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Occupational hazards: Laurie Penny on the practicalities of protest

As eviction looms at St Paul’s, the protesters are struggling with the hardship of months spent sleeping rough.

They call it the Citadel of Hope because right now they haven't got a lot else to put in it. It is late January and the third national conference of the Occupy movement is being at a Salvation Army citadel in central Sheffield which has stood empty for 12 years. Before the Occupiers moved in, the floor was thick in pigeon droppings; now the bare brickwork is clean, and people from all over the world huddle in coats and blankets, crouched around a space heater under makeshift strip lights, sharing strategies for resisting police eviction and trying to work out what the hell to do next.

Four months after the start of the Occupy movement, which began in Manhattan's financial district and spread like a fever to hundreds of cities across the world, the press has begun to lose interest. There are no other journalists at the conference. No matter how many fluffy, media-friendly new actions the tireless Occupy organisers dream up, from melting Arctic ice on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral to staging mock-trials of former prime ministers at an occupied magistrate's court, they can no longer make editors hold the front page. The political establishment is making its message clear, in the manner of a hostess trying gently to expel the last unwelcome guests at the end of a party: stretching, ostentatiously tidying up and talking loudly about how cold it is outside.

On 18 January, the City of London Corporation won its high court action to evict the main London protest camp from the courtyard of St Paul's. The Occupiers have lodged an appeal, but believe that the tents, the kitchen, the large library and "Tent City University", which has run hundreds of free lectures and full-time courses in economics, could be cleared within days. The Bank of Ideas, the sister occupation near Liverpool Street housed in a building owned by the Swiss banking giant UBS, was evicted last week. As protest camps across the world, including the unaffiliated Democracy Village at Parliament Square in London, are turfed out by local police, even the BBC News website has published an article asking, "Protests: when's it time to go home?"

No going back

For many of the Occupiers, going home is not an option. After braving the past four months, during which the nature of this global resistance movement changed profoundly, many of those who have remained at the camps and squats over the winter cannot or will not return home. Some have been living on the streets for years; others have lost their jobs and homes only recently because of rent hikes and austerity measures. Many are among the million unemployed young adults in Britain, such as 19-year-old Tilly, who moved into the camps after finding she was unable to afford a place at university and who faces a court case for participating in a peaceful sit-in protest last year.

The idea that committed political operatives could be homeless is almost as disconcerting as the notion that homeless people could be committed political operatives. At the beginning of the actions, much of the press mocked the protesters for not being tough enough even to stay in their tents overnight, a slur later shown to be false. No one now could accuse these Occupiers of being faint-hearted: living in a protest camp is a short course in how to manage life outside mainstream society. It's a position that many more of us across Europe and America will find ourselves in as austerity programmes bite. It can feel like an adventure at first, but by the time you get to the hundredth day of sleeping on the ground or in an abandoned building, the process of taking and holding space has become plain old hard work.

At St Paul's, after tea and conversation in the canteen, I am invited into the art tent by Rob, who is 32. He has been living on the streets of London for 12 years. Being part of the occupations has given him back some confidence and a feeling of community. His drawings, complex abstract scratches in primary colours, are pinned to a paint board in a cosy sitting-room space inhabited by several smoking teenagers.

“It's the street people who are keeping the occupation going," he says. "They - I mean, the organisers - need to respect the street people more." When I tell Rob that I am here as a journalist, he asks if I was investigating anything. "I'd like to investigate you with my tongue," he says, putting an arm around me. "Let's make some occupation babies on the floor right here." I grip my cup of tea a little harder.

It would be unfair to note that sexual harassment has become a feature of life in the camps without mentioning that the Occupiers are taking the problem rather more seriously than most public institutions. One group session at the Occupy conference in Sheffield requires local occupations to report back on how they were maintaining "safer spaces" and protecting women and minorities while avoiding blanket exclusion of people whose social skills have atrophied from years of living on the edge of society. This "safer spaces" meeting descends into angry bellowing as young men shout over each other. Over lunch, a more enlightened male activist lamented that this often happens. "We had a simple solution to that at Greenham Common," says an older woman. "We just used to ban you all."

Lunch at the conference consists of tea, casserole and conversations about how the internet will alter the democratic process. You can tell a lot about any conference by the food. The last two Labour party conferences, for instance, offered bland, flabby quiche that managed to be both stomach-turning and insufficient. Occupy food is hot and plentiful even though it comes largely from skips at the back of local supermarkets. The groaning shelves in the kitchens at Sheffield and St Paul's give the lie to the myth of scarcity: at their peak, they were feeding thousands for free.

In Britain, the Occupy movements have become an economy of care, a network of mutual aid for those ground down by the job market, by the housing market, by the free market and all its intricate cruelties. During two weeks of hanging around occupied buildings in glossy, deserted business parks and at windswept tent cities in public squares; of sharing hot, sweet tea and vegetable soup cooked on gas heaters; of being shown around tenderly maintained propaganda installations, what almost nobody I spoke to talked about was the wider economy. Unlike three months ago, I heard few complaints about fractional reserve banking, wage repression or benefit cuts.

There are several possible reasons for this. The first is that the Occupiers may have assumed that, as a young person with straggly dyed hair and a selection of agitational badges on my backpack, I already knew the drill. That is a dangerous assumption. In the past three months, the Occupy movement has grown more insular, dealing with internal difficulties that divert energy from keeping the public message strong. The politics of this movement has also become more ingrained: its anti-capitalist discourse has not disappeared so much as soaked in, like a stain into a carpet.

When I visited St Paul's one recent morning, I found people making artwork and videos, or planning their latest fundraising project - a record label to promote political music and support the neediest Occupiers. For better or worse, Occupy is as much a cultural movement as it ever was a political campaign.

“This particular project was always going to be temporary," says James, 25, an anarchist organiser who was involved at the start of the occupations but who has now "critically disengaged". "To my mind, the eviction notice is an opportunity to consider who the people are who are left," he tells me. "On the one hand, it's the people who have nowhere else to go, and that's politically important. On the other, it's people who become zealots about this movement - those who've left their jobs, their flats, maybe even relationships . . . My fear is that, for those people, when the eviction happens there will be a profound level of trauma."

Designs for life

Traumatic as they will be, the evictions need not signal the end of Occupy. As the last few camps are forcibly broken up, Occupiers all over the world are moving into indoor spaces and squats, with a particular focus on "dead" real estate owned by big banking firms. In the US, the Occupy Our Homes project has been taking over foreclosed houses since early December; in the UK, it is larger spaces that can be converted into social centres.

A ragged-looking banner urging "Occupy Everywhere" hangs from the window of London's newest occupation in Frome Street, Islington, an enormous nine-storey corporate unspace recently abandoned by several City companies. Inside the building, shy, serious people in hoodies are clearing up mounds of rubbish, but outside not everyone is pleased. "They invited me in for a cup of tea but I won't be taking them up on it," says Amanda, who has lived in the area for over 14 years. "They've tried to make a point, which is a point that needs making, but it's been made."

Like most of the mainstream press, Amanda makes the mistake of thinking that Occupy was ever about concrete demands. Rather, it is about retaking psychic and physical space amid the self-satisfied centres of capital. It is about using that space to build tentative prototypes of a new social system, created by and for people failed by the present one. "Occupy was never going to be an agent of change," James says. "It is a portent of change."

The so-called 1 per cent can dismiss as many petitions as they like, but sweeping cultural transformation is the one thing that may yet have them running scared.

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

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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