Tag Archives: Occupy London

Occupy Nomads, the Inside Story

Earlier this week I visited the Occupy Nomads in Haggerston Park and the Diggers2012 at Cooper’s Hill, Runnymede. Despite repeated evictions, court cases, loss of belongings and the wettest summer anyone can remember, both groups are in good spirits.

My last post, ‘Whose Land?’, focussed on the Diggers’ story. Since then they’ve faced two attempted evictions. Eco-villagers have been carried away from their wooden longhouse and dumped in the mud further down the hill. But, both times they returned before the hearth went cold, rekindled a fire, boiled a kettle, had a cuppa and got back to digging in. Compost toilet construction, an extension to the longhouse and a garden are all underway.

This post tells the story of the Occupy Nomads, largely in their own words.

Stephane is Corsican. He’s fiery and proud. He joined the Nomadic Occupy group in March, at the group’s first camp in Limehouse. Before that he was a politically-motivated, community-minded squatter.

I asked Stephane why he joined the Nomads.

I support Occupy, because if Occupy wins it will be a nice little step in the right direction,” he said. It took a while to untangle what he meant, the rapidity of his speech and his strong accent hindering me far more than explaining complex concepts in his second language hindered him.

Stephane wants to take down the capitalist system we live in, but not via revolution. He knows it’s not going to happen overnight, that if it did we’d be in a mess because we’re not ready to live self-sufficiently and autonomously in the anarchic communities he would like to see emerging from the death throes of neoliberalism. For him, Nomadic Occupy is a training camp, an opportunity to live in the future he wants to see, and a physical, visible reminder to the authorities and the wider world that dissent has not gone away.

Stephane doesn’t see camping as the be all and end all of the Occupy movement but he does believe that keeping a tented presence in the public eye is important. He sees the Nomads as forerunners of change, taking back our right to live on the land, to build our own communities and to practice self-sufficiency. The Nomads are, to some extent, supporting themselves by recycling items destined for landfill and by foraging. Old appliances are expertly taken apart and rebuilt or stripped into useful parts, food is plucked from skips or donated and, as summer unfolds, fruits and herbs can be picked for free in London’s parks.

I asked Stephane what Occupy “winning” would mean and why, for him, such a win would be only a “nice little step”. He said that as he understands it, the Occupy movement is pressing for redistribution of wealth, which for him wouldn’t be enough – we’d still be living in a system he wants to reject. For Stephane, anarchy is the answer and he explains anarchy thus: “Everyone has individual responsibility, first for themselves and then to their community. You look after yourself, but also you share, you co-operate. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Tim camped at St Paul’s before becoming a nomadic occupier. He believes that the OccupyLSX camp, being in the City of London and thus visible mainly to city workers and tourists, failed to connect with ordinary people in the way Nomadic Occupy does. He says “The nomads engage with people at the arse end of society, the people who are massively affected by the big issues – politics, globalisation, corporatisation – but who’re least engaged with those issues. We encourage people in local communities who have never been politically active, who’ve always assumed they can’t change anything, to think and talk about these big issues and to start connecting with activist groups and grassroots campaigns.”

Nomadic Occupy also provides a valuable social hub which is particularly appreciated by the disenfranchised, according to Tim. Pubs and cafes are too expensive to be viable meeting places for many and squatted social centres are often too hidden, or too intimidating, for people outside the squatting community to take advantage of. A small camp in a public place is far easier to approach. The kettle is always on and “we probably provide the only free al fresco cafe in London”.

Encouraging participation in political issues is a big part of the Occupy mission. Tim is passionate about recruiting new people and about “bridging the disconnect between the local and the global”. He accepts that the Nomads have made some mistakes and that they’re still on a steep learning curve, working out how best to connect with communities and how to avoid antagonising the very people they want to reach out to. On the whole, he says, the dispossessed – those with insecure housing, troubled relationships, unstable mental health or little to lose – welcome Nomadic Occupy. Those upset by the encampments tend to be clinging to privileges and a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude. Some of those who are initially, perhaps naturally, suspicious, relax and engage once they understand the remit of Nomadic Occupy and the temporary nature of the camps.

Tim explains how residents around Mile End and Ion Square found that the presence of a Nomad camp reduced crime and antisocial behaviour in the area, making local parks – once no-go zones for pensioners and families – safer and more hospitable. He also reminds me that as eviction loomed at St Paul’s we brainstormed about what Occupy should do next. Going ‘on the road’ and engaging with local communities was high up the list of priorities and the Nomads have found a means of doing that. “St Paul’s was probably one of the largest activist training camps ever,” Tim says. “Since the big camps have been evicted the activists have scattered but they’re still spreading the word in their own communities and workplaces, on the streets and in the parks.”

Steve describes himself as “a typical East End person”. He stumbled across Nomadic Occupy in Ion Square Gardens and wasn’t impressed at first but was invited to sit down for a chat. “I had my eyes opened,” he says. “These guys educated me about social issues which I’d always felt powerless to engage with or change. They made me think about the things that matter. Most of us don’t think about those things because we’re blinded by TV or by our own struggles.”

Steve decided to join the Nomads. “I want to help them engage with local people. I want ordinary people to understand that the banks and the media manipulate people and how it’s all for the benefit of the one percent.” Regarding the camp, Steve argues that land should be for the people, for all people, and that camping out, cooking over a fire and creating a social space for discussion and education is a better use for it than most.

Nomadic Occupy has given Steve hope for the future. “The Nomads are fighting for the dispossessed. I want more people to know that there are people prepared to do that. I want more people to experience what I have, to have their eyes opened and to feel hope. The Nomads are the embers of Occupy – from this a phoenix can rise. I have a vision of more camps like this, of increasing numbers of people without fear being prepared to stand up against those who take away our rights. I feel empowered now, when I didn’t before.”

Kay was at St Paul’s. “We knew that after eviction we’d need a new strategy. I was part of the ‘Next Steps’ working group. We, like others, came up with the idea of mobile occupations and eventually what came out of that was Nomadic Occupy.”

The purpose of Nomadic Occupy, according to Kay, is to spread the ideas and aims of Occupy more widely while reaching out to communities and recruiting people to the movement. The Nomads are particularly well-placed to highlight issues around homelessness and land use and Kay concurs with the Diggers2012 who say 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.”

Occupy London prepared a statement about homelessness when it became apparent that many homeless or insecurely-housed people were joining the camp at St Paul’s out of necessity or a desire for community. As Kay explains “Homeless people have no choice but to Occupy space which is not ‘theirs’. The Occupy movement brought this to public attention but the issue is still misunderstood. Charities and other organisations set up to help the homeless often cannot understand why someone they have placed in a hostel or other accommodation will leave and go back to the streets. They don’t realise that a home is not just about having a roof over your head. Being socially isolated is worse than being cold or damp. That’s why people will return to the homeless community rather than sit alone in a bedsit. That’s why camps such as this are such positive developments – we are creating a real community of people who care about each other here.”

Kay believes it to be important that Occupy maintains a visible presence on public land, not just for community-building purposes but to remind people that the issues which brought occupiers onto the streets in October 2011 haven’t gone away – and in fact, are becoming more and more apparent what with the Barclays interest-rate fixing scandal and the militarisation and corporatisation of the Olympics (and the negative effect that’s having on many East-Londoners). “We will Occupy until the one percent start to address us and propose solutions,” Kay proclaims.

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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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#May12 and other things, or A Long Weekend

What a weekend last weekend was.

FRIDAY – St Paul’s and Mile End

I arrive in London in time for an Occupy General Assembly in the portico of St Paul’s. Then make my way to the Mile End Nomadic Occupy Camp where I spend the wee hours discussing politics around a fire with a diverse bunch of occupiers – English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Jamaican, Congolese, Philippino, Polish, Iranian and Bangladeshi – some street-homeless and unemployed, some unemployable, others working in a range of jobs as varied as their accents and origins. A bicycle-courier-cum-DJ tells me that Occupy needs to focus on getting through to ‘da yoot’, possibly via the medium of an app or computer game. An estate agent laughs as he describes the incredulity of his friends when he updates his facebook status to ‘living in a tent’. Hippies sit beside bikers and debate with builders and musicians who explain the Occupy message to recent immigrants. Ex-soldiers brew up mugs of tea for chefs, kitchen porters and ex-security guards. Many of the Nomads could be described as ‘down on their luck’ but their passion for social change goes further than self-interest and some have deliberately chosen to avoid the rat race in order to achieve a freer, more sustainable existence. These guys want a better world and are prepared to put their all into achieving it. On the whole they are self-policing, self-reliant, respectful and dedicated to both their own fledgling community and the global Occupy movement.

SATURDAY – International Day of Action

12M. A Day of Action across much of Europe and beyond. It dawns warm and sunny – I wake sweating inside my tent after a cold night.

Several Occupy Nomads take the bus to St Paul’s Cathedral. Approximately 800 people assemble to hear rousing speeches by Occupy supporters including a Norwegian student; two local ladies from Leyton Marsh who have been protesting against Olympic land-grabbing; a wheel-chair user fighting for the rights of disabled people; and John Cooper QC, OccupyLSX’s barrister in the St Paul’s eviction court case.

From St Paul’s we set off towards Ludgate Circus. Floating tents, a samba band, silly costumes, wheeled sound systems, sunshine and the chance to catch up with Occupy friends make for a carnival atmosphere. The procession trundles along Fleet Street in high spirits, accompanied by apparently relaxed police. However, on turning into Fetter Lane we’re halted by a line of police across the road. Confusion ensues – are we kettled? Why have we been stopped? Cheers go up as a posse of occupiers appear on the other side of the police line, having taken an alternative route. The police are now kettled – surrounded – by us. We have no interest in fighting them but neither are we inclined to obediently wait for them to decide what to do with us; and so we begin – individuals at first, then the whole crowd – to make our way towards the Bank of England despite the police. They try to stop us but their line is permeable and eventually, bowing to the inevitable, it dissolves.

First activist lesson of the day: we don’t have to blindly accept the demands and restrictions imposed upon us by authority.

Several more times as we march, amble, dance and jog our way along Newgate, the police use tactics variously described as odd, absurd and pointless in half-hearted attempts to hold us back, as these films illustrate:

http://london.indymedia.org/videos/12236 , http://london.indymedia.org/videos/12249.

Some of us make the mistake of rushing ahead to evade containment while others are being held back. This does not demonstrate solidarity and leaves the middle of the procession hollow. It would perhaps be better if everyone who finds themselves forwards of a police line returns to make a cop sandwich.

Second activist lesson of the day: let’s try not to lose cohesion in the face of silly police manoeuvres.

Outside the Royal Exchange, near the Bank of England, after taping off and stickering a few corporate HQs, we assemble again. The Royal Exchange has steps, portico, columns and courtyard very similar to those at St Paul’s so we immediately feel at home. Open mic speeches, music and mingling ensue. Banners are hung, tents pop up and children play amongst them. The atmosphere is ‘first-day-of-summer-let’s-have-a-picnic’, until a crackly tannoy system mounted on a police van announces that we must disperse by 5.45pm or face arrest.

Some Occupy supporters leave during the next hour. Some stay, prepared to risk arrest to defend the right to assemble and to protest. Others do not believe we’ll be arrested for peacefully assembling in a city square on a sunny Saturday afternoon. With the procession over we’re not obstructing traffic. It is not a residential area and few (if any) businesses in the area are open, so we’re not disrupting the life of the community. A proposal to set up an overnight camp receives a cool response; however, many express a desire to stay for another two hours. This seems a reasonable amount of time to allow for more speeches, announcements, a celebration of Los Indignados anniversary, and a discussion of what to do next.

The square is still fairly full when the first phalanx of police sweep in and pounce on a well-known male Occupier. Cries go up to ‘sit down’. Some people are already sitting on the steps of the Royal Exchange and others join them, linking arms. Several times, in an increasingly aggressive manner, peaceful people are dragged from the steps and prostrated on the pavement before being bundled into police vans. Police snatch squads move in tight formation, a leader giving orders while the rest bark “Get back!” and push bystanders away. Much of the time little can be seen of the arrestees because their arrests are shielded from view. Shrieks, yells and chants of “Shame on you!” from protesters suggest that the cops are not being gentle.

A guy in a pop-up tent is almost trampled by police before being dragged away, still in his tent. I am grabbed and shoved out of the immediate vicinity of the steps. Police lines form, isolating those on the steps and separating protesters in the square from supporters who are arriving from elsewhere. Police then begin arresting people who are not seated on the steps, including a reporter for the Occupied News Network and someone standing on a bench in an attempt to obtain a good view. They chase one guy down the street. It seems they want to be rid of anyone they see as a potential ‘leader’.

Third activist lesson:

a) The cops can make and change the rules of the game to suit themselves.

b) We might want to protect certain people from arrest, perhaps by keeping them in the centre of a crowd (say, if they’ve been arrested before and bail conditions/fines are likely to be particularly harsh; or if they’re likely to be making an important contribution to an upcoming action which would be compromised by certain bail conditions).

After an hour or so a hiatus occurs. Some police leave and others arrive. The new cops are fluffier and treat us with a lighter touch. They continue to isolate the ten or so occupiers huddled in the centre of the steps but lose interest in the rest of us. Supporters from Anonymous UK and the Occupy London Environment group arrive with music and supplies; sandwiches are thrown in to the group on the steps and the party begins again in the Royal Exchange courtyard, just feet away from the police. Myself and a few friends occupy the western end of the steps, soon to be joined by many others. We are now just a few feet away from those still under threat of arrest and are doing exactly the same as them – sitting on the steps of the Royal Exchange, chatting and eating sandwiches. Soon we’re dancing to Manu Chao and conversing with the police who seem to want to go home. A battle of wills ensues: Cops want the Steps Ten to give up and come out of the cordon; we want the police to admit that their presence has not stopped the celebration of the Indignados’ anniversary and is utterly pointless at this stage.

We win.

The cordon dissolves, occupiers from east and west sides of the steps reunite and the police drive away, leaving just a few to protect the portico, presumably from graffiti artists. Our celebration is mixed with incredulity at the earlier behaviour of the police: the implementation of a Section 14 when there was no serious disruption occurring or likely to occur; the attempted taking away of our right to protest and to peaceful assembly; the unnecessary nature of the entire police intervention which, if anything, probably lengthened our stay at the Royal Exchange; and mostly, the excessive force and aggression used against entirely peaceful people.

By around midnight most of us were tired enough to stagger ‘home’ to tents at Mile End or Finsbury Square, or to precarious housing in this unaffordable city.

SUNDAY – Mile End to Haggerston Park in Hackney.

On Sunday an Occupier from Little Rock, USA drops by to visit Mile End. We pack up the camp around him, ready to move to a new location in Hackney. A local woman stops to say how sad she is that the Occupy Nomads are leaving: “People used to be scared to walk through the park,” she tells us. “People would get attacked, there were fights… Since the camp’s been here it has been safer. Pensioners have begun to use the park again. The people in the camp have kept the place clean and they’re always polite. They keep the troublemakers away.” She looks away. “Can’t you stay?”

The Nomads have agreed with Tower Hamlets council that they will leave this weekend. They don’t want one of the poorest boroughs in London to have to pay the costs of evicting them and they want to build a reputation for sticking to their word. If they rock up in a park and locals and councillors know they’ll be gone in a month, it’s far more likely that they’ll be accepted. By moving around they hope to avoid some of the deterioration problems of longer term camps; being nomadic will also enable them to connect with and learn from numerous communities while spreading the Occupy message far and wide.

A borrowed van, a wheelbarrow, two shopping trolleys, a suitcase on wheels and a hand-built wooden cart are used to transport the structures and contents of the kitchen and information tent plus the camping equipment and personal belongings of approximately fifteen people to the new site. We convene beside the pond in Haggerston Park in late afternoon sunshine and plan how to set up the new camp.

Top priorities are to avoid upsetting local park-users and to minimise impact on the environment. To this end we decide to pitch the kitchen against a high hedge, where it will not block the view of the pond from the path, and to squeeze the other tents into a half-hidden circle of grass behind the kitchen, again to avoid spoiling the view and to ensure there is still plenty of space around the pond for families to picnic and children to play. We agree that nothing of ours must pollute the pond – no washing up slops and certainly no pee!

It takes the rest of the evening to set up camp. At dusk we’re hanging an ‘Occupy for Social & Economic Justice’ banner. At midnight we’re having a camp assembly around the fire (which is raised off the ground in a metal bucket to avoid scorching the ground). Notes taken at that first meeting are here:

http://occupylondon.org.uk/groups/nomads/docs/nomadic-occupy-at-haggerston-park-camp-assembly-13-5-2012-day-1

MONDAY – from Hackney back to St Paul’s and the Dalai Lama

By 10am the camp has been visited by the local police, park wardens and councillor. We explain ourselves, reassure them, offer them cups of tea. It’s raining.

We eat egg sandwiches then three of us take the bus to St Paul’s. The Dalai Lama arrives to receive a prize for his spiritual contributions. He immediately gives the million pounds to charity. I believe he is a force for good on the world stage; this is a heart-felt thing rather than an intellectual, reasoned or knowledge-based position. He’s only a few metres away and his presence brings tears to my eyes (and down my cheeks). It has the same effect on a rough, tough biker from the Nomad camp.

And then it’s the slow coach back to Yorkshire.

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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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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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Robert Montgomery’s Poems

Here’s an interview I did on the subject of some wonderful pieces of poetic art by Robert Montgomery, who ‘works in a poetic and melancholic post-situationist tradition’. Check his website for pictures of the poems in full billboard glory and simplicity. These poems have been printed, with the poet’s permission, in the Occupied Times this week.

I was interviewed by Brian Leli, an American writer and photojournalist.

BL: Can you please tell me your reactions to the three poems and the three issues they touch on?

Poem One:
IT TURNED OUT THIS WAY COS YOU DREAMED IT THIS WAY, COS ALL YOU COULD DREAM IS WHAT YOU SAW IN MAGAZINES, AND THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO WIN, AND HAVE EVERYTHING, ALL THE LUXURY AND POWER YOU EVER WANTED AND STILL FEEL DISGUSTED. RONALD REAGAN BLUES / A MILLION DOLLAR HOUSE IN L.A. / 50 FUCKING WHITE ANAEMIC STARS MY DARLING AND ALL THE BLOOD AND DUST OF THE WORLD ON YOUR HANDS

Me: This is the world I rejected twenty-two years ago when I stepped off the conveyor belt. I don’t think I had the wisdom at the age of twenty to know exactly what I was doing but my intuition or fate or the stars or perhaps my genetic inheritance guided me towards an alternative way of being. I ‘dropped out’. Spent the intervening years gaining the experience, knowledge and skills necessary to drop back in to the heart of the beast now. I don’t hate the people who have it all or those who want it all. I certainly don’t envy them. I’d like to remove their blinkers and walk them to a gentler, stronger, more joyous place.

Poem Two:
THERE ARE WOODEN HOUSES ON LAND IN FAR-AWAY PLACES THAT DON’T COST MUCH MONEY, AND STRINGS OF LIGHTS THAT MAKE PATHS TO THEM GENTLY, AND DO NOT TURN OFF THE STARS. AND 100 BLACK FLAGS OF ANARCHISTS HELD UP AT NIGHT 100 MILES APART / 10,000 MILES OF FLAGS AND A ROW OF TENTS IN FRONT OF THE CATHEDRAL GUARD OUR FUTURE. THERE WILL BE A QUICK SICKNESS, THE KIND THAT KILLS THE BODY BEFORE THE MIND KNOWS THEN THERE WILL BE A SLOW RISING

Me: The first sentence sends a tingle up my spine and makes the hairs on my arms stand on end because it speaks my truth. These places exist not just on the other side of the world but in the quieter, wilder, hidden places of Britain too. The ‘authorities’ try to squash them because they represent freedom from the rat-race that binds us into lonely dis-satisfaction. Simplicity is dangerous for those in power. How will they continue to squeeze us for their own benefit if we don’t need them or desire to be them, if we’re happy in our wooden, fairy-lit shacks in our communities? Ah… yes… that’s why they’re so afraid of Occupy. We’re re-learning the value of community, co-operation, resourcefulness. We’re rejecting their media, their feel-bad advertising. We’re over-throwing their system right in front of their noses for a change, rather than hiding ourselves in backwaters for fear of reprisal.

Poem Three:
BECAUSE YOU HAD TO GIVE NAMES TO EVERYTHING YOU FOUND, AND MAKE LOGOS FOR BAD IDEAS, AND CHANGE YOUR CAR EVERY TWO YEARS AND WAKE UP EARLY FOR CONFERENCE CALLS, AND IT TURNED OUT TO BE NO PROGRESS AT ALL / JUST A SHADOW FESTIVAL / BECAUSE OF THAT YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LOOK AT THE SKY AGAIN, YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO EAT FOOD THAT GROWS WHERE YOU LIVE AGAIN, YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO TOUCH WHAT YOU MAKE

Me: Yes. It’s that simple.

BL: Do you think it’s important to see pieces like this going up in public spaces, particularly now, when the tents themselves are coming down?

Me: Yes. Reclaiming public space, not just with tents – although tents are wonderfully symbolic as well as practical – is vital. Art, music, poetry, performance, debate, conversation… these are the things that bring us together, that lead us out of our isolation, that allow us – the 99% – to connect, to share and eventually, to mobilise. Every attempt to stimulate conversation regarding how we live now and how we could do it better is valuable.

BL: To the onlooker who’s perhaps not particularly concerned with the issues referenced, what do you think the potential impact is when stumbling across the messages on the billboards, or through a protest camp for that matter?

Me: Some will be too entrenched in the current system, or too ground down by it, to even see the poetry or the tents. Others will be baffled. They’ll ask “What’s it all about?” and “Why aren’t these people also ground down, why aren’t they busy struggling to fend off insolvency? Where do they get the time or energy to play with words and canvas?” Asking questions is the beginning. Questioning not just the artists and campers but one’s own self, the neighbours, the woman sat beside you on the bus or in the laundrette. “What’s it all about, these scruffy tents appearing everywhere? They want to change the world? Hah! What do they know? Do they know about my family’s problems, our debts, our poor treatment at the hands of an over-stretched NHS? They want to change the world? Well, hah, they’re not the only ones!” Eventually, I hope – oh how I hope – that these messages will help humans to realise we’re all on the same side and that we can change our world for the better if we act together.

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