten because she hasn’t got the right papers.

Thanks to the crews at Lighthouse and Platanos, the No Borders Kitchen in Mytilene, Caring Lesvos, the Wild Lemon Tea Tent, Bristol Skipchen and like-minded collectives we have small oases of warmth and dignity on Lesvos. Without these groups, without the volunteer lifeguards and medics, without the generosity of the local people, the humanitarian crisis here would be unimaginably worse. I wish the world would replicate what’s happening in these oases on Lesvos.

There are beautiful moments of hope and relief here, when the weary travellers first set foot on European soil and are greeted as welcome guests. I hope that hope doesn’t get extinguished on the cold journey north.

I hope Marwas makes it to England.

pics by Alison Terry Evans

More stories from Lesvos:

Kim’s story, from the Lighthouse beach camp:
https://www.inverse.com/article/9564-these-groups-are-saving-refugee-lives-for-christmas-and-you-can-help

Brendan’s story, from Korakas: https://www.facebook.com/brendan.woodhouse.18/posts/10153329236677916

Thanks to my friends and family who answered the call and donated to The Dirty Girls to help us keep the washing machines turning. You raised over £400, which is enough to wash a lot of socks, and several bags of trousers and jackets too. Our crowdfund is here – https://www.youcaring.com/cold-hungry-and-wet-syrian-refugees-many-young-children-449591#.VkZnewI6seZ.mailto – or contact me directly to do a bank transfer and avoid the commission charges.

Midwinter in Parliament Square with Occupy Democracy

#OccupyDemocracy returned to Parliament Square as planned this mid-winter weekend, with a focus on housing and homelessness.

The turnout wasn’t huge – it was cold, it was just a few days before Christmas – but the quality of debate, entertainment, knowledge-sharing, solidarity-building and the sense of an emerging community of creative and determined change-makers was… inspiring.

Contributors to a full programme of events in and around the Square included:

  • Speakers from the New Era Housing Estate (who this week won a huge victory over the US development firm which had planned to make them homeless), Focus E15 Mum’s housing campaign, Occupy Barnet and Our West Hendon, plus Phoenix Rainbow on squatters’ rights.
  • ‘Dying for Heat’ activists who stripped off outside Downing Street to protest the scandal of deaths due to fuel poverty.
  • Deputy leader of the Green Party Shahrar Ali, speaking about the UK’s democratic deficit.
  • A ‘Fossil Free Nativity Play’ and Shell Out Sounds choir.
  • Green & Black Cross with activist legal advice.
  • Fran Boait from Positive Money, Samir from Stop The War coalition, and Occupy activist George Barda on compassionate revolution.

The  schedule was interspersed with participative assemblies and debates, poetry, carol singing, sharing of food – and a blissfully warming impromptu late night ceilidh dance!

With the high heras fencing around Parliament Square replaced by less robust crowd barriers, an opportunity arose on Saturday evening for occupiers to move through a gap in the barrier and to occupy the centre of  the Square – for the first time since being dragged from the grass two months ago in the infamous Battle of the Tarpaulin.

Displaying a ‘Real Democracy Now!’ banner before continuing a discussion about how much interaction Occupy Democracy should have with party politics, occupiers continued to demonstrate genuine participatory debate and decision making as police vans made haste to the scene, disgorging columns of officers who proceeded to kettle those assembled. Police outnumbered activists and Occupy supporters approximately 4:1. Or maybe more.

Confusion ensued as to whether those in the Square were committing civil trespass, or were breaching a byelaw, or were somehow committing a crime by talking about politics and economics on the lawn outside Parliament.

The Occupy Democracy assembly wound up and a young woman began to talk about Positive Money, a non-profit initiative to make money work for people rather than enslaving us.

Eventually the unjust and draconian Criminal Justice Act was invoked, and those assembled were threatened with mass arrest on the basis that a cable tie on the fence had been broken, and someone had – allegedly – been rude to a Heritage Warden. For these ‘crimes’ the police were prepared to arrest thirty or so peaceful, politically-engaged citizens.

The dreadful absurdity of young people volunteering to listen to a lecture about economics on the Saturday night before Christmas, sitting stone cold sober on cold damp ground to do so, and being forced to move or face arrest… What kind of country, what kind of law, what kind of system, what kind of justice is this?

There was a stand-off during which occupiers asked the police to think again, to think of genuine justice, to uphold the right to peaceful protest and assembly. During this period Donnachadh McCarthy was arrested for peacefully holding a banner.

As the police closed in on the Positive Money discussion, occupiers reached consensus to withdraw from the central lawn of the Square and reconvene on the pavement at its edge. Sometimes the image of mass arrests can be powerful; other times arrests simply serve the purpose of the police in dispersing people and disrupting planned activities.

We chose to take control of events and be free for the night; the cells that had been made ready for us remained empty, save for Donnachadh, who returned to us around 1am.

After a long, cold mid-Winter night on the pavement, dawn saw Occupy Democracy supporters bleary-eyed but unbeaten, continuing to refine a unique but widely appealing list of ‘demands’ that put people, democracy and planet before profit.

Meanwhile, on Charing Cross Road near Trafalgar Square, a squat was opened in an old Nat West bank. On December 25th, Christmas dinner will be served for homeless and hungry people. Until then, it’s an activist networking and skillshare space.

Livestream of some of Saturday evening’s events: http://bambuser.com/channel/Bencavanna

More at occupydemocracy.org.uk

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Police were not doing their duty at Barton Moss

At Manchester and Salford Magistrates’ Court on the morning of 9th May, PC Genge was on the stand. We watched video footage of him and other officers pushing people along Barton Moss Road. At one point Genge’s fist was in the small of a protector’s back. The day before, an officer two ranks above Genge said a fist in the back would constitute unreasonable force under the circumstances. Genge disagreed.

The circumstances were that protectors from Barton Moss camp, other anti-fracking activists and local people were doing the usual slow walk ahead of a convoy of trucks on their way to the IGas exploratory drilling site at the end of Barton Moss Road. On this occasion, unusually, the Tactical Aid Unit (TAU) and their ‘robust’ policing methods were unleashed on us almost immediately.

Within just a couple of minutes two arrests had been made – Rosie and Bear, both of whom had said they didn’t intend to do anything that would warrant arrest. Rosie was arrested by Genge; Bear by PC Sullivan. Fifteen minutes later I was arrested (perhaps because I didn’t follow an order to “walk through” the person in front of me). A few minutes later, Kate was on the floor in the mud being handcuffed by two officers (one of whom was Genge – he seemed to be everywhere that day).

That was 27th January. Fast forward to 8th May and the four of us arrested that morning were in court on charges of obstructing a highway and obstructing an officer in the course of their duty.

My arresting officer, Williamson, didn’t turn up – he was on holiday. So, my charges were dropped. Three months of traipsing to court, talking to lawyers, applying for legal aid, appealing against the decision not to give me legal aid, getting legal aid, making witness statements, searching through video footage, identifying and tracking down potential witnesses, swotting up on legal terminology, wasting time and energy… and then he goes on holiday and the prosecution drops the case.

For Rosie, Bear and Kate the charges of obstruct highway were dropped but obstruct PC was retained; and in each case the named PC was Genge. Not only did he seem to be everywhere, but he kept getting himself obstructed.

During cross examination Genge wouldn’t make eye contact with Rosie, who was defending herself and so had chance to question his actions. When she asked him to demonstrate how to walk forwards while pushing backwards, even the judge cracked a smile. When we watched footage of him violently grabbing and pushing Kate to the ground, a murmur rippled through the court. Rosie’s penultimate question was about Genge’s facebook post referring to “shoving protesters down Barton Moss Road” (he denied having made any such post), and her closing question was “Do you know that you’re widely considered to be a thug?” (I think that one was rhetorical, though entirely true – over the last six months, Genge had become notorious amongst Barton Moss protectors for his aggression.)

Bear’s barrister (Richard Brigden) and Kate’s solicitor (Emily Lloyd) clarified a few points and it became clear that despite paying lip-service to the facilitation of peaceful protest, Genge thought his primary purpose on 27th January was to get the trucks to the IGas site as quickly as possible. The judge reprimanded him for trying to evade questions. Despite this, he seemed confident. Over- confident.

The next witness was PC Sullivan, Bear’s arresting officer. We watched film of Bear attempting to de-arrest Rosie before being grabbed around the collar, hauled off and handcuffed. Sullivan – in stark contrast to Genge – made eye contact, smiled, thought about his answers and made a point of saying that Bear was not aggressive or hostile towards him. Sullivan was not kept on the stand for long.

Film: morning of 27th Jan including all four arrests

Next came barrister Richard’s half-time ‘surprise’. This sounded complex and convoluted, but in essence was exactly what we’d been saying all along. It went something like this:

  • We now know that Barton Moss Road is not designated a highway but a public footpath and private road. On 27th Jan this was suspected but hadn’t yet been tested in court, so the police were still acting as though it was a highway.
  • As it wasn’t a highway, we can’t have been obstructing it.
  • Both Genge and Sullivan said they were arresting people for obstructing the highway, and that their use of force (pushing) was lawful because they had a duty to prevent obstruction of the highway.
  • If there was no highway there could be no obstruction, so there could be no duty to prevent obstruction, so there could be no lawful use of force.
  • If the police were unlawful in their pushing us down the road, then they were outside the remit of their duty, so we could not be obstructing them in the course of their duty.
  • If we weren’t obstructing them in the course of their duty then there were no grounds for arrest.
  • And if Rosie was being first pushed and then grabbed and arrested unlawfully (ie assaulted), then Bear was entitled to intervene (this latter part about the right to intervene depended on relatively recent case law – ‘Cumberbatch’ – which Richard presented to the judge).
  • If all of the above, then there’s no case to answer for any of the defendants.

Both prosecutor and judge needed a little time to check the lawbooks and case law at this point, so we had an hour of hanging around on tenterhooks before being called back to court. The prosecutor then requested an adjournment, on the grounds that no submission regarding this argument had been put to him in advance. An inaudible, invisible wave of despair washed around the room. No, no, let’s get on with it and get this over! We don’t want to be back here again next week…

Richard argued that little of what he’d said was genuinely new; that just as he’d worked it out for himself, so too could the prosecutor have done.

The room held its breath. Barton Moss Protectors are usually a rowdy crew but the eight or so crammed into the tiny public gallery were pin-droppingly quiet.

The judge said no. No adjournment.

The room breathed out.

The prosecutor turned on his smoothest, most melodious tone of voice. In that case, he would do his best with what he had.

He tried to make out that the use of force was reasonable, because regardless of the highway issue, we were in the way. He referred to the back-up of traffic on the A57, the dangers involved in allowing these heavy vehicles to back up, and the rights of the truck drivers to drive and deliver.

The judge said no.

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.

He said no, the force used was not necessary, not justified, not reasonable. The protesters were moving, albeit slowly. The protest was peaceful. No breach of the peace was imminent. There is a right to peacefully protest. There is no minimum speed limit for walking. Fracking is a contentious issue, protested against wherever it happens. The convoy was only delayed, not stopped for good. The obstruction on the A57 could have been dealt with by usual police procedures for such matters (and perhaps it was). Barton Moss Road was not a highway (though the officers may have thought in all good faith thought that it was). The TAU officers were not acting lawfully, they had no duty or right to push us, they were in fact assaulting us. We were not obstructing the highway, nor the officers in the course of any lawful duty. Case dismissed.

We were right all along.

We were ALL free.

What this means for future trials we’re not yet sure. The barrister was quick to point out that this isn’t a legal precedent that means all other cases will be dropped. Additionally, once it was confirmed in law that Barton Moss Road is not a highway, the police began arresting for Aggravated Trespass. Still, things are looking good for protectors so far.

The Salford Star has more reports of trials, cases dismissed and protectors found to be innocent. Plus, the possibility of an enquiry.

court

Barton Moss Protectors outside Manchester and Salford Magistrates’ Court after the verdict

Tagged , ,

Occupy Revival

I wrote this for the Occupy London website.

At an Occupy Assembly on March 1st 2014, two years after the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp was evicted from the City of London, Occupy activists reclaimed the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Joined by peace and environmental campaigners, anti-fracking protectors, union reps, individuals concerned about local and global injustices – and curious passers’-by – the occupiers held a General Assembly, heralded by the familiar Occupy cry: ‘Mic Check!’

At least a hundred people gathered on the steps to listen to updates from the Occupy London working groups which have continued to meet and work, largely out of the media spotlight, since the OLSX camp was evicted. Speakers from the Energy, Equity and Environment group, Economics group, Occupy Faith and Strategy group gave updates, followed by a rousing call to support the protectors on the frontline against fracking, in Barton Moss (Salford) and beyond.

Consensus was reached – with unanimous wavy ‘jazz’ hands – for Occupy London to offer full support to peaceful anti-fracking campaigns and camps everywhere. There was also formal agreement to set up a new Occupy London Democracy Action group, with a remit to explore working towards ‘a vote that counts’, with a mass action focused on Parliament to be planned for the autumn.

Peace pilgrim Earthian spoke briefly about his time in the OLSX camp, his peace mission to the Middle East in 2012-2013, and the continuation of his journey in 2014. More information on Earthian’s mission and the reasons behind it can be found at earthianblog and  on the New Internationalist website (The One Man Peace Mission; Around the World, One Border at a Time).

Occupy supporters Michael Gold (radicalsoapbox.com) and Peter Dombi (ourbrokensystem.com) offered to begin developing a new website for Occupy London, and were given consent to do so.

Part way through the assembly, as cramp began to set in from sitting on steps still cold despite the spring sunshine, a chance to move around, stretch legs and get interactive was announced. The assembly split into four groups, each discussing a different topic: Democracy; World Issues; Alternatives to Austerity; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Such was the enthusiasm for the task that the co-ordinating facilitators found it difficult to gather everyone together once more to share what had been discussed.

One person from each group was eventually persuaded to feed back to the assembly. In the short time available the groups had only time to scratch the surface of their chosen topics; yet enthusiasm for talking about the big issues, about politics and the failings of current systems, was palpable.

One participant, formerly of the OLSX camp, said:

“There needs to be more of this kind of thing – of genuine participation and listening, sharing of stories and experience, pooling of wisdom and skills and resources. Ordinary people have so much more knowledge and power than we allow ourselves to believe – or are allowed to believe, perhaps. We need to get out on the streets, first just to talk to each other, then to demand something better. Those who hold the power don’t represent us and that has to change.”

As the assembly drew to a close – timed so as to avoid conflict with Evensong at St Paul’s – Peter Deane, an Occupy supporter who is also involved involved with a Luddites 200 group, asked the gathering to give formal support to a May event organised by Scientists for Global Responsibility, Corporate Watch and Luddites 200. The event – Breaking the Frame – aims to bring together radical thinkers and activists to look at the politics of technology and related issues. Having been assured that the message is not anti-technology but about returning technology to the people, and that Occupy working groups are amongst those invited to contribute, consent was given to support and publicise this event.

Watched over by cathedral staff – concerned, perhaps, that the assembly intended to stay the night – an open platform was provided for announcements. Those gathered were introduce to grassroots’ group Syria Peace and Justice; a firefighters’ initiative We Save People Not Banks; and Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). Thanks were given to Occupy London for support given to CAAT, thanks were given to the facilitators of the assembly for their co-ordination of the event, and details of future events were shouted out. A call to occupy payday loan stores on May Day received a warm response, as did an announcement by peace campaigner Simon that he and friend Maria intend to sail to Syria in an open dinghy to raise awareness of the situation in Syria.

The final speaker of the day focused on the rights of squatters and homeless people. Having outlined the absurdity of ascribing criminality to those who “commit” rough sleeping, this passionate activist wrapped up the assembly with a cry of “Whose streets?!” to which many responded enthusiastically “Our streets!”.

The assembly then dispersed, but conversations begun on the steps of St Paul’s continued in squares, cafes, pubs and squats, late into the night.

Livestream of the assembly is available: bambuser.com/channel/OccupyLondon

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc

Being at the Barton Moss Protection Camp is like being at sea. There are tides, surges, waves and ripples. Calm periods and storms. There’s always the risk of losing a friend overboard. On Monday I was one of those lost to sea, lost to the GMP.

GMP = Greater Manchester Police. It was actually a Tactical Aid Unit (TAU) officer who arrested me – I now know that the TAU have blue tucked-in trousers rather than the straight black slacks of the local police uniform, and they’re much meaner.

——*——

Solidarity Sunday is all calm waters. Several hundred people mass in a muddy carpark, some tumbling out of coaches after long journeys, from Sussex and Somerset and Scotland, to cheers from the earlier arrivals. Another, smaller, group meets at a local pub. We all walk towards the rally at the end of Barton Moss lane, in high spirits despite rain. The lack of police is notable. There’s no one here to facilitate our protest. At first we take over two lanes of the four-lane dual carriageway, the A57. Then we spill into three lanes. Then we realise there’s nothing to stop us blocking the road entirely – no cops, no road cones – and we stroll into the fourth lane. Some of the cars we’re holding up are filled with beaming people giving us thumbs up and honking their solidarity. Others, grim faced, rev and try to push through our ranks. I’ve never been on a march or procession where pedestrians take over a major road without any police presence. One woman is hit, but not seriously hurt, by a van.

At the rally there are welcomes to the protectors from far-off towns and camps. Messages from supporters in Greece, in Afghanistan. Then songs. Then we head along the lane to camp. Someone’s brought along a gigantic pan of spicy soup. An abundance of other food has been donated. This and the cardboard signs – “I am a local”, “I’m a local and I don’t want fracking” – give the lie to media attempts to divide local residents from those who’ve travelled to protect the Moss.

Most of the day trippers melt away home as afternoon turns to early dusk, but some of us stay on. There’s a party atmosphere around the campfire; drums compete with songs and for a few moments I’m dancing in the road. Later I join a meditation for global peace, in a red and yellow geodesic dome warmed by a smoky woodstove. As we shake ourselves and stretch after a half hour’s silence, a shout goes up and it’s the evening iGas shift change and protectors move into the road to slow the convoy of workers as they leave the fracking site. Now there are police.

There’s singing and chanting – “I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc” – and dancing in the narrow lane, in the flickering light of campfire flames. It’s pretty tribal. There’s us, the colourful rowdy tribe, and the iGas workers, stony and grey in their cars, cut off from us, thinking what? Resigned to the slow crawl down the lane? Angry? Regretting taking this job? Hating us? I’d like to ask them but the police are separating us from them. The police are asking us to move, and we’re moving, but haphazardly, not with the purposeful slow march of mornings. There’s more of us than there are of them, unusually. A woman, small, with long brown hair, is dancing near me. She dances towards the cars, and then away, back towards me. But she’s not moving fast enough and she’s grabbed by a policeman and then she’s being dragged and then – uproar. I can’t see what’s happening but there’s shouting and anguished sounds and then she’s in the back of a police van and the tribe is outraged. They hurt her, people are saying. The police smashed her face and she’s bleeding, they say.

There’s a calmness even in the eye of the storm, even as the joy and exuberance of the evening turns bitter. A woman suggests we move out of the road and let the workers past, and we do. Then we escort the police van up the lane and some people are yelling at the police and others are walking a silent vigil. I return to the geo dome and make a nest of sleeping bags in a nook beside a shrine to the camp’s recently destroyed trees and treehouse (destroyed at police behest, for reasons not quite clear). I keep all of my clothes on, including my hat. I’m sharing the space with four others – one sleeping on an old sofa, one on a camp-bed, one upright on a dining chair and one in a coffin (a real coffin).

In the morning there’s time for tea and biscuits munched as I walk up the lane to the junction with the A57. It’s a drier day and there are perhaps twenty of us waiting for the lorry convoy. All in good humour. The police arrive, and then the trucks. There’s a short stand-off; a local man attempts to establish with some kind of superior officer (red lapels) what exactly is construed as a “reasonable pace”. It seems we’re to be allowed to walk “at a reasonable pace” but no definition of reasonable is forthcoming. The local man demonstrates the pace at which he intends to walk and it looks to me as though Red-Lapels concurs that such a pace would be both reasonable and legal.

We’ve barely set off before there’s two arrests. It happens quickly, there’s a yell, a surge, a sudden wave of fear and anger and pushing and stumbling and then we’re calm and walking again – slowly, but at a reasonable pace – just two members of the tribe down. Our original police escort is joined by additional cops, and now – but not then – I understand that these are TAU. Tucked-in trousers, flat hats and tough-guy attitude. They push us, harry us, try to hurry us. We’re moving faster than last time I did this walk. I’m calmer than last time though, no longer surprised by the pushing and goading and unwelcome touching from the police. I’m answering them “I am still moving forwards… yes, I am still walking… please don’t push me… take your hands off my back… I can’t walk any faster there’s someone in front of me… you said – one of you said – we can walk at a reasonable pace and that’s what I’m doing…”. I’m asked by an officer to “walk through” the person in front of me. I laugh at the absurdity of this order. Then that thing happens when you know they’ve set their sights… and I’m grabbed from behind and neatly pulled backwards through the police line and I forget to yell or let anyone know that I’ve gone.

I’m accused, arrested, for walking too slowly. They call it “obstruction”. I don’t struggle and yet I’m handcuffed, then searched, locked in a tiny cell in a police van, driven to a police station, searched again. My photograph, fingerprints, palm prints, DNA are taken. I consent – if I don’t consent, they’ll take prints and mouth swab by force, I’m told. Too late I wonder whether I should’ve refused. If I’m found innocent, will these be destroyed? I ask the operative. He says I can apply to have the DNA destroyed, although hardly anyone does because most people don’t ask and aren’t informed that they have this right. He’s not sure about the prints. I’m still innocent (“until proven guilty”, right?) and yet everything from this stage on is a petty battle, from being allowed to keep my boots and coat to getting lunch and, more seriously, gaining access to the solicitor I’ve requested. I’m only allowed to keep the boots because they’ve run out of plimsolls in my size. Turns out they want the boots because the cleaners are getting sick of the mud we countryside protectors bring in. The cells are cold. It’s worth hanging on to as much clothing as you can, or asking for replacements if they take yours away. My cardigan is confiscated, in case I try to hang myself by its woolly cord. Likewise, bootlaces. They try to take my nose ring but at that I balk, and win.

My cell’s surprisingly large, and clean. It’s bigger, in fact, than many of the places I’ve lived in. That makes me smile. I’ve managed to keep my notebook, pen and book. With these, a copy of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes of practice) collected at the custody desk, and a thin mattress to use as a yoga mat, I know I can entertain myself for at least 24 hours. There’s a loo but no toilet roll. Water for washing but not for drinking. PACE tells me I can request a drink every two hours. Once I’ve got a cup I’ve also got a vessel for washing. This is fine.

Some people kick their cell doors and shout and scream, others sing. I feel as though I’m in a film. I read PACE. Later there’s an attempt to fob me off with a duty solicitor. I’ve got my bust card and I know not to acquiesce. Through a port-hole in my ceiling I watch the sky darken. Time passes quickly. I keep asking to talk to the solicitor I’ve requested. Eventually a cheerful woman in normal clothes, no uniform, lets me out of the cell and tells me I’m going home. I think, for a moment, that she means I’m being released without charge, but when I get to the front desk the custody sergeant who checked me in rustles my charge sheet and the cheerful woman reads it out.

Aren’t I supposed to have talked to my solicitor before I get charged?”

Consternation.

Yes, I am. A number is called, a phone thrust across the desk. I speak to the solicitor in public, in the reception area of the police station. I know this isn’t right, this should be a private conversation. We try, the solicitor and I, to get me released on unconditional bail but the sergeant’s not having it. I’m given a map of the areas around Barton Moss where I’m not supposed to go. I refuse to accept the map, the conditions, the bail. I’m innocent, why should my freedom of movement be curtailed? I ask for my Custody Record. The sergeant says I have to apply for that. PACE says otherwise. I get my Record and it’s peppered with errors. I leave my bail map on the station floor.

I have no idea where I am, how I’m going to get back to camp, where my belongings are, whether I’ll be arrested again when I get there. I’m shown to the exit by the cheerful plain-clothes woman. I press a button, step outside into a cold dark rainy Manchester night, and I’m greeted with hugs, cheers, tea, soup, donuts. The Barton Moss Protectors are here on arrestee support duty. The warmth I’m enveloped in brings tears to my eyes. I don’t know most of these people but they’re family now and I don’t need to worry about where I’m going, how I’ll get there or what will happen to me when I do. Everything is taken care of and I’m safe.

The next day, back in the real world, messages of support from family and friends flood in. Both of my sisters – beautiful, kind, non-political women – say they back me absolutely: “Fracking is evil,” says one, and the other writes “My eyes are now wide open. Stand united and keep on fighting this worthy cause, and Thankyou from all of us who can’t be there to support you.”

News reaches my mum at work: “Everyone in the office very impressed with your arrest”, she reports.

Ordinary people don’t want pollution, poisoned water that we have no disposal plan for, chemical-laced earth, toxic gases seeping into homes, earthquakes and climate change. The UK public is not impressed by rhetoric from politicians who have only their own interests at heart, and no compunction about lying to the electorate they’re meant to serve. No one – except the corporate boss set to make a killing by killing our land – thinks that bribing councils is a just or wise move.

Are we really winning this fight against fracking, and swinging public opinion our way, because we “wear exciting clothes”, as Owen Paterson claimed today in the Telegraph? Or might it be because we’re right… and it’s really fracking obvious that we’re right?

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Sunday Stroll in Salford (Barton Moss)

I thought we’d be lucky to get 50 people out to demonstrate about an environmental issue on a cold January day in Salford. About a thousand turn up. “They’re… normal people” I overhear someone mutter. Old, young, Salford families, Greens, union members, members of co-operatives, local residents, anti-fracking groups from other areas, environmentalists, grannies, kids, cyclists, musicians, health workers. A reasonable cross section of the 99%.

Plenty of creativity and humour has gone into the placards and banners we wave, as we walk a mile or so from the rendezvous point to Barton Moss. One lane of the A57 had been closed for us and we stream along it in festive mood, a procession more than a march, buoyed up by a strong sense of solidarity and community. Roughly 80% of passing cars beep in support of our Frack Off and Not for Shale messages – despite having been held up in a traffic jam on our account. One placard – “I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc” – rings very true for me. This and “Welcome to the desolate North… Now Frack Off!” are perfect rejoinders to nonsense peddled by pro-fracking politicians.

At a rally just up the lane from the Protectors’ Camp, we hear from members and supporters of the camp, including:

  • Local union reps, who say that profiteering by a minority at the expense of the majority is what we’re fighting here at Barton Moss – it’s bigger than environmental issues and its bigger than Salford, and we all need to work together;
  • A Campaign Against Climate Change speaker, pointing to the need to create climate-friendly jobs which will set up communities for a viable, sustainable future;
  • Vanessa Vine of Balcombe – a Sussex village which faced down the frackers in 2013 – who reminds us of the global nature of this struggle, and the brutality being faced by protesters and protectors in Canada and Romania;
  • Ewa Jasiewicz, of No Dash for Gas and Fuel Poverty Action, pointing out that investment in renewables now is the only way out of the fuel poverty trap of the moment, where the Big 6 energy companies are in a position to charge extortionate rates, filling their own pockets while risking the lives of the poor and turning a blind eye to climate change.

The crowds amble into Barton Moss Road as the rally comes to a close. Hundreds of us, strolling slowly on a Sunday afternoon along the lane where, on weekday mornings, police harrass and arrest protectors for walking at a similar pace ahead of the fracking trucks. There’s almost no visible policing today. Today, the police don’t feel the need to outnumber us 10:1 and shove us along the road “for our own safety”. Is it because they don’t want to show the ugly side of policing – the side which is about protecting corporate profits rather than people – to so many of their neighbours and peers, who are genuinely here to protect? If only a tenth this many people could turn up every day…

Past the camp we go, to the gates of the fracking site. There’s music, and dancing, and meetings between like-minded people. Someone’s cooked up a hearty soup and there’s a campfire to warm cold knees beside. This is what solidarity looks like. And we need more of this kind of thing!

A perfect summing-up from Carmen, of Occupy Manchester:

“Today one thousand people agreed that there is no social license for fracking – not locally or nationally or globally. We stand united for a frack-free planet [and for] investment in renewable energy, for all future generations and the planet Earth.”

Barton Moss Protection Camp, Barton Moss Road, Just off A57 next to Airport, Eccles M30 7RL

Barton Moss Protection Camp: Facebook 

Twitter: @BartonMoss

Frack Free Greater Manchester: website

Northern Gas Gala

Frack Off: website (great for background info)

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Barton Moss

BARTON MOSS ANTI-FRACKING PROTECTORS’ CAMP & THE ORANGE BUS BLOCKADE
Salford in the early hours of a December day, trapped in a sliver of damp earth between motorway and access lane. Barton Moss Protectors’ Camp. Pre-dawn, chilly, dawdling, waiting for the fracking trucks to arrive, waiting to slow-walk up the lane – the only peaceful protest the law is prepared to allow us these days.

Waiting, reading signs on the noticeboard outside the camp’s info point. Few awake as yet.

A woman runs towards us. “The big orange bus is up there! They need support up there!” She points towards the fracking site entrance.

We jog up the road.

There is, indeed, a big orange bus. It’s huge, very orange, and parked across the site’s entrance. It’s covered in ‘Frack Off’ and ‘Not for Shale’ signs. Just where the wind turbine blade was dropped off a couple of days earlier. So many large and generous gifts for the frackers, IGas.

Someone has set up camp on the roof of the bus. Someone else is locked on underneath. At least three people are inside, also locked on. A sign on the door says “Do not open this door, I am locked on, you will break my leg”.

A surge of excitement and solidarity floods through us. We wave and grin, gesture, thumbs up.Over the next few hours more and more cops turn up, until they outnumber us about 3:1. Local journalists arrive. The Salford Star guy is one of us, warming himself by our brazier. I make it my job to forage for twigs, to keep the fire going. Our legal observer and welfare crew keep an eye on those locked on, passing them warm things and food, while the baseball-capped ‘Protestor Removal Unit’ cops suss out the situation.

With two friends I temporarily resist the police instruction to leave the vicinity of the bus. We question their need to create a “sterile area”, their constant claims of “we just want to keep everyone safe”. Yeah RIGHT. That’s why you shoved a disabled guy into a ditch, breaking his leg in the process, just a few days ago, right here. We hold up proceedings for a wee while, then move away, not feeling that now is the time to push it and get arrested.

Eventually the power tools come out. Locks are broken, windows are smashed, ladders are hoisted and the bus-bound protectors are removed. Three are arrested. The two who were outside the bus look cold, shaky and exhausted. We whoop, holler, cheer our heroes. A breakdown truck manouveures into position, ready to tow the big orange bus away. A big orange sacrifice, gifted by Brighton.

A shout goes up “Down the lane! The trucks are coming in!” We dash back to the camp, get into a huddle and begin the slow walk in front of the fracking trucks. Police form their own huddle behind us and goad us, push us, poke us in the kidneys, get their hands on us and try to steer us, harry us, patronise us and shout in our earholes. They threaten to arrest anyone who complains too vociferously. A few years ago I’d have been shocked but it’s the kind of behaviour I expect from cops now. The baby-blue liaison cops are still going around with fixed grins, plaintively trying to explain that they’re the good guys; they’re not getting much traction. We shout out the numbers of the pushiest and our legal observers earnestly write down our complaints, walking backwards, keeping an eye on us as we stumble up the lane. They make me feel safer than I would if they weren’t there.

There aren’t enough of us. Too soon we’re at the gate, and funnelled off to stand impotent on the verge. Truck after truck after truck goes by.  A crane, cabins, a catering unit. Someone says the rig is in now. Trucks from North Yorkshire, trucks from Lincolnshire. We glare at the drivers, screaming with our eyes – “get out of your cab and come join us, you’re people like us!”. They drive into the fracking site. I feel as though I’m watching evil at work. Saruman wrecking Isengard. Two women are weeping. An 82 year old comforts them. Tears prick my eyes too. How can people be doing this? Why aren’t more people with us, trying to stop it? This isn’t just Isengard. It isn’t a story.

This is our future. Join us.

northerngasgala.org.uk/
frack-off.org.uk/

Tagged , , , ,

Wicked witch and teen psyche

I wasn’t one of the people who’d been planning for years to dance on Thatcher’s grave and yet when the news hit, visceral glee was what I felt. After checking it was true – “What, really? Really this time?” – I grinned and skipped and hugged my partner tight and chortled deep in my belly for the next two days, every time I remembered she was dead (which was a lot, what with Twitter).

Of course Maggie’s legacy is still wrapped around us like a bloody, stinking animal skin. Of course getting drunk and singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead doesn’t help us sort out the current mess. An old lady dying is pretty irrelevant (not a tragedy; she was 87 and had been ill for a long time, of course she was going to die and her time was nigh) but the sense of community that emerged in Brixton, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Bradford and many small towns in the North, in Wales and throughout Scotland on Monday was not irrelevant. People with shared histories and similar mindsets found each other in the streets and pubs of Britain in a spontaneous uprising of anger mixed with joy and it wasn’t sick, it was beautiful. And poignant, and sad.

We remembered the poll tax and the miners, the milk-snatching, 80’s dole queues, the battles of Orgreave and the Beanfield [1], the Falklands, the sell-off of what had been public assets. For many now in their forties and fifties, this is what politicised us. This is why we never believe the police are on our side, why our fury with the Labour party – who were supposed to be on our side – burns so fiercely. This is why Glaswegians ceilidhed in the square, activists in Leeds handed out “Thatcher’s dead cake” (and bedroom tax leaflets), anarchist social centres in Bradford and Brighton threw open their doors and invited allcomers to “grieve responsibly!”. This is why things kicked off in Brixton and Bristol. We all know which areas will ignite, come the revolution.

I was shocked that some ‘on the left’ wanted us to pipe down and behave with decorum. You what??!! Ah, you weren’t there in the eighties. You’re young, or you led a sheltered or privileged life. Or perhaps you’re a Buddhist – ok, I agree, it’s not very Buddhist, this visceral glee. But I don’t care! Even before I realised we have to counter the mainstream media and politicians’ guff if we don’t want to see this vital part of our history blatantly erased and rewritten – even before that, I didn’t care that what I feel isn’t respectful, or dignified.

I agree that Don’t Hate, Donate is a very positive thing, but believe it’s essential that the ‘gloaters’ are not silenced. Between the beers and the cheers we are sharing oral histories. Our blogs and tweets are rooted in memories and experiences that need telling and retelling. They give context to the present. If one teenager, on seeing youtube footage of the Thatcher’s Dead parties, is inspired to dig a little deeper into this country’s history and politics rather than believing the nauseating mainstream eulogies – that’s justification enough.

Just a couple of days earlier, my partner and a friend were merrily slagging off Thatcher when they were challenged by a young activist. She said Thatcher-bashing was generally sexist and that right-to-buy [2] had positive aspects. The two men were left spitting and spluttering. They were in their teens and early twenties in the Thatcher era and grew up in the north of England. The next morning I was harangued for going to bed early; why wasn’t I there to defend Thatcher-bashing from a feminist perspective?

When I saw the banner proclaiming “The Bitch is Dead” hanging from the Brixton Ritz, I better understood the young activist’s stance. “Thatcher’s Dead. Lol” was much more palatable. I also saw a banner – perhaps the same one – with the B covered over and replaced with a W. Good on whoever did that, I thought… but then some people were also upset by the use of “Witch”. I wasn’t. “Ding Dong” and “The witch is dead” resonate just fine with this witch [3]. Then, to help me out of my floundering-in-feminist-angst, came the blog from Emma Pooka of AWOL (Angry Women of Liverpool). It says everything I was feeling and more. HT @RileyDylan, who described it as “brilliant”. It is brilliant. Please read it: A Feminist’s Guide to Celebrating Thatcher’s Demise.

I can’t say I experienced the full impact of Thatcher’s reign, was just 21 when she  resigned, but the images of miners huddled around braziers and the demonisation and destruction of the Travellers’ way of life jumped out of the TV screen and lodged deep in my fourteen year old psyche. I went to school around the corner from where one of the Specials lived, graffitied The Beat on my pencil case and pogoed to The Jam’s Town Called Malice [4]. Then I fell in love with Morrissey [5]. I was grown up in time to resist the poll tax and experience jubilation when we beat it. I’d moved into an old Bedford ambulance by then. I think we drank a lot of cider the day Thatcher resigned (can’t quite remember) and when she died I drank cider in the bath.

Notes:

[1] Coppers morphed from bobbies on the beat to politicised instruments of the State against its citizens under Thatcher:

The Battle of Orgreave, 1984 – Police eventually paid half a million pounds to miners beaten and arrested at the Battle of Orgreave.

Battle of the Beanfield, 1985 – Police found guilty of wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage. Travellers awarded £24k in damages… but the judge refused to award them legal costs, so the amount actually received was minimal. Few individual officers were disciplined as most were not wearing identifying numbers.

In both cases it took six years of court battles before a verdict was reached – not until after Thatcher had resigned was some kind of paltry justice done.

In the lists of Thatcher’s evil deeds, I haven’t yet seen anyone mentioning the Travellers (except me; I keep banging on about them). Don’t forget the Travellers.

[2] The Right to Buy was seen by many on the left to be A Good Thing. I can think of lots of reasons why it wasn’t. Primarily, because the money raised was not ploughed back into social housing for those who couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, this ‘right’ to be an ‘owner’ of bricks, mortar and land. More on this.

[3] A good explanation of why a cheeky, childish song is radically relevant, according to blogger Adam Jung. (Though I’d prefer not to put money in the coffers of Amazon or iTunes.)

[4] 13 anti-Thatcher songs  ;  UK artists against Thatcher

[5] Morrissey’s take on Thatcher’s death

A few days later, I found this Workingman’s Blues blog on the Thatcher ‘death parties’ and the power of Carnival. Well worth a read.

And this one, Fight for the Right to Party on the Red Pepper mag website.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,