Recently, I was sitting in some welcome sunshine and I suddenly found myself becoming quite misty-eyed with memories from a few years back. Memories that have undoubtedly grown sweeter and perhaps more selective with time, but no less valid for that. Memories of hope, optimism, possibility, excitement and freedom.
For a bit of context, let’s go back in time with the help of some cheeky re-enacters:
The impact of rave culture is easy to underestimate nowadays. Not only did it introduce a generation to the concept of making their own entertainment, free of the tedious commercialism of the high street, it also went a huge way to ending widespread football hooliganism as folks realised the pointlessness of fighting someone you’ve been grinning at and hugging all night. But it was precisely the “off the grid” nature of raving that saw it rapidly demonised by the powers-that-be. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people weren’t spending all their hard-earned in pubs and clubs. The brewery barons foresaw disaster and leant on their chums in the police and government to do something about it. The authorities were also spooked by the unity and disdain for authority they saw in the scene. How do you police a bunch of people who, when told to disperse their convoy of cars, spontaneously all throw their keys into the hedge?
Well the reponse of John Major’s chaotic government was the ludicrous Criminal Justice Act, a blanket anti-gathering lump of legislation which even, laughably, sought to define rave music as consisting of a continuous emission of repetitive beats. Obviously, when they’d dried their eyes and picked themselves up off the floor, all decent people let out a resounding raspberry and partied on regardless. But there were other stirrings in the sub-cultural hinterlands. Traveller culture was becoming more widespread than at any time since the 60s as the pop charts got overrun with fiddles and mandolins. Environmental activism was increasingly hitting the headlines in the face of rampant Tory road-building. And it was this last element that led to something truly special. Through a combination of circumstances, and from very small beginnings, Reclaim The Streets was born. This Channel 4 documentary tells the story pretty well (and has been uploaded to YouTube complete with charming period VHS glitches):
A fuller version of the source material is available here:
Despite its anti-road, pro-street origins, it soon became clear that there was more to RTS. It was a defiant kick back against the Criminal Justice Act, it was a means of engaging people in political thinking, it was a demo tactic, it was a celebration of chaos-laced fun over dull conformity. Because RTS actions relied on strength in numbers, everybody who took part was a crucial contributor. Although there was clearly some kind of forward planning being done, most events involved a thrilling spontaneity. A classic example of this was at the early action in Angel when, with the planned soundsystem not turning up, this phat puppy emerged from a side road to provide the tunes:
Not too shabby eh? And proof of how well it can work when someone thinks, “I’ve got some skill, or some equipment, that would be useful; I’ll go along and see if I can help out.” Of course if you don’t happen to be The KLF, you might not have something quite as big and noisy but no matter. The most important ingredient was simply people and the positive attitude they came with. My memories of RTS parties, and the reason I got a lump in my throat thinking back to them, are of incredible friendliness and welcome. There was a real sense that these were the good guys; you could see in people’s faces that they got it. Of course the business of occupying a road and turning it back into a street both demands and creates trust and cooperation. Everyone had to be prepared to move when the group moved and not worry overly about themselves. We all had to subscribe to the view that standing about meekly on the pavement or on some “approved route” is never likely to achieve much, or be any fun. (Are you listening Stop The War 2003?) The thrill of transgressing accepted norms not only bound us more closely together, it provoked us to look beyond the everyday. When you’ve reversed the usual order of things on a stretch of road it becomes easier to imagine a different world. The imagination can take flight and the spirit gets a chance to soar. It may only be temporary, but it’s great.
You can’t have a party without music and you can’t have a street party without people being in the street, so if you’ve been inspired and are planning a bit of a do, you’ll probably find this handy:
And this last tune is just a gift to you for reading this far:
Before you get going on this, you might want to check out Part 1 to see how I wound up in the clink.
Well, there we go – I spent a night in a police cell. I was referred to throughout as “the prisoner” and forced to wear some really whack plimsolls and bright white jogging bottoms. I’d been told that it would probably be mid-afternoon before I got out so when dawn began to creep greyly through the curtainless window I figured I should eat some breakfast and try and collect my thoughts.
Collecting my thoughts didn’t take long. I didn’t really have any, apart from a sense of guiltless ambivalence. Breakfast was an altogether tougher challenge, in every sense. I suspect it had been microwaved, then left in hot sunshine, then sealed in a slightly leaky bottle and thrown from an ocean liner, then found some years later by a Hebridean and dried on a washing line, before being posted to Harrow Road Police Station, microwaved again, allowed to cool, then delivered to my cell. Nothing else can explain it.
So it was with a feeling of hunger, more than anticipation, that I finally got to meet my legal representative. A quick plug here for the excellent Green and Black Cross legal helpline – you know, that number you see on bust cards? When I’d finally been booked in at nearly midnight, I was allowed to make two calls. I rang a colleague to say I would be, at best, late for work. I also rang GBC. A very reassuring young woman answered the phone and told me not to worry, not to say anything to the cops and to ring Bindmans solicitors. She also said that there was someone waiting outside the station, although she couldn’t guarantee they’d be there all night. In one quick conversation she raised my spirits dramatically and I thanked her warmly for being there. If anyone reading this has got a tiresome problem of too much cash, I’m sure GBC could put it to good use.
My legal rep, Matt from Bindmans, met me and we went into a meeting room. He was a friendly guy and told me he’d been involved in representing people from a number of demos I’d heard of. It was very pleasant to be able finally to talk openly to someone about everything that had happened. Most interestingly, he filled me in on the detail of the building at which I’d been nicked. It was called Panton House and was home to the UK offices of Xstrata. That name rang a faint bell and when Matt told me that apparently the Xstrata CEO Mick Davis was the highest-earning boss of a FTSE-100 company, I recalled reading an article that mentioned him. It had struck me when I read about it that I’d never previously heard of Xstrata and it struck me again as notable that their UK HQ was so anonymous that I’d been able to walk in its front door and up onto the roof with no evidence that I was even in a working building. Why so secretive and stealthy?
However, no chance to dwell on that now; it was time for me to go downstairs and be grilled by the feds. Or in my case, chatted to by a very mild pair of WPCs. Here’s a hint for anyone who finds themself in a similar situation: making no comment in a police interview is good common sense. If the CPS decides to press charges and it ends up in court, you’ll have a chance to say your piece. By then you’ll have been able to gather your thoughts and work out in your own mind what you think happened and what you think you did. The cops will have been able to examine their evidence and the whole thing can be dealt with in a calm and considered manner. There’s a good chance it won’t even go that far and you’ll have no case to answer. In the interview, however, the cops are looking to achieve two objectives: they want to gather evidence and they want to obtain a confession. There’s no reason why you should help them with either of these. They know that, so they’re subtle. My cheery WPCs made it seem like it was hardly an interview at all, engaging me in chit-chat as we walked to the room – the weather, that sort of thing. I’m by and large a polite bloke; I don’t like to ignore people and when people are affable with me I like to return the favour. It was really hard staying silent throughout the interview, which was full of leading questions such as, “didn’t you realise…?” and, “surely you would have known…?” Salvation came in the unlikely form of a filing cabinet, sitting against the wall opposite me. I stared at the Bisley logo with Zen-like intensity until, after 55 questions, the rozzers had had enough and that was that. The tape recorder was switched off, I left the room, collected my possessions and departed through the front door of the station.
Of course it wasn’t that simple. Arrest and detention of protestors, although ostensibly about evidence gathering, is primarily used (in my opinion) as a form of extra-judicial punishment and as a deterrent to future action. So I was given back my wallet, my (now expired) travelcard, my phone charger, my keys and some general pocket fluff. But I wasn’t given back my phone, or my shoes, or my coat, hat, gloves or even my ruined trousers. In other words, I had to make my way home across London wearing ill-fitting plimsolls and an insane pair of white loons, carrying my worldly wealth in a transparent plastic bag. Hardly safe or dignified but it could have been worse. I’ve since heard of teenagers being let out of stations in the middle of the night with only paper overalls to wear and no idea of how to get home. Disgusting.
Back to reality and the prosaic concerns of sorting out a replacement phone, buying some new shoes and putting up with my colleagues laughing at me, my main concern was what would happen next. I assumed there would be a court summons, possibly leading to a fine and a criminal record. However, I didn’t really know; all this was new territory for me. Thank goodness once again then for GBC. They organised an arrestees meeting, attended by two of the lead solicitors who would represent us, Mike Schwarz from Bindmans and Raj Chada from Hodge, Jones & Allen, both of whom have long track records of defending freedom of expression and the right to protest. The meeting was a chance not only to hear about the legal procedures that would likely take place but also simply to catch up with fellow banner carriers and to finally put some names to faces. On the morning of November 30th I hadn’t known any of these people but now we were able to make some more relaxed introductions and actually get to know one another. Of course, because of what we’d been through, we already felt like old comrades in arms. Did we want to contest the charges against us, we were asked. Of course we did. Did we want to meet together again and make a campaign of it? Hell, yeah! Of course, nobody actually said, “Hell, yeah!” but in the film version I’m sure somebody would.
Cheered by each other’s company and support, we began to meet semi-regularly in a pub near St Paul’s. We got to know each other better, realising just what a diverse group of people we were in terms of age and background but how much we felt united by the concerns which Occupy embodied. It quickly became clear that we were not stereotypical spiky activists. Arrest, for most of us, was a complete novelty and not something we’d expected or sought. All of us were, to varying degrees, upset or annoyed to have not been made blatantly aware that we risked arrest by entering the building. That said, none of us felt the arrests were justified and we managed not to let the annoyance detract from our determination to fight the charges. We were also intrigued by the choice of Xstrata as a target for the protest and decided we needed to know more about the company. It didn’t take long at all to realise that the grotesque pay of its CEO was one of the vast mining company’s less serious breaches of good corporate behaviour. A litany of tax avoidance, worker exploitation and environmental carnage rapidly revealed itself as we came to see that this was a particularly dirty player in an unusually filthy sector. Have a gander at this.
We had all been bailed to return to Albany St Police Station on January 19th or 20th but on 5th we received some unexpected news. The police had contacted our solicitors to inform them that they would be taking no further action in respect of the charges against us. If we wanted to collect our property, we should attend our bail date. Otherwise, we were free to go on our own sweet way. Well of course there was a sigh of relief big enough to affect weather systems but somehow it didn’t quite feel right. Less than 24 hours later, our qualms were justified. The CPS, it transpired, had come to the conclusion that although “the crown” stood no real chance of securing a conviction for such heinous crimes as burglary, criminal damage or even aggravated trespass, it wished to pursue charges under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. So we weren’t off the hook just yet. There was a weary resignation as our solicitors told us that “they always do this”. Section 5 is seen as a bit of a catch-all charge in protest cases. Originally formulated to tackle the quaint olde worlde phenomenon of rival groups of football fans hurling abuse at each other across the street, S5 criminalises the use of threatening or abusive behaviour in the presence of others who would be likely to suffer alarm or distress. See here for a more thorough explanation. It’s now regularly employed as a way of criminalising peaceful protest. Essentially, the assertion now was that, in entering Panton House as part of a group and making our way to the roof, we’d caused harassment, alarm or distress to folk working in the offices there. And that we’d been aware that we were doing such.
While on one level, there was relief that we were no longer in any danger of prison time, we were now on a charge that offered a much greater chance of conviction and, significantly, no right of trial by jury. We had no doubt that a jury would find the evidence against us far too flimsy to deliver a guilty verdict but a single District Judge, able to apply a fair amount of personal interpretation, could easily take the view that we were malcontents who should be taught a lesson. Although we only faced a maximum £1000 fine, none of us wanted a criminal record. The cops, ever keen to help and serve, made it clear that we could avoid court by accepting a caution. No fine, no costs, no court case and no conviction. Sounds great. Where’s the snag? Well, to receive a caution, you have to admit some form of culpability and, although you don’t have a conviction on your record, you still end up with the caution hanging round your neck. This can create hassle down the line when applying for jobs, insurance etc. Not something you really want if you can avoid it. Some, however, felt they’d reached a watershed. The logistics of fighting the case were simply too difficult or the threat of a hefty fine + costs bill was keeping them awake at night. Others simply wanted the whole thing to be over. So some of us refused the caution and some, reluctantly and with a strong sense of injustice, accepted it. Those who refused and battled on felt only sympathy for the folk who had to stop at this point. It must have been a horrible decision. As I rolled up at Albany St nick, eager to get back my phone and clothes, which the cops had inexplicably held onto until now, I met two fellow arrestees. One, like me, refused the caution and we went for a beer and to compare photos on our recharging phones. The other, I assume because I haven’t seen her since, accepted the caution. If you ever happen to read this, I truly hope you’re OK and that the whole carry-on hasn’t shaken your determination to speak up for things you hold dear.
This is getting lengthy and I want to give folk a chance to read it before October 20th so you’ll just have to wait for Part 3.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t get executed.
To make up for the lack of recent bloggage, here’s a whopper. In fact, it’s such an epic that I’ve divided it into two parts. Here’s the first!
To begin, we need to refer back to a blog I wrote just before the national strike of November 30th last year. Entitled “Got To Do Something” it set out my reasons for supporting the upcoming day of action and wanting to be part of it myself. The fact that much of what follows derives from a statement I produced for my legal team in preparation for a court case might give you some inkling as to how things panned out.
So let’s do the blurry screen thing and go back to central London on November 30th 2011.
I was there to show my support for the public sector workers demonstrating against cuts to their pensions and express my more general outrage at the increasing national and international tendency to squeeze the majority in order to enrich the wealthy. As a supporter (more than participant) of the Occupy movement I knew that people from the London camps and other like-minds would be sharing my aims. Having seen a rendez-vous mentioned on Twitter, I turned up at Liverpool Street Station at 7.30am. A group began to form at around the same time as a banner was displayed. I joined the group as it moved out of the station and we began to carry the banner, which carried the slogan “All Power To The 99%”. This slogan chimed eloquently with the kind of feelings I was keen to express so I was delighted to help convey it. Over the next few hours we displayed the banner in various significant or photogenic locations and linked up with some of the pickets that were taking place. Eventually we wound up at the Occupy camp at St Paul’s and went our separate ways for refreshments.
A little while later I returned to St Paul’s to find a large group gathering, ready for the feeder march to the main TUC meeting point at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Again, I made my way to where the “All Power To The 99%” banner was and took hold of it, along with a number of other people. We carried the banner to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then along the main march route, all the way to Victoria Embankment. If you were on this march yourself, you’ll no doubt remember that it was a calm, jovial affair, marred only by light drizzle and oppressive policing (remember the ring of steel at Trafalgar Square / Whitehall? The horses and Alsatians at opposite ends of the Strand?)
By this time a message had been put out on Occupy’s Twitter announcing a rendez-vous at Picadilly Circus for 3pm. Word went round that we should make our way there independently. I was keen to make sure that the banner got there and I know a couple of knots, so I folded it up tightly and tied it up. On arrival at Piccadilly Circus, it was very unclear what was going on. There was a significant police presence, including a ring of blue-hatted officers standing round Eros, but also a large contingent of PAOK Salonika fans, gathered in London for their match at Spurs that evening. (I now know that the cops in blue hats were members of the Territorial Support Group – TSG – and their role that day was not to watch over Greek footie fans or even particularly to keep an eye on Occupy but to ensure the safety of plain-clothes rozzers in case they got rumbled. However TSG are also the go-to guys for any kind of running around action so we’d see them again later.) The atmosphere was a bit random but cheery enough. A bit of asking around led me to the conclusion that our aim would be to undertake another “public repossession” of an empty building, in the vein of the “Bank of Ideas”. (The BoI was an office building, owned by UBS but unused and empty for years, which Occupy put to use as a resource centre, hosting talks, gigs, workshops and local community activities.) I figured that the “All Power To The 99%” banner I’d spent most of the day hauling round London would be an ideal accoutrement to this new Occupy venue.
After maybe 15 minutes, I heard someone say the banner needed to be opened out. Aware that I’d tied it rather securely, I scampered over and began to undo the knots. Even as I was finishing undoing the last bits of rope, one end of the banner was being pulled away from where I was, in the direction of Haymarket. I grabbed the loose rope at my end and began moving with the banner towards, and then into, Haymarket. The samba band, which I’d last seen early in the morning, had reappeared and was creating a carnival vibe as we fanned out across the road to display the banner clearly. About 100 yards down Haymarket I could see numbers beginning to concentrate around the entrance to a side road on the left. Somebody held a red flare aloft and moved towards the entrance to a building. People rapidly congregated and then I felt a tug on the banner and heard cries along the lines of, “Go on.”
A gap opened in the crowd and again the banner moved away from me as before. Absurdly, I was still trying to get the loose rope organised in my hands. We moved through an open door, to the side of some revolving doors, briskly but walking rather than running. Passing into a kind of atrium, we turned left and began ascending the stairs. After maybe 5 or 6 floors the stairs came to an end and I spotted daylight through a small door. Stepping through the door, we came out onto the roof and, walking round a pathway, came to an open area where the building fronted onto Haymarket. The roof parapet consisted of a lowish wall topped by a sturdy railing just below chest high. The banner was placed outside the railing, pulled tight and tied at each end. I was at the right hand end, holding the top rope, so I tied it securely with a round turn and a slip-hitch. I used a slip-hitch (basically a loop knot) because it would be easier to get undone and it saved having to haul through several feet of rope. I then set about tying off the bottom rope and gathering and re-coiling the loose ends.
As I was doing this I became aware of a TSG officer grabbing at a young lady to my left. He seemed to have completely lost his temper and was tugging very roughly on her arm. Slightly outraged but trying to remain cordial I said, “Hey, steady on”, which sounded ridiculous the moment it left my mouth. He carried on struggling for a bit until more police arrived. They seemed calmer and it looked like they removed their irate colleague from the scene. By this time the banner was being pulled back over the railing and gathered up so I began undoing the rope at my end. Before I could finish, I was grabbed by another TSG who tried to pull me away from the railing and the banner that I was untying. My instinctive reaction was to grab something solid (ie. the railing) to steady myself and then to indicate to the officer that I was in the process of removing the banner. The cop was then joined by some colleagues and together they hauled me away from the railing and spun me round, grabbing at least one of my arms in a lock. Someone was shouting, “On your knees! On your knees!” I couldn’t think why on earth they needed me to be on my knees but I was conscious that I was standing on a wet bit of roof. A few feet to my left the surface was quite dry so I said, “Can I have a dry bit of floor please?” The response was, “On your knees!” I then said something like, “If you let me onto the dry, I’ll be happy to kneel down.” It’s important to stress that, despite galloping adrenaline, I felt quite serene at this point. I had no desire to fight back against the police, I just wasn’t prepared to be bullied or dehumanised. (I’m also really, really fastidious sometimes.)
My serenity took a bit of a jolt as some police officer stamped a foot down between my legs and threw me, judo style, over his leg. So now I was lying face down on the wet roof. One arm was forced up behind my back. I tried to relax and stay supple, rather than tense up. Then I felt a knee pressed heavily into my back. It was in exactly the right location to push my solar plexus against the ground, giving me the feeling of being winded and making breathing uncomfortable. Also my phone charger, in my jacket pocket, was pushing against my ribs. All this was too much. I felt as though I was now being thuggishly assaulted (probably because I was). Although I was unable to look round to see who was kneeling on me, I was able to say, in a short-winded rasp, “Get your knee out of my back you [insert very bad word].” I’m not a heavy swearer but it was the least he deserved. I’ve no idea if he heard me or not but anyway he got off and a few moments later I was cuffed behind my back and then helped to my feet by the first TSG who began the arrest formalities, while I looked down and realised that my left trouser leg was ripped open from top to bottom. There’s just no conceivable justification for that kind of physical violence from the police. I got off quite lightly – some of the others on the roof sustained genuine injuries in the form of sprains and heavy bruising. Glasses and other property were broken, many of us were forced to lie in puddles. And yet we posed precisely zero threat to the police and would have left as calmly as we arrived if they had simply asked us to. It makes you wonder what they get told in their briefings to make them so frightened and confrontational. Or maybe they’re just simple. Who knows?
Anyhoo, I was told I was being arrested for aggravated trespass and criminal damage. All thoughts of withholding my name were undone by a wallet containing about fifteen different forms of ID, so I just went along with the whole dreary procedure. I wasn’t actually that bothered when word buzzed through on the police radios that they should re-arrest us on a charge of burglary. The situation was now firmly in the realm of the surreal. I was photographed on the roof and then we were led down to the top landing inside the building.Unbeknown to us at the time, outside in the street hundreds of police were engaged in their usual wrong-brained tactic of kettling the rest of the group who had come down from Piccadilly. See YouTube for all the usual footage of officers clobbering passers-by and one lighter moment as a plain-clothes snitch is identified and ironically kettled by the crowd. Unfortunately this all resulted in a rather boring afternoon for those of us inside as the cops had decided we needed to be removed, in a rigorously secure operation, to various police stations outside central London. After at least two hours we were taken to the ground floor, photographed again, and then led out through a swarm of flashbulbs and questions onto a waiting coach. My arresting officer got into the aisle seat next to me and eventually we moved off in motorcade fashion, shepherded by at least four police motorbikes.
After the fastest journey through London’s fashionable West End I’ve ever had, I was plonked out at the back entrance to Harrow Road nick, along with my inseparable arresting officer and about half a dozen other arrestees. The time was now 6.30pm and although the drizzle had largely eased, the late November evening air was relatively brisk, especially where it flapped in and out of the remnants of my left trouser leg. Gradually we were moved, one by one, first into a locked cage surrounding the door, then through the door itself and into the booking suite. I got inside at 10.30pm. Tired and cold doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Moments later the arresting officer of the last guy still outside got permission to bring him in because he was worried about him getting hypothermia. The only thing that made the waiting and the cold remotely bearable was the fact that all our arresting officers were there too. I pointed out that they could have all been at home if they hadn’t arrested us. I also felt it was only kind to mention that there were plenty of more interesting, more socially productive things they could be doing with their lives. “I sell and mend bikes,” I said. “I help people have fun.” At this point the Sarge suggested I be quiet and almost seemed to imply that until I opened my mouth we’d all been getting on fine and I’d had to go and spoil it for everyone. At least this made me smile and it helped to while away the hours.
Once inside, thing speeded up a bit. But not much. The Desk Sergeant booked me in, somebody took my outer clothes and boots (but fortunately I was able to keep my base layer, fleece and thermal socks) and finally I was photographed (again!), fingerprinted, DNA sampled, and tested for crack and heroin. “What?” you say. Well, burglary is a “trigger charge” wherein abuse of heroin and/or crack is thought to be a major driver, so for statistical purposes all burglary suspects are tested. Or, to put it another way, by charging us with burglary not only was there the stain of a more serious accusation but also the possibility of uncovering some scandalous drugginess. Or maybe I was just suffering institutionally-induced paranoia by this time. So finally, at 12.30am, I was shown to my cell and given a rubber lasagne to chew on. Frankly I would have eaten my own foot and slept in a bucket so I was actually quite upbeat. I used the T-shirt I’d been given to cover the pillow bit of the rock-hard blue mattress and folded the blanket so it was under as well as over me and just about got to sleep in time to be woken up and asked if I was OK.
Now I’m an introvert; I like solitude and my own company. Plenty of that in the clink, so, time to ponder, to philosophise, to gain perspective. Fortunately, a couple of days previously, I’d read an excellent blog by the wonderful @Scriptonite (www.scriptonitedaily.org) about her experience of being arrested at a demo and bunged in the cells. The knowledge that other people had trodden the path before me made it much easier to deal with. Of course I was aware of many other folk from other times and places who had gone through infinitely worse ordeals than anything I’d faced. I couldn’t compare myself with them for a moment but I could at least draw strength from their perseverance. Scriptonite’s experience was similar to mine and therefore more directly applicable. I was cheered by the thought that there were probably people aware that I and the others were in there and that possibly they were even waiting for us outside. I had no proof but I had the hope that there might be, and that helped enormously. I didn’t feel fearful, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt calm and fulfilled and I slept the sleep of the just.
Next time… How I woke up all achey, but fought on regardless. Hurrah!
So, the Occupy London camp between St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Square (home of the London Stock Exchange) has been cleared. The area has been emptied, “deep-cleaned” and generally botoxed such that now there are no wrinkles, no character and no sign of emotion. It’s actually harder to walk through from Ludgate Hill than it used to be due to a “ring of steel”, erected as a deterrence to re-occupation.
The eviction itself was a relatively calm affair although not without some predictable heavy-handedness from the police. The foresight of Giles Fraser, who resigned his post at St Paul’s rather than be an accessory to violence, was vindicated as people praying on the cathedral steps found themselves repeatedly kicked by riot police. Questions need to be asked both of the police and the St Paul’s leadership as to why this was allowed to happen.
So far, so predictable. The Occupy LSX campers knew eviction was imminent and had made their own decisions as to how they would deal with it. Everyone knew it was an inevitable step along the timeline of the movement.
Almost totally unexpected, however, was the raid on the “School of Ideas”. Although legal proceedings were underway, as far as I know no timescale had been announced and I don’t think anyone was seriously anticipating eviction. As it was, the building was stormed by police and about 20 people were dumped out on the pavement with what belongings they could gather. As dawn broke, demolition contractors with bulldozers were ushered into the site and set about rendering the building beyond use.
This last action, of everything that happened over that sad night, is the one that most strikes at the heart of common decency and common sense. The School of Ideas was a wonderful example of simple people power. Of folk pitching in to make the world a better place. You could almost call it Big Society (if that weren’t such a devalued concept). By taking an empty former school building, cleaning it up a bit and making it available as a community resource, the Occupiers were doing more for the local area than Islington Council and Southern Housing have managed in three years of botched planning and wrangles over “affordable housing” quotas. See here for a flavour of local feeling. To see the authorities (at the behest of no less a figure than Ken Clarke, Minister of Justice) literally bulldoze both the efforts of the Occupiers and the hopes of the local community is an absolute affront to democracy. The lack of media coverage of this event was also troubling. If the people behind the insane decision making think nobody has noticed, they’ll feel vindicated and justified.
Despite my sense of outrage at this ridiculous state vandalism, I want to end on an upbeat note. And that is to say that any talk of “the end” of Occupy London is not just premature but spurious. To my mind, “The Occupy Movement” was never defined by the Stock Exchange camp; that was simply one action among thousands worldwide. Some have been brief, some lengthy, some quiet, some noisy. All have been making the same general point: that the status quo of economies being run for the benefit of a tiny elite at the expense of the majority must be challenged. And anyone who tries to pretend that political dialogue (certainly here in the UK) hasn’t been dramatically shaped by Occupy must have been living in a bank vault. Different people have different solutions but the strength of the movement has been to hold together folk whose hearts are in the same place even when their minds have been at odds. I don’t see Occupy as an ideology. It certainly isn’t a dogma. It’s more of a gut instinct, an innate emotion against unfairness and institutional stupidity. I believe and hope Occupy can continue to be a friendspace where people come together in a profound sense of solidarity to examine alternatives and try living in better ways. I feel sure that many good things lie ahead and I know that the world is a better and more exciting place thanks to the Occupiers.
On Wednesday November 30th 2011, the UK will see the largest outbreak of industrial action for over 30 years.
On Thursday December 1st, I expect everything will be largely normal and life will go on in its own random way.
Here’s why I think Wednesday is important and before I dive in, a quick warning. I’ve done my best to acquaint myself with all the various “facts” surrounding this issue but I’m not remotely infallible so you may disagree with some of what I say. I’m not going to focus on facts in this piece anyway because others have already done that more skilfully than I ever could. I just want to share some impressions and feelings.
I’m sick to death of this club of odious buffoons we call a Tory Government. Before the election, I banged on until I was blue in the ears that if the Tories got into power they would asset-strip the nation to line the pockets of their wealthy chums. Bing! I said they would dismantle the public sector they so despise. Bing! And I knew they would consider unemployment a fair price to pay to support their economic goals. Bing bing bing!!!
In the end they limped into office using the LibDems as a kind of zimmer frame to help them past the post. I recall a reasonably chucklesome running gag pre-election about “Nick Clegg’s Fault”. Not so funny now, eh? I’m ignoring LibDem values in discussing the Coalition, but that’s OK, the LibDems are too. It’s a Tory Government plain and simple.
I want to see the Tories gone and that’s all there is to it. I don’t have much time for the “New” Labour Party but their brand of fairly rubbish governance at least quite often tries to do the right thing. I can never forgive Blair for going to war in the face of by far the largest demonstration of public opinion ever seen but even he would be fractionally ahead of any of the current bunch of Tories in my list of preferences. That really is saying something. The Conservative Party will wreck this country and it needs to be stopped.
But how do you “stop” a government? 3,000,000 people on a single march failed to so much as ruffle the hair of Tony Blair. Not a sausage. (Maybe if we’d all shifted 800 metres east instead of occupying the tranquil vastness of Hyde Park…)
The Occupy Movement won’t bring down the Government. At least not by itself. It has already achieved more than a great many campaigns and who knows what the future holds but it isn’t currently a mass phenomenon. Incredibly widespread, but not mass. Also, Occupy has its sights set on a different (though not unrelated) target. The concentrating of wealth in the hands of the already wealthiest is sadly a global activity which is no respecter of national boundaries. It’s a disease which is only just being diagnosed and for which the cure is still being worked on.
A symptom of this disease, however, is the position taken by many national administrations (although ours seems to be particularly relishing it) that says public spending must be cut and deficits reduced to restore market confidence. “Market confidence” – a usefully impersonal term that suggests impartiality and objectivity. It’s the only arbiter of what should be done, according to every politician and mainstream media commentator I’ve heard in recent times. One by one “The Market” is losing “confidence” in Greece, Italy, Spain, maybe France. The borrowing rates set by “The Market” increase to a ruinous level and the country is forced to default or make changes (austerity budget, unelected technocrat govt) to restore “Market confidence”.
Always “The Market”. Not History, which tells us that high public spending and consequent high deficits are indispensable in recessionary times. Nor common sense, which can see that withdrawing funding at times of great social need is a recipe for despair and unrest. And who is “The Market”? Well, it’s the financial institutions (banks for inexact shorthand) who also happen to be the major creditors of national debt. Which by itself might put the banks in quite a strong moral position were it not for the fact that the primary reason for the recent explosion of national debt was the financial crisis of 2008, precipitated by utterly daft behaviour by the banks. Or “The Market” if you prefer. Sheesh.
All of which stupidity brings me back to the Conservative Party who, to be fair to them, are not the party of the welfare state. Or the NHS. Or “The Working Man”. The NHS makes no sense to a Tory mind, obsessed with individualism and private business. So they’re doing their best to see it off. The Tories have also allowed a perfectly reasonable enthusiasm for enterprise and entrepreneurialism to be contorted into a vicious distrust of any employee seeking to better his or her lot. Private or public, an organisation, to Tory thinking, must be all and only about delivering value to the owner. When he was trying to get elected, David Cameron once spoke of “happy companies” where a good and productive balance was attained. No more. Whatever his own views are, or have ever been, he is now content to see unions vilified and public sector workers lampooned for their “cushy jobs for life” and “gold-plated pensions”. The Tories have therefore come to the conclusion that they can sufficiently demonise the public sector in the eyes of an underpaid, under-protected private sector to justify raising a few quid for the banks by raiding the public pension pot.
This is it: We need some money to give to the banks (deficit reduction) so where can we take it with least complaint? Public sector pensions are unpopular with a lot of non-public workers because they have rubbish pension provision, so let’s have it from there. Banks happy (Market confidence), non-public workers happy (schadenfreude), public sector unhappy (but we’ll say they’re whinging ingrates).
And if everything is as normal on December 1st, maybe that plan will have worked. But if enough people realise that the Tories are out to asset-strip and dismantle, that it’s all about helping out the banks, who are largely responsible for the mess in the first place, and that not all private sector workers are self-obsessed ignoramuses, then the action on November 30th may carry weight and resonance sufficient to dent the Government. National strikes are one of the few things that governments really fear. As such, they’re incredibly hard to organise legally. Pension negotiation is one of very few issues over which widespread action is feasible. So the nettle needs to be grasped. The strike needs to be committed and massive, to the extent that it can’t be ignored or spun by the hateful Tories. And it needs to be supported by the wider body of decent society. I don’t work in the private sector and although I’m hard-pressed, I’m not poverty-stricken. But I stand for what I think is good in this country and against everything that seeks to dehumanise, commodify and splinter community. That’s why I support N30.
If you’ve got this far, well done and thank you for reading. 🙂
This evening a deadline came and went, marking the commencement of legal action by the Corporation of The City of London to remove those parts of the Occupy London camp at St Paul’s Cathedral which are on Corporation land. The process will be as unspeakably tedious as that sentence and will take much longer. In itself it is unlikely to be a significant factor in the longevity of the encampment. However, it’s a sign of the will of the Corporation. They want the camp gone and probably for a number of reasons.
The most common publicly-stated reasons are access to the “highway”, safety and sanitation. There have been some comments about a negative impact on tourism and, recently, dark mutterings of drinking and drug-taking. All of these are red herrings.
There is no “highway”; there’s a path and people are to-ing and fro-ing along it with no obvious difficulty whatsoever. As far as safety goes, the campers have been meticulous in following the advice of fire safety officers, who have said they have no concerns. Sanitation is always a difficulty when you’re out and about in London and don’t have 20p for a station coin-op. However, a bit of careful planning and judicious use of portaloos seems to be working for folks at St Paul’s. I’d expected to be able to find the camp with my nose the first time I went there but nothing of the sort. Any stories you may hear about protestors pooing on the cathedral steps are nonsense.
Tourism? Who knows? There may be some timorous types who feel that a trip to St Paul’s can’t go ahead because they’ll have to walk past some tents. I’d argue that if you’re prepared to shell out £14.50 for a look inside, it’s going to take more than some campers outside to deter you. For anyone with any imagination, the chance to witness a bit of current affairs would be a nice garnish on a tour of historic London.
The final red herring is the stinkiest of the lot. Yes I’ve seen people at Occupy London who were drunk and caught the occasional whiff of not-quite-tobacco. Call out the army! Panic! Head for the hills! Up until now no-one in London so much as had a fizzy drink. These Occupiers are dragging us into a moral cesspool. Can I stop yet?
What no public figure wants to say, but many of them more than likely think, is that the worst thing about the Occupy London camp as far as they are concerned is the type of person it attracts. Hippies, punks, dossers, loonies… Not what they think London should be about. Well the truth is that the Occupy movement attracts all sorts. Description is impossible. The effort that is being put into accommodating different ideas and backgrounds is truly mammoth. And hangers-on are inevitable. The presence of a friendly welcome and a free cuppa is bound to attract homeless, rootless, itinerant types and why shouldn’t it? The Occupiers aren’t simply railing against the status quo; they’re also attempting to live in a better way and that means reaching out with respect to anybody who passes through, be they a tramp on his way to Waterloo or an investment banker on his way to a City dining room.
I’m not a hippy. I lack the survival skills and ability to function without creature comforts. However, I love to be around friendly, caring, genuine people and as such I find the camp at St Paul’s is my favourite place to be in London at the moment. Especially in the bleak, soulless stone and steel canyons of the City, it is an absolute oasis of humanity and reality. If you get a chance to visit, please do. And if you see Boris, tell him you’ve come on holiday to London to see the protests and be part of history.
If you move fast, you should still be able to watch “Confessions of an Undercover Cop” on 4OD. It was a fascinating doc, not entirely without flaws, but one point came across very strongly. Mark Kennedy, the Met Police officer assigned to gather intel on the hardcore environmentalist movement, “went native” because he realised that the people he was infiltrating were far nicer human beings than the people he was working for. Simple as that. Boris, Theresa and the Corporation may not like “hippies” but I tell you what: I’d rather be a hippy than a ****.
So, the revolting students were back in town (copyright: every newspaper). Once more the nation’s thinking classes descended on the capital to vent their rage at a series of moves that seem designed to saddle them with either massive debt or huge bills when they finish studying.
And once more they were met by a policing operation the likes of which you might expect if the Earl of Somewhere was getting up an army and demanding the throne. Vast numbers were amassed and pre-emptive threats were issued. The clear message was, “if you take part in this march we will regard you as our enemy and treat you as such. Furthermore, we’ll make sure your future gets kyboshed as well. So stay at home.” No, really: look at this
Such scare tactics are despicable and signify a worrying move towards the criminalisation of dissent. At a time when Freedom and Democracy are being portrayed as the worthy objectives of our foreign military adventurism, the Government seems to have no appetite for them at home.
The police tactics on the ground included an early deployment of riot equipment and widespread use of “undercover” officers (in reality, absolute sore thumbs). Horses and dogs were also reported to have been used (not undercover).
The march passed off entirely peacefully, with the exception of some confrontations with police. There was clearly no intention to cause significant property damage (unlike last time when Tory HQ was chosen as a totemic target).
So was this passivity because of, or despite, the police operation? Well, who knows? But in a sense, that’s a side issue. The real question is whether or not we want to live in a society so unsure of itself that it has to bully those who disagree with it. Or are we prepared (like the Occupy movement it must be said) to embrace dissenting voices and do the hard work required to move forward in a constructive and adult fashion?
A few more thoughts arising from the Occupy London demo:
I mentioned in an earlier post that Social Networking enables access to a far wider range of viewpoints than tends to be covered by conventional media. This is nowhere more true than in the discussions that coalesce around a topical hashtag such as #occupylondon or #OccupyLSX. The purpose of a hashtag (just in case you’re new to this) is to enable people with a common interest to participate in discussion, chat etc about their chosen topic.
However, wherever bridges are being built, trolls will lurk.
“Trolls”, in Social Networking parlance, are people who join in with discussions specifically to disagree with the prevailing view or to stir up confusion or fear. In some cases, such as #OccupyLSX, the trolls end up swamping the discussion to the point of obliterating the hashtag’s original purpose.
Now of course discussions such as these are supposed to be all about open and honest debate, frank exchanges of views, tough democracy. Different points of view are to be expected and encouraged. But believe me, it’s not hard to tell the difference between trolls and genuine participants. The Occupy movement and the vast majority of its sympathisers are characterised by politeness and willingness to debate the issues. Most comments about the encampment are obviously based on firsthand experience. The naysayers, on the other hand, frequently appear quite out of touch with what’s actually going on, dealing in lazy generalisations and stereotypes and resorting to childish insults when questioned. It’s also fair to say that, for the most part, they betray quite breathtakingly bigoted views to the extent that calling them right-wing would be an insult to right-wingers.
Up to a point it’s quite good sport to engage in a bit of back-and-forth with these types and some people make a pretty much full-time occupation of “troll hunting”. Ultimately though, it’s a bit depressing, wading through endlessly retweeted bile and nonsense to finally wind up in some EDL infested cul-de-sac. “Don’t feed the trolls” is probably one of the wiser slogans in cyberspace. Maybe they’ll go away if we ignore them. Here’s hoping hey?