Tag Archives: city of london

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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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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A wild, weird, wired, wet weekend in London Town

It began sedately enough with a small assembly on the steps of St Paul’s. Activists returning from the Stop ACTA demo joined us after defending internet freedom and privacy rights. We discussed the upcoming series of assemblies ‘Creating Alternatives’, to be based on nurturing connections between community groups and grassroots campaigns. These assemblies will look at ways of working together which take us out of the competitive ratrace, away from notions of victimhood, and towards community empowerment. We’ll be considering Co-operatives, a Community Bill of Rights and the notion of ‘The Commons’… alongside topics brought to the assemblies by participating groups. This series will begin on June 16th and will continue throughout the Summer, every Saturday at 2pm on the steps of St Paul’s, culminating in a community picnic on August 19th (location tbc).

It was a sunny Saturday so some of us continued sitting on the cathedral steps after the assembly wrapped up. Thus we were treated to the sight of several hundred nude and semi-nude cyclists (plus a few scantily-clad skaters and scooterists) participating in a mass Naked Bike Ride to promote cycling and cyclists’ rights. This was impressive, beautiful, slightly shocking and seemed terribly, eccentrically British… although we later discovered that naked bike riding is a global phenomena. American and Japanese tourists who’d obviously never experienced the phenomena in their own countries were flabbergasted. Especially when the entire procession became embroiled in a traffic jam and came to a halt wound around the cathedral. “In front of a church!” exclaimed one, while trying not to catch the eye of a naked person… nor to stare too long at flabby or private body parts. When propriety proved too difficult she closed her eyes.

Next stop, the London Green Fair in Regent’s Park. A whole festival surrounded by city towerblocks – quite surreal. Wholesome foodstalls, fairtrade clothing, crafts, eco-products, bars and music. Lovely. Luckily, still sunny. The Occupy London Energy, Equity & Environment group met here and sat chatting in the park until dusk, stumbled across by an Occupied Times editor, some Finsbury Square folk and a few Anons.

Having found my way to the latest Nomadic Occupy Camp in Ion Square Gardens, Tower Hamlets, I caught up with the nomads’ news around a fire. I heard that relations with local residents – who had arranged portaloos for the camp and many of whom visited daily – were good. Preparations for a court hearing were in progress, however, and there was some disagreement amongst the camp’s inhabitants over whether to fight the case or simply slip away to the next site. Some felt that having cleaned up the park they had evidence to prove that Nomadic Occupy provides a valuable community service and that they could petition for temporary camping permits. I slipped away to bed while the debate continued.

Having slept well in a borrowed tent I was woken by scorching sun on Sunday morning. It looked to be a perfect day for catching up with the Diggers2012 who were en route to Windsor to reclaim disused Crown Estate land for an eco-village settlement, so I took a train out of London, hitched through a police cordon and joined the Diggers. I later wrote about our adventures for The Occupied Times: Diggers2012, A Walk to Windsor

On Monday London (and much of Britain) was treated to monsoonal weather and the Nomads were in court. Their pleas to remain in Ion Square for another two weeks were rejected and they were given until 9am Wednesday morning to depart. At a hastily convened and rather damp meeting there was consensus to move to a new borough. Overnight it was decided that Hampstead Heath would be an audacious but appropriate move.

By Wednesday morning I was back in Yorkshire and the Occupy Nomads were ensconced on Hampstead Heath. The Nomads told reporters that they were “building a space for political discussion” in an area of the Heath known as the Vale of Health. The Vale is managed by the City of London Corporation so the Nomads were poking an old enemy. They managed to stay on the Heath for less than 24 hours before being threatened with arrest if they refused to pack and leave… but during that time they highlighted controversy over plans to commercialise the area, as well as refocusing attention on the continuing existence of the Occupy movement in London.

Evict us and we multiply.

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Post-LSX

Sometimes you don’t realise how hard something is until it’s over. A battle. Parenthood. Divorce. That kind of thing. Camping all through the winter in the city, unexpectedly, with strangers, with increasing numbers of vulnerable people demanding that you care and attend to them (whether you like it or not). Unexpected. Attacks out of the blue, barbs of abuse piercing deep in moments of exhaustion, aimed by agents provocateurs, perhaps, or egoists; people with axes to grind or chips on their shoulders, or hidden agendas or drug habits or histories of abuse or fragile mental health. People with anger-management issues shouting at cops and cops circling ever closer, peering into your tent, your little nylon bag of precious private space. Chewed up in the back of a bin lorry.

I loved camping on the pavement between the Cathedral and the Stock Exchange, on land straddling sacred churchyard and public highway… I did. I was in my element, in the elements. Tent tied to sandbags, until someone slashed the guy-ropes during a storm and the meditation tent was slashed too, collapsed and landed on a seventy-one-year-old poet. Everything got wet. When the temperature dropped into the minuses then the bone-cold set in and sometimes it was like a fever. I fell in the snow and it hasn’t stopped hurting yet.

The snow was beautiful. The snow weighed heavy on the tents and our drinking water fountain froze and I was carrying water butts filled at nearby businesses at gone midnight. It was beautiful and it was hard.

In the first week post-eviction I couldn’t talk about it, when I tried to talk about it I gulped for air and my mind skittered away like a pebble on ice. I couldn’t talk about it. Lump in throat, tear in eye… “Are you glad it’s over?” and “Yes I am, it had to end”, so why am I sobbing? Why does Finsbury Square feel more like home than my own home?

It’s not the end, just the beginning of what really matters, but it’s the end of that shanty town of lost souls and I poured so much of my soul into that shadowed stretch of cobbles, bits of me are left behind, tougher to prise off the pavement than the chewing gum deposited by… who spits chewing gum onto the churchyard slabs?

Mind skittering off. I can’t really talk about St Paul’s. Best times, worst times. Through it all the bells, those bells, marking time and the days and nights counting down to eviction and the treadmill of court proceedings, adrenaline highs going nowhere, fight or flight screwing insides tight. Tents chewed up in bin lorries. Shanty town community. Gallows humour. Dysfunctional but less dysfunctional than what we ordinarily consider normal. If normal is don’t talk to anyone in the street or on the tube, don’t talk to your neighbours, stick your headphones in so no one disturbs you, keep the windows up in your car, when you get home bolt the door and put the chain on and turn the TV up and insulate everything and insulate yourself and don’t hear anything, don’t listen to anyone, don’t care don’t care don’t care……

I cared too much and I didn’t cry and now the dam is cracking and now I am crying.

It’s just the beginning, okay…?

At the moment it feels like swimming upstream against a fast flowing river after tumbling from the top of a waterfall and getting tangled in river-weed. Hard to catch breath, little headway being made but not going under.

We haven’t forgotten what we’re fighting for.

Real democracy, justice, accountability. An end to tax havens, an end to secret deals in the corridors of power. Put the brakes on the corporate takeover of our world. Expose corruption. Re-prioritise at a global level. People and planet before profit. Build networks of collaborative, co-operative communities.

Dust off our knees, pull the river-weed out of our hair, regroup and get on with it. Occupy minds, Occupy streets, Occupy education, Occupy the media, Occupy debate.

Occupy is a movement of superheroes. Everyone can be an Occupy superhero. Occupy.

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What’s Occupy about, again?

DISCLAIMER: what follows is just one person’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of other Occupiers!

One of the things that attracted me to Occupy is the fact that it is not a ‘single-issue’ campaign. It not only acknowledges the interconnections between issues but actively uncovers, investigates and highlights them. I come from an environmentalist perspective… it was only a year or so ago that I realised how impossible it is to focus purely on the natural world when the attacks on it are rooted in economic and political machinations. Now I want to delve deeper into untangling the unholy mess we’ve made and while economics is a big part of the picture, it isn’t the only part.

Lobbying of politicians by big business; power-mongering by the 1%; gambling and game-playing by financiers; rapacious consumption and correlating ecological destruction; muzzling and oppression of the majority; warping of democracy; secrecy and lies in the corridors of power; war for profit… all these are pieces of the rather nasty jigsaw-puzzle picture of our world.

I do believe that Occupy should focus on causes rather symptoms – I’d rather try to bring down the government than march against the Welfare Reform Bill or house an alcoholic – but I see the root cause of the current unjust systems as being something deeper than the government or our economic house of cards. The bottom line is a screwed up value system that puts profit before people, before planet. Our priorities are all wrong, all over the world. Almost. There are still tribal cultures that favour collaboration over competition and we should emulate them.

I believe that Occupy should be pointing out real-life, practical alternatives to the exploitative and destructive groove that many of us are stuck in. Transition towns, co-operative networks, eco-villages, permaculture projects, guerilla gardening, indymedia, Move-Your-Money and money-free experiments (freecycle, LETS etc) 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.

If there was global political will to make the world a better place, it could be done. Politicians must be made to serve the people or be cast aside (true democracy). The 1% need to be taught how to share and if they won’t be taught they must be forced (end tax havens and tax avoidance). Those at the head of giant companies and financial institutions must be held accountable for their actions (investigate, name-and-shame, boycott, blockade, occupy). Lobbying, control of the media and funding of research/think-tanks must be transparent (do it all again).

There’s so much for Occupy to do. It’s all inextricably connected and while it doesn’t form a neat sound-bite, I’ve found that it isn’t difficult to explain to anyone willing to spend five minutes with me. Usually, after a minute, they’ve begun to join in, to explain it to me. We the 99% are not stupid, just tired from struggling against injustice. The recent ‘austerity measures’ have kicked many into awareness. Occupy has added a dash of hope that things can change, that it is possible to challenge the powerful.

We need to keep that up. Spread hope, educate, listen, practice and highlight alternatives to the current system, shame and inflict pain on the powerful, tread lightly on the earth and tend our global networks. Revolutionise banking, okay. But we’re bigger than that and we can do more.

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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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eviction ‘paused’

The City of London Corporation has decided not to go ahead with an eviction notice at this time. Following the church’s lead, they’ve asked the Occupiers to liaise with them, to scale down the size of the camp and to guarantee departure by New Year. The Guardian is reporting that the City is ‘happy’ for us to stay… I’m not sure they’re happy, more likely just pragmatic and resigned to the inevitable. As yet no guarantees of downsizing or departure have been made. There are a number of legal issues to address and much discussion will be had in the next few days.

Meanwhile, St Paul’s Cathedral will not be pursuing legal action to dismantle the OccupyLSX camp; the Chapter of St Paul’s is unanimous in wanting to negotiate with OccupyLSX to reduce disruption to the Cathedral and also to discuss the issues we came to draw attention to – economic, social and environmental injustices.

Putting this new approach into practice, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has called for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on financial transactions, in an attempt to redistribute wealth from the 1% to the 99%. While that is just one measure that some of the Occupiers may like to see implemented, it’s good to have the Church onside and engaging positively in the debate.

The public support we’re receiving at the camp is heart-warming, sometimes tear-jerking. At last, people are communicating on London’s streets. Passionate debates about money, politics and religion are occurring, night and day. As one Occupier said: “I’ve had more conversations in seven days here than in the last seven years of my life.”

This is important. It’s also exactly what the Cathedral’s own website says this magnificent space is for: “It is a place for protest against injustice and for the public expression of hope for a better society.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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