Voices from the Occupation
D15 Occupy Everywhere Day – A Ground’s Eye View
In the week that TIME Magazine, made ‘The Protester’ its Person of the Year, the Occupy movement held Occupy Everywhere Day (D15). Occupy Everywhere day, or D15, encouraged sneaky, cheeky acts of civil disobedience around the globe, and got it. You might not have seen it on the news, but this article takes you along for a journey through the day of Occupy London, who spent the day reclaiming public spaces, and bringing festive cheer to the streets of London.
Occupy Your Mind
One of the issues raised by the Occupy Movement is the growing erosion of public space. In places like London, there are few open, free spaces to join together as a community and remember you are just that, a community. It prevents people talking, getting to know each other, sharing ideas. In fact, it has people feeling alone, when they are surrounded by others. Occupy Your Mind was a small march from St Pauls, stopping at spaces along the way and reclaiming them for a short period by filling them with people, dancing and song – and to learn a little about the history of the space prior to its commodification. There were about 50 marchers, including a papier-mâché brain, a tiger, a bunch of pigs, a pantomime horse and a sound system being pulled along by a bicycle.
First stop was Paternoster Square. We were not allowed in, so decided to sing carols to the security guards, passersby and watching police. It was interesting to see the change in people. Everyone is busy and rushing somewhere in Paternoster Square…but just for a few minutes, they stopped to watch us and talk to each other about what was happening. For those few minutes, there was community created in Paternoster Square. And it was fun! (Excuse the god awful singing….)
From Paternoster, the march moved merrily along Cheapside on to Guild Hall.
The Guild Hall has been thoroughly surrounded in recent weeks and a no go area. However, this week, the barriers came down. So, with Bob Marley blasting out of our sound system, we went and held a picnic in the square…including protest cup cakes.
The March continued its happy, peaceful way along Moorgate and on to the Finsbury Square camp, where they held a Ceilidh.
At 3pm, hundreds clustered on the steps of St Pauls for some speakers to address the Occupy London in celebration of Occupy Everywhere day. These included Wayne Malcolm of the Progressive Black Churches; the 12 year old activist and blogger Lib Dem Child; and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, veteran US civil rights campaigner.
The crowd was cold but ebullient. There was a lot of dancing as music played while we awaited a late Jesse Jackson. People danced in circles, photographers took snaps of Sister Ruth and other resident features of OccupyLSX, a small group of women pitched a tent before the stage and held up a placard about inequality. As I milled through the waiting crowds, I noticed a familiar face – albeit inconspicuous in black garb and a beanie hat – Alex Thomson, Chief Correspondent for Channel 4 News.
Have to confess to a little attack of the star struck – I’m only human.
Finally, Jesse Jackson arrived. Saskia from Occupy London read out the initial statement of OccupyLSX so Jesse Jackson could hear it. It was moving listening to the statement again and feeling it ripple through the crowds.
First speaker was Wayne Malcolm. The line of his short speech for me was ‘we are not going to stand idly by while the crime of the century happens right before our eyes’. There were whoops and cheers throughout and his message found a crowd absolutely in sync with it. It is not enough to bemoan the current state, you need to get up, get together and do something about it.
Next up was Lib Dem Child. Lib Dem child is a twelve year old, yes twelve year old, blogger and activist. She set up her blog in April 2010, when just eleven, to support the Liberal Democrats. I find it somewhat ludicrous, that while most of the mainstream media insist they have no idea what the Occupy Movement is all about, this young girl managed to understand it perfectly. She stood before the crowd and read her speech with gusto. It moved me, it resonated with me and I agreed with most of it, as did the audience (apart from Sister Ruth who got a telling off for yelling “you’re drunk!” at her – Sister Ruth is a bit odd. She also yelled out that Wayne Malcolm was her husband. I rather like Sister Ruth). I loved the juxtaposition of the incredibly powerful words and articulate ideas which spoke of a woman well beyond those meagre years (I was still climbing trees!), and the apologetic muttering as she took time to turn her pages, which was so absolutely, adorably 12 years old.
So, from the mouths of babes, to the mouth of a 70 year old African American man, seasoned in civil disobedience, protest and activism. Jesse Jackson gave Lib Dem Child a big warm hug, thanked her for her speech and took to the microphone. He was softly spoke. It was not a vintage, fire brand, angry Jesse Jackson that Occupy London got on December 15th – it was a thoughtful, moved, full of love Jesse Jackson. He told the crowd that the Occupy Movement was a spirit, whose time had come. He said that the Occupiers are canaries in the mind, warning of the dangers, seeking out equality gaps. He reminded us that Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela – were criticised as marchers in their time, but celebrated as martyrs in history. He asked the world to hear Occupy, see the martyrs now and make a change for the better. He was gracious during an angry interruption. He signed off with ‘I love you’.
Occupy The Streets!
As the press chased Jesse Jackson to his car, I walked off in the direction of Piccadilly Circus – for the Occupy the Streets demonstration. The plan was to meet at Piccadilly Circus at 6pm, and then to hold a street party with music and dancing nearby.
As I walked along the Strand and Fleet Street, I smiled at everyone who caught my eye. I skipped part of the way, because I felt like it, and smiled at people who giggled at me. Suited men, cigarette in one hand, pint in the other circled outside the Waldorf. Coaches filled with theatre goers were stationed outside the Peacock and the Aldwych theatres. As I strolled through Trafalgar Square, crowds filled the space – people were watching a children’s choir sing Christmas carols. Making my way up Haymarket, I thought back to the scenes from the 30th November and the raid on Panton House, it seemed like a different street altogether, somehow smaller, than the scene of that action. Finally, at Piccadilly, I rested against the railings to the tube underpass. The police presence was gargantuan. There were seven police vans along Haymarket, and five more parked outside the Criterion Theatre. There was a continuous line of police circled around the square. The large crowd present were only there to watch a Michael Jackson performer advertise the Thriller show and looked around bemused and confused at the police lines. Mumbles of ‘what on earth is going on?’ started to ripple through the crowd. They began to melt away, although some stayed to form a new crowd.
I spotted a couple of familiar faces…Bear, Pedro, guy from Panton Street, lovely Scottish red coat lady, dreadlock/skinhead girl. We asked each other the same question: where is everybody? Moments later, the sound system arrived, on wheels, pulled along by some occupiers…and with it, a couple of hundred dancing happy people. Piccadilly Circus turned into a street party in seconds. Music thumped, bodies popped, hands waved in the air, police frowned, passersby clapped, bobbed their heads, joined in.
All of a sudden, in homage to the wonderful Occupy Melbourne protesters, our very own Tent Monsters arrived. Tent Monsters, are people dressed in tents. They make slits in the tent, through which their head, arms and legs can pop. This means they can appear to be a normal tent, then suddenly limbs pops out and the Tent Monster runs off down the road. Our Tent Monsters did some very accomplished bopping.
I turned to a police officer and asked ‘what do you think of the tent monsters?’ Without looking at me, he answered ‘I think it’s a waste of a good tent’.
There was a vigil being held nearby for the International Day against Violence against Sex Workers. One of the vigil members came and informed us via the sound system and asked that we raise our voices for their cause, which we promptly did. After the vigil, people from it arrived at the street party carrying candles.
At 6.30pm the police announced that our party was over, and the battery on my mobile phone packed in so no more filming for Scriptonite. The sound system, music still blaring, set off down Regent Street, followed by the vast majority of the street party, including vigil members and passersby. The tune played as we ran was this:
The police, in vast numbers, ran ahead and formed a line at the lower end of Regent Street, so protesters fanned into a small side street called St James’ Place. We jogged together, a couple of hundred protesters, through the street singing along to I’ll Occupy. However, calls started to come from the front of the party ‘The Met! The Met!’ and it was too late. As we turned around to leave there was a solid wall of police closing off the street behind, a line of TSG police ahead. We were kettled. To my left, a girl in her early twenties was pulled INTO the kettle by a police officer who threw her to the floor. She hit the floor like a dead weight and lay there. Pedro ran to the police line and demanded to know why this had happened, I joined. I was pulled back and Pedro was set upon by three officers who, while pressing his body and face into the ground told him he was being arrested for ‘assaulting a police officer’.
The OccupyLSX live stream was capturing us from outside the kettle. I called Green & Black Cross legal to update them on Pedro, gave the young woman a hug, and rang my wife to let her know what was happening. We thought the party was over but the police released the kettle and we set off once more. With a solid police line each side of us, several police vans in tow, and two police helicopters soaring overhead – we marched back up Regent Street, past the Ritz, down through Green Park, along the embankment, through Trafalgar Square. All the while, we were dancing, blowing trumpets, whooping – there was even an impromptu leaf war in Green Park as protesters showered each other with bundles of fallen leaves from the piles around the edges of the park.
Walking the Strand once more, we were still in our full number and making a lot of noise. As we reached Charing Cross rail station, a crowd of TSG officers in their all black outfits charged the party and seized the sound system, switching it off and taking it into the grounds of the station. After a small set to, and a round of Christmas carols sang at the officers, at 8.15pm the crowd dispersed, the party was over and people started walking back to St Pauls; police officers, police vans and helicopters in tow.
The End of a Beautiful Day of Reclaiming the Streets
As I made my way back, I was absolutely filled up with joy. It was a wonderful day of cheekiness, music, dance, art, passion, power and love. The purpose of this day was not to overthrow the system, but to reclaim public spaces. It was to bring a spirit of celebration to every street we touched. To take the party to the streets. To surprise people, busy rushing from one place to another, with something to stop, look at and talk to their neighbour about. To remind people that although it’s cold and it’s Christmas, we are still here and we are growing. To say that you may not hear about it on the news, but a revolution is happening. To invite people who can’t share a tent with us, to share a dance with us. Actions such as these took place all across Britain yesterday. Occupy Worthing sang alternative Christmas carols outside the town hall, Occupy Norwich did a flash mob, Occupy Exeter got on the radio and spoke to their community, in Glastonbury a group occupied the street outside St John’s Church, Occupy Edinburgh had live stand up, all over the country people took actions, as individuals and groups, as occupiers and not.
But the week isn’t over. Saturday December 17th is the UK Uncut Christmas Special. In the morning, Santa will be presenting the HMRC with a sack of coal for being thoroughly bad this year. In the afternoon, the Vodafone and Top Shop (both companies are flagrant tax dodgers) stores on Oxford Street will be getting a rather large visit.
So, what has the Occupy Movement achieved? Well, it’s bringing protest back from the dead in the UK. In collaboration with other vibrant movements, it can be a force for change in this world, which today, is in such great need of just that. So, as you prepare for Christmas, think of those people out there making a stand through the winter for freedom, social and economic justice and a world that works for everyone. As the festive season passes, and a new year begins, let us make this the year. Let us make it the year we never forget. Let us make it, the year we fought for a better world and won, for all of us.