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Laurie Penny on the Occupy movement, three months on

The protest has become a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute.

The protest has become a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute.

The Bank of Ideas is almost empty. It's midnight, and on the roof of London's financial district a serious discussion about the future of the Occupy movement has been interrupted to allow two stray humans to chase after one stray cat.

"We found him in a scrapyard," says a young man called Spiral, cuddling the rescued ginger tom into his hoodie. Spiral is homeless, having left Essex to live in the London occupations last October. "He didn't seem to have any owners, so now we all take care of him," Spiral says. He's talking about the cat, which purrs like a happy engine as more dart-eyed young people approach to offer it some of their dinner -- homemade vegetable soup supplemented by hunks of fish they found in a skip.

Three months on, this is what the Occupy movement looks like: a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute, with anti-capitalist overtones. The Bank of Ideas, an abandoned building owned by the Swiss banking giant UBS and transformed into a space for art sessions, lectures and late-night discussion on the future of the free market, is one of four sites squatted by London's branch of the movement. The occupations began with the encampment on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, which has just lost its battle against eviction at the Royal Courts of Justice, and branched out to Finsbury Square, and an empty magistrate's court on Old Street. As other world cities have seen similar protests violently evicted by local police, the occupiers of London have clung on through a winter that has seen the nature of the camps change profoundly.

"I came here for the community," says Declan, 29. "Before this I was living in Galway, essentially trying to get together enough weed to get through the day. It's better here." He passes a glowing spliff around the other roof-dwellers. The tranquility group, with its strict policy against drugs and drunkenness, would not approve this gesture of friendship. Muriel, a french artist in her forties, is excited and a little stoned, examining the walls daubed with murals, slogans and lovingly pasted pamphlets. "If bird catcher comes, occupy the sky," she says, reading off the brickwork. "That is truly beautiful. I feel that something beautiful is happening here."

As the winter drags on, many of those who have stayed are those, like Spiral and his cat, who can't or won't go home. They are the waifs and strays and nuts and eccentrics, the wide-eyed young men with theories about how computers can calculate the perfect democracy, the straggle-haired women with bags full of paintbrushes and dirt in the creases of their cheeks. For the more media-savvy organisers of Occupy London, this has created something of a public relations dilemma.

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia. Even those who haven't been living here full-time have an air of righteous exhaustion about them.

This is the part where the noble adventure of political resistance becomes a straightforward slog.

There are many for whom the unglamorous parts of maintaining an honest counter-culture do not fit into the narrative of presentable protest. Last week in New York City, activists from the original occupation in Zuccotti Park were turned away at the door of an event being held in their honour, because they looked and smelled precisely as if they had been living in tents and abandoned buildings since September. In London, at St Paul's, City workers in smart suits stop to snap pictures of the camp's battered marquees, but shy away when a man dressed entirely in pillowcases offers to take a shot with them in it. They're not going to let these people anywhere near their smartphones.

The struggle to keep a polite face on the movement can slip into censoriousness. At the late-night cabaret at Occupy Justice, the empty magistrates' court on Old Street, the burlesque dancers have been forbidden to expose their breasts. "There were some people who didn't think that was a good way of furthering the cause of the Occupy Movement," says Naomi Colvin, a long-time organiser who has become one of the unofficial spokespeople of Occupy London, regularly appearing on panels and in media coverage of the protests. The walls of the courthouse are plastered with signs instructing the heaving crowd of tramps, activists and trendy young Shoreditch hipsters not to smoke, not to write on the walls, not to leave rubbish. "This is a nice place," says one of the working group leaders. "We're nice people here."

Nice, however, has rarely trembled the walls of power.

It should be noted that no amount of scrupulous cleaning stopped the police in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other major cities from using the excuse of "unsanitary conditions" to evict protest camps calling for banking regulation -- it's infectious ideas, not infectious diseases, that really have the authorities worried. In London, some of the cleaner activists I meet, including those who have been involved in organising the camps from the start, quietly express the opinion that eviction might now be the best thing that could happen to the occupations. But not everyone agrees.

In the back room of the courthouse I meet Tom, 24, who describes himself as "tramp liaison". Like many members of the movement with less reliable access to showers, Tom has a lot to say about the way "sociology students in jumpers" are setting the agenda. "They talk about 'the homeless problem' at general assemblies, and I stand up and say, 'I'm homeless, are you talking about me?'," he says, sipping from a can of cheap Polish lager. "Yeah, there's definitely tension. All the camp beauraucrats will come up to you and say, 'oh, you can't roll a spliff in the uni tent', and I'm like, 'fuck off man, I'm an activist. I've been out fighting the EDL in Barking all morning'."

The main bone of contention is not drugs, but direction. Some activists are unhappy that Occupy London has chosen to work so closely with the Church on whose ground they have been camped for three months. The St Paul's occupation, which now describes itself unconfrontationally as a "guest" of the Cathedral, has without doubt had its radical bite dulled by the Church of England's grudging, eventual decision to work with the protests. Religiosity seems to ooze out of the flagstones here: ministers and police officers wander unopposed through the camp, which is festooned with signs asking "what would Jesus do?". Three months on, those signs have lost all their irony.

Others believe that movement has been taken over by external lobby groups with their own agenda, and still others are concerned that the general assemblies are choosing to focus, in Tom's words, on "the legal thing". Much of the camps' energy has indeed been directed towards fighting running battles to keep the sites open, and occupiers in the legal working groups hope to set a precedent in English case law to protect protesters' rights to free expression under Article Ten of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This explains some of the anxiety about keeping the camp clean and presentable. "We're really trying to keep the occupation fluffy," says Anna, 31. "There are some people living here who just aren't very used to being listened to." Anna, showing me around an impromptu pro-Palestine photography exhibition in the courthouse, describes the camp's internal conflicts with a generosity that is typical of the Occupy movement at its best. "It's been a massive learning curve for all of us here," she says. "Although, yes, the drinking can be a problem. I think if Occupy achieves anything at all, it'll be a whole load of people getting their voices heard for the first time."

There is a stubborn percentage of the 99 per cent who will never be able to communicate their message politely on Newsnight. Back at the Bank of Ideas, an overweight old man called Boba cannot make it up the stairs because he uses a wheelchair and the lifts are out of order. Throughout the night, the younger and sprightlier occupiers ferry the makings of sweet tea and pieces of food on scrupulously clean plates up and down the stairs to him, and are rewarded with conversation. All of this gives the lie to Orwell's axiom that "serenity is impossible to a poor man in a cold country".

On the roof, the talk turns to meditation, and to the spiritual toxicity of the banking sector. A young Romanian man called Valentin will not stop grabbing my hand and demanding my phone number. Subtle and then decidedly unsubtle hints about personal space do not put him off, and eventually Muriel invites me to sleep beside her; I observe, not for the first time, that there are far fewer young women here than there were in November. When I wake in the morning, someone has put a borrowed sleeping bag around my shoulders. There is a dawn chorus of hippies and homeless teenagers coughing up last night's tar, and the kettle is on.

There are different ways of being on the streets, and all of them are political. As the recession immiserates more and more of us, resistance will increasingly become a process of negotiating trauma, of developing economies of care that include the lost, the destitute, the down-and-out, those who cannot be "fluffy" because they have become crusted over with the debris of desperation. When these occupations are evicted, not everyone involved will be able to go home, scrub the dirt out of their hair and go back to work. Those who have lost their jobs and homes, those who left them to protest, and those who never had them in the first place attract disapprobium from their own side as well as from those determined to slander the anti-capitalist movement as filthy and unkempt. Useful activism, however, usually involves getting your hands dirty.

 

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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The 4 questions to ask any politician waffling on about immigration

Like - if you're really worried about overcrowding, why don't you ban Brits from moving to London? 

As the general election campaigns kick off, Theresa May signalled that she intends to recommit herself to the Conservatives’ target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands.” It is a target that many – including some of her own colleagues - view as unattainable, undesirable or both. It is no substitute for a policy. And, in contrast to previous elections, where politicians made sweeping pledges, but in practice implemented fairly modest changes to the existing system, Brexit means that radical reform of the UK immigration system is not just possible but inevitable.

The government has refused to say more than it is “looking at a range of options”. Meanwhile, the Labour Party appears hopelessly divided. So here are four key questions for all the parties:

1. What's the point of a migration target?

Essentially scribbled on the back of an envelope, with no serious analysis of either its feasibility or desirability, this target has distorted UK immigration policy since 2010. From either an economic or social point of view, it is almost impossible to justify. If the concern is overall population levels or pressure on public services, then why not target population growth, including births and deaths? (after all, it is children and old people who account for most spending on public services and benefits, not migrant workers). In any case, given the positive fiscal impact of migration, these pressures are mostly a local phenomenon – Scotland is not overcrowded and there is no shortage of school places in Durham. Banning people from moving to London would be much better targeted.

And if the concern is social or cultural – the pace of change – it is bizarre to look at net migration, to include British citizens in the target, and indeed to choose a measure that makes it more attractive to substitute short-term, transient and temporary migrants for permanent ones who are more likely to settle and integrate. Beyond this, there are the practical issues, like the inclusion of students, and the difficulty of managing a target where many of the drivers are not directly under government control. Perhaps most importantly, actually hitting the target would have a substantial economic cost. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimates imply that hitting the target by 2021 – towards the end of the next Parliament – would cost about £6bn a year, compared to its current forecasts.

So the first question is, whether the target stays? If so, what are the specific policy measures that will ensure that, in contrast to the past, it is met? And what taxes will be increased, or what public services cut to fill the fiscal gap?

2. How and when will you end free movement? 

The government has made clear that Brexit means an end to free movement. Its white paper states:

“We will design our immigration system to ensure that we are able to control the numbers of people who come here from the EU. In future, therefore, the Free Movement Directive will no longer apply and the migration of EU nationals will be subject to UK law.”

But it hasn’t said when this will happen – and it has also stated there is likely to be an “implementation period” for the UK’s future economic and trading relationship with the remaining EU. The EU’s position on this is not hard to guess – if we want to avoid a damaging “cliff edge Brexit”, the easiest and simplest option would be for the UK to adopt, de facto or de jure, some version of the “Norway model”, or membership of the European Economic Area. But that would involve keeping free movement more or less as now (including, for example, the payment of in-work benefits to EU citizens here, since of course David Cameron’s renegotiation is now irrelevant).

So the second question is this – are you committed to ending free movement immediately after Brexit? Or do you accept that it might well be in the UK’s economic interest for it to continue for much or all of the next Parliament?

3. Will we still have a system that gives priority to other Europeans?

During the referendum campaign, Vote Leave argued for a “non-discriminatory” system, under which non-UK nationals seeking to migrate to the UK would be treated the same, regardless of their country of origin (with a few relatively minor exceptions, non-EEA/Swiss nationals all currently face the same rules). And if we are indeed going to leave the single market, the broader economic and political rationale for very different immigration arrangements for EU and non-EU migrants to the UK (and UK migrants to the rest of the EU) will in part disappear. But the Immigration Minister recently said “I hope that the negotiations will result in a bespoke system between ourselves and the European Union.”

So the third question is whether, post-Brexit, our immigration system could and should give preferential access to EU citizens? If so, why?

4. What do you actually mean by reducing "low-skilled" migration? 

One issue on which the polling evidence appears clear is that the British public approves of skilled migration – indeed, wants more of it- but not of migration for unskilled jobs. However, as I point out here, most migrants – like most Brits – are neither in high or low skilled jobs. So politicians should not be allowed to get away with saying that they want to reduce low-skilled migration while still attracting the “best and the brightest”.

Do we still want nurses? Teachers? Care workers? Butchers? Plumbers and skilled construction workers? Technicians? If so, do you accept that this means continuing high levels of economic migration? If not, do you accept the negative consequences for business and public services? 

Politicians and commentators have been saying for years "you can't talk about immigration" and "we need an honest debate." Now is the time for all the parties to stop waffling and give us some straight answers; and for the public to actually have a choice over what sort of immigration policy – and by implication, what sort of economy and society – we really want.

 

 

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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