On the Occupy movement, rabid alsatians and the difficulties of juggling democracy & progress

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

My adopted sister Nuee told me that the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement 'liberated' a new building last night - an abandoned court house in the East End of London. The intention is to hold mock trials of the government and the '1%'.
"It's a beautiful building; a really old court room with a big staircase in the middle. We had a bit of a situation at the start, because we accidently locked a guard inside when we were securing the building ... at the beginning he was scared, shouting 'I'm a hostage here, let me out!' The police came, and said 'you're squatting here now, so tell the guards to pack their stuff and leave that side of the building'. I still feel a bit sorry for the guards though, because they were sleeping when we came in, and they might get fired."

It made me think of the last time I was in the city.
I was staying with Nuee in a North London squat. I'd heard talk and seen discussion of 'something big about to happen'. The next night, I stayed with another friend (a banking and finance apprentice) in a different part of the city.

I received an excited text from Nuee, and went to visit her at the disused UBS bank building (reportedly worth £55 million) on Sun Street, the next day. The Occupy London movement had gained access to the bank building, claimed squatter's rights and christened it The Bank of Ideas - a new centre for free public discussion, workshops and performances.

Nuee met me outside an old church down the road, enfolded in her hoody to protect herself from the chilly fog. She was clearly sleep-deprived but still running on excitement and adrenalin.

"Today, just before the opening ceremony, I went upstairs to get away from a few people for a while, and I was hanging out of the top floor window as the BBC and a few newspapers were stood outside. One of them waved up at me, so I waved back, and he started taking pictures. Suddenly all of the journalists looked up and started taking pictures of me, so I shouted 'welcome to the bank of ideas!' When I left this morning, some guy passed me in the street and said 'hey- you're famous - I saw you in the Guardian.'`

We walked down the street and sat down on a disability ramp opposite the bank. There were 3 police vans parked outside.
"They've been here since the first morning. Most of them have been fine - Phoenix explained to them that this was a legal occupation, and that we haven't made any criminal damage - he's a really good guy for the legal side of things."

Also waiting for the Occupy activists on the first morning was a hastily-made court paper from UBS. "It was a fucking huge pile of paper, informing us that they're going to take legal action. We're due in the High Court in December, but apparently there's loads of mistakes in it so we'll probably be able to adjourn the hearing. "

The hearing took place yesterday, and was adjourned until January.

As to how Nuee and her friends gained access to the bank; it could have been a courageous tale of climbing up onto the church in the dead of a cold London night, risking their lives to crawl over the gaps between rooftops, spurred on not by money or greed, but by their convictions and their desire to make the world a fairer place.
Alas - "We found a ladder-shaped key for the front door," she explained.

The Occupy London movement had been focused, at that point, mostly on and around St Paul's Cathedral.
"Two guys from St Paul's knew that this place was empty. We were having problems there, because all the attention was focused on the church (whether the various church staff think that Jesus would or wouldn't approve of the occupation) and there was no focus on why we went there in the first place. When some of the church staff resigned and we found out about the trustees, everyone was cheering, and I thought 'what? Why are they cheering?' We've caused no problems for the stock market, only for the church."

As Nuee was talking and I sat taking notes, a couple of uniformed men - dressed more like security guards than coppers - approached us and asked us to move.
"Sorry but you can't be here, you're going to have to move away."
We didn't move. Nuee looked at them, perplexed.
"But this is a pedestrian road."
"Yeah, but we've got orders that you should all be over there and not out on the street."
I looked at the uniforms. No badges, just a white hat with an obscure emblem.
"Orders from where?"
The security guard who had spoken to us looked down at my notepad.
"We're just doing our job, and we've been told that you can't be here."
"Ok. Orders from where?"
"From the people who own these buildings."
I laughed. "Ok, when you get paid at the end of each month, what's the name of the company listed on your payslip?"
The guards exchanged glances, and looked down at my notepad again.
"Are you a journalist? If you're press then it's alright."
"It doesn't matter what I'm doing - we're both pedestrians on a pedestrian street."
The nameless goons began to retreat back down the road.
"We were just told that no-one can be here, that's all."
They headed off down the road..
A few days later, the London Metropolitan Police would attempt to 'stop and search' every person that left the Bank. Those who challenged the legality of the order would be allowed to leave without having to give their name or address and aid police surveillance of peaceful protesters.

We headed inside the Bank of Ideas for the first General Meeting. There were around 70 people packed into one of the downstairs rooms - still complete with blinds, carpets, panelled ceiling lights and tables.
Most people were sat on the floor in a large semi-circle, whilst three 'facilitators' - uniformed in dreadlocks, hollowed cheekbones and fingerless gloves, sat on a table facing the small crowd.
The bank had attracted a wide range of people - many from the St Pauls camp - and amongst the serious, politically active young adults that made up the majority of the crowd, there sat the odd mentally ill man trying to control a gang of alsatians, and the occassional conspicuous 'anarchist', wearing hoodies with childish, flame-backed slogans such as 'smash the system' or 'fuck the pigs'.

The meeting kicked off with the facilitators & minute takers introducing themselves, and after 20 minutes of bickering about the appropriate signs to use for suggestions (hand signals for 'proposal', 'agree', 'disagree', 'block', 'temperature check' etc.) and another 10 minutes of bickering about the correct seating arrangements (courtesy of an elderly white woman wearing Indian robes, who was told to 'shut up' on 10 occassions) the facilitators took a roll call of every person present at the meeting.
"Could we get consensus that everyone's cool with the difference between the signals for  'stand aside' and 'strongly disagree'?"

People from the various working groups at the bank (outreach, media, kitchen, security, maintenance etc.) began to give feedback from their departments and ask for volunteers. Midway through, a member of the security team marched into the middle of the circle bellowing 'Mic check'... 'MIC CHECK!'
Everyone turned and looked. He crossed his arms and waited for silence.
"We need someone in the emergency room. Does anyone have a car they can drive to hospital?"
"What's happening?"
"We have an emergency."
Someone from the hallway shouted out: "It's not real, it's just some drunk guy exaggerating."
The security teamster went back into the hallway and the meeting continued.

Meanwhile, a group of activists from St Pauls were becoming frustrated with the pace of the meeting.
"You're doing what we did ages ago, which is arguing about the process instead of just going through the process. We're just talking about details, this is not facilitating, it's all about you."
The facilitator in the patchwork hoody became defensive, whilst the guy with beard & dreadlocks next to her shook his head, piously.
"We're just trying to get everyone's opinion here, to make sure it's a fair and democratic process."
The older lady in Indian garb interrupted: "What's the policy on candles? Are we allowed to have candles?"

A few people got up to leave, but Phoenix (who explained that he had 20 years of experience being in camps & communes) stepped in to take control of the meeting with a more appeasable style of ploughing through the agenda and politely brushing off interruptions without asking the room for consensus.
A girl stepped up to speak about allowing a youth group to use the building because they had lost their government funding. "These are the kind of people we need to help, to give them conference space." A lot of people clapped.

Phoenix spoke about the inevitability that 'solicitors will be sat around scratching their heads, looking for loopholes that can get us arrested and evicted' and on the importance of 'being right fucking back in their face' on health & safety issues, so that the City of London couldn't use that as an excuse to end any constructive dialogue.

Someone explained how they'd 'walked around every corner of this place with a guy called Seth', who had apparently blessed the entire building with natural salts, and the meeting was ended.
Nuee stepped outside to smoke, frustrated that 'they didn't talk about the important things'.

I got into a conversation with a cloaked man who asked me to sign his hand-written petition to 'prevent the illuminati from running the world'. A group of policemen walked past, having toured around the perimeter of the building.
"When they teargas us out of this place," said the cloaked man, "I'd like to throw laughing gas back at them, but I guess they wouldn't see the funny side."