Voices from the Occupation
The Case of OccupyLSX & The Cowardly Court
On Wednesday 18th December, OccupyLSX or Occupy London St Paul’s as it has become, lost its highcourt battle against eviction. The Judge - Sir Keith John Lindblom ruled in favour of the Corporation of the City of London on all counts and failed to grant an appeal. The City of London Corporation has granted a stay of eviction for 7 days whilst Occupy take their own appeal to the Court of Appeal. As the dust settles, and calls of ‘what next for Occupy?’ commence, today’s article looks at the trial, the verdict and the legacy of the Case of OccupyLSX and The Cowardly Court.
The City of London Corporation (COLC) is a quasi borough – it is both a local authority and a corporation, with its own Mayor and police force. It also displays an astonishing lack of transparency around funding, jurisdiction and governance. Despite Occupy making best efforts to comply with public health, safety and fire concerns – COLC would not entertain any conversation with the camp, other than requesting they leave the area. In fact, were it not for the actions of the then Dean of St Pauls cathedral Giles Fraser, the camp may never have been set up. The initial target was, after all, Paternoster Square. COLC’s own police force kicked protestors out and secured the perimeter. Had Giles Fraser not intervened, protestors would have been prevented from occupying the St Paul’s area.
Unsurprisingly, after two months, COLC took OccupyLSX to court to apply for a possession order for its land. COLC argued that OccupyLSX was obstructing a public highway, attracting criminal and antisocial disorder and preventing worship at St Pauls. OccupyLSX argued that their presence, as part of a global movement is an exercise of their human rights to assemble and protest. OccupyLSX claimed that any minor harms or annoyances caused by the camp needed to be balanced against the greater harm they were assembling to prevent – namely, the egregious, criminal and fraudulent behaviour of the financial services industry, its government and media.
COLC were represented by Counsel David Thorsdick. Three personal litigants were brave enough to step forward to represent OccupyLSX in person at court – these were George Barda, Daniel Ashman and Tammy Samede. John Cooper QC provided counsel for OccupyLSX on a pro bono basis.
Despite leaving COLC to take OccupyLSX to court alone, St Pauls cathedral proceeded to support the COLC case with damaging and false witness testimony against the camps. In return, the St Pauls land on which OccupyLSX is camped, was included in the case. Therefore, St Paul's aimed to succeed in gaining their land back from OccupyLSX without looking like the bad guy.
The case was quite extraordinary – ministers, veterans, local businesses, protestors, a panoply of human existence presented witness statements in support of OccupyLSX. The juxtaposition between witnesses for OccupyLSX and COLC was jaw dropping. On the one hand, articulate and passionate condemnation of a world system which creates and perpetuates poverty, war, famine, and permits the most stunning crimes against person and planet. On the other; dry, snarky statements about litter, loud music and homeless people ‘taking advantage’ of the site. It was like the better and darker angels of human nature on display.
I came away thinking of how much coverage the Leveson Inquiry receives, and how if this case had been covered by our so called Fourth Estate to the same degree, what an extraordinary moment it could have been. OccupyLSX put the banking sector, the government and the media on trial, by using the balancing ofr harms argument. They were able to put forward, in court, the crimes perpetuated through the financial crisis, ecological harms and links between corporations, media and government. Whatever the media coverage now, those transcripts will exist for all of history. They have taken the argument onto the historical record. This extraordinary victory should not be overlooked or understated. There are suggestions, yet to be confirmed, that Occupy Justice, the Occupied Old Street Magistrates Court (currently staging a live trial of the 1%, watchable online) could be used to recreate the trial of OccupyLSX for a live and web audience across the world.
Judge Lindblom, despite appearing most congenial to OccupyLSX throughout the trial, found entirely in favour of COLC. COLC then put forward their possession orders and injunctions – these are the orders for dispersal from the site. They succeeded in all requested orders – these required OccupyLSX to remove all tents, structures and ‘related paraphernalia’ from the currently occupied land. However, it also placed an injunction against the camp moving into the ‘horseshoe’ outside St Pauls in advance of any attempt to do so. In short, they created a pre-crime using planning law for which no further court order will be required.
Anyone who resists the police in their eviction of the site is open to arrest for contempt of court, and liable to a fine or imprisonment.
John Cooper QC and the personal litigants put forward their cases for appeal. They argued that proportionality had not been reached in the Judge’s decision, and that the Judge had failed to balance the harms in the case.
Judge Lindblom refused to grant appeal, instructing OccupyLSX to take their case to the Court of Appeal if they wished. The COLC agreed to extend their initial from three days to seven their suspension of eviction to allow for appeal; this only at the request of John Cooper QC and persistent questioning of the Judge (who has no legal powers to suspend or delay eviction once agreeing to an injunction).
Summarising his decision, Judge Lindblom stated that the he hadn’t ‘innovated the law, but applied the law laid down by higher courts’. He also stated that we were in a court of law – not of politics or morality and while praising the passion and good intentions of the personal litigants, that their fight should be exercised in the House of Commons, not the court.
Judge Lindblom, this is not only untrue, but an act of cowardice on your part. The arguments in your verdict suggest the law is both fixed and binary. It is not. The Law is interpreted. If it were not, what cause would there be for a judge, a jury or legal counsel? Secondly, local public order ordinances and highway law were prioritised over Human Rights law; specifically Articles 10 and 11 of the European Human Rights Act which applies in the UK. In reality, the courage of judges past has been exercised to overcome any law which threatened consitutional or human rights for as long as it has existed. A good example would be the Jim Crow laws which segregated black people from white people in the public spaces in the United States; these were often challenged by judges long before their overturn in 1965. In the Buchanan v Warley case of 1917, the Judge was able to end residential segregation in Kentucky – meaning black people could live outside of the ghetto black districts they were restricted to under the Jim Crow Laws. Irene Morgan v Virginia in 1946 declared it unconstitutional for public transportation to be segregated on the basis of race in the State of Virginia – paving the way for Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott later. Brown v Board of Education case in 1954, African Americanm children were able to begin attending ‘white’ public schools. These judges were brave enough to balance the harms – the harm put forward by defenders of the status quo Jim Crow laws that putting black people into white spaces would lead to violence and antipathy – versus the harm of a nation granting constitutional rights on the basis of skin colour. If these judges had followed the Lindblom logic, Barack Obama would be sitting at the back of the bus, not behind the desk of the Oval Office.
This verdict also demonstrated what so many of those affiliated with, in support and a part of the Occupy Movement around the world have been saying for some time. When we take our concerns to parliament, they are not heard. When we state them to the mainstream media they are not transmitted. When we take them to the streets, we are breaking the law. When we take them to the courts, they are not defended. In short, there is no legitimate place for our conversation in the current structure. Wherever we go, we are in the wrong place. This system of bouncing legitimate complaint from one corrupted institution to another is, I argue, a means of creating institutionalised apathy. To engender a sentiment that might be expressed as ‘it doesn’t matter what we do, we cannot make a difference’.
For some, the blow of eviction from Occupy St Pauls, and this verdict, will occur as a failure. It was a failure in our intention to stay, lawfully, at this one site of over 1000 in the world. However, the reason for failure is exactly the reason why we Occupy. It is a demonstration of the blind ignorance of the officers of the institutions purported to uphold our values. Further evidence that these institutions are in fact being used to suppress, distract and frankly, rob us of liberty and resources. Ditto our media coverage. It is not a failure on the part of Occupy that the media coverage in corporate and state media has either been negative or just absent – it is absolutely to be expected that this is the case. It’s not something to accept, it is merely something to acknowledge and harness to fuel each Occupiers conviction that this system needs to go, and it needs to go at the soonest available opportunity.
To do that, we need patience, education, spaces to meet and create our community, and our communication tools such as social media. Therefore, all of these things will come under threat, as we can see by the SOPA and PIPA acts currently going through Congress in the US. Occupy, from St Pauls to Taipei to Melbourne to Wichita to Lagos can stand defiant, courageous and united in the face of this. Stand in the future, where the new world is already created, and look back at the present knowing it is temporary, a painful blink in the history of humanity.
What Next for Occupy?
Firstly, we have to distinguish between what next for Occupy and what next for OccupyLSX. Occupy is a broad and constantly evolving movement spread across the globe. There are occupied public spaces which are camps, there are occupied buildings re-appropriated for public use such as education or youth centres, there are occupied homes across the US preventing foreclosure by mercenary mortgage firms, there are occupied courts such as Old Street in London putting the 1% on trial. The list goes on, London alone has another well established camp at Finsbury square, the Bank of Ideas at the UBS building on Sun Street, the Earl Street Community Space behind that, and the Old Street Magistrates court. Currently, Finsbury Square has no threat of court action or eviction over it.
So for Occupy London, new sites are out there ready to Occupy. New campaigns are ready to be considered and acted upon.
In the UK, there are more than 20 other camps – most of which are not under threat of eviction. But ultimately, Occupy understands that it will occasionally lose a site. This is saddening, to have a village ripped up and bundled away from under you. It takes effort, time and skill to build a community from scratch. But it is possible; it has been done over and over. Today St Pauls. Tomorrow…Westminster, Kensington, Southwark?
It is matter for the conscience of each occupier at St Pauls whether they comply with the eviction order or not. There will be consequences either way. But to those who advocate leaving the site to avoid ‘bad press’ or a negative perception created by a night of violent standoff with Police, rest your voices and engage your wits. If police are violent, that is the prerogative of the police, not the fault of those violated. Non violence and obedience are not synonymous. As for ‘bad press’ – is it credible then that if Occupy moves off quietly into the night, the corporate media will begin covering Occupy sympathetically due to this amazing act of good behaviour? We’re talking a snowballs chance in hell kind of odds here.
No, some may stay, some may move on, some may start fresh camps armed with a whole bunch of lessons learned – make your choice but make it freely, unencumbered by emotional blackmail, fear or peer pressure.
For now, for these precious seven days, St Pauls is still occupied space. Tent City university continues to educate and inform, Sister Ruth is wandering around being (mostly) charmingly inappropriate, steam is rising from the Kitchen tent as tea, coffee and tasty meals are prepared and served, the Info Tent meets and greets passersby, smoke drifts out of the tech tent as the wonder-geeks maintain the network, Nafeesa and the livestream crew bring live coverage to the world, and at 7pm there will be a general assembly. For now, this village is still here. Let’s make the most of what is likely, save the appeal, it’s last week. Let’s use the village for what is was intended for – the base for change. Plan the next steps, and anticipate them with excitement and fortitude.
And now....for a little light relief - the wonderful Artist Taxi Driver's tribute to OccupyLSX and the Occupy Movement worldwide.