In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Democracy Village in Parliament Square — the “shanty town”, as David Cameron called it when he vowed to remove it before being elected — was evicted.
Democracy Village had been derided by certain politicians and in the mainstream media as an eyesore afflicting an important public space, but make no mistake, the government and the Greater London Authority knew only too well the real threat posed by it — and it had nothing to do with messy public spaces. They knew that the Village was far more than a ramshackle encampment. It was something that could not be tolerated — an embodiment of genuine people power.
Here were citizens challenging the cover stories on illegal wars; here were people refusing to swallow the greenwash of the governments that failed us in Copenhagen; here were people free from the influence of the mainstream corporate media from which most people construct their world-view; here were those free from any form of propaganda government evangelists spew out.
Here, the discourse had no invisible boundaries. And when people can no longer be manipulated, when they have become immune to all artful attempts to quieten them, when they are not motivated by the attainment of money or power, when they are unafraid of arrest or imprisonment, then they have become truly free, and it is this state of profound “awakeness” that made the villagers so “dangerous”.
Democracy Village was not an isolated group of political “extremists” as some would have you believe. If we were, then the majority of the British people are also extremists for wanting our troops brought home, as the latest polls show.
If we who want real action on climate change rather than compromises that allow continued devastation are extremist, then so are the millions of ordinary people who want a sustainable future for their children. If the ideas of fairness and justice we espouse are extremist, then we have finally entered an Orwellian nightmare.
What is “extreme” in this hall of mirrors we call civilised society is our willingess to “be the change [we] want to see in the world”, as Mahatma Gandhi said, to proclaim the truth and have it called blasphemy by those who fear the end of their influence.
Boris Johnson was “worried” about the effect of Democracy Village on tourists. Was he worried by the effect on tourists of watching peaceful protesters being hauled into police vans for reading out the names of our soldiers killed in Iraq?
What tends to be forgotten is that protest is a vital part of the democratic process. As the acclaimed historian Howard Zinn astutely observed, we are apt to forget that advances in social justice have been brought about, not by politicians, but by ordinary people putting pressure on them until change could no longer be denied. This is when laws are changed and civilisation takes another step forward.
Laws cannot stand for all time; if they did, then we could have no moral progress, because laws only reflect the dominant values of the times in which they are created. Therefore, it was once legal to own slaves, to deny women the vote, to discriminate against a person because they were black . . . everything done in Nazi Germany was perfectly legal.
We have become strangers to our own history; we have become divorced from our own power and our true identity as sovereign citizens. Civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition in this country, and Parliament Square has been at the very heart of it, from the suffragettes to the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. We followed that proud tradition; it is those who removed us who betrayed it, as Tony Benn made clear to the high court during the legal case. Parliament Square was created to allow the British people to petition the House of Commons, and that is what we gathered to do.
We heeded the calls at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009 to set up people’s assemblies worldwide in June 2010: we started early and set one up on 1 May. Since then we have received support from individuals across the political spectrum — Conservative and Labour MPs, current and ex-servicemen, trade union members and students, as well as overwhelming backing from the people of London and tourists from many countries.
Our diverse groups share many common goals, including peace, justice and a sustainable future for the planet, and we are respectful of the differences between us. In spite of our differences, we had unity through the diversity of our opinions, and worked constantly for tolerance of all ideas expressed. We sought to embody the words of Voltaire: “I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Democracy Village as a camp is now gone. But, as we have tried to show, it was far more than a collection of tents — it is an idea. And ideas cannot be moved on, nor can they be locked up or in any other way confined.
As Henry Thoreau noted from the prison cell where he had been sent for non-payment of poll tax:
I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.
So it matters not that Boris and Cameron have had their way for now — the idea is alive and well and, as Victor Hugo understood, “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”
We will be meeting this Saturday, 24 July, for a People’s Assembly (between 1pm and 6pm) at Victoria Tower Gardens, just next to parliament. Join us!