Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.