Tag Archives: Occupy

Midwinter in Parliament Square with Occupy Democracy

#OccupyDemocracy returned to Parliament Square as planned this mid-winter weekend, with a focus on housing and homelessness.

The turnout wasn’t huge – it was cold, it was just a few days before Christmas – but the quality of debate, entertainment, knowledge-sharing, solidarity-building and the sense of an emerging community of creative and determined change-makers was… inspiring.

Contributors to a full programme of events in and around the Square included:

  • Speakers from the New Era Housing Estate (who this week won a huge victory over the US development firm which had planned to make them homeless), Focus E15 Mum’s housing campaign, Occupy Barnet and Our West Hendon, plus Phoenix Rainbow on squatters’ rights.
  • ‘Dying for Heat’ activists who stripped off outside Downing Street to protest the scandal of deaths due to fuel poverty.
  • Deputy leader of the Green Party Shahrar Ali, speaking about the UK’s democratic deficit.
  • A ‘Fossil Free Nativity Play’ and Shell Out Sounds choir.
  • Green & Black Cross with activist legal advice.
  • Fran Boait from Positive Money, Samir from Stop The War coalition, and Occupy activist George Barda on compassionate revolution.

The  schedule was interspersed with participative assemblies and debates, poetry, carol singing, sharing of food – and a blissfully warming impromptu late night ceilidh dance!

With the high heras fencing around Parliament Square replaced by less robust crowd barriers, an opportunity arose on Saturday evening for occupiers to move through a gap in the barrier and to occupy the centre of  the Square – for the first time since being dragged from the grass two months ago in the infamous Battle of the Tarpaulin.

Displaying a ‘Real Democracy Now!’ banner before continuing a discussion about how much interaction Occupy Democracy should have with party politics, occupiers continued to demonstrate genuine participatory debate and decision making as police vans made haste to the scene, disgorging columns of officers who proceeded to kettle those assembled. Police outnumbered activists and Occupy supporters approximately 4:1. Or maybe more.

Confusion ensued as to whether those in the Square were committing civil trespass, or were breaching a byelaw, or were somehow committing a crime by talking about politics and economics on the lawn outside Parliament.

The Occupy Democracy assembly wound up and a young woman began to talk about Positive Money, a non-profit initiative to make money work for people rather than enslaving us.

Eventually the unjust and draconian Criminal Justice Act was invoked, and those assembled were threatened with mass arrest on the basis that a cable tie on the fence had been broken, and someone had – allegedly – been rude to a Heritage Warden. For these ‘crimes’ the police were prepared to arrest thirty or so peaceful, politically-engaged citizens.

The dreadful absurdity of young people volunteering to listen to a lecture about economics on the Saturday night before Christmas, sitting stone cold sober on cold damp ground to do so, and being forced to move or face arrest… What kind of country, what kind of law, what kind of system, what kind of justice is this?

There was a stand-off during which occupiers asked the police to think again, to think of genuine justice, to uphold the right to peaceful protest and assembly. During this period Donnachadh McCarthy was arrested for peacefully holding a banner.

As the police closed in on the Positive Money discussion, occupiers reached consensus to withdraw from the central lawn of the Square and reconvene on the pavement at its edge. Sometimes the image of mass arrests can be powerful; other times arrests simply serve the purpose of the police in dispersing people and disrupting planned activities.

We chose to take control of events and be free for the night; the cells that had been made ready for us remained empty, save for Donnachadh, who returned to us around 1am.

After a long, cold mid-Winter night on the pavement, dawn saw Occupy Democracy supporters bleary-eyed but unbeaten, continuing to refine a unique but widely appealing list of ‘demands’ that put people, democracy and planet before profit.

Meanwhile, on Charing Cross Road near Trafalgar Square, a squat was opened in an old Nat West bank. On December 25th, Christmas dinner will be served for homeless and hungry people. Until then, it’s an activist networking and skillshare space.

Livestream of some of Saturday evening’s events: http://bambuser.com/channel/Bencavanna

More at occupydemocracy.org.uk

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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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A jigsaw with too many pieces

I haven’t written this month. Not because there’s nothing to say; more because there’s too much to say and too much to do.

Should I write about my trip to Cambodia? The torturous internal workings of Occupy in London? The disaster that is UK energy policy? New nuclear? Land issues? Asda boycott? The GM lobby? The wise ramblings of a young guy called Jonathan who lived in the OLSX camp at St Paul’s? Earthian‘s solo peace mission and his indomitable spirit? Cyprus and Greece? The brilliant stuff that’s going on in my sometimes-hometown of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire?

I’m trying to rebalance a life that was consumed by Occupy. Going off to live at St Paul’s and throwing my all into the Occupied Times for a year fragmented the life I had before October 2011. Now I’m looking at those ragged but valuable fragments alongside the new bits and bobs I’ve picked up and I’m trying to work out how to fit it all together. There are more jigsaw pieces than there used to be and I can’t work out what picture I’m trying to make.

I want to write but perhaps that’s a cop out and I should be doing more? What to do? I’m drawn to working locally and getting my hands dirty. I’d like to play with soil and plant seeds – theoretically. Perhaps I would’ve done some gardening in actuality if there hadn’t been two feet of snow on my tiny garden this last fortnight. I also want to be up a tree preventing pointless road schemes with the Combe Haven Defenders, I want to be at Camp Frack 2 in Lancashire and the Extreme Energy Gathering in Manchester. I’d like to see how the Diggers are getting on at Runnymede and visit the Forest of Dean and Reclaim the Fields. I want to get involved in StopG8 and the Carnival against Capitalism but what about what’s happening on my doorstep?

Developers are seeking planning permission for a supermarket and hotel on a piece of wasteland on the edge of town, in an area called Mytholm. No store or hotel has stepped forward and said they want to use the site but the developers, who bought the land some time ago, want to gain these permissions in order to increase its value. There’s a lot of local opposition to the planning application (and some support). Rather than just saying no, some of those in opposition have come up with an alternative. They’ve formed a group called Incredible Edible Mytholm (part of the Incredible Edible Network that started just up the road in Todmorden and now has branches internationally) and they’ve dreamed up Growing Futures, a permaculture project involving food growing and selling, education, ecotourism and sustainability research. It’s already been dubbed a “mini Eden Project” but there will be a lot of hoops to jump through before the idea can translate into a funded, grounded, viable endeavour.

Never mind the town on my doorstep, the building I work in is undergoing major change at the moment. Hebden Bridge Hostel (where I work) used to be a concert hall adjoining the Birchcliffe Baptist Chapel. The Chapel became the secular Birchcliffe Centre in the 70’s and passed into the care of Pennine Heritage Trust. Part of it has been converted into a rabbit warren of tiny offices, studios, a Zen meditation space, a web designers’ lair and so on. There’s also a ‘zombie tunnel’ which runs from the old baptismal font to the basement, near the caretaker’s cupboard. After being dunked in the font, the newly baptised could preserve their modesty by sneaking down the tunnel to the basement changing rooms, rather than having to do a wet T-shirt walk through the congregation. There are no zombies in the tunnel, but it forms part of my in-case-of-zombie-apocalypse escape plan; I’m hoping it doesn’t get bricked up during the major refurbishments now underway in the listed parts of the building, which are being transformed into some kind of educational resource, historical archive and event venue. The most exciting thing about the revamp, from my perspective, is the overhaul of the archaic heating system which, in a leviathan contortion of belching pipes, links the hostel with the Birchcliffe Centre, leaking heat and spewing carbon in a very embarrassing fashion at every turn.

Experts have been consulted and funding bodies approached. I’m not privy to the meetings of the Pennine Heritage trustees but I’ve heard whispers about biomass boilers and solar panels. I’m not yet sure if they’re talking solar thermal or PV. I’m not impressed that if they go for the biomass boiler I’ll have to give up my shed, woodstore, rhubarb patch and lemon balm thicket. Most of all, I’m horrified by the thought that, in trying to go for an eco option, the trustees might be about to sign a contract with a company that ships in biomass from sterile commercial plantations that are displacing food production and/or biodiverse woodland. If anyone has solid information that could help me steer this energy transition in the right direction, please let me know (quickly).

Today I was going to join Treesponsibility on the hills above Todmorden but I didn’t because I was writing this. I probably should’ve gone. Treesponsibility doesn’t just plant trees; it’s an education and resilience project with involvement in The Source which, like Ban the Burn, aims to reduce flooding in the Calder Valley through restoration of the uplands. There’s so much good stuff going on around here. It’s inspiring and a bit overwhelming. Blackbark, for example, is a sustainable woodland management co-operative that produces wood for fuel on a very local scale. Pennine Community Power has a community wind turbine on the moors. People are also looking at micro-hydro. The industrial revolution was born around here and waterwheels were used to power mills and factories; it seems stupid not to use the local geography – steep valleys, where it rains a lot – as our ancestors did. Gibson Mill, which was converted into a visitor centre, cafe and venue in 2005,  is run entirely on renewable energy and is not connected to the mains grid.  Bridge Mill, the oldest building in town, houses about eight small businesses and is already partly converted to renewables (restored water mill, water-source heat pump and solar thermal), with an Archimedes-screw water turbine being added this year.

I like this Red Pepper piece: Power-to-Transform

I’m going to stop now.

I might’ve nearly completed a corner of the jigsaw of my life.

____

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Evict-iversary

It’s a year since we were evicted simultaneously from the OLSX camp outside St Paul’s and from the School of Ideas. We were ragged and emotional and exhausted then, and jubilant, and disoriented. We tried to list what we’d achieved while occupying and did our best to sound confident about future incarnations and plans, but there was genuine grief alongside some genuine relief that Occupy #1 was over. (Here’s Inka’s eviction film for a reminder of that night: http://vimeo.com/38035802)

Last week I saw my dad for the first time in two years. He gave a slight smile as he asked whether I thought Occupy had made a difference and I launched into an attempt to persuade him that it had. He cut me off to tell me that yes, it had made a difference. My dad’s no radical and yet he felt we’d said some things that needed saying and that we’d said them loud enough to be listened to… and that we’d been taken seriously and real things had changed as a result. Wow. I was so surprised to hear him say these things that I let him digress onto another subject without elaborating on exactly what he thought had changed as a result of those cold months of community in the churchyard.

Sometimes it seems that we’re chasing our tails, bogged down in internal squabbles, unable to drum up enough support for our actions to make an impact. Ten years ago millions marched against the Iraq war but Bush and Blair launched the bombs anyway; so even numbers, even mass global popular support, doesn’t necessarily win the day. But… ten or so years before that we won the poll tax battle and now… there are relatively small but significant battles being won again.

Here’s a video showing what happened with that squatted library – Friern Barnet. The ‘polite revolution’ – a collaboration between Occupy and the local community – eventually came good. However, Occupiers at Battersea Adventure Playground had less success. After camping in the snow they were summarily evicted; and very soon the quirky, much-loved playground had been destroyed.

Looking at the bigger picture, Shell has backed away from its Arctic oil drilling venture for now, Cumbria has rejected the idea that nuclear waste should be stored in stunning, geologically unstable Lake District countryside, and the fight against extreme and polluting energy – dash for gas, fracking, tarsands – and against free-for-all genetically-modified farming continues. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that corporations lie and spin, politicians are in their pockets and ‘science’ is twisted to suit the moneymen. Spinwatch blogs on the Mark Lynas affair illustrate this pretty well and EDF Energy’s cynical attempt to quash dissent via means of bankrupting ‘No Dash For Gas’ climate activists shows how low they’re prepared to go.

The usual “ok, that’s what you’re against but what are you for?” question can increasingly often be answered (it seems to me) with some combination of the words ‘community’, ‘co-operation’, ‘mutual aid’, ‘solidarity’, ‘self-organistion’, ‘real food/farming’, ‘local’, ‘permaculture’, ‘organic’ and ‘return of the commons’.

I’m leaning towards an anarchist, rather than socialist, approach… and yet there are things that I’d like to see organised by the state or government via the levy of fair taxes, and a decent National Health service is the first amongst these. It was good to hear a few days ago that the closure of the Accident & Emergency departments at Hammersmith, Charing Cross, Central Middlesex and Ealing Hospitals is to be halted, pending an independent review. As campaign group Save Our Hospitals points out, this temporary reprieve is just the beginning of a long battle.

I wonder whether we couldn’t sort out housing ourselves, without so much government input, if we weren’t strangled by bureaucracy. I’d like to see more co-ops, more co-housing and eco-housing projects that don’t have to get tied up for years jumping through inappropriate planning hoops. It should be made easier, not harder, to build low-impact dwellings on disused land, as the latter-day Diggers have done at Runnymede, and putting disused buildings to use as short-term housing stock or social centres should be seen as regeneration, not criminality. Self-Organised London instigated a whole programme of free educational and social events at Eileen House with the tagline “Reclaim Regeneration”; but within days a possession order was granted by a high court judge. The authorities would rather see neglected buildings filled with empty echoes than the buzz of community camaraderie.

Which brings me to the Occupy squat crew, who’re still going strong and building their own community – the relationships forged in tents have lasted through moves into, and evictions from, about a dozen disused buildings across London during the last eight months.

Meanwhile, Earthian’s journey seeking peace for the Middle East continues and I very much recommend his blog.

If you ever wonder what else ex-Occupiers are up to, the Occupy London fortnightly newsletter is worth a look; it contains a wealth of information and news on a wide range of subjects interesting to those of a radical or Occupy-friendly nature, and future editions can be emailed to you fortnightly if you sign up via the OL website (sign up box is in the right hand column).

For an even more massive range of news and opinions from around the world check the Occupy News Network which recently put out a shout for more material: “Local struggles to international ones, technology to revisiting the simple life, commentaries and first hand experience… all welcome. If there is a burning issue you wish to address, please bash it out and relieve the stress and we will look at publishing it.”

It’s four years since The Big Green Gathering was cancelled and bankrupted in an apparent attempt to stop grassroots organisers and climate activists enjoying themselves too much in the Mendip Hills. The smaller, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes Green Gathering will be held on a stunning site just outside Chepstow on the weekend of 1-4 August. Last year Occupy made a big impact in the Speakers’ Forum at the Gathering and there was a great atmosphere throughout the festival all weekend long, but participant numbers were on the low side. I’m hoping this year will be the one that really recaptures the Big Green Gathering spirit. I’m helping look after the Green Gathering twitter account; if you think you might be interested, please follow @Gathering_Green 😉

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Wandsworth Against Cuts & Occupy activists defend Battersea adventure playground

This is a collaborative story worked on with those occupying Battersea Park adventure playground. This playground isn’t just any old playground – watch this 10 min film to find out why. Hopefully the collaboration between locals and Occupy activists will work as well here as it has at Friern Barnet library… and will make Wandsworth council see sense and stop the demolition.

UPDATE 5.30pm Mon 7 Jan:

The defenders of Battersea adventure playground have been told that demolition will begin next Monday. Occupiers are remaining in situ; a small camp (maximum 15 residents) has been set up inside the playground, with supporters visiting during the day.

Within the last hour police appeared to be chaining up the entrances to the playground, stating that anyone who left would not be able to return. This would have cut off Occupiers from toilets and food supplies. Protesters reminded officers that this is a lawful protest and campaigners report that the police then “backed off.”

Police have, however, closed the neighbouring and active young children’s playground, stating that the banners – some of which the children themselves made – would frighten playground users.  The information table set up by Wandsworth Against Cuts is being cited as a hazard.

K, currently at the Occupy camp inside the playground, asks: “Is this Wandsworth council trying to quash popular support? I saw these tactics used in the Goldsmiths’ occupation a couple of years ago.  The university shut the library during an exam period, claiming that we made such a mess the place was unusable – essentially turning people against us.”

It seems that as yet local people are behind the occupation as they want to save the playground and have run out of other ways to convince Wandsworth council to rethink. According to one occupier at the site: “Parents have ignored the chains on the little kids’ play area, lifting their children over to let them play.”

Original Story

Members of the Occupy community and local anti-cuts activists occupied the Battersea Park Adventure Playground on Saturday 5 January, in protest at Wandsworth council’s decision to have a unique children’s facility demolished. The action was taken in support of local groups who have been working to save the playground for months. Bulldozers are due on the site on Monday 7 Jan.

Local resident Michael McCarthy said: “I think it’s terrible. I brought my daughter here today to see for myself what is happening. I think it’s great someone is fighting these cuts. Where are the kids going to go? There is nowhere else.”

Qualified staff at this popular and historic playground have provided a stimulating and safe environment for thousands of children for decades. The playground staff have helped teenagers from the local area, including the large Doddington, Ethelburga and Surrey Lane Estates, to grow up free from gang and drug related pressures. They have organised cultural, social and educational activities which have helped young people develop confidence and independence. The older kids have helped to build the playground, learning useful skills and enjoying a sense of achievement and ownership through doing so.

In recent months staff have been laid off and the playground has been closed, as unsupervised use is considered dangerous. The council’s plan is to extend the adjacent, conventional playground into the adventure play area and convert it to a static, unstaffed facility. This will only be suitable for younger children, supervised by parents. Campaigners report seeing council factsheets showing that the cost of staffing playgrounds in Wandsworth is only £2 per household per year. Those occupying the play area call on Wandsworth council to reverse the decisions to get rid of play staff and to destroy the adventure playground.

Norman MacLean of Wandsworth Against Cuts (WAC) said “Please support this occupation by visiting the playground, bringing food and other supplies and, if possible, by joining us in defending this vital community resource.”

Location: Battersea Park, SouthWest corner near junction of Albert Bridge Road and Prince of Wales Drive. SW11 4SF

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Changes

For the last year, The Occupied Times – a creative alternative to the mainstream media, born of the OccupyLSX camp – has been my priority. Writing, commissioning, editing, researching, plotting with co-editors and distributing newspapers has occupied me pretty much dusk to dawn and dawn to dusk.  The OT came before my festival and hostel work, pushed friends and family to the sidelines, seemed more important than cooking and sleeping and paltry things like that.

My sojourn in the OT newsroom exercised brain muscles I didn’t know I possessed. I gleefully inserted commas and deleted apostrophes, proof-reading deep into the wee hours as deadlines approached. In the early days, while living in the Occupy camp at St Paul’s, I’d take my netbook to an all-night cafe near Smithfield Market and type through the night, sustained by mugs of stewed tea.

I was drawn to the OT because I love writing and think information dissemination is one of the most vital aspects of a social movement, campaign or protest. I stayed because it was a great learning experience, because creating indymedia seemed a valid and valuable thing to spend my time doing, and because I liked the spiky, funny, rebellious OT crew. In the early days, diversity of perspective and opinion was lapped up and newcomers were encouraged to dive in at the deep end, to question everything and to throw half-formed ideas into the pot at every opportunity.

I quit the OT in the run-up to this Solstice / Apocalypse / Christmas. I’m appreciating the time I now have on my hands … although I can’t call it ‘free’ time, as the things I’ve neglected have greedily swallowed it up.

It has been an inspiring, educational, exhausting journey. In the end, I quit not to get my life back – although that’s a welcome side-effect – but because as time went on I found myself increasingly often on a different ‘page’ to the majority (but not all) of our informal collective. Agreeing-to-disagree could only carry us so far before the necessity of diverging became apparent.

I’m grieving, a little, for the people I worked and laughed and debated intensely with; and for the part of my identity that became tangled up with this OT thing I did. I’m saddened by what I perceive as a narrowing of focus within the OT, although I’ll still be eager to read the first 2013 issue when it comes out.

Everything changes.

This year I think I’ll be focusing on co-operatives, the commons, radical community initiatives, eco-literacy and energy choices and I’ll be trying to convince people of the necessity of moving away from cultures based on capitalism, growth and profit.

I’ll be supporting the Diggers2012, the Combe Haven Defenders road protest camp, Stop Hinkley‘s anti-nuclear blockades and Hebden Bridge’s Ban the Burn actions, and will continue to fight the disaster that is GM crops.

I’ll be helping to spread the word about Radical Routes (a network of co-operatives working towards radical social change) and will probably be involved in The Green Gathering (website under construction).

I’ll be fighting the corporatisation of communities, as people in Barnet, Totnes and Frome are doing (especially my own, in Hebden Bridge, where we’re being threatened with a supermarket); and I’ll be educating myself by listening to people like Kevin Anderson (Rob Hopkins of Transition Network interviewed Anderson and I was inspired).

I’ll continue my involvement with the Occupy movement, which I believe still has power and potential, particularly in its networks of people, affinity groups and communication channels, and in its hands-on experience of organising camps and providing for basic needs in adverse conditions (see Occupy Wall Street activists organising disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy).

I’ll still be writing, and encouraging others to write.

I’ll hopefully have time to grow some fruit and veg this year too, and if Iain Findlay (the OccuPied Piper) is successful with crowdfunding his Whirligro – a simple invention for growing food in urban environments –  I’ll have a bumper salad crop.

Here’s hoping for some breakthroughs in tackling social, economic and environmental injustice and violence this year.

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The People’s Library

I helped the folks at the Friern Barnet Occupied Library (aka the People’s Library) write the following press release.

If anyone can help us get word out, the librarians would be delighted 🙂

Even if this library is evicted, the  story could help inspire others to fight back when their local services are cut, when big business takes precedence over local needs and wishes, and when councils forget that their mandate is to serve local people and communities.

ShiftHistoric library

Some fantastic pics of ‘Earth Circus’ at the Occupied Library last night.

Supporters of Friern Barnet People’s Library in Barnet, North London, are to return to court at 09:30 on Monday 17 December as Barnet council seeks possession of the building and the surrounding green land. [1]

“Join us in Barnet and show Barnet council that libraries and communities matter more than profits for big business.

Friern Barnet library closed in April despite the protests of local residents. The sudden closure was seen as part of Barnet council’s plan to outsource public services in the borough, and to profit from the sale of the property.

In September the library was re-opened by the Occupy movement, local people and experienced librarians in protest at the library’s closure and to provide a programme of community events as well as essential library services. 8000 donated books line shelves that were cleared by the council. The ‘People’s Library’ project is a protest and an emergency service; volunteers do not see it as a longterm solution and are united in calling for the re-institution of a publically-funded, professionally-run library at the Friern Barnet site.

Barnet community galvanised
Sinead Burke, a drama teacher resident in Barnet, volunteered to run baby and toddler sessions at the library. She explained “I chose to offer my time to run this as I attended ‘Rhyme Time’ sessions at the library when it was council-run […] I am disgusted that taxpayers will no longer have access to activities for their children in Friern Barnet and commend those who are working so hard to save our library”.

Local architect Maria Persak-Enefer applied to have the Friern Barnet library building recognised for its “significant contribution to the borough’s heritage and character”. On 10 December confirmation was received that the library will be added to the Schedule of Buildings of Local Architectural or Historic Interest and the Register of Assets of Community Value. Although these listings will not prevent sale of the building, they may restrict development. [2]

Investment in jobs, alternatives to austerity, and making the shift to renewable energy sources were hot topics at ‘Shift: an economy for the 99%’, a recent event held at the occupied library. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and Sara Ayech of Transition Towns joined more than 60 educators, activists and community members to explore constructive resistance to current policies.

Not only libraries
Residents’ groups claim that Barnet council is aggressively pursuing an undemocratic outsourcing programme incongruously dubbed ‘One Barnet’. Citing a “relentless drive for efficiency” [3] as a key principle, this programme will see the privatisation of approximately 70% of Barnet’s public services, a move expected to result in large scale redundancies.
On 6 December a council meeting at Hendon Town Hall, intended to rubber-stamp the handover of ‘back office’ services to Capita, was disrupted by local activists. Protesters succeeded in derailing the meeting and held their own public assembly in the committee room. The Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS) announced on 11 December that a Judicial Review of the One Barnet programme is being sought. [4]

Not only Barnet
Vicki Morris, of BAPS, encourages grassroots groups everywhere to resist outsourcing and defend public services: “It is time the spotlight was shone on these companies. This situation is being repeated all over the UK, as outsourcing companies line up to take over services. They offer cash-strapped councils promises of savings that often never materialise. Meanwhile, they exploit council employees to turn a profit”.

Unite to defend
Those protesting the sale and development of Friern Barnet library and its surrounding green space have the following clear message for the council:

“Library campaign groups working with the Occupy movement and the local community share a common aim: that Friern Barnet library should be re-opened in the existing building by Barnet council and preserved as a fully funded library and community space with the direct involvement of local people in the decision making process. The occupation of the building is a direct action that has highlighted the massive community support for Friern Barnet library, and has challenged not only its closure but the entire One Barnet programme and the privatisation of our public services in general.”

The group has issued a call-out for support during the court hearing beginning 09:30 on 17 and 18 December at Barnet Civil and Family Courts Centre, St Mary’s Court, Regent’s Park Road, Finchley Central, N3 1BQ.

Contact: friernbarnetcommunitylibrary@gmail.com  ;  07592 231150 / 07722454777 / 07769791387

Librarians revolt!Save the Library

[1] Civil and Family Courts Centre, St Marys Court, Regents Park Road, Finchley Central, London N3 1BQ

[2] http://www.times-series.co.uk/news/10093118.Library_s_listed_status_will_not_prevent_sale/

[3] http://www.barnet.gov.uk/info/920056/one_barnet_transformation_programme/904/one_barnet_transformation_programme

[4] http://www.theoutsourceblog.com/2012/12/barnet-council%E2%80%99s-mega-outsourcing-deal-sparks-judicial-review/

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Diggers, Occupiers, Co-operators, Revolutionaries and a Rogue Council

One Barnet, Two Barnets, Broken Barnet & Barnet Library…

Barnet is in north London. I’ve never been there but I’ve been hearing a lot about it recently.

Initially, Barnet hit the indymedia because the (Tory) council closed the library there in April, despite pleas by local residents. The council’s plan was (and probably still is) to sell it off to developers. People involved in the Occupy movement got wind of this and went along to see if they could help the locals get their library back. In September the library was Occupied and re-opened. Soon 8000 donated books were lining the shelves and the library was restored to its function as a community hub.

The library has been hosting a wide range of events, from music gigs to book launches, French lessons to kids’ comic-making workshops. Some of those involved mounted a campaign to get the library recognised as a ‘Building of Local Architectural or Historic interest’ – their recent success will make it more difficult for developers to demolish the building, which will make buying it a less attractive proposition. Meanwhile, the council has launched a legal battle to enable it to re-close the library. Friern Barnet library supporters, local residents and Occupy activists will be back in court on December 18 for the next round in the legal battle.

[more info and petition to sign: fbpeopleslibrary.co.uk]

Having developed a taste for taking community matters into their own hands, on 6 December Barnet residents and their supporters stormed a council meeting and temporarily occupied Hendon town hall to protest and discuss the council’s decision to privatise local services in the ‘One Barnet’ sell-off programme, which would see services such as planning and environmental health outsourced to Capita plc (alleged tax-avoiding profiteer). The residents succeeding in derailing the hand-over meeting and are seeking a Judicial Review of the sell-off.

Two days after their ‘polite English revolution’ (it was noted that those involved in storming the town hall brandished statements not spears and apologised to the cops for troubling them), Barnet residents were amongst those who responded to UKUncut’s invitation to ‘Target Starbucks‘. Drawing a parallel between tax avoidance and cuts to public services, protestors swarmed into the Barnet branch of Starbucks and turned it into – you guessed it – a library for a day.

[more info at barneteye.blogspot.co.uk ; wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk ; occupylondon.org.uk (council meeting), occupylondon.org.uk (Starbucks), occupylondon.org.uk (library), occupynewsnetwork]

Diggers2012 are dug in for Winter Solstice and Christmas…

I visited the Diggers eco-village at Runnymede ten days ago. Alighting from a train at Egham station after dark, armed with a torch and directions copied from the website, I set off up Cooper’s Lane before diving into the woods onto a network of muddy but navigable paths. On my last visit I took the long route via the Magna Carta Memorial, so was a little disoriented as I approached from the opposite direction, but aided by a full moon shining through bare branches I found my way to the camp.

In the four months since I was last there, things have changed a lot.  The wooden-framed, earth-walled longhouse has been extended and further enclosed to shield from the elements a communal kitchen. A geodesic dome approximately 24ft across nestles into trees beyond the longhouse, providing an indoor meeting space. Solar panels (rescued from the St Paul’s Occupy camp) provide enough power for the Diggers to host film nights; a generous donation was recently used to buy a projector and screen, which turns the dome into a rustic cinema complete with cob-walled fireplace. Fresh spring-water was found just uphill from the camp and is now piped down into the village; when I was there Vinnie, a newish resident, was preparing to lag the pipes to prevent them freezing up in the expected cold snap. A hot water shower area with drainage was halfway built – to date, it had only produced tepid water but Vinnie assured me that the technical hitches would soon be overcome.

I slept in the dome and woke to a valley of frosted fields sparkling in winter sunlight. Residents of the eco-village have been busy constructing their own sleeping and living quarters over the last couple of months, each to their own design and timescale. Some are happy to reside in the tents they lived in at the St Paul’s Occupy camp last winter. Others have built yurts, tepees, lean-tos, benders and cabins. There’s a ramshackle treehouse and a few abandoned attempts to build shacks and sheds. What I loved most about the set-up was that almost everything used in the structures is natural or reclaimed material; and every structure is different.

No one seems to know if or when the Diggers will be evicted. I’d like to see them planting a forest garden in the springtime.

Finally; A BOOK REVIEW

The Co-operative Revolution: A Graphic Novel by Polyp 

Less a graphic novel, more a heavily-illustrated primer on the subject of co-operation, for grown-ups and kids over about 10. Simple language avoids condescending to the novice co-operator and the design / artwork is varied and attention-grabbing: cartoons, comic strips, photographs, handwritten notes, quotes and posters break up the text. A slim 70 pages, taken up mostly with pictures, but, somehow, packed with masses (and masses) of information. I’m sure I learnt – and possibly even retained – more about history and biology in an hour with this book than I did in a year at school.

Chapters on ‘Yesterday’, ‘Today’, ‘Always’ and ‘Tomorrow’ take readers on an unlikely journey. From the industrial revolution via the Luddites, Peterloo Massacre and Rochdale Pioneers, to the inside of a human cell and a critique of the pronouncements of Darwin and Dawkins… from birds and bees to snake-catchers, football teams and the collapse of the Argentinian economy… culminating in a fictitious trip to Mars in 2044. The Martian adventure is a little tame; for me, true tales of the courage and grit shown by our co-operative ancestors are way more impressive than this final flight of fancy, but kids and space enthusiasts may cheer to see the new-age Rochdale Pioneers make it off-planet.

Educational, not overtly political but subtly revolutionary, this inspiring ‘novel’ jumps off the page and lodges in your brain. It’s a reminder that ordinary people have been fighting powerful elites for a very long time, that some battles have been won, and that if we work together we have the strength to win more, for “altruistic groups beat selfish groups” or, as Polyp puts it, “good guys finish first”.

Author and artist Polyp is a co-operator and political cartoonist. His politics are a mash-up of “Bill Hicks, radical democracy, direct action, the co-operative movement, Karl Popper…”. He lives in Manchester, makes props for protests and is into tactical activism.

The Co-operative Revolution celebrates the 2012 UN Year of the Co-op. It can be read online for free or bought from its publishers New Internationalist (itself a non-profit co-operative) for £5.99.

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Up The Anti

Up The AntiReclaim The Future, a one-day conference aimed at the broad Left, took place at Queen Mary University, Mile End on Saturday 1 Dec.

The event was largely an attempt to find common ground, with a view to making a concerted effort to bring about a better future. Anarchists, socialists, activists, communists, writers, journalists, educators, occupiers, Trotskyists, campaigners, union members and unaligned dissidents mingled, debated, and occasionally more-or-less agreed with each other.

Many people seemed to think a session on debt strikes was the most interesting part of the day, especially as participants were encouraged to escape the formal lecture theatre seats, to sit on the floor and on steps, and to chat around the subject, Occupy-style, before feeding back to the whole group. Speakers on this subject included anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years; Nick Mirzoeff, who has been involved with the Strike Debt movement in the US and writes a Daily Observation of Occupy; Michael Richmond of The Occupied Times who is also involved in the nascent Strike Debt movement in the UK; and Jonathon Stevenson of the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

Critics of UTA complained of too much speechifying and theorising. This is a valid criticism, and yet theory was balanced with consideration of practical, real-life issues such as journalism, housing, racism, debt and the situations in Greece and the Global South.

There were too many white men – or rather, there were not enough people of colour and there were relatively few women, particularly on the ‘panels’. There were too many talks going on all at the same time with not enough time between the formal sessions for discussion and assimilation of information. There was nothing specifically feminist or environmentally-themed, although these subjects were touched upon in many of the sessions. As both feminism and environmental awareness are pretty central to anti-capitalism and vice versa, it would have been good to have more emphasis on both. The dearth of environmentalists might in part have been due to the Big Rig Revolt, also taking place on 1 Dec in London and around the UK.

Up The Anti was, perhaps, a step towards getting the notoriously fractious Left to admit that most of its parts are broadly on the same ‘side’ (erm, yeah, the left side) and that it might be ok to disagree about some things while still working together.

Pragmatically, it better had be ok to disagree, because we do. Is there any point dealing with mainstream politics and mainstream media? Are attempts to live the dream in the now (aka prefigurative politics) a good thing? Should we engage with people whose ideas we don’t like and try to persuade them to change, or is that a waste of time (or worse, a validation of their views)? How much of a role should unions have in our networks? Anarchism or socialism or communism or no ism? These are questions around which unity cannot be built.

On the other hand: debt resistance, indymedia offensives, international networking, linking climate change and capitalism, anti-discrimination campaigning, claiming space… These are issues that diverse groups, with different theoretical underpinnings and preferred tactics, could work on simultaneously and in parallel, while refraining from sectarianism.

Up The Anti did not Reclaim The Future. It did, however, put up some signposts.

This blog is also posted on Occupy News Network (ONN), along with a huge amount of news, comment and opinion compiled by citizen journalists and Occupy supporters around the world.

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Strike Debt

Strike Debt seems to be resonating in the States, where an Occupy Wall Street spin-off sees the ‘Rolling Jubilee‘ project buying up medical debt and writing it off, releasing the poverty-stricken from slavery to loan repayments that they can’t hope to meet, on loans that they didn’t choose to take out. $7 million and rising of debt has been disappeared. In parallel with the Jubilee, a Debt-Resistors’ Operations Manual encourages debtors to recognise the illegitimacy of debt and gives practical advice on managing and resisting debt. The vision is of a support-network of refuseniks.

The underlying message is: We, the people, are in charge. We no longer accept that we owe anything to voracious and corrupt institutions. We refuse to be frightened into submission. We don’t believe in this system anymore, so it can’t control us.

I’m not so sure it’ll work in the UK, where we don’t have the same kinds of grossly unjust medical debt, where our student debts don’t have to be paid back until we’re earning enough to raise us out of poverty (and then are extracted from our pay packets whether we like it or not)… and where the buying-up of debt is not such a simple process.

Even in the US, some are sceptical. How many benefactors will pay into the Rolling Jubilee scheme? Not enough to make a difference, or too many? If the project becomes successful, won’t it just put up the price of debt? If it becomes really successful, could it vaporise hard-earned pensions – or even crash the economy? (A bigger question lurking here – would crashing the economy be a good thing or a bad thing?) How is debt-resistance different from personal bankruptcy? Are people going to risk losing their homes and possessions to the bailiffs, or is Strike Debt really only appealing to the desperate and destitute, who have no option but to default and lose everything?

Understanding the Strike Debt tactic may rest on understanding that debt has been more-or-less forced on vast swathes of the population (in the US and the UK) by capitalism’s relentless need for growth. Companies must keep selling stuff to keep the profits rolling in to keep the shareholders happy and the managers’ bonuses boosted. Who’s been buying all that stuff? Well, ordinary people have, because they were told by the media and the advertising industry that they needed or deserved it. How have they afforded it, given that wages have stagnated? By taking out loans. Banks and loan companies have been charging interest on those loans and so have been extracting money to grow the financial sector too. More and more money extracted from the poor in order to feed the rich in a sick Robin Hood reversal.

Then, well, the banks went bust, the banks got bailed out, but no one bailed out the people. The banks gobbled up public money, and now there’s no money for public services. The rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes, but the poor are expected to pay back the loans they were encouraged to take out (to keep the economy ‘healthy’), even though they’re poorer than ever now that benefits and services are being cut.

It’s not only individuals and communities that get crushed in the relentless scramble to ‘grow’, or prop-up, the economy [translation for economic growth = increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few]. The pursuit of infinite growth also has catastrophic environmental effects. It means plundering natural resources in entirely unsustainable ways, releasing carbon willy nilly and making things with built-in obsolescence instead of built-to-last robustness; and so, we have pollution, climate change and threatened biodiversity. A warming world, extreme weather events and sick bees. Which means there’s a very large debt owed to our children, and unless radical change happens very soon, we won’t be able to pay that back either.

It’s all wrong, it’s completely unfair, but is Strike Debt the answer? The Rolling Jubilee in the US should perhaps be seen as an awareness-raising tool as much, or more, than a genuine attempt to redress the problem. Whether the more challenging debt resistance movement can make a significant impact on the staus quo I don’t yet know, but it’s surely worth researching, testing, trying.

StrikeDebtUK are beginning to work out how the concept could be implemented here.

More info on debt, and a chance to join in the debate, at Up The Anti – Reclaim The Future on Dec 1, St Mary University, London.

Or read this thought-provoking piece by Sahil Dutta: Debt As Power.

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