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.
By Emma Fordham
(published in New Internationalist online)
My Tent for your Bonus
In early January, black-on-white A4 prints displaying a bold and simple message began to appear amongst the tents in St Paul’s Churchyard. My Tent for your Bonus, the posters declared. The first day just a couple of tents were on offer.
“I could only afford to print a few copies,” explained the brain behind this campaign. The next day he brandished a sheaf of fresh prints. “Some passers-by liked it so much they paid for me to make more!”
Daily, the number of tents available to be exchanged for bonuses grew. By January 29th practically every tent sported the offer. 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.
Honest Occupiers from the St Paul’s camp felt it was important to keep their side of the bargain, even though it meant losing a precious tent just when the camp was at capacity due to eviction at the Bank of Ideas.
Four stalwarts of OLSX carried the 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.
Will Bob Diamond of Barclay’s also win himself a tent this bonus season?
By Emma Fordham
(published in The Occupied Times)
Sheffield: One City, Two Occupations
Friday night, the Sheffield encampment, in the cathedral grounds. A pink-haired deacon facilitates the pre-conference General Assembly. For those from well-organised but somewhat lacking-in-home-comforts Occupy LSX, it feels like entering Granny’s house. Tassled rugs, sofas, sideboards and chairs with all four legs intact. Outside, a stack of seasoned logs beside a brazier and a tiny field kitchen. Halfway through the GA plates of steaming stew are passed through the heavily blanketed doorway.
Miraculous food, materialised and devoured, is followed by comic entertainment from Madame Zucchini and her performing vegetables. We provide the shark music, Jaws is recast as Capitalism, Chief Brody is a potato (or possibly a turnip). Capitalism is overthrown after a brief tussle between the vegetables. Light relief over, we return to talk of evictions, agendas, the Christian response to Occupy, our visions of and fears for the future.
Saturday, it’s over to the Citadel of Hope. A crumbling facade in the city centre. Bear, previously of LSX Tranquillity crew, now the Citadel’s caretaker, is sweeping the front doorstep and welcomes us in. A dark entrance hall lit with low-energy LED lights leads into a cavernous room with exposed brickwork and a mildly musty air. In one corner techies huddle around computers. Wires snake across the broken floors. A smartphone taped to a decaying pillar acts as a wifi hub, a projector screen displays the day’s agenda, in an ante-room walls are being built around a toilet. The kettle’s on in the kitchen.
Mugs of tea in hand, we mount concrete stairs, step unexpectedly out of the gloom into a bright and airy amphitheatre with wooden floors, enormous windows and an imposing stage with lush velvet curtains. Half chapel and half theatre, shabbily grandiose, this is the perfect venue for a national gathering of Occupiers.
Strategy, sustainability, non-violence, local issues, global solidarity, online platforms, community, networks, outreach… these are the words that repeatedly echo around the hall. Downstairs, talks on co-operatives and chaos theory compete for our attention.
In the afternoon we rally outside Sheffield Town Hall then proceed to the Occupy camp for a ‘tea, cake and kindness’ outreach event. Consideration of tax injustice and the bonkers banking system weaves between plans for an Occupy ‘caravan’ and an eco-village. In the evening we retire to the most excellent Dove and Rainbow pub for a gig night featuring Occupy favourites Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly.
Sunday morning sees yawning Occupiers convening over coffee and laptops while cocooned still in their sleeping bags on the semi-industrial ground floor of the Citadel. The agenda is bursting with subjects we want to discuss but just chatting, getting to know one another, swapping contact details and sharing experiences is where we are at. The business of the day is shuffled, re-prioritised. We would need a week to fit it all in. A week-long summer gathering is suggested. We look forwards to spending time together in fields, in sunshine, without the fifteen layers of clothing necessary to camp out through a British winter. Earthian entertains us with a workshop on tent-monster creation. Gradually we realise the potential to be had once the Occupy camps are all linked up online and through personal contacts. Our skill set is immense. The Occupy hive mind knows so much already, from plumbing to law, land registry to permaculture, economic theory to outside catering, computer programming, survival techniques, therapeutic techniques and how to open a squat. All that and we are learning faster than a high-speed train.
The Citadel of Hope was the former Salvation Army building. Elderly visitors to the conference remember its heyday and are overcome with emotion, so pleased are they to see the space back in use after years of neglect. The Sheffield Occupiers are in touch with the building’s owners regarding the possibility of a negotiated stay. On Sunday evening The Invisible Circus treats us to a highly professional cabaret show in the round. We leave feeling, as one tired but exhilarated London Occupier declared, “…that we’d do anything for these other Occupiers, now we know they too feel this intoxicating hope.”
By Emma Fordham
(published in The Occupied Times)
The School of Ideas
In a derelict school on Featherstone Street in Islington, radical ideas took root. On 11 February the School of Ideas opened it’s doors after free-thinking squatters took possession of the previously abandoned building. Open-plan, primary-coloured classrooms, a gym, an assembly hall and overgrown playgrounds were transformed into workshop and meeting spaces, a donation-based cafe, a cinema, meditation space and more. Less than three weeks later, the school was not only evicted but demolished.
Those occupying the building had been excited by the possibilities it represented. The idea was for members of the diverse local community to use the space as a community resource, for their own projects. Members of Occupy London had been using the school as a workspace and a place to connect with local residents. Visitor Fiona Brennan felt that the School of Ideas had the potential to provide “an inspirational injection of positivity” into the once vibrant but now fragmented community.
Approximately fifty people attended the first School of Ideas Community Assembly. Occupiers introduced participants to consensus-based direct democracy. Small groups held brainstorming sessions about what to do with the reclaimed school building, then fed back to the Assembly. Ideas for how best to use the space included solar panels and permaculture gardens – if the building could be secured for long enough – as well as games, art and education. After the Assembly many people wrote letters to the local council and the owners of the land – a housing development company – explaining that they would like to utilise the space creatively rather than letting it stand empty or be demolished. The feeling of the Assembly was that even a few weeks’ use of the building could be helpful in fostering community cohesion. We now know that the Assembly, those letters and the community were ignored.
The school was, for its brief incarnation as the School of Ideas, used for workshops, skill-shares, performances and as gallery space. The ‘Free University’, begun at the Bank of Ideas, took up residence in the school. A broad range of subjects, everything from political squatting to esoteric philosophy to renewable energy, were on the curriculum.
Plans hatched at the School of Ideas have already borne fruit. One such plan was ‘Rockupy’ – a collaboration between members of Occupy London, musical artists such as Kate Nash and Sam Duckworth (Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly) and local teenagers who, in the course of one intense and inspired day, produced, recorded and promoted their own song.
Dave Brooks, a teacher and part-time occupier, was impressed by the day he spent talking with other educators and occupiers at the School of Ideas. “These articulate and committed people have inspired me to become involved in transforming citizenship lessons in schools in my area,” he said, going on to explain that “The citizenship curriculum meshes with the Occupy movement’s mission. Occupy isn’t just about economic injustice – though it has been very successful at highlighting that – it’s also about how we think, communicate and treat each other. These are exactly the things we should be discussing in schools.”
Those care-taking the school on Featherstone Street knew they faced eviction but expected the authorities to proceed according to the rules and laws usually applied to squatted buildings. Despite the unexpected brutality of a night-time eviction with no forewarning, in which belongings were trapped inside the building then bulldozed along with it, the plans made and hopes raised during this brief occupation will continue to flourish. The cat is out of the bag – or, as occupiers like to say, “An idea cannot be evicted”. Squatters will continue to open up buildings and Occupy London will continue moving into communities and neighbourhoods – by being invited into fully functioning schools and colleges as well as by continuing to reclaim under-used public spaces.
The encampment in St Paul’s Churchyard was the Occupy London nest and now the fledglings are flying. In the coming months occupiers will be marching, networking, teaching, facilitating change and kindling hopes. They will be creating independent media and music and they will be highlighting corruption. Court orders and wrecking balls cannot stop the public repossession of education, democracy and justice.
By Emma Fordham
(published in The Occupied Times)
Camping Out: Why I joined the Occupy Movement
For four months I’ve been living on the pavement beside St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.
The Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados (Indignant) movement and Occupy Wall Street in New York City set the scene for mobilisation against power elites and financial inequality in London, culminating in the Occupy London Stock Exchange (OLSX) encampment.
Having read online that low-energy lights were needed at the site, I wrapped some LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in a sleeping bag and went to the camp, exhilarated by the chance to be involved.
Newspapers stated that Occupy had no clear message. For me the message was too loud and too clear to be ignored.
Passion for the natural world had previously prescribed my activism. As threats to that world stacked up, it became obvious that economics, politics, environmental concerns and global (in)justice are inextricably linked.
The system is geared to profit and power, so environment and equity take a back seat. Lobbying and corruption are rife.
Change is needed on every level – personal, local, national and international – if justice and sustainability are to be achieved. The Occupy movement’s acknowledgement of this is exciting.
Twenty years ago, uninspired by career ladders, I sold my belongings, bought an old ambulance and went on the road. Life as an itinerant traveller was instructive and ultimately empowering.
It led to involvement in renewable energy projects and ethical trading. I set up my own business and – disliking the idea of being a boss as much as I disliked the idea of having a boss – I discovered the co-operative model.
It is timely that 2012 is the United Nations (U.N.) International Year of Co-operatives. Co-ops enable 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.
There are co-operatives worldwide, ranging in size from micro-companies of two or three people to whole towns or agricultural districts.
The U.N. is trumpeting co-ops because they reduce poverty, generate employment, enhance social integration, increase sustainability and promote democratic principles… while also strengthening economies.
Focussing less on humanity’s competitive nature and more on our co-operative tendencies would go a long way towards addressing many of the issues onto which the Occupy movement is currently shining a light.
Women may need to lead the way on this and I am ready to do so.
By Emma Fordham