Tag Archives: occupy eviction

Occupy Revival

I wrote this for the Occupy London website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One participant, formerly of the OLSX camp, said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Walking the Bounds: 6 month anniversary

A message from Ben, who was a fellow tent-dweller at OccupyLSX in St Paul’s Churchyard.
I am now standing in your tent. There are only imaginary batteries.
Now I’m checking in at Tranquility.
The tech tent is very quiet.
There are tourists in the kitchen tent.
Now I’m in my first tent. Near the tree behind meditation.
The library is very quiet.
It is sunny in Tent City Uni and Info. Just met Max in the Geodome.
Now I’m in my tent.
Obi just came to visit me in my tent.
So much passion and energy went into our being there; some of that lingers still. The wide grey open space rustles with ghosts like an old battlefield, a stone circle, a ruined castle.
In our minds and hearts, the tents remain.
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Nomads’ Mistake?

UPDATE: The Occupy Nomads at Shadwell did indeed listen to the community and remove themselves from the King Edward’s Memorial Park (KEMP) which they hope will be saved by the locals’ campaign.

We’re all on the same side…

I heard earlier today that the locals are not happy about the Occupy camp at Shadwell and then Paul commented on my blog.

I believe the occupiers will leave this weekend, or may have already? It’s a shame they landed on a memorial park and have upset people. The Nomad camp would not have been intending to stay permanently and I genuinely don’t believe they meant any harm, quite the opposite, but it does sound as though they made a mistake.

The move to Shadwell was made by these nomadic occupiers in haste due to fears of eviction at Mile End. I’ve heard there are good relations between the local community and occupiers at Mile End and that after talks with the local council there is no imminent eviction order there. Those at Shadwell will probably move temporarily back to Mile End.

At Limehouse the occupiers spent 2 weeks on a small plot of land, caused no trouble, and left voluntarily rather than hanging on and getting evicted. They have learnt from problems that occurred at other Occupy camps – not just in London but around the world – that temporary camps are more healthy and constructive than long-term ones and that strict ground-rules for behaviour in camps (no intoxication) is essential.

I hope the residents of Shadwell will not think too badly of these people who are, in their own way – and without meaning to offend anyone except the elite 1% –  fighting for economic and social justice for us all.

I watched the film that Paul, who commented on my blog, linked to. At least one of the nomads looked like he wanted to engage, to have a conversation with the person filming and perhaps explain their purpose, their plans. I’d have been interested to see what he said, had he been given the chance to speak. I know that man and he is a very honourable and reasonable man.

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Occupy Re-emerges in London

Lots of Occupy happenings around London yesterday.

In the wee hours I received a text:

“Dear Hazel… Nomadic Occupy of London – branch Shadwell/Wapping – would like to welcome you to this new site to support the locals and everyone else. So please send this msg of solidarity around the world. With love and peace.” If I say it was signed by a man in a baseball cap with a good sense of humour and a penchant for rearranging tents, those who spent time at OccupyLSX will know who I mean.

If I could be in London right now I’d be in one of the Nomadic Occupy camps. These Occupiers broke away from the overcrowded and sometimes hostile environment of Finsbury Square just under a month ago. Pulling a hand-built handcart laden with tents, kitchen gear, solar panels and a 12-volt battery, they were stopped by police at gone midnight somewhere along their four mile route. Having inspected the wiring and rear lights the police waved them on their way and they continued to a little patch of grass near Limehouse Station. Here they pitched tents, introduced themselves to the locals, engaged walkers and cyclists on the adjacent heavily-used pedestrian and cycle way, and built their nomadic community. They stayed at Limehouse for two weeks.

On their last day at the Limehouse site the Nomads hosted a Teetotal Tea Party (of the Alice-in-Wonderland rather than American-right variety). Then, overnight, just hours before they were due to be evicted, the Nomads packed up their encampment, loaded the handcart and moved to Mile End, a place of considerable historical significance and a very appropriate location for an Occupy camp.

In 1381 a Peasants’ Revolt was underway. The uprising was instigated by taxes deemed unfair by the peasants. Led by men with names still familiar today – Jack Straw and Wat Tyler – the rebels marched on London. On 12 June, 60,000 rebels camped at Mile End. Two days later the king capitulated and signed their charter. As one Occupy Nomad said: “If only we had 60,ooo activists camping now…”.

Unfortunately – and according to wikipedia – the subsequent behaviour of the rebels caused the king to have the leaders and many rebels executed. I won’t draw any more parallels… suffice to say that having learned lessons at the St Paul’s camp and Finsbury Square, the Nomads of Occupy require all campers to adhere to a code of behaviour that excludes intoxication and aggression.

Nomadic Occupy is currently trying to negotiate a time-limited stay at Mile End with the local authorities. The text received 1.30am on 10th April came from a forward party who have taken another site at Shadwell/Wapping. All or some of the Mile End tent-dwellers may move here if eviction becomes certain at Mile End, or once any negotiated time-limit there is up. Or, perhaps another site will be found. The Nomads are quick on their feet and enjoy exploring new environments. They are also big on linking up with local communities in order to listen to and learn from residents about neighbourhood concerns, as well as being keen to experiment with alternative modes of communal living.

Back at St Paul’s Cathedral, Tammy has reclaimed a little patch of ground where the camp Information Tent used to be. Today, with children in tow and home-baked cakes to share, she began connecting with the streams of tourists and city workers who pass by every day. We’ve been missing them and apparently, they’ve been missing us. Two shook Tammy’s hand, one hugged her and one said something rude. As another former member of the Info crew at camp LSX said: “That’s 75% approval rating! We’re more popular than the government.”

Who knows, soon people might start preparing and sharing food on the pavement beside the cathedral (perhaps in the very spot where our kitchen tent stood). Perhaps workshops and lectures will run in the space formerly known as Tent City University and people will read books in the library, converse in huddles on the cobbles, make art and music in the colonnade, sweep the church steps and breathe life back into the sterile grey swathe of city this has become. Anything could happen, so long as it doesn’t involve ‘sleeping apparatus’.

Less positive news was the eviction and arrests at Leyton Marsh. Local residents, supported by activists previously camping at OccupyLSX, have been protesting against the wrecking of the marsh to serve the Olympic ‘dream’. Not all occupiers were arrested, some moved tents to a nearby patch of verge and may still be able to halt the bulldozers; they will no doubt welcome support and reinforcements.  Poignant pics by @jesshurdphoto and explanatory indymedia article by @indyrikki

Harking back to previous occupation-related arrests, just now progressing through the courts is the case relating to the flash occupation at Trafalgar Square on November 9th during the national Students’ Demo. News of the case has been scant but rumour has it that the prosecution had no evidence of the protesters being in breach of section 12.5 of the Public Order Act, which is what the arrests were based on. Section 12.5 has frequently been used, according to activists, to remove people taking part in protests and demonstrations when no laws are being, or likely to be, broken. The ‘Trafalgar 12’ hope to create a legal precedent that will limit misuse of this power in the future.

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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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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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End of This Line… or, from Pirates to Nomads

Occupy LSX was always a raggedy, unstable vessel but she had a fantastic crew and was sailing through beautiful waters. Over time, one by one, crew members lowered themselves into little dinghies and onto rafts and paddled away to enticing islands and shorelines. Some rested there, others built new villages or reinvigorated tired communities, all the while spreading the Occupy message about creating a better world. Meanwhile, some of us remained on board OLSX, to read the maps and mop the decks and to fly the Occupy London flag.

Time passed. Much good work was done as we sailed through increasingly choppy seas. Many rafts were built and launched by passionate and inspirational voyagers. Unfortunately this meant that there were fewer and fewer active members of crew on board the flagship. Those residing on board but contributing little began to raid the stores and vomit on the decks. Stowaways clambered from the holds and ran riot over the rigging. Amidst mutiny the ship was boarded by pirates who pissed on the navigation charts.

Remaining true-crew members made several valiant efforts to get back on course but these failed. On a few occasions it was suggested that the Occupy flag be lowered, rolled up and paddled away to the island of Finsbury, allowing the pirates to raise their own skull and crossbones. A flurry of excitement amongst like-minded souls came to little and all movements towards the flagpole were repelled.

OLSX has been a pirate ship in disguise for the last couple of weeks. Those guarding the ship’s bounty – the jewels, the scrolls, the finest rum – have been sitting atop the treasure chest clinging to each other while beating off attacks from drunks and thieves. Repeatedly the attackers have turned on each other, leaving the guardians to develop their gallows’ humour. Meanwhile, one or two passengers discuss philosophy on the upper deck, absurdly oblivious to the uproar below.

It’s been fun but it can’t go on.

***

After today’s rejection of the OLSX court appeals, I’d like to see Occupy London make a strategic choice to remove itself from St Paul’s, with dignity. The OLSX camp has served the purpose of getting the Occupy message out and it is time to move on to mobile and fluid variations of Occupy, with Finsbury Square eco-village as our low-key base for now.

St Paul’s has been our womb. Being born is scary, we’ll be vulnerable… but I have every faith that we’ll survive and grow strong. We need to learn to walk before May Day, when we’ll be setting off on a two-month stroll around the boroughs of London, connecting with neighbourhoods and sharing experiences with other members of the disenfranchised 99%… who will perhaps be inspired to rise up and Occupy in the future.

It may be that we leave behind at St Paul’s a political statement – people with nowhere to go and no purpose, camping out and hungry in the shadow of our grandest church next to one of the centres of world finance. Perhaps the City, the Church, charities and religious groups would like to take over from Occupy in providing for those people. We could leave behind a small crew of volunteers to act as interim welfare workers and to explain that this is no longer a political protest but a refugee camp.


Nomads often settle in one spot for a season to make use of what resources are there at that time. We’ve had our winter at St Paul’s. We made use of the media, of public curiosity and support, of the fact that members of the church were on our side. Nomads don’t drain resources to the point where they’ll never regrow. The season is done, it’s time to pack up and roam over new pastures, in readiness for the abundance of Spring. March is just days away. Green shoots are sprouting.

Occupy 2.0 is happening already. Occupy 2.0 is targeting multinational corporations, taking General Assemblies on tour, teaching Citizenship classes, making music at Occupation Records, providing quality alternative media with The Occupied Times, empowering children through Rockupy, connecting with communities on the Boroughs’ Walk… Occupy will continue to challenge the privatisation of public space, the restriction of the right to protest, shady lobbying, the undemocratic nature of the City of London and injustices wherever we find them. We have tricks up our sleeves and will leave no stone unturned. Come and join us!

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A winter week… in the Life of LSX Occupier Hazel Hedge

It takes a while to get dressed when being dressed means wearing a pair of tights and thermal leggings under trousers with a vest, thermal under-shirt, long sleeved t-shirt, jumper, cardigan, hooded jacket and sheepskin waistcoat, plus 3 pairs of socks, leg-warmers, scarf, hat and gloves. And that’s just for the daytime.

Occupy is training in ‘radical patience’. I’m not sure who coined that term but it’s a good one. Patience with the challenging behaviour of a minority of camp inhabitants, with the fickle media and the grinding justice system. Patience with direct democracy and consensus decision-making. Patience with the process and the laborious getting dressed.

Good things happen – Arctic ice floes, Occupied Justice trials, vibrant General Assemblies. Occupy National Gathering in Sheffield was inspiring. But it feels like a waiting game now. Waiting to see if the court will hear our appeal. Waiting to see whether we’re to be evicted… this week, next week, one week, two week…

There’s an odd, unsettled energy in the camp. Some people seem to be in fight-or-flight mode, adrenaline buzzing around around their bodies, nowhere productive to put it. Others are determined to make every day count; to prepare, to protect, to strengthen relationships, to celebrate our achievements.

It’s a funny old time. When the journalists ask how I feel, I say – “excited”.

I am excited. We’re about to be born from the womb of St Paul.

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A Tale of Two Courts

On trial in The Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street – the OccupyLSX camp

Through airport-style security into a hallway of imposing arches and mosaic floors, past a glass case containing relics of Guy Fawkes’ trial, push open heavy doors and enter the gallery above Court 25, where Occupiers are crammed onto narrow wooden benches.

All rise!” Judge Lindblom enters the court and the day’s story-telling begins.

As with all the best stories, there are moments of humour and tears too. Pomp is kept to a minimum – no big white wigs but a few “M’Luds”. The judge appears genuinely interested in the peculiarities of the case. He advises the untutored litigants, adjusts the schedule to allow every witness a voice and accepts mountains of paperwork, promising to read every scrap of it.

In cross-examination, Tammy is put on the spot about the cleaning of St Paul’s camp before Judge Lindblom’s visit. “That’s normal,” she says. “If I was expecting an important visitor to my flat, I’d tidy up before they arrived.” A down-to-earth answer that pleases his Honour as much as it does the rabble in the gallery. Equally believable is Tanya’s assertion that if she wanted to enter a church to worship, nothing would stop her – certainly not a few tents. Reminding the court that Jesus was a protester and St Paul a tent-maker, she shoots down the notion that the right to worship has been compromised and is backed by Reverend Green, who says that Occupy brings more blessings than curses.

Economist John Christianson claims 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’ is discussed. Veteran Matthew Horne sheds light on what most have never come close to experiencing – the horrors of warfare – and surprises many by drawing parallels between the devastation of Iraqi citizens’ lives by war and the devastation of British citizens’ lives by debt, poverty, unemployment and home repossessions.

George Barda, litigant-in-person, is overcome by emotion on more than one occasion as he struggles to articulate the enormity of the dangers we face – climate change, resource scarcity, mass poverty – and to impress on Mr Justice Lindblom the urgent importance of the Occupy message. Tears are visible on more than one Occupiers’ cheek, as our hands wave in agreement.

According to the City of London, the Occupy encampment has increased crime figures, reduced visitor numbers and caused an untenable narrowing of the highway… but their statistics fail to stick. Our second litigant-in-person, Dan Ashman, has been out with a tape measure and reports that the narrowest bottleneck on the ‘highway’ in question is not even within the camp. The court hears that police assessments continually rate the risk of serious disturbance at the camp as ‘low’.

The CoL Corporation appears somewhat confused about what they object to – is it the protesters, or the vulnerable and sometimes challenging people who’ve found community in the encampment, or the physical tents? It is tents they are seeking to remove; our QC raises a chuckle when he asks whether it is the tents that are getting drunk, making a noise and committing the crimes that the City complains of.

Dan argues that conventional forms of protest have failed, which is why Occupy tactics are vital. Pressing social need and the desperate importance of the Occupy work are the main thrusts of our defence. Surely these weigh heavier in the scales of justice than petty health and safety qualms and the minor inconvenience of pedestrians?

Fat files of supporting documents are presented to the judge. He has homework to do over the holidays. OccupyLSX is granted a Christmas reprieve and now awaits an early January judgment day.

On trial in the Old Street Magistrates Court of Occupied Justice – the 1%

Knock on a heavy wooden door, speak the password, get eye-balled through a spy-hole, hear the drawing back of bolts, step into another imposing hallway. Tigger, my tour guide, gestures to a grand, sweeping staircase. “You want to go up to the courtroom or down to the cells?”

I choose the cells. It’s cold and damp in the basement. Plaster crumbles, unidentifiable stains hint at previous occupants. The cells are equipped with rock-hard sleeping ledges, seatless toilets and metal doors with sliding grills. In the corridor outside each cell is a blackboard with a name scrawled in chalk.

JP Morgan”. “Tony Blair”. “Goldman Sachs”. “George Bush”. These and other members of the 1% – those responsible for war crimes, ecocide and economic chaos – will soon be under the spotlight at Occupied Justice.

We’ll be putting them on trial,” Tigger explains. “The accused will be invited along but if they don’t show, we’ll try them in absentia.”

Rumour has it that legal professionals are keen to be involved. A thorough investigation of City of London corruption is promised. The financial services industry will be brought to account in this, the Court of the 99%.

The wood-paneled courtroom is grand. A maze of ante-rooms, including one with parquet floor and French windows opening onto a balcony, provide plenty of scope for the expansion of Occupy London. Squatters’ rights have been claimed. A peace flag flies from the rooftop. The back yard is big enough to park the Occupy Veterans’ Tank of Ideas.

Despite imminent threat of eviction, there’s a strong sense of fun as well as outrage here, in evidence at the Occupied Justice New Year Cabaret. A theatrical performance sees 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 of visitors. Perhaps the only cabaret where the hecklers call “Process!” and “Mic Check!”. The grand finale – aerial acrobatics on ribbons strung from a stained-glass dome above the Hall – leaves everyone awestruck.

Tigger’s finale is to lead me up spiraling wrought-iron staircases into the night sky. Wobbly- legged on the highest pinnacle of the roof, five storeys above neon-lit pavements, I marvel at the view of Canary Wharf all flash and brash, then turn around to see east London bathed in the lilac-pink of a winter dawn. It does feel like a new beginning.

 

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