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.