Democracy has come to life in Parliament Square
The farcical police brutality towards Occupy Democracy is a sign the authorities are running scared, argues Hannah Martin.
A group of people are listening to Caroline Lucas MP discuss democracy and policy. They are listening much like any group of political supporters would do across Britain: the occasional ‘hurrah’ or murmur of assent makes for a warm atmosphere; people are attentive and appreciative. The difference here is that the group has been holding this space in Parliament Square for six days in the face of disproportionate police brutality, unforgiving weather and a considerable lack of sleep.
This is Occupy Democracy – a grassroots action stemming from the Occupy movement. The group is here to provide a visible alternative to the politics of vested interest: to try to model what real democracy could look like through a 10-day occupation of a symbolic space. With workshops, debate and shared decision-making, their programme includes days dedicated to discussing equality, the environment, war, money and tax, public services and positive solutions.
The Occupy action has gained huge solidarity and support via social media in Britain and across the world, while receiving limited coverage on the mainstream news. There are obvious similarities with Hong Kong’s ongoing civil disobedience campaign – not least the use of umbrellas for shelter – and, like in Hong Kong, action has continued despite repeated police attempts to squash it with heavy-handed tactics.
I must admit, when I first heard about the action, for a fraction of a second it crossed my mind that maybe this might have been more effective if it was held in a conference centre. Surely that would be a more suitable space for engaged and intelligent debate than a windy, exposed and police-protected square of grass? I mean, how much would we actually get done in those conditions?
But then I attended the TUC (Trades Union Congress) march on Saturday and I took part in UK Uncut’s ‘tax-dodgers bingo’. And I saw how at every Starbucks, Nero’s and Tesco on the march route there were police lining the shop-front. Who were they guarding? Whose freedoms were they protecting?
I saw how some of the protesters had been getting creative, transforming a tarpaulin into a banner that said ‘WE DIDN’T VOTE FOR FRACKING’. And I remembered again the truth: that we didn’t vote for Prime Minister David Cameron’s ever-desperate dash to drag remaining fossil fuels out of the ground in direct contradiction to our emissions reduction targets. That we also didn’t vote for changes to trespass law, or for the criminalization of ‘Occupy-style’ protests. We certainly didn’t vote for TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership set to curtail the rights of individual governments to stand up to transnational corporations). We didn’t vote for student fees, austerity and the cuts either. So, whose rights exactly is this government representing?
Considering all this, occupying a square opposite the seat of power feels entirely appropriate and necessary in response to such an ‘undemocracy’. Having spent time in the square and chatted to many of the occupiers, it’s clear that they’re sending a strong message about the need for social movements to strike a balance between taking action against the injustices of the day and providing clear and positive solutions for the future. One of the aims is to direct energy from current single issue struggles into a critical mass that can radically challenge the corrupt, unrepresentative political system, drawing links between the social, climate and economic struggles people and planet are facing. The focus is on debate, discussion and dialogue – three elements of our democracy that seem to have been in short supply over the last few years.
And it’s intoxicating. As well as those who have been part of the Occupy movement for years, many at the square are students – young, energetic and impassioned. They are being radicalized by what they see as an oppressive and limiting system, brought to life by the police brutality they have experienced for simply sitting on a tarpaulin facing Big Ben.
On Sunday night 160 officers were deployed to kettle and harass a group of around 50 protesters. What became known as the #tarpaulinrevolution was born out of an almost farcical tug of war as police tried to confiscate anything they deemed to be a ‘structure for sleeping’. Caroline Lucas spoke out against these police actions in her address, arguing that what the occupiers are doing ‘is about peaceful debate and democracy and is exactly what should be facilitated, not criminalized’.
But criminalization is exactly what is happening, with over 25 arrests to date. Many of the arrests have been aggressive, with young protesters being dragged away in tears, in obvious distress or pain. Many have been ridiculous, as the police impose random discretionary judgments. For example, people have been arrested for attempting to pass food and water to a young protester who climbed onto a statue of Churchill, bearing a sign proclaiming ‘the Revolution will not be confiscated’, and refused to leave for over 24 hours: ‘#plinthguy’ as he is now known.
As Caroline Lucas said to the crowd, quoting Alice Walker: ‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.’ We have to conclude that for Parliament and the police, the most terrifying thing about this protest is the very real way in which this group are seizing what is already theirs – the right to protest, the right to hold space and the right to democracy.
Hannah Martin is involved in Reclaim the Power.
Follow her on twitter: @Hannah_RM
Follow the campaign: @nodashforgas