Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
If you thought that the square outside Parliament is an obvious place for political action, you were wrong. Turns out there’s a whole new section of law, passed in 2011, to stop any kind of Occupy-style protest on Parliament Square, where our delicate MPs might actually have to see it on their way to work. This being a top priority, hundreds of police have been deployed to enforce it. One of them told me that protesting isn’t allowed because Parliament Square is private property – a metaphor for British democracy, especially as the ‘private’ owner is the Greater London Authority.
Yep, after Russell Brand turned up late at night with a stack of pizzas for the protesters, a police officer warned activists that if any of them fell asleep on an empty pizza box, they would be prosecuted under the 2011 law for using sleeping equipment in Parliament Square. One protester tested it out by pretending to sleep on an empty box in front of an officer. He got away with it, because the policeman said he was ‘pseudo-sleeping’.
Tents and structures for sleeping in are also banned, but the police have stretched the definition of structures to include umbrellas, and have even claimed that tarpaulin, placed flat on the ground for people to sit on, is a structure. (At other times they have deemed it sleeping equipment.) On the night of Sunday 19 October, protesters non-violently resisted hundreds of police for hours in the epic Battle of the Tarpaulin. Simply sitting on the tarpaulin could land you some manhandling from a police officer. The police dragged the offending tarpaulin away, but where one tarp fell, another rose in its place (or vice-versa), and on 21 October came the Second Battle of the Tarpaulin. That ended with the protesters being evicted from the central square, which was then sealed with a two metre high metal fence patrolled by police dogs, like a bizarre inversion of a prison camp. But the #TarpaulinRevolution continued on the pavements and borders.
At the climax of the Second Battle of the Tarpaulin, Green Party politician Jenny Jones arrived on the scene and was promptly arrested. When the youngish police officer realised that he had arrested a member of the House of Lords (and also, exquisitely, the deputy chair of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee) he suddenly ‘de-arrested’ her. Asked why, he just said ‘That’s my decision.’ Jones later wrote of how it was the first time she had been arrested: ‘I like to think I’m a law-abiding citizen. I don’t drop litter, run red lights on my bike, or take backhanders to lobby on behalf of dodgy corporations.’
5. Michael Swain, a private security guard, apparently commands hundreds of police.
Not many people have heard about ‘heritage wardens’, like Michael Swain here. He works for private security company Accent on Security, but you wouldn’t know it from his official looking uniform. Heritage wardens are like traffic wardens for people, descending on anyone who has parked themselves in a prohibited area. They even claim authorisation to use ‘reasonable force’ – Swain tried unsuccessfully to lift up a protester to remove him. The Greater London Authority contracts these private guards to patrol sites like Parliament Square and confers on them unaccountable powers with no apparent means of challenge – a practical example of the kind of outsourcing and privatisation that Occupy Democracy has been protesting about. And here’s the remarkable thing: Swain and his private security colleagues have effectively been directing police officers. By wandering round requesting officers’ assistance to enforce their arbitrary decisions, the wardens have enabled the police to act in ways they might otherwise not have been able to.
Banners and protest go together like bankers and crime. A protest without banners is like fracking without gas. But occupiers have been told that, even if they have a right to protest, they can’t have banners to communicate what they’re protesting about. Apparently banners and signs breach by-laws specific to Parliament Square, although that hasn’t been the only reason given – protesters were told that one banner constituted a structure. When they picked it up and walked around with it, it became a ‘moving structure’. Of course, plenty of recent protests in Parliament Square have featured banners (along with amplification, tarpaulin and the rest), like the People’s Assembly rally just a few months ago. The decision to police Occupy Democracy differently is deliberate and political. After all, if they’ve gone to the trouble of drafting special laws for these protesters, they’re going to want to try them out.
It turns out repairing democracy was not what the sign meant
On Tuesday morning, 21 October, a major policing operation was launched involving tens of officers forcibly evicting protesters and arresting 15 people for one pressing objective: to protect the grass. Taking this stated reason at face value, two occupiers tried the only logical response: they walked to where the grass was lush and green and sat down there instead. ‘This is perfectly good grass,’ said protester George Barda, patting the ground and patiently explaining to three unresponsive police officers that they had a duty to facilitate his right to protest – a fundamental human right enshrined in law – as well as an obligation to the grass. In this clash of rights, the grass won.
Denied the ability to protest on the fenced-off grass, Statueman, aka Plinthguy, aka Danny, climbed to fame when he scaled Churchill’s statue and stayed there for over 28 hours, even reaching down to swipe the hat of a policeman who got too close. (He gave the hat back, but police were determined to charge him with theft. ‘How can he have stolen the hat when he’s given it back?’ someone asked, and was told that it wasn’t a victimless crime – the hat would have to be professionally cleaned.) When two other protesters attempted to throw Statueman some water – which the police were denying him – they were arrested. Green MP Caroline Lucas arrived and tried to throw him an omelette, but was warned she would be arrested. Her Green colleague Jenny Jones was nearly arrested for a second time, and probably would have been if she had better aim – lucky for her, the bottle she threw missed the statue entirely. Statueman eventually came down and was arrested, but returned the next day, scaled the fence, ran around on the grass, fed the police dogs sausages and got arrested again.
Occupy Democracy didn’t start out with big numbers. It was initially ignored by the media and even by most of the left. Of the 100,000 people who marched to Hyde Park under the TUC banner on 18 October, only about 100 black-bloc anarchists, samba players and others made the extra trip from Hyde Park Corner to join those already in Parliament Square (call them the 0.1%). Although Occupy Democracy got on with discussions ranging from NHS privatisation, TTIP, fracking and war to democracy itself, it might have passed by under the radar. But by deploying hundreds of police, constantly harassing and intimidating protesters, enforcing petty rules about grass and banners, pretending that pizza boxes and even people’s clothes are sleeping equipment, confiscating people’s stuff including medication, evicting people from the grass, fencing off the square, threatening court summonses, making over 40 arrests, hurting people, dragging people, punching people, using pressure points on people, bringing young, well-intentioned protesters to tears, the authorities have made the occupiers’ point for them. The politicised role of the police, working in collusion with a private security firm, has only exposed the outrageous infringements on protest in Parliament Square, and demonstrated that privatisation has spread to core public functions. Even the occupiers in Hong Kong haven’t faced the quantity of restrictions as those outside the ‘mother of parliaments’. Denied space, sleep, shelter, banners, signs, music, microphones and tarpaulin, their technical right to protest is rendered almost meaningless. Occupy Democracy’s victory is that it has not only defied these impediments but turned them back on themselves to create a powerful political action.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going