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Laurie Penny, on the streets with Bloomberg's "private army"

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

The Brookfield Winter Garden is the sort of aggressively bland corporate un-place where scuffles with the NYPD are not supposed to happen.

The financial district of New York is full of spaces like this: soulless private-public atriums full of force-grown unseasonal greenery, glistening 1980s marble and glaze-eyed commuters on their way to meetings. It's a place for "passive recreation" -- the stated function of Zucotti Park, also owned and run by Brookfield industries.

Absolutely nothing of emotional or political significance is ever supposed to happen here, ever. Right now, though, scores of members of the police force Mayor Bloomberg called his "private army" are arresting people seemingly at random just for looking like they might be working against the world's largest investment bank, rather than for it.

Just after eight in the morning, several hundred protesters from Occupy Wall Street had gathered in front of the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, banging drums, blearily slurping coffee and carrying a large, wobbly papier-mache squid. The latter was a reference to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's iconic denotion of the bank as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Some of the protesters also wore homemade cardboard squid hats. Yeah, take that, everyone who used to be skeptical about radical writers' ability to change the world using only the power of humorous metaphor.

Black bloc it wasn't. But this wasn't New York's day of action, not really. The demonstration was called in solidarity with the workers and occupiers attempting to block major ports along the West Coast of America, many of which happen to be controlled by subsidiaries of the Goldman group. Which also owns much of America's university system. And the shipping industry. And your mortgage. And your soul.

The fact that angry chanting and heavy policing have become routine features of life in the financial district is perhaps only appropriate in a country where four million families have been made homeless by a banking industry that was recently rewarded for trashing the economy with trillions of dollars of public money.

After a noisily peaceful march around the Goldman building, which entirely failed to collapse like the walls of Jericho, some of the protesters broke off to march through the World Financial Centre, adjoining the Winter Garden Plaza. Which is when the police freaked the hell out.

Red-eyed, astonished businesspersons held up their smartphones like protective talismans as emissaries of the 99 per cent danced around the ornamental ferns. Police poured in as someone dropped a West Coast Solidarity banner above the escalators. Protesters stood and shouted "everybody pays their tax, everyone but Goldman Sachs" -- well, close enough, the company paid only one per cent tax in 2008 -- just a little too long. On the turn of a penny, the arrests began.

By now we're used to hearing about protesters being arrested for taking part in peaceful actions, but this is the first time I've truly witness young people being grabbed at random just for standing near a demonstration with a phone or camera.

At least two of the 18 arrestees were journalists, including Radio Dispatch's John Knefel, and it is pure luck that the officer who shoved me through the atrium doors, shouting "your turn now", when he saw me tweeting, did not decide to arrest me too. As citizen journalists and members of the marching band sat in the back of the police van, a chant started: "Whose tweets? Our tweets!"

In the face of this sort of paranoid over-protection of a degenerate financial elite, you have to pun, because otherwise you might put your fist through a wall.

Funnily enough, last week, when hundreds of protesters and local campaigners really did take over a foreclosed property in East New York technically belonging to Bank of America, Bloomberg's army was almost nowhere to be seen.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood