Category Archives: Published Writing

The Green Gathering: a festival beyond hedonism | STIR mag

The Green Gathering: 31 July-3 August 2014, Chepstow

I’m helping to organise The Green Gathering this year.

Why put energy into a festival – something temporary, trivial and hedonistic? Well, because… festivals can be so much more. They can be literally transformative; opening eyes, changing lives. I know people who’ve packed in their unsatisfying, exploitative jobs after a festival; at the Northern Green Gathering, a friend was inspired to set up a radical housing co-operative which is going strong over a decade later. Festivals give us space to experiment with alternative forms of community, energy and infrastructure. They’re also good practice for setting up activist camps – festival people tend to know how to set up a kitchen and compost loos in a field, how to pitch a marquee and keep a campfire going. ‘Networking’ sounds too corporate, ‘tribal gathering’ too hippy-dippy… but having a meeting of minds, rediscovering old friends and making new ones, exchanging contact details and sharing information while drinking scrumpy cider, bouncing about to a band or warming up in a wood-fired sauna – this is the joy of festival, and it has repercussions beyond festival.

Here’s a blog, published a few days ago by STIR magazine (well worth a read and subscription), explaining why The Green Gathering is the festival I’ve chosen to put my life and soul into this year.

Beyond Hedonism

More than three decades after the first Green Gathering was held on Glastonbury’s Worthy Farm, this solar and wind powered festival has forged alliances with the Off Grid College – a free education initiative organised by young thinkers and activists involved with the latest wave of eco-festivals. Radical Routes, a network of housing and workers’ co-operatives, will be hosting a Co-operators’ Camp alongside the College.

The Green Gathering is held annually over the first weekend in August, on a wooded former estate near Chepstow, on the South Wales border just 18 miles from Bristol. An award-winning, family friendly camping event, it combines festival entertainment with speakers, skillshares and networking. Themes of community resilience and creative alternatives to both consumerism and austerity pepper the programme.

Following in the footsteps of the Occupy movement’s Tent City University, the Off Grid College takes education out of stuffy establishment buildings into open spaces. As students rail against fee increases and the marketisation of universities, free education becomes ever more radical – and popular. Providing skills and knowledge in a festival environment is a winner. The Green Gathering has always hosted craft and permaculture workshops, debates with key Green speakers and campaign group info-exchange, and will now be hosting Off Grid College courses in low impact development, wild food foraging and renewable techno-wizardry too.

Kaplick b&wDespite the lurid woes of the Co-operative Bank, co-operatives continue to capture the imagination of students, activists and workers across the UK. According to the United Nations, co-ops “improve livelihoods and strengthen the economy”, and provide “a sustainable business model for youth…” . In light of this, The Green Gathering has invited Radical Routes to co-ordinate a Co-ops’ Camp where festival-goers can learn how to enjoy “…housing without landlords, work without bosses, organising without hierarchy and taking financial control away from the banks”.

With spectacular views across the Severn Estuary and Wye Valley, spacious camping fields, eclectic music, solar cinema, organic gardens and ethical markets, The Green Gathering bills itself as a festival “beyond hedonism – where performance meets permaculture”.

The live music line-up includes: Seize The Day, 3 Daft Monkeys, Tarantism, Nik Turner, Billy Rowan, Pagan Love Cult, Rory McLeod and Pikey Beatz. Conscious DJs Libby Lawes and Gary Clail will be on the decks; and there’ll be spoken word performances from John Hegley, Salena Godden, Pete The Temp, Marcus Moore and many more. Activists, campaigners, Green economists and writers – including Molly Scott Cato, Jeremy Leggett, Ewa Jasiewicz, Simon Fairlie and Jamie Kelsey Fry – will be on hand to debate, create and share experiences.

muddy kidThe Green Gathering at Chepstow is the latest incarnation in a long line of Green Gatherings stretching back to early Ecology Party meetings on the Glastonbury Festival site, the Molesworth Peace Camp of 1984, and the Big Green Gatherings of 1994-2007. The BGG grew into a five day event attended by 20,000 people before being unexpectedly cancelled in 2009 after local authorities threatened an injunction – many considered this to be a political act designed to cut funding to activist groups such as Climate Camp, which ran a ‘Last Chance Saloon’ bar at the festival. When police spy Mark Kennedy was outed, Big Green Gathering organisers realised he’d been embedded in the 2009 set-up crew; shocking to discover, and yet perhaps a sign that they were doing something right – that their festival genuinely was raising consciousness, transforming lives and making those in power nervous about what a skilled-up, collaborative bunch of co-creators could do.

In 2011, a Green Gathering phoenix rose, demonstrating the kind of resilience that activists know and need. A Green Gathering Charity was established in 2013, with a remit to promote education for sustainability.

The Green Gathering 2014 runs from Thursday 31st July-Sunday 3rd August.

Festival tickets cost £90 (adults), £50 (youth). Children under 11 years go free. Tickets are available through the GG website (www.greengathering.org.uk) or Bristol Ticket Shop (www.bristolticketshop.co.uk). Booking fees apply.

If you read this far, use this code – EWGG14 – to get a discount of £10 per ticket on up to 6 adult tickets bought through The Green Gathering ticket shop.

For more information about The Green Gathering: www.greengathing.org.uk

Like, Share, Follow: www.facebook.com/GreenGathering.org.uk and @Gathering_Green

email: info@greengathering.org.uk

Photos: I think these were taken by Stone (Kaplick Stage) and Stefan Handy (kid in puddle).

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Why is taxpayers’ money being used to fund flooding? | New Internationalist

(published in New Internationalist online, 20.2.14: newint.org/blog/2014/02/20/floods-natural-defence/)

Money’s no object” when it comes to mopping up floods, Cameron proclaimed. It seems that money’s no object when it comes to creating floods, either – especially when it’s public money, falling into the pockets of rich landowners.

Natural England (the government’s environmental advisory body) uses taxpayers’ money to pay large landowners to manage estates in an environmentally sensitive manner. Unfortunately, “environmental stewardship” has, in some cases, meant burning and draining of protected sphagnum-rich bogs, to create heather moorlands ideal for rearing and shooting grouse. This despite ample evidence that burning and draining harms water quality and wildlife, while increasing flood risk.

Recent research has confirmed that healthy blanket bog sucks up water, whereas dry, burnt bog is far less absorbent and increases run-off – meaning that more water rushes downhill into rivers and road drains. Blanket bog is precious for a number of reasons – it’s a globally rare habitat which acts as a biodiverse carbon sink – but right now, flooding is the big story.

In 2012, the funky northern town of Hebden Bridge flooded. This NI blog considered Natural England and millionaire estate owners to be potential culprits. A Brownfield Briefing referred to a “smoking gun” – allegedly being held by the shooting industry. George Monbiot has, in the last week, pointed to land (mis)management being responsible for this winter’s floods in Somerset. It’s becoming apparent that the way we interfere with soil and vegetation affects how much water ends up in our lanes and lounges – it’s not all about weird weather, nor is the uber-demon of climate change solely responsible.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) complained to the European Commission about unlawful land management practices, undertaken in the name of environmental stewardship. Natural England, implicated in this mismanagement, conducted its own Upland Review – and conceded that bog burning was not the best idea; but under pressure from stakeholders operating from a position of power and privilege, NE has struggled to implement best practice in the uplands.

Leeds University’s hydrological research (2012) suggested that deliberate burning of peat blocks the soil’s pores, impeding infiltration of water into the soil. South West Water, working to restore peat bog on Exmoor, discovered that the amount of storm water running off the moorland has reduced by a third compared with pre-restoration run-off. That, researchers from the University of Exeter explained, is the equivalent of104 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water removed from the river system flowing down to major population centres.” In February 2014, Professor Richard Brazier said: “This enhanced water storage could, when replicated […] provide a significant buffer against downstream flooding.” With swathes of the south under water, and the country demanding something be done about flooding, this is exciting stuff.

Now, Natural England has put out adraft guidance document relating to the restoration of peatlands. This document concludes that burning of blanket bog has negative impacts and should be phased out. Hallelujah!

But wait… the Hebden Bridge flood victims are not yet mollified.

We think of Natural England as an ally, not an enemy, and we hope they’re going to help create a safer environment for those of us living in valleys and near flood plains,” said Ban The Burn supporter Penny Eastwood.

Having said that, we think this draft is a bit toothless. It doesn’t convey the URGENCY of restoring our uplands. It doesn’t speak to people with flooded homes, devastated businesses and hiked-up insurance to pay for. We need this bog degradation to be banned, and we need taxpayers’ money to be spent on protecting the public, rather than being squandered on environmentally hazardous practices.”

Are Natural England’s hands tied? Their draft refers to partners with whom they’ll need to work out a process to reduce bog-degrading activities. The language is woolly, the stance not exactly robust. Home owners and taxpayers would like to know exactly when and how payments to ‘stewards’ who harm vital uplands will cease. If our government’s advisory body is stuck between the rock of vested interests and the hard facts of environmental and climate realities, there may yet be work for tenacious grassroots groups to do.

The One Man Peace Mission | New Internationalist

On 23 October 2012, a British-Iranian known as ‘Earthian’ sent a cryptic message to his friends: ‘I have set up camp beside the cliffs of Dover. I have given up my British passport. I am on my way to the centre of the earth in Iraq.’

Prior to this, Earthian had spent several months camping in London’s parks. Sometimes he pulled a handcart equipped with tent and solar panel; sometimes he cycled, towing a heavy trailer. Exercise books filled with dense handwritten notes contained his observations, plans and dreams.

Earthian was plotting and testing himself for his mission, a ‘zero-money, zero-carbon walk for peace’, based on the premise that national borders cause unnecessary division and suffering, a resource-based economy should replace our sick monetary version, and that responsibility for the environment is everyone’s business. ‘My main purpose on this journey is to achieve peace in the Middle East,’ he explained from Dover.

It seemed unlikely he would make it as far as France, and yet, little more than a month later, Earthian is in Sulaymaniyeh in Northern Iraq.

Though he describes his journey as a ‘peace walk’, Earthian is pragmatic; he hitch-hikes and uses public transport when possible. He walked approximately 500 kilometres of the 5,000 kilometres from London to Iraq; finding free rides became easier the further east he travelled.

On one occasion an un-requested gift of €100 ($130) enabled him to take a train out of Hungary after he was arrested for carrying no identification (the British Embassy had to provide proof of citizenship to secure his release). At the Turkish border he was stymied by the need for a visa, but swiftly raised €20 ($26) in donations from truck drivers. Few can resist Earthian’s earnest conviction.

Forty years ago, a boy named Kauomarth Valadbagi, from a moderately leftwing family, was growing up in an Iranian village. He studied hard and wanted to go to university, but being a political undesirable – as a young man he actively supported Komalah, a regional Kurdish party – the opportunity was denied him. During the Iran-Iraq war he was called up for military service. Kauomarth was a pacifist and didn’t want to die, so he disappeared, made a new identity for himself, moved around Iran doing casual work and kept his head down. The dream of going to university never went away and, combined with a desire to live freely, compelled Kauomarth to escape across the border into Iraq and then to Turkey. For two years he travelled through Europe, surviving on little, working in the black economy. In 1997 he arrived in Britain, adopted a new name and was granted asylum based on the likelihood of persecution in Iran due to his political beliefs.

He became a British citizen, went to university and worked first as an  engineer, then in IT. He got married and got a mortgage. Then, the global economic crisis hit. ‘I tried to somehow convince myself to carry on, but I couldn’t… I lost my relationship and my house… I decided I’ll never again be part of a system which uses people like modern slaves until we have no energy and become only tools in the system.’

Soul-searching led to the realization that, torn between his Iranian upbringing and British citizenship, neither of which had worked out well, it was time to opt in to something new. Choosing his fourth name, Earthian, he rejected national borders and divisions. The Occupy movement in London gave Earthian a home, like-minded peers and a launch pad for his peace mission; a mission to end suffering and environmental destruction, to change the world one person at a time through discussion and example.

Earthian is currently waiting for a response from the governor of Sulaymaniyeh, having requested permission to set up a prominent camp from which to talk to people about his journey for one month. He intends to visit Gaza, though locals have begged him not to go via Baghdad, as the risk of kidnap is high. He has been interviewed by Gali Kurdistan Television, and a teenager from Faloja named Ali is spreading word about the baffling peace campaigner he found inhabiting a tent beneath the Khasrow Khal bridge.

Kauomarth’s father died some years ago but his mother is alive and lives just four hours from Sulaymaniyeh, in Western Iran. Earthian cannot enter Iran but is hoping someone will bring his mum to visit him and that, courtesy of the governor of Sulaymaniyeh, they can be reunited in an Occupy peace camp in one of the city’s parks.

Find out more at Earthian’s blog.

Occupy in The Idler

I wrote this in the Spring, shortly after OLSX eviction. I  just received the printed copy of The Idler (the ‘Utopia Issue’) which contains it. I was tired and emotional when I wrote it, stayed up overnight and poured it all out. I’d write it differently now. But it’s not too embarrassing.

 

As Occupiers pick themselves off the cobbles of St Paul’s Churchyard, dust their shabby knees and peel off the thirteen grimy layers of thermals, they wonder – ‘Was it worth it?’

The Occupy London Stock Exchange camp was a social experiment, a chance to keep that festival feeling all year round, a free lunch (one hundred and thirty four free lunches, breakfasts, dinners and nights in one of the most expensive locations in London, actually), an opportunity to be interviewed by journalists, students and student journalists twenty times a day and to squabble in public while a crowd echoed every word through a ‘human mic’. It was reality TV without the TV but despite its problems and absurdities, this encampment was beautiful, radical and establishment-rattling. It was mediaworthy for at least two months, quite an achievement in a speeded-up-media world. It was also a transformative experience for many involved and, on the whole, a great PR and awareness-raising opportunity grasped with both hands and squeezed, hard.

The Establishment was not only rattled, it was forced to engage with the protesters. The Church, the City of London Corporation, the Financial Services Authority, the Judiciary, the mainstream media and the police force had to recognise the existence of the encamped ruffians. The mantra ‘they don’t know what they want’ became tired after a while and even the Judge, the Bishop and the Telegraph admitted that relevant questions and valid points were being asked and raised.

While bankers’ bonuses and politicians’ cuts were the hot topics that helped to launch the movement in Britain, Occupy is not a single-issue or local campaign. The Arab Spring, Spanish Indignados’ movement and Occupy Wall Street set the scene for mobilisation in London.

Occupy considers the big picture and attacks causes of injustice rather than symptoms. Lobbying, gambling, rapacious consumption, oppression, corruption and warmongering… all these are pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that Occupy hopes to solve. Governments, corporations and financial institutions are in cahoots and the bottom line is a screwed up value system which puts profit before people and planet. Once the pieces begin to fit together it becomes apparent that change is needed on every level – personal, local, national and international – if justice and sustainability are to be achieved.

The ‘anti-capitalist’ label was immediately applied to the protesters and led to one of the first divisions within the Occupy London camp. ‘Are we or aren’t we anti-capitalist?’, eventually led to – ‘well, what is Capitalism?’ There are almost as many answers to that as there are people to ask but on the whole, those who identify with the anti-capitalist label describe capitalism as necessarily exploitative. They see it as a system in which fatcats callously use and abuse the labour of subordinates to further their own greed and gains. Those who identify themselves as capitalists, on the other hand, see it as a system which allows trade, social mobility, entrepreneurship and rewards for hard work. They compare it favourably with failed communist systems. They can’t see an alternative unless we go back to the stone-age.

Many self-avowed capitalists believe that in recent years capitalism has gone wrong and agree with the anti-capitalists that a tiny minority have raked in profits without the corresponding hard work and market success that could perhaps justify such riches. In a pure capitalist system, no bank or business would be ‘too big to fail’. If those in charge made mistakes, they’d lose money and power and status in just the same way that a small business owner would. When governments use taxpayers’ money in bail-outs, capitalism is transformed into ‘corporate socialism’. This is a system so ludicrous that it’s little wonder people are camping on cold city streets across Europe and the US. Put simply, this is a system whereby the wealthiest one percent, drunk on their own power and greed, crash economies leading to suffering for everyone except themselves… then insist we prop them up so that they can carry on carousing.

The row between Occupiers and St Paul’s Cathedral was a blessing, forcing Christians to reassess their religion. “What would Jesus do?” was possibly the best slogan of the campaign so far. ‘You can’t evict an idea’, ‘this is just the beginning’, ‘evict us and we multiply’ and ‘my tent for your bonus’ were also rather good. Jesus was a protester and St Paul a tentmaker; radical vicars made pilgrimages to the tents to make these points. An elderly Christian lady held an all-night vigil in support of the Occupiers on the steps of St Paul’s and was overwhelmed with offers of tea and blankets from the protesters. When Canon Giles Fraser resigned, a frenzied media reported that occupiers and members of the public were in tears on the cathedral steps. Further resignations followed, the reasons ’embarrassment’ and ‘untenable position’.

Quakers, remarkably swift to reach consensus on publicly supporting Occupy, took the moral and spiritual high ground and appropriated the steps of St Paul’s for their silent meetings. Wise elders to Occupy’s stroppy teenagers, the Quakers have not attempted to preach or instruct their younger comrades. Without judgement, without co-option efforts, Quakers sit peacefully beside occupiers, watching them grapple awkwardly with the consensus decision-making and horizontal organisation that works so smoothly in Friends’ Meeting Houses. The Socialist Workers also joined occupiers in the churchyard but being less graceful in their support were politely asked to tone it down a bit.

There was a wonderful acceptance of inexperience in the early weeks at the Occupy camps; of not knowing all the answers, of testing practices and learning from experts, of skill-sharing and swotting. The Tent City Library filled up with donated tomes. Hundreds of inspiring individuals – famous, infamous and unknown – held seminars and workshops in Tent City University. Vivienne Westwood, Alan Moore and Jesse Jackson each shared their experiences with the fledgling movement. Dr Rupert Read, philosopher of economics, recommended we put trust in credit unions (or our money under the bed), and convinced many to rethink their stance on stimulating the economy, since perpetual growth on a finite planet is an impossibility. Read suggested rationing to mitigate climate change, pointing out that barely anyone dares voice the prospect of rationing, for fear of the reaction of a population self-centred and short-termist enough to prefer climate chaos to forgoing the latest gadget or donut. On a lighter note, a certain idler delivered a sermon on the evils of usury, and a rousing rendition of Anarchy in the UK on a tin-can ukelele, while wearing a very fine, vintage-inspired suit. This went down very well.

As time went on and winter set in, the court case City-of-London-Corporation versus persons-unknown-of-a-tented-persuasion dragged on and the Occupy camp at St Paul’s became increasingly reminiscent of a medieval village. The eager students of the golden autumn gambolled back to their real lives and society’s rejects shambled in to take their places. George Barda, litigant-in-person defending the camp, suggested to the judge that poetic justice brought these sometimes challenging individuals into the heart of the financial district to tug at the CoL Corporation’s trouser cuffs. It was a real community under canvas at St Paul’s – simultaneously gritty and romantic – but as time went on it became increasingly dysfunctional.

While some were healed by the unconditional love practised in the camp, others took the piss. Mingling with the activists were twenty-first century brigands and highwaymen, seductive agents provocateurs and masked members of the English Defence League. Journalists stalked through the camp seeking melodrama, or dug into activists’ pasts, or embedded themselves in clammy tents for a fully immersive experience, all of us uncertain whether their aim was to understand or undermine. Through it all the church bells marked time, marked the days and nights counting down to eviction, marked the treadmill of legal proceedings. Each court date was a catalyst for adrenaline highs going nowhere, leading to outbursts of emotion, disturbance and disruption.

As in all medieval communities wizards and poets, seers, thieves, jesters and fools were abundant. Storybook caricatures came to life and played out their symbolism in a real life role-playing game. The fool in particular can get away with anything – but pays that back with his ability to relieve tension through timely application of humour. Some of the Occupy fools were fraudulent and refused to pay, causing others to flag up an unfortunate omission in the camp – half-rotten tomatoes were cheap and abundant at vegetable markets but there was no Occupy village green and more importantly, no stocks.

This autonomous London created on a narrow stretch of slab was Neil Gaiman-esque. Campers were woken by the human alarm clock of feet pounding pavements. They crawled from damp lairs to slip invisibly in and out of shopping centres, cafes and pubs, searching for toilets and showers, abandoned jam scones and hospitable wifi zones. Absurd characters slithered out of cracks in the city and set up home in pop-up tents, howled at the full moon hanging low over the Cathedral’s dome then disappeared leaving only obscure whiffs and new batches of conspiracy theory behind them.

Paranoia, politics and passion jostled for supremacy in the wee hours while daylight introduced a wider range of topics. Every hour of every day in every corner of the camp conversations were held about democracy, Syria, Iran, ethics, war, psychology, ecology, religion, revolution and, of course, the economy. Debate as spectator sport was practised, with human rings forming around conversationalists, a hush descending as everyone… listened. How special is that? “Is this what the Greeks, with their wreaths and sandals, did for evening entertainment?” an English boy asked and a Greek girl replied “It’s what the Greeks are doing right now”, reminding debaters that this isn’t just about St Paul’s, or London. These bubbling-ups, these mini-uprisings, are going on all around the world.

In cahoots with veteran squatters, direct action teams took control of empty buildings. One, owned by investment bankers UBS, became the Bank of Ideas, a post-apocalyptic labyrinth of interconnecting rooms, stairwells, accessible rooftops, derelict basements and underground carparks. Hippies of the Rainbow Tribe wandered the concrete corridors muttering “it’s like Doom, it’s just like Doom”. Others leapt like wild animals in an urban jungle from roof to roof, or organised secret Radiohead gigs and tea-parties in the cellars.

Occstock, a miniature one night festival held at St Paul’s in January, saw punks with snow-frosted pink mohawks dancing beside curious lawyers and bewildered Kosovans. Musicians and poets mingled with city folk, rough sleepers and anarchists. The cobbles were reclaimed for real that night – by Occupy, by artists, by the snow which blurred boundaries between highway and pavement, city land and churchyard. The OccStock message was “We can start to change society for the better by reclaiming our time, space and freedom bit by bit and step by step.” As occupiers shovelled snow at midnight, the smiles spoke to that.

A small Islington square was claimed as a wannabe eco-village while a nearby defunct Magistrates Court became Occupied Justice. Squatters’ rights were claimed at the court and a peace flag hoisted from the rooftop. The Occupy Veterans’ Tank of Ideas pulled into the walled carpark behind and a New Year Cabaret party was held. A theatrical performance saw protesters and party-goers thrown into the cells by a wicked ‘Establishment’ Judge, before reappearing on the grandiose staircase to juggle, dance and recite political poetry to a rapt crowd. This may have been the only cabaret in the world where the hecklers called “Process!” and “Mic Check!”. The grand finale – aerial acrobatics on ribbons strung from a stained-glass dome above the Hall – left the audience awestruck. While such acts of derring do could be discounted as distractions, revolutions tend to be grim and tiring, so a little light relief is difficult to begrudge. Wobbly-legged and vertiginous on the highest pinnacle of the Court’s roof, five storeys above neon-lit pavements and bathed in the lilac-pink of a winter dawn, Occupiers could be forgiven for thinking this was already a new beginning.

Shortly after, black-on-white A4 prints displaying a bold and simple message appeared amongst the tents in St Paul’s Churchyard. My Tent for your Bonus, the posters declared. Was it pure coincidence that the very next day Stephen Hester hit the headlines for turning down a £1 million Royal Bank of Scotland bonus? Perhaps he felt he was missing out on the zeitgeist and fancied a spot of winter camping. Four stalwarts of Occupy carried an erect sacrificial tent through the streets of London and with due ceremony presented it outside RBS headquarters. Despite the presence of mainstream journalists keen to record Hester’s reaction to this gift, the RBS boss chose not to accept it in person. Occupy London enjoyed the jest in the gesture but were keen to point out that the odd bonus rejection does not a new system make.

Idealists became a little disillusioned on discovering that the camps and squats reflected our broken society – especially the grubbier elements of it – all too accurately. Be the change you want to see, set an example, live the Utopian dream… well, it didn’t quite work out like that. As time went on there were squalid instances of addiction-fuelled theft and violence; there was infighting, and unseemly bickering over money, and passionate arguments over the ethics of using a petrol generator to power the revolution. Occupiers are human and imperfect and they bit off a little more than they could chew when they set up an all-inclusive, time-unlimited city centre shanty town.

Despite misgivings on the part of some Occupiers about the viability of longterm camps, a feisty battle was fought in court. Economist John Christianson claimed that the public debate stimulated by Occupy is absolutely necessary and must be given space to continue. Historical use of the area around St Paul’s for ‘folk moots’ was discussed. George Barda struggled to articulate the enormity of the dangers we face on a global scale – climate change, resource scarcity, mass poverty – and to impress on Mr Justice Lindblom the urgent importance of the Occupy message. Litigant Dan Ashman argued that conventional forms of protest have failed, making Occupy tactics vital. Pressing social need and the desperate importance of the Occupy work were the main thrusts of the camp’s defence. These should, the Occupy legal team stressed, weigh heavier in the scales of justice than petty health and safety qualms and the minor inconvenience of pedestrians. Tears were visible on more than one Occupiers’ cheek, as hands waved in sombre ‘jazz’ agreement.

The CoL Corporation appeared somewhat confused about what they were objecting to – was it the protesters, or the vulnerable and sometimes challenging people who’d found community in the encampment, or the physical tents? It was tents they were seeking to remove, enabling the protesters’ QC to raise a chuckle when he asked whether it was the tents getting drunk, making a noise and committing the crimes that the City complained of.

Four and a half months after the encampment hunkered down on the cobbled pathways around St Paul’s the eviction – inevitable despite the justness of the cause, despite references to Magna Carta rights, despite calls to take the case to the European Courts of Appeal and despite rather a lot of ‘Freeman’ bunkum – took place between midnight and dawn on February 28th. Shortly before midnight a flurry of tweets, texts, emails and bicycle-couriered messages conveyed that “…police are massing at London Wall with vans, riot gear… eviction is imminent!” Later tweets included ‘The protesters have built a fortress’; ‘They’re holding firm on the barricades’; ‘It’s not a fort it’s the kitchen shelves they’re standing on, ffs!’; and ‘kitchen shelf warriors arrested for obstruction’. A wonderful piece of youtube footage shows a protester known as Thor being yanked from the shelves by an officer of the court, ‘accidentally’ pulling a bailiff off with him.

With the shanty town gone and after a period of grief, supporters of the Occupy movement began to refocus. Capitalist, socialist, anarchist or none, most of these supporters agree that a tinkering with the current system – shoe-horning in a few extra regulations – is not enough. Radical overhaul is required and will only have a chance of being achieved if Occupiers join forces not only with unions, students and public sector workers but also with business owners and entrepreneurs. Taking a majority of the self-avowed capitalists on a journey into a better future… that must be the goal and it shouldn’t be too difficult when even city workers admit to being jaded by a system that awards 50% pay rises to executives who – like bankers, and unlike true entrepreneurs – take no real hit on the downside. Whether or not capitalism as a system is irretrievably broken, what we have is selfish cronyism which allows reward for failure.

One solution would be to oblige individuals and corporations to devote a significant proportion of their resources, energy and profits to serving their communities. Small businesses and individuals could ‘pay back’ on a local scale; the big boys would have to contribute on an international scale. The penalty for avoidance would be crippling taxation or, ultimately, criminalisation. The energy of the smartest people could be harnessed for social and environmental good and funds could be directed to where they’re really needed. In one version of utopia corporations and banks could be exonerated if they focussed their brainpower and resources on solving (instead of creating) global problems.

Trade is ancient and can be fun. Haggling in markets, creating a product that others appreciate and want to buy, exchanging labour for goods – these things are not inherently evil. If all unethical trading were outlawed we could enjoy the marketplace without destroying the social fabric and the natural world. How to ethically trade? Well, such ideas are not new, and yet they could gain credibility via the Occupy movement. Workers’ Co-operatives, Social Enterprises and Community Interest Companies have ethics enshrined in their constitutions to cover environmental and social considerations, workers’ rights and animal rights. Fairtrade regulators, the Soil Association, Radical Routes and other bodies already exist; these could be networked and expanded to oversee businesses and to alert a fearsome inspectorate (something like HMRC but with more teeth and fewer loopholes)should breaches of ethics be suspected. Fines large enough to act as a serious deterrent could be imposed for a first breach; subsequent breaches if proven to be intentional or due to negligence would result in forced company closure, with assets to be seized and put directly into redressing the problems caused.

If these ideas seem rather prescriptive, perhaps workers’ co-operatives could lead by example, using carrots rather than sticks to demonstrate that caring and trading are not mutually exclusive. Workers’ co-ops are an anomaly. They exist within the current system while embodying its antithesis. Maybe that’s why governments have ignored them. Despite a history dating back to the Industrial Revolution and the existence of over 2000 UK-based workers’ co-operatives, there is no legal definition of a co-op in Britain. Recognition may be about to increase dramatically, as 2012 is the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives.

The UN is pouring resources into promoting the co-operative model as an alternative means of doing business, while raising awareness of how invaluable co-operatives are in reducing poverty, generating employment, enhancing social integration, increasing sustainability and promoting democratic principles… while also strengthening economies.

We’re led to believe that competition is necessary in the market-place; that business is all about cut and thrust and cutting costs; that bosses boss and workers work, the former are worth far more than the latter and the consumers’ role is to get ripped off. Co-operatives challenge those assumptions by enabling people to organise their own housing, work, social centres or consumer collectives and thus to avoid exploitative landlords, bosses and retail experiences. They are set up by members to benefit members, who are all equal. Co-operative principles ensure responsibility to the wider community and the environment, emphasising the ‘people and planet before profit’ message at the heart of the Occupy movement.

A classic image: Protesters carrying banners demanding jobs. Perhaps some left school or college only to find themselves stumbling uncertainly into a no-hope future. Others face redundancy. Some are long-term unemployed, in benefit traps, increasingly unemployable. Jobs are the obvious answer but they’re not always what they’re cracked up to be. Exploitative McJobs aren’t what those marchers really want but “A living wage and meaningful, creative employment that I can be proud of” doesn’t fit neatly onto a placard.

Workers’ co-operatives are an alternative to oppression in the workplace. They are not an alternative to hard work and often require a degree of commitment and responsibility far higher than that demanded in more conventional employment. The payback comes in making ones own decisions, co-operating with likeminded people, being in a work environment that is not all about the money. In a workers’ co-op, the wellbeing of workers, communities and the environment is more important than chasing profit. Sales translate into fair wages and are used to improve both workers’ conditions and service provision for customers. Successful co-operatives often put money back into their communities or environmental projects, donate to charities or support other co-operatives.

The Occupy movement – with its emphasis on equality, transparency, democracy and sustainability – is completely in tune with radical co-operatives. Focussing less on humanity’s competitive nature and more on our co-operative tendencies would go a long way towards addressing some of the issues the Occupy movement is attempting to tackle. Already there are buds and branches of Occupy that could work within the co-operative model. A newspaper (The Occupied Times) and a record label (Occupation Records) may soon be joined by a publishing company and a radical lawyers co-operative. These are just a few examples of why Occupy is not simply a protest or a campaign – it’s a movement for radical change which – as it evolves – is generating practical alternatives to the exploitative and destructive groove that many of us are stuck in.

Transition town activities, eco-villages, permaculture projects, guerilla gardening, indymedia, alternative currencies, barter systems, freecycling and make-do-and-mend clubs are all occurring already. Some are new, some not. Occupy doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel but can shine a light on these initiatives and use them to demonstrate that our desire to live in a world of social and economic justice and environmental sustainability is not a ridiculous fantasy.

There’s so much for Occupy to do. It’s all inextricably connected and while there’s not even a neat soundbite never mind a ready-rolled neat solution, the global movement has added a dash of hope to the grim spectre of an endless austerity age. Occupy insists that things can change, that it is possible to challenge the powerful and that a Tent City, fun though it may be to literally squat on the Establishment’s doorstep like cheeky ragamuffins, is not necessary in the longterm. In the US and Spain, Occupiers have moved away from permanent encampments and are now getting their voices heard via flash mobs, marches, strikes and blockades. Even those who leave the camps and return home to their ‘old lives’ often find that having been part of a radical community changes how they live in the future. Thus protest camps are like dandelions gone to fluffy seed; evictions are a puff of wind and soon… there may be tenacious radicals on every street.

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Who’s messing with Hebden Bridge’s vital flood barrier? | New Internationalist

“Town that won’t stop flooding: Hebden Bridge cleans up for the third time in three weeks.”

That was a Daily Mail headline in July. It was a slight exaggeration. Most people who live in Hebden are pretty sure they were only flooded twice, but it was enough. Cars were submerged, the library was evacuated, the main road closed, businesses were wrecked, homes swamped, livelihoods devastated.

A story is emerging involving a millionaire landowner, a government minister, environmental breaches at a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), a mysteriously dropped court case, the profitability of shooting grouse, and the spending of taxpayers’ cash. The setting: the wuthering heights above Hebden Bridge, famed moors of the Brontës. The unlikely heroes of the piece are blanket bog and sphagnum moss.

On Sunday August 12th, flood-hit residents of Hebden Bridge and campaigners from across the country set out from the town centre on a protest walk to the Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting estate. Following the walk, the Ban the Burn! national campaign launch, timed to coincide with ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ (the opening of the grouse-shooting season), took place at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Ban the Burn! campaigners are demanding a ban on the draining of peat-rich blanket bogs and the burning of moorland heather, activities carried out by landowners to maximise grouse-shooting potential.

The effects of draining and burning of blanket bogs, which are supposed to be protected under EU and UK conservation regulations, include: increased flood risk downstream; very significant carbon emissions; adverse impacts on water quality; and the destruction of rare and globally significant habitat. According to the Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, damaged UK peatlands currently release almost 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than all the households in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined.

Walshaw Moor came to public attention when Natural England attempted to prosecute the landowner for 43 environmental breaches. The case was abruptly dropped and Natural England subsequently entered into an Environmental Stewardship agreement with the Estate, whereby £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money will be paid to it over the next ten years while “controlled” burning will still be allowed. Campaigners describe this as a scandal in a YouTube video.

According to a local resident, “Here in Hebden Bridge we know the real hardship of flooding – shops and businesses in our town are still shut, and many of us have suffered irreplaceable loss. We need to manage the upland catchment to promote healthy blanket bog, with sphagnum moss to act as a sponge during heavy rainfall. It seems grotesque that the taxpayer is paying for the exact opposite – £2.5 million is about five times as much as we have in the Calder Valley flood recovery fund!”

At the end of a “brilliant”, “eye-opening” and “exhausting” day, a walker explained via the live EnergyRoyd blog why he joined the Ban the Burn! campaign: “I think it’s a travesty that Walshaw Moor Estate has been given public money. They’ve got friends in Whitehall, and the Minister for Wildlife’s a grouse shooter – basically, a bunch of aristocrats are making life worse for hard-working folk in the valley by increasing the risk of flooding.” Parts of this claim are unsubstantiated, however suggestions regarding the influence of political and land-owning elites on environmental and countryside policies have been made by Dr Mark Avery (former Conservation Director of the RSPB), George Monbiot (in The Guardian) and Michael McCarthy (The Independent).

Dr Avery says in his blog ‘Standing up for Nature’: The access of the Moorland Association to the [Wildlife] Minister is at a level that many statutory agencies who work for Defra might well envy, and is well beyond that of the average environmental NGO.” Edward Bromet, Chairman of the Moorland Association, which supports grouse shooting, sent Wildlife Minister Richard Benyon a private email in December 2011. The content of this email has since been made public under a Freedom of Information request. Bromet, referring to the court case brought by Natural England against Walshaw Moor Estate, wrote “What Natural England are doing is complete madness… Suggestions of readdressing the basis of existing agri-environment schemes… would make the management of moorland, most of which is privately funded, completely impossible.” How much influence such communications had on Natural England’s decision to drop the case is unknown.

When it comes to environmental degradation by a politically untouchable elite of large landowners, the Hebden Bridge story may be just the tip of an iceberg. Walshaw Moor is certainly not an isolated case – the Peatlands Inquiry found that only 11 percent of blanket bogs in English SSSIs are in favourable condition. Primary reasons cited for unfavourable (no change or declining) condition are overgrazing, inappropriate moor burning and drainage – the latter two being associated with grouse moors.

 

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Whose Land? | The Occupied Times

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

Whose Land?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eviction | Reuters Trustlaw Foundation

Shortly before midnight a flurry of tweets, texts, emails and bicycle couriered word-of-mouth messages: “…police are massing at London Wall – police vans, riot gear, eviction imminent!”

A few minutes of uncertainty and confusion resolved when a phalanx of police and a couple of dozen bailiffs wearing fluorescent orange waistcoats swarmed into view. The police arrived on foot and in a convoy of vans. Bailiffs brought bin lorries to seize and chew up our homes.

On being told that anyone remaining in the area of the encampment would be arrested, many occupiers chose to pack and move to the cathedral steps, believing that people and possessions would be safe there. The Church had, after all, said that it would provide sanctuary… hadn’t it? In the absence of Giles Fraser – now stuck on the wrong side of a hastily erected police cordon between St Paul’s and the rest of the world – no one seemed quite sure.

As the police threw up their barriers, protected (from what?) by shields and helmets, protesters wearing pumps and cardigans built a barricade using what was left of the camp kitchen – a sturdy set of shelves, chairs, tables and pallets. Meanwhile some rushed to save tents and cooking equipment from the bailiffs and others filmed, observed or prayed.

As homes were systematically destroyed, Occupiers remained peaceful but for the first time in months a gender imbalance became evident. A number of men leapt onto the heaped remnants of the kitchen to wave flags and chair legs, to chant and yell at the bailiffs, to symbolically resist the destruction of their community.

These men were the ones in the media lens. They drew the attention of onlookers, journalists, police and court enforcers. Meanwhile women worked, largely unnoticed, in a myriad roles learned during their four months in the Occupy camp.

Nafeesa overcame nerves, technical difficulties and demands to move on. With tireless dedication she live-streamed the eviction so that those watching on screens around the world could follow the course of events. When she took a break from recording she was interviewed by the BBC. As a designated legal observer J kept an eagle eye on proceedings, making note of interactions between police and protesters, while Kai took photographs, uploaded them and communicated with the outside world via Twitter.

Only when the men atop the teetering kitchen shelves refused to descend was there any real sense of confrontation. Police moved media, observers and supporters away while bailiffs demolished the ‘fort’ beneath the occupiers, pulled them to the ground, arrested them for obstruction and took them away to the cells.

In front of the cathedral Tammy was determinedly maintaining her calm and holding a candlelit, flower-strewn vigil when police suddenly made a move on those gathered on the steps. Belongings were scattered as protesters and supporters were forced away from St Paul’s. A cry went out to ‘sit down!’ but most were too bewildered by the unnecessary and unexpected change in attitude to do so. Those who heeded the call – and those who were already sitting down, some reciting prayers – were dragged down the cathedral steps and dumped on the cobbles of the churchyard below then herded onto the street.

The last of the occupiers chained himself to a tree. It took over an hour to remove him. A last stand had been made but justice had not, in the eyes of many, been done. The Church, by either instructing or allowing police to remove peaceful worshippers from a supposed sanctuary, had done itself no favours. Occupiers, however, were not down-hearted. “You can’t evict an idea” has been joined by a new catchphrase – “this is only the end of the beginning”.

While the kitchen shelf clamberers were the heroes of the moment, both women and men are the heroes of the movement. Tammy, Kai, Nafeesa and many other less visible women will use the skills learned in the OLSX encampment and honed during the long night of eviction to continue their fight for social, economic and environmental justice into the future, whatever incarnation Occupy takes next.

I wrote this blog for  Reuters ‘Trustlaw’ Foundation

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Workers’ Co-operatives: escape from the rat-race | The Occupied Times

Workers’ co-operatives are an anomaly. They exist within the current system while embodying its antithesis. Maybe that’s why governments have ignored them. Despite a history dating back to the Industrial Revolution and the existence of over 2000 UK-based workers’ co-operatives, there is no legal definition of a co-op in Britain. Recognition may be about to increase dramatically, as 2012 is the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives.

The UN is pouring resources into promoting the co-operative model as an alternative means of doing business, while raising awareness of how invaluable co-operatives are in reducing poverty, generating employment, enhancing social integration and increasing sustainability.

We’re led to believe that competition is necessary in the market-place; that business is all about cut and thrust and cutting costs; that bosses boss and workers work and the former are worth far more than the latter. Co-operatives challenge those assumptions, being comprised of voluntary members who jointly and equally control and contribute to the co-op for their own benefit and that of their community. Guided by values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others, co-operatives emphasise the ‘people and planet before profit’ message at the heart of the Occupy movement.

Workers’ co-ops are based on the idea that a workplace should be controlled by those who actually put the work in and that everyone involved should benefit equally. Only workers may be members of the co-op and all members have an equal say in running the business. Many co-operatives use consensus decision making and workers often take turns to do unpopular tasks. While individual skills, experience and preferences are taken into account, attempts are made to provide training and skill-shares so that everyone has a chance to participate in all areas of the work.

A classic image: Protesters carrying banners demanding jobs. Perhaps some left school or college only to find themselves stumbling uncertainly into a no-hope future. Others face redundancy. Some are long-term unemployed, in benefit traps, increasingly unemployable. Jobs are the obvious answer but they’re not always what they’re cracked up to be. Ask those whose work pays the mortgage but drains the soul. Exploitative McJobs aren’t what those marchers really want but “A living wage and meaningful, creative employment that I can be proud of” doesn’t fit neatly onto a placard.

Workers’ co-operatives are an alternative to oppression in the workplace. They are not an alternative to hard work and often require a degree of commitment and responsibility far higher than that demanded in more conventional employment. The pay-back comes in making ones own decisions, co-operating with like-minded people, being in a work environment that is not all about the money. In a workers’ co-op, the well-being of workers, communities and the environment is more important than chasing profit. That’s radical in today’s society.

Where most companies put profit, we put ethics – right at the heart of what we do. We refuse to compromise for an easy life or a cheap deal.” So says Weirdigans Cafe Co-operative. [1] What does this mean in practice? It means buying organic ingredients, local fresh produce and fair-trade dried goods. It means using a solar-powered, energy-efficient sound system and LED lighting. It means working long hours for minimum wage then sitting around a campfire with a bunch of workmates who’re all equal, who care about each other and wouldn’t dream of playing competitive workplace politics. Caring for customers is high on the list of priorities, as is supporting campaigns against GM foodstuffs and spreading the Occupy message. Lining one’s own pockets doesn’t get a mention.

Footprint Workers’ Co-operative: “As we have no bosses we run [our printing business] as we want, doing interesting jobs for interesting people. We want to be straightforward, friendly, responsible and responsive… We do it as ethically as we can, printing on proper recycled paper, powered by a genuine green electricity tariff and using the least environmentally damaging processes we can find. We also give a percentage of the money we make to worthy projects.” [2]

The socially useful and educational aspects of co-ops come first for many in the movement. Profit-seeking is rare. Sales translate into fair wages and are used to improve both workers’ conditions and service provision for customers. Successful co-operatives often put money back into their communities, donate to charities or support other co-operatives through networks such as Radical Routes.

The Occupy movement – with its emphasis on equality, transparency, democracy and sustainability – is so in tune with the more radical co-ops that it’s difficult to tell their statements apart. This is Radical Routes, a network of co-ops seeking to change the status quo [3]:

Our world is shaped by the forces of greed, capitalism and materialism, where maximum production and optimum profits are vigorously pursued, making life a misery for many and putting us and the environment at risk. The system is ultimately controlled by the rich and powerful, the capitalists and bureaucrats, through the use of many mechanisms such as ownership of the economy (making people slaves to a job) and control of the media (creating a passive culture).”

And this is Occupy London:

With its relentless pursuit of profit at all cost, the present corporate system fits the definition of a psychopath, driving the rapid destruction of our society and the natural environment. This is done only to benefit a small minority and not the needs of the 99 per cent. The way corporations and governments are intertwined fundamentally undermines democracy. Corporations are rarely transparent or accountable to the people… The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives…”

Perhaps co-operatives are one of the alternatives Occupy is seeking. Occupy and the co-operative movement could co-operate to the benefit of both of their communities and to benefit the 99 per cent currently caught in the lonely rat race of oppression and meaningless or non-existent work. Key messages coming from the UN reflect this.

Co-operative enterprises empower people… improve livelihoods and strengthen the economy… enable sustainable development… balance social and economic demands… promote democratic principles… [provide] a pathway out of poverty… [provide] a sustainable business model for youth…”

The UN slogan for 2012: “Cooperative enterprises build a better world.” [4]

[1] www.weirdigans.co.uk    [2] www.footprinters.co.uk    [3] www.radicalroutes.org.uk    [4] www.social.un.org/coopsyear

Published in The Occupied Times

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Occupy London’s Financial ‘Crisis’

Written for The Occupied Times

Certain sections of the mainstream media would have us believe that Occupy London is as bankrupt – monetarily and morally – as the financial sector on our doorstep.

The money has been lost! Donations have been siphoned off into individual bank accounts and shady eco-activist charities! We’ve spent thousands of pounds on fags and dog-food!

Well, no. What happened was that an assortment of people passionate about changing the world for the better set up camp in the city. They had no collective money and initially they didn’t have much of a plan beyond making themselves heard, raising their voices in protest at injustice and demanding a fairer future. Their voices resonated. Members of the 99% who couldn’t camp out showed their support in other ways and cash donations trickled in.

The money was put in a tin and used to buy food, teabags, stationery and to print Occupy leaflets. People were clamouring to donate online, so an unused Climate Camp bank account was adopted as a temporary repository for electronic funds. Meanwhile, the fledgling OLSX Finance Working Group sought advice on whether a motley assortment of unincorporated radicals could legally accept donations and open a bank account. The answer was yes. The irony was not lost on the Occupiers; nevertheless, it was decided funds could help us spread the Occupy message and so should not be rejected. A Co-operative bank account was deemed the ‘least evil’ option.

OccupyLSX began to save and then to spend. Swept up in the excitement of media scrums, church resignations, secondary Occupations and national strikes, we didn’t sit down and thrash out spending priorities and financial policies from the outset. This inevitably led to instances of conflict – what’s more important, political Direct Action or weatherproof tents? Is feeding the homeless part of the Occupy remit? Do we need to chain down our cash-box? Should we form a not-for-profit company?

Occupations worldwide have struggled with similar issues. OccupyLSX initiated a temporary spending freeze during which issues of transparency, accountability, spending priorities and creative use of resources were discussed.

After an intense week of debate, during which a few people became frustrated and stamped their feet, a proposal was put to and accepted by the sovereign body of OLSX – the General Assembly. From now on budgets will be set weekly; spending will not exceed donations received in any given week barring exceptional circumstances; priorities will be discussed and reviewed regularly; all working groups will keep clear and transparent records; the movement will aim to source materials via freecycle and similar schemes where possible; and all decisions regarding spending will be made by the General Assembly. As for the bank account, the paperwork is at the Co-op bank and there is a short-list of potential signatories.

If this was a financial crisis, it was a microscopic one; nipped in the bud before it festered, unsustainable systems recognised and replaced within the space of six weeks. Perhaps the Financial Service Authority and its new offspring would like to learn a thing or two from us?