Sorry. On meeting an artist who works with a gallery that have exhibited Banksy’s work, I learned that he is in fact a plural noun – different
artists submitting under the same name. I was sceptical, but the truth was staring at me from inside the profession.
It is a week before the COP 21 climate talks in Paris. I am told by everyone that protest there has been stamped out, incriminated and put under house arrest; that protest had been delegitimized, made impossible and unsafe. After the ISIS shootings, demonstrations are outlawed, but
Christmas markets and football games continue as usual. Activists everywhere are furious at the French Government’s cynical attempt to sanitise the streets of those not rich enough to be at the table. From Berlin, I email one of the key organisers in Paris and tell him that a coachload of activists from Berlin are thinking to pull out. ‘History is not made by people who ask permission’ was his reply.
I arrive to find I am not alone. Tens of thousands of people have converged on the city. They come out of hope, out of belief, out of fear, out of necessity, and into termite social centres and writing warehouses, filled with banners, puppets, secret meetings and mischievous ideas. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The week is about to take me into a load of activist convergence centres, out on to the streets, and into a museum, a cell, and several dance floors.
Protest in a Police State
The State of Emergency has forced activism to up its game. How can you protest when human rights have been suspended. The French police are tricky to say the least.. My host in Paris told how after the election of President Sarkozi in 2007, plain clothed officers were seem leaving police vans, going into the centre of a demo and then attacking people with batons. We know that agent provocateurs are part of the landscape of modern protest. How can we defy the suppression of protest, avoid getting battered, and not give the police and the sensationalist newscasters the riot they want?
We have to get creative. The big day of action. December 12 arrives. Tensions are high. Arriving protesters are getting searched by undercover
police and armadillo riot cops. Somebody is walking around informing people that there are police dressed as black bloc armed with tear gas and pepper spray.
One group has come armed with platters of fruit and sandwiches. They walk between lines of police and protesters serving smiles and delectations. Another group is dressed as angels with impressive wing spans. There is also a Clown Army brigade and an improvised theatre troupe. Swinging batons at these protesters would be a PR nightmare for the police.
Earlier that week I met a Colombian who told me that student protest in her country had been transformed in the eyes of the public, from “rioting terrorists” to “freedom fighters” by the ‘Besaton’ block (translated as “mass kiss”). The tactic is simple. When it looked like the police were about to start swinging, someone would shout “besaton!” and a line of people would start snogging at the front line of demonstrators. The baton wielding police were left impudent with bafflement. The idea was discussed but there was no French kissing from the European protesters. If you ask me, that needs to change.
“But what about barricades!” I hear you shout, shaking your first in the air. Paris is, after all, the birthplace of barricades. 1588 is celebrated as the Year of the Barricade. Since then, they have been the fine line between success and failure for revolutions against tyranny and oppression the world over. Quite simply, barricades are part of the foundation of modern democracy. This year, the proud tradition was kept alive in the form of
giant inflatable cobblestones. The shape is significant. Cobblestone, dug out of the streets to create missiles against police and military, have protected European citizens from armed police and military for centuries. London had them replaced for this reason. Our cobblestones can be stacked on top of each other to make a great line of defence against police advance. They are also highly mobile, before and after inflation. As an added bonus, police cannot confiscate ‘social sculpture’ or ‘art’. For this reason the undercover police who searched us before the march, and found our kit, had to let us go.
The French president was cynical enough to claim that the protest was a celebration of the treaty signed inside the summit. But we have all long since stopped listening. Has radical change ever come about by political leaders waving a piece of paper in the air? The minute we start celebrating that is the minute we have lost. Our business is that of knitting together a movement. Because the only response to false corporate and technological solutions are social ones. Lidy Nacpil of The Global Campaign for Climate Justice, comes from the Phillipines. She rejects the ‘narrative that is being perpetrated by the rich governments and the corporations who are not interested in transforming the system profoundly’. The movement, she argues, is ‘not yet strong enough to dismantle the power of the corporations, so one of the urgent things that we need to do is to build our power so we can change the system.’
Inside the summit, indigenous representatives struggle to get their rights further than a pre-amble of the agreement. Their work is vital but only
partial. Outside the unacknowledged march hand in hand with their comprehnderos, refusing to be footnoted by their unelected legislators. They are the Do-ists and Now-ists, stepping forward in embodied dialogues of action.
When civil society is not invited to the table, it breaks in and jumps on top of it. The COP 21 Climate Solutions is on at a high class exhibition centre. It is recognised by NGOs and civil society groups everywhere as a giant corporate exercise in greenwash and technofix- a panoply of false solutions to the climate crisis – bought to you by the people who created it. Among the stall holders (who have paid hundreds of thousands to be there) are COP21 sponsors who actively lobby against renewables while promoting fossil fuels and water privatisation. Thankfully, the immense apparatus of security and secret police were unable to hold back the invading tide of activists who climbed all over it with guerrilla speeches, chants, stickers, posters and banners.
Lenin once said that ‘revolution is a carnival of the oppressed’. This is the spirit of carnival, revelry and revolt that has pulsed through every progressive movement in history. It is alive and well in Paris. The streets spill on to dance floors and dance floors spill onto the streets. There are flag waving, banner draped pits, moshing to marching brash bands. There are raucous, vaudeville cabarets, hosted by cross dressing eccentrics. Performers and audiences fling themselves in. Goblins shake their fists from the rafters. These is not a side shows, they are central to the social mechanics of change.
The day after the big march, in a squat in St Denis, Paris, the second ever Climate Games Award Ceremony is taking place. Climate Games is a competition to inspire and celebrate creative disobedience. It is an idea, not an organisation, a cleverly un-arrestable platform for the collective
imagination of anonymous insurrectionary acts. Hundreds of competitors have taken part the world over. One nominee for the ‘Piss Yourself Award’ has smuggled hundreds of toilet rolls into the COP 21 Conference Centre with the International Panel on Climate Change Report written
on them. The winners of the ‘New Forms of Innovative Insurrection Award’ have engulfed Volks Wagen garages with smoke bombs and banners that read ‘You pollute us, we pollute you’. One of my favourites is a 30 foot banner drop at the Arc du Triomphe; done by the Family Action Network – a group of activists aged 1- 13.
I am proud to find that an action I took part in has been nominated. On Weds 9 December, we went to the Louvre to help expose the oil money dripping down Frances most cherished cultural institution. We smuggled fake oil in and emptied it onto the atrium of the museum. With our bare feet, we stamped an artwork of sticky defiance on the floor and threw songs about Total oil company into the air while fist pumping black umbrellas. We were joined by over a hundred other activists, doing a similar action outside. That day, #FossilFreeCulture, a global movement to end oil sponsorship of the arts sprang into the media. Curiously they felt the need to arrest us and hold us for 4 hours. When they learned that the embarrassing patch of molasses and treacle did not constitute criminal damage, we were released without charge.
We are beaten to first place, however, by a worthy opponent. Brandalism, a collection of culture jamming, subvertising urban guerrilla artists hijacked over 600 outdoor advertising sites with radical critiques of corporate and political inaction and greenwash. They did it all in broad daylight, dressed in fake J C Décor uniforms. Class.
Reasons to be Cheerful
This is of course part of a long history of civil disobedience. If people didn’t misbehave, women would still be banned from wearing trousers and we would still be getting arrested for not attending church on Sunday. Its time to stop justifying direct action and start celebrating it. All over the world people are reinventing insurrection to keep the oil in the ground. In the words of Arundhati Roy ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing’. The new world breathed heavily this week in Paris.
When I arrived there I didnt find protest sitting down, but making plans, friends and history. I found it shaking hands, shaking fists and walking to the streets laughing and singing. The tens of thousands who turned up to Paris to defy the ban on protest are poets of deeds, rewriting history with their hands, their feet and their fists. They walk with their heads held high, red flags flying from their mouths, a crimson tide of tongues.
The battle they fight is of words ideas and feelings. That is all and that is all. When we change the discussion, even for one day, we win a battle. When we redefine what action means, even in one young heart, we win a battle. Through these small victories a movement grows. Outbreaks of talking become outbreaks of doing. Outbreaks blossom into epidemics.
I believe that the greatest threat we face is not a political and business elite, grappling forever vainly to resuscitate a dying system, but apathy and despair; the belief that there is no alternative, the belief that we are powerless. The antidote to this is hope, or what my Occupy friend, Mark
Weaver coined ‘Revolutionary Optimism’. Let us wipe away the dust of post-modernist scepticism and look our brave futures in the eye. Lets be prepared to throw our ideals high.
Let us also be prepared to use our bodies and not just our ballot papers and our Facebook accounts. Mass civil disobedience has to be just that. It cannot be left to a minority. Tomorrow’s world will be decided by our actions. We are living through mass extinction and biospheric collapse. Politics as we know it must end. The era of ‘post politics’ must begin. It is our responsibility to make it happen, all of us, to act with meaning and poetry. If not here, where? If not now, when?
The last word goes to Rowan, a Ploughshares veteran, who I met on the bus back to England. “When I take action it feels like poetry, like ripples spreading outwards, almost like a prayer going out into the world. If we really are going down, let’s go down being the best that we can be.”
The Truth Behind the Paris Climate DealThe western media has reported the Paris climate deal as a great success. So why did thousands take to the streets yesterday to denounce it?For an in-depth exposé of the deal: http://nin.tl/1OZaxEt
Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Sunday, December 13, 2015
Activists arrested in the Louvre secretly sent this message fr…Ten performers were arrested today at the Louvre for challenging its sponsorship by oil companies Total and Eni. But they managed to smuggle a phone into their cell to get this message out.Performance by End oil-sponsorship of the arts, BP or not BP?, G.U.L.F. Liberate Tate, Not An Alternative Occupy Museums, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds, No Tar Sands, Stopp oljesponsing av norsk kulturliv, The Natural History Museum alongside other artists and activists from around the world. Film supported by 350.org and Real Media.
Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Whats Going Down?
I am a busker. I earn a living by playing music on the streets and I am proud to belong to an ancient and vital urban tradition. Musical exchange- live, free and in the heart of our cities- is a force for good. I have been told this with words, thank you notes, bags of sweets, energy balls, bananas, doughnuts, childrens toys, ear rings, mince pies, bottles of beer, bags of weed and Christian literature. I have witnessed countless examples of emotional outburst and exchange between complete strangers. I’ve had group hugs, dance offs, celebrity dogs and toddlers. I’ve seen crowds gather in their hundreds around communities of artists bound together with great solidarity.
But street performance is under threat. The forces that threaten it endanger not just the cultural health of cities, but their social, emotional and even political health. This is a story of policing, subversion and organised resistance. It will reflect on relevant theory as it charts my journey through the European cities in an attempt to understand their space, their culture and who controls what.
One August afternoon in Maastricht, something happened to me that made me realise I was involved in something that went far beyond just music. It is 5pm. The upwardly mobile, slightly elderly population of this small Dutch city are rushing to finish their shopping. Husbands tut at their watches on the steps of department stores. Children whinge and tug on the arms of stressed mothers. Everyone is alone, lost in their lists of things to buy. Outside a closed down shop I plant my stuff down, plug in my loop pedal and start to lay down a track. Guitar, beatbox, vocals. We
are away. A crowd begins to gather. Nearby, a teenager starts to breakdance in an attempt to impress a girl. He’s got some moves. Then a kid half his age rocks up from the other side of the street and takes the floor. He’s got some serious moves. As the dance-off escalates a crowd of almost one hundred have assembled and I’m only two minutes into the song. They are all clapping along and cheering the young dancers who are now minor celebrities in their town – a status that seemed to come out of nowhere.
That evening I pushed my trolley back from the streets, glowing with that familiar feeling that comes from the collision of energy and positivity that spirals around street music. It was clear that it wasn’t just about me and my sounds. Time and again I was witnessing how busking repurposes sections of city centres. They transform zones consisting purely of commerce and retail, into ones filled with person-centric interactions. The exchanges are spontaneously subversively, wild, jubilant and joyful. They face not towards the shop windows, but back into the centre – back in to the public inside the public space. Is it any wonder the police are clamping down? Buskers redirect the flow of attention and financial resources away from window displays, the air conditioned shopping centres, the alluring carbohydrate waft of fast food restaurants, and the creeping territories of café tables.
Why You Should Never Play in a Shopping Centre
Indoor shopping centres are privately policed mini town centres. In these synthetic retail paradises there is no homelessness, no mental health issues, no demonstrations or leafleting, no charity begging, no loitering and no busking. It is standard in the design of retail parks to channel the flow of people as quickly as possible through the entire circuit of the space. They are built to discourage human congregation, relaxation, recreation and self-expression.
Buskers, like professional charity fundraiser, are experts in public space and how human energy flows through it. The difference of a metre to
one side or the other can make the difference between a wasted hour and a hat full of money. Certain walkways provide bottlenecks where people can be hooked in, others provide what fishermen (and fisherwomen) call eddies – spaces away from the main current where numbers collect to rest or feed. But surely this is as manipulative as any other enterprise collecting cash from shoppers? In some ways yes; but, as I will explain later, there are important differences.
A friend and I were once passed a paid gig to play inside a cake shop. When we got there, to our dismay, we realised that it was a chain company inside a shopping centre. The shop was lifeless, stale and half -empty. After an hour of playing to ourselves in the shop, and eating our way through more than our fee in cake (given freely by the bored and indifferent staff), we decided to play outside the shop window by the escalator. We were in good spirits, banging out improvised tunes about cake with a guitar and a trumpet. Anywhere else this would have gathered a crowd, but not there. There was something about us that was unattractively out of place in that polished air conditioned concourse. Granted I was wearing a multi-coloured tutu. But it felt wrong playing somewhere so inorganic. Maybe it was the taste of the shoppers. Maybe it was their ‘demographic’ (sorry). Maybe it was the lay out of the space. Maybe we were just a bit shit. Either way, I am no longer available for corporate bookings.
Jump forward now to January 2016, I’m in Rotterdam and I emerge from a metro station into he belly of a shopping centre. Coming from the end of a long dark tunnel is a bright light. Spilling in with the crisp Febuary sun is the distant sound of someone singing. I walk out to await a solo songwriter, brandishing a nice hat, a smile and a conversation. On arrival I find the caged voice of 50’s Broadway jazz being projected from a row of wall mounted speakers above the window of a department store. “Where is your lisence” I ask. The featureless plastic mannequins stare back at me blankly.
Forcing the peasants off their land
Outside the shopping centre, the disapproving facades of some of the most powerful institutions in the country (the chain stores that have now monopolised every town in the continent) look down on the buskers. The performers often look scruffy and are employed by no-one but themselves. Increasingly, authorities see them as having no place in the computer generated models presented to them by private developers. Why should their sonic trespass be allowed on the streets?
Difficult to tax, monitor or coopt, busking as we know it is now under grave threat of extinction. Across Europe, busking faces an increasingly sophisticated security apparatus designed to clear city centres of immigrants, political dissent and the growing unemployed. Just like unpermissioned street demonstrations, artisan street vendors, black market traders, squatters, fly posters, ‘loitering’ youths and even street homeless people; buskers could soon be swept from our town centres like autumn leaves.
The privatisation and securitisation of public space by corporate interests has its roots in the first wave of enclosures of 15th,- 18th centuries,
when a nascent and growing puritan work ethic scrubbed carnivals, processions, fayres and festivities from the calendar and from the street. Peasants were forced off their land which was sold on to more ‘productive’ farming. Left with no choice they migrated to the slums to work as wage slaves in factories. Those not conforming to a growing ideology of profit – which seized space and time for maximum productivity – were shipped to the New World. Troubadours, travelling circuses, puppeteers and party people; just like travellers, subversives and those economically less productive, would not be tolerated.
Street entertainment belongs to a long carnival tradition of folk lore and festivity. Why is carnivaling the streets important? Jeff Ferrell links it to the political health of public space:
Carnival celebrates old temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order; it makes the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privilege, norms and prohibitions. (Ferrell, 2001, p137)
Today the monied takeover of space is ever more far reaching, as this quote from the Chicago protest art group DSLR (The Department for Space and Land Reclamation) states:
Global capital has reached such a point that both physical and intellectual landscape have been completely purchased. To exist today means to tread on the property of others. The city has increasingly become a space completely built around consumerism. The freedom of expression has come to mean the freedom to advertise. Like a minefield of manipulative codes, urban space has been designed to manoeuvre us from one point of sale to the next. (McPhee 2007)
The Daily Bread
As any performer will tell you, venue hire is soaring and less people are attending live entertainment (preferring instead to consume it digitally). At some point in the lives of millions of artists, busking provides a financially unmediated opportunity to earn a living.
But it is not just about necessity. Many buskers I know regularly turn down paid gigs in favour of playing on the streets. It is organic,
unpredictable, challenging and rewarding. There is something artificial about an audience that doesn’t contain children and dogs, and cannot just wander off when they get bored. In venues, people are more likely to all be the same age, class and sensibility. On the streets anything and anyone can happen. In Berlin it is not uncommon to find large audiences of late night revellers stumbling into illegal U Bahn parties that go on till the early hours of the morning.
Busking for a living is not a dos job, neither is it scrounging or freeloading. It is physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally exhausting. Money is unpredictable and unreliable and the working environment can be hostile. The attention you draw can make you a target for the unstable and aggressive. It is not uncommon to get threatened by unwell members of the public or to have money stolen. Twice this summer I have been yelled at for no reason mid song, one of them kicking over my amp (I wasn’t even singing Celine Dion!)
As well as bringing joy, busking brings down unemployment. What’s more, it is one of the few jobs left that Karl Marx would describe as ‘unalienated labour’. By being free of an employer, the busker has creative control over his or her work and so is not alienated from it. How dare they!? Send them to the Job Agency to get warehouse work. What, there’s no work there? Then send them to the Job Centre. No work there either? Then put them on a compulsory 6 month workfare placement and force them to stack shelves in Tesco for free. Scum.
From the information I can obtain, in Holland and Germany (and possibly other countries too) it is officially illegal to use amplification anywhere. There are a host of different licences that entitle you to collect money, put down a sign and perform. Sometimes you need three
different licences at once to be legal. Each one can cost up to 150 Euros. Break the rules and the authorities can confiscate your equipment, leaving you without a livelihood. Getting it back takes many weeks, legal proceedings and accompanying costs. Aside from the cost, it is complicated and bureaucratic to get the licences. No two officers on the street will have the same information. If you are street homeless forget it. In many British cities, new licences, costs, fines, rules and even auditions are being placed on street entertainers. Busking in the London Underground is strictly policed. When I researched it I was told there was a 1 year wait to get sent an application. If you do not respond to that email within ten days you lose your chance to go one the waiting list which is another 1 year long! We should not take street music for granted. In much of the world and the United States it is either not allowed or the culture has died out. It is something that makes Europe a pleasant place to live and visit and it could die out in a climate of security crackdowns and privatisations. The result would be street art appearing only on temporary stages – programmed, licensed and financed like a ‘winter wonderland’ market – all profits going in one direction.
Eight Reasons to Leave Buskers Alone:
1. Freedom of expression is an unalienable human right enshrined in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
2. Busking brings down unemployment. It is a lifeline for often vulnerable and marginalised people to provide for themselves and their families.
3. Police can and do use new powers to arbitrarily supress buskers they deem to appear undesirable. This accelerates gentrification and leads to intolerant and socially cleansed cities.
4. Busking contributes to the emotional health of the streets.
5. Busking adds ‘cultural capital’ to a city by making it vibrant, diverse and attractive to visitors.
6. New licences put a price on taking part in the cultural conversation of the street.
7. Localised problems of excessive noise are best dealt with by talking. Blanket bans and rulings trample over a spectrum of evolving variables particular to that place and the time of day.
8. Penalising buskers will not stop an overcrowding of buskers. Busker will stop an overcrowding of buskers. It is financially pointless setting up too close to another busker. It is also a breach of common courtesy.
The clampdown on busking is a symptom of gentrification that must not be tolerated. In Berlin, many young African immigrants (who don’t
enjoy papers to make them ‘legal’) make ends meet by selling weed to wealthy white drug users outside train station until 5 or 6am. Some take a djembe drum to the park and sing. Both are vulnerable to Police swoops. The continent-wide movement against gentrification – its predatory real estate practices and it political policing – is articulated on this sign I found on the side of a social entre of Amsterdam:
Tourists: Go home and tell your accomplices to boycott the Dutch state. Your money is pushing out alternative cultures and undesirables. Social conflict still exists – deportations, mass arrest and asylum prisons.
Street musician Jeff Ferrell argues that such acts of ‘sonic graffiti’ can subvert the ‘enforced sameness’ of cities:
‘Years of busking have taught me that the power of live street music in reshaping the meaning and experience of public space. Effective street musicians change the flow and feel of the areas they often illegally occupy, setting little sonic traps… As the cash accumulates and the interactions multiply, the music itself serves to organise impromptu audiences, to spark collective dances and sing alongs, and, on good days, to transform the functionality of the street into the informal excitement of the festival.’ (Ferrell p150)
Most buskers are probably more concerned with earning money than ‘reshaping the meaning and experience of public space’. But their cultural production does stand against the cleansing of towns and cities to plastic sterility, museum parks for tourism but not for living. What is at stake is the ability for human wildlife to shape the character of city space from the bottom up. Jay Griffiths, in her trip into the Amazon, reflects on the replacement of wildness with wasteland. What she finds is ‘a terrible truth for the soul of modernity’, ‘a radical hollowness…an empty gauntness… a savage nothingness that blankly taunts you with your own reflection’.
What does our urban environment reflect about us? Is it destined to be peopled with cosmetically powdered, pastel-coloured imitations of billboard models? Will it waste into a dull lifeless theme parks for chain stores, punctuated by Costa, Subway and department stores – each town a clone of the next? Will we only be able to sit down if we are customers, only speak our minds with permission to demonstrate, only sing with a licence? Are we prepared to live in a land of swelling private developments and accompanying security apparatus that begins to look suspiciously like paramilitary militias?
Not necessarily. In Germany I spoke to one of the designers involved in the redesign of the prestigious Alexanderplatz. Among the various stakeholders invited to the consultations were buskers. This shows a commitment to the social architecture of the site beyond the more vocal and wealthy interests vying to remodel the area to their vision.
To the North of the city is Mauerpark – a large park where the Berlin Wall once stood. On Sunday it hosts a flea market, a giant 3000 capacity karaoke auditorium, and countless buskers. Visitors walk from busking pitch to busking pitch often surrounded by hundreds of people, sat on the
grass drinking beer, festival style. Several visitors have asked me who organises it. Who decides who plays where and when? Surely some authority orchestrates this massive public event of thousands of people? The reality is that it runs just like all the best things do – from the bottom up. There are no officers or authority figures, just people talking to each other. Remember that? The street art that takes place there every Sunday is one of Berlin’s largest tourist attractions and 95% of it is totally illegal. Occasionally the authorities come to close down the buskers. I am told that when this happens, a community group called ‘Friends of Mauer Park’ phone up the police chief and complain. The authorities are then not seen for months. This is an example of the power of sheer numbers, plus the solidarity of organised resistance to saving buskers’ necks. It should and can be replicated everywhere.
Berlin Street Musicians is one of many groups that keep the beat going. They promote and advocate for buskers, aiming to bring together ‘musicians, public, authority figures, policy makers, advocates, businesses, lobby groups, and everyone else involved in creating a thriving, culturally rich, and economically sustainable street art scene.’
Buskers are energy transformers. In this atomised, materialistic society, they engineer spontaneous collective empathy exactly where it is needed– in shopping districts and public spaces. All buskers should recognise the political and spiritual implications of their profession. They need everyone’s solidarity to help protect it. We cannot lose another centimetre of the negative space cowering beneath the growing corporate
edifices now swallowing our cityscapes. Gentrification and police crackdowns are not inevitable. Public space is everywhere and is constantly being contested. Powers, demarcations of space, authorities and regulations are forever in flux and can be influenced from below as well as above. This is not just about the survival of busking but the cultural health of our towns and cities – our freedom to express ourselves in diverse, public and spontaneous ways. Let’s make a song and dance about our freedom to make a song and dance. Everyone to the streets.
Busking Organisations, Blogs and Resources
Ferrel, J. (2001) ‘Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy’ (Palgrave St Martins)
McPhee, J. & Reuland, E. (ed) (2007) ‘Realising the Impossible: Art Against the Impossible’ (AK Press)
Griffiths, J. (2007) ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ (Penguin Books)
Rees, J. German, L (2012) ‘A Peoples History of London’ (Verso Books)
Linebaugh, P, Rediker, M. (2012)’The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic’ (Verso Books)
Last week I was one of thousands of activists from across Europe that descended on the continents largest coal mine in Rheinland, Germany, to close it down. After a ten day encampment of workshops, action training and planning it was time for the “Ende Gelaende”day of mass action, 15 August 2015. Scores of stunts, blockades and marches were launched to break into the mine. One of these would go on scale one of the infamous Bagga diggers – among the most destructive machines humanity has created – each consuming the equivalent energy of a small municipal town. What we saw inside the the mine, a landscape biblical in scale and lunar in lifelessness, gave us a chilling glimpse of smash and grab capitalism’s front line and an experience of defiance, solidarity and rebellion that has burned itself indelibly onto our collective emotional memory.
The Klima Camp encampment was situated on land soon to be chewed up by the mines. Seven thousand are facing displacement. If it can get though the Hambacher encampment’s network of tree houses (heroically connected by zip wires), the mine will also take down the Hambacher Forest, killing countless trees and animals in the process. The particular site for the Klima Camp was donated by a farmer who is being forced to sell at a price he has no hand in fixing. Like all farmers in the area he has suffered years of degredation as the water table was pulled
from his feet in order to drain the water from the mine.
The region is being disembowelled for lignite or “brown coal”, one of the dirtiest fuels in existence. So dirty in fact that twenty per cent of the energy taken
from the mine is used in making the mine run (a considerable amount if you consider that the mine is running the entire German arms industry and half of Holland).
The camp is comprised of a growing body of people who are tired of waiting for politicians to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. Despite Angela Merkel’s pronouncements on the “German Energy Revolution” her ruling “green capitalist” Green Party is doing nothing to keep the coal in the ground. Three of Europe’ most polluting mines are in the Rheineland. Klima Camp’s aim is to get in the way, turn the world’s eyes to the dirty face of coal and to send a clear message that enough is enough. If fossil fuels are not left in the ground, runaway climate change could push us past the two degre rise in pre industrial global temperature. The knock on effects will be a biospheric collapse that threatens humanity itself.
Klima Camp, originally inspired by UKs Cliamte Camp (now evolved into Reclaim The Power), is planned, executed and enjoyed entirely by its attendees. Imagine a entire festival complete with a bakery, shop, Info Point, Welcome Tent, several large marquees, a main stage for bands, food, toilet, chillout,
media, medic and camping areas. One where everything is given on a donation basis, including entrance, and you get to be part of a world changing global movement in the process. Reading Festival eat your heart out.
The running of the festival is done horizontally in neighbourhood assemblies (based on where you are camped) that feed decisions into a central coordinating group. Everyone is in charge and everyone chips in – a living breathing anarchist utopia.
The Programme – yes there is a programme, and printed in several different languages – has a full schedule of workshops, talks, debates, panel discussions and gigs. The main marquee has a team of translators and radio headsets available in four different languages. German activists are on it like ping pong.
For those wanting a break from learning about the global struggles for climate justice, there are interactive forum theatre events and training in ceative activism. The camp produced its own Clown Army troupe of radical street theaticians, and a samba band. Someone even put on a radical spoken word workshop. Wierdos.
The Night Before we Closed the Mine
It is midnight, the night before the day of mass action. The camp is a hive of hushed urgency. Footsteps hury along dark grass paths, sidestepping giant forty
foot banners. Speakers are being loaded from the stage onto a lorry with open sides, ready to detonate music in the middle of a crowd of innocent civillians. Workshop tents are filled with water, supplies and samba instruments. Action teams (aka Affinity groups) huddle around torches fingering maps, face masks and electronics. Arms and legs have the legal team phone number marker-penned onto them in case of arrest.
The words ‘occupation’, ‘opperation’ and ‘campaign’ dont feel out of place here. While the experience for most will be relatively fluffy and risk free, many are taking a risk to their physical integrity and are willing to get arrested in standing up to the most powerful entities that have ever existed – aka the fossil fuel industry, aka the forces of darkness, aka planet smashing incarnations of death metal.
Day of Mass Action
At six in the morning the camp is awoken by a giant megaphone. Spontanious cheers and whistles ripple through a field of dome tents barnacled onto the
misty hillside. After breakfast everyone joins the different “fingers” to head to the mine. Some fingers number in the hundreds. Many of their participants have been rehearsing the act of breaking through police lines in the preceding days.
To protect anonimity and defend against pepper spray, many are wearing white suit as well as eye and face masks. The resulting picture is of a giant team of medics rushing to an emergency. And they are. The activist slogan of the coming COP 21 UN Climate talks in Paris this December is ‘We are not fighting for
nature, we are nature defending herself’. The Earth’s immune system kicking in, like an army of white blood cells rushing to the scene of a crime.
Marching towards the mine, tensions and spirits were high. Songs included a personal favourite, “There’s a hole in my planet, oh scheiße, oh scheiße. There’s a hole in my planet oh scheiße a hole.”
In the face of pepper and battons the International Finger break through police lines four times to make it into the mine. As much as it is sad to see public forces use chemical weaponry on a non-violent trespass, it is beautiful to see how almost the entire
two hundred made it through unheart and smiling into the mine. For many it is their first action. One activist, with a backpocket of geological knowledge, observed from the lines in the sand that we had made it down about a million years into the past. We were at the feet a real life Mordor carving its was into our future.
In the following advance through the mine, protesters fanned out to prevent police vehicles passing to create another blockade. The thin white line of protesters holding hands in the middle of this deathscape, pursued by heavily armoured vehicles and helicopters, was Ghandian. It was inevitably not long before all were kettled, beaten down or fled the mine.
By then it was too late. The mines operations had been stopped and the pictures splashed all over the press in Germany and beyond. The following twelve hours of mass detentions where, though unnecessary and for some painful and uncomfortable, were for most filled with songs, chants, games and growing friendships. Kettles of protesters from all over the world – hands cable tied behind their backs – feeding each other with food and cigarettes provided priceless metaphors of solidarity. There was a game of frisbee (apparently this is still possible
with hands cable tied behind your back) and Worthers Originals, pulled open by opposing sets of teeth, then caught by a third person (who also had their hands tied). It was like a team building exercise on a corporate training residential (except with riot cops instead of middle management).
While the mine continues to produce coal, the battle in this war of stories has been won by the Camp. The definition of what climate action means is changed, the goal posts thrown over the cliff. One of the deadest expanses on earth has been filled with creativity, resistance and a riotous love. What will grow out of it? Come to Paris this December to find out.
It is with great sadness this week I leave my post as a Spoken Word, Beatbox, Improvisation Teacher at Curwen Primary School, Newham, East London. To my knowledge I am the only person who has had that job title. It has been an incredible experiment in creative education, working two days a week as a fixture of the teaching staff on a year long placement. I taught four different year groups in literacy, music, performance, after school and lunchtime clubs and was blown away by the imaginations I was harvesting. The following poem is a composite poem made entirely of lines taken from the poems written by kids aged between 6 and 11.
Curwen’s Mega Poem
When I Grow Up
I don’t want to be a killer,
I want to be a painkiller.
I will have the power
To make trees dance.
I will control rain.
I’ll take a cloud and fly to Saturn,
Rob a bank with a gang of lions,
I’ll be Like Nelson Mandela and Pele
In one body.
You see, I don’t want to be the goal scorer,
I want to be the goal.
When I grow up all the girls
Will ask me to merry them.
You see I am amazing
I put the king in Barking, the zing in amaing,
The art in smart and the pow in powerful!
Im so cool that when I go outside
It starts to snow,
So talented every singer went to jail,
So rich my name is Rich Richy Richard
When I go outside the clouds hide
And the sun gives me firepower.
The red carpet rolls out underneath me.
Flowers jump out of the soil saying “Im free!”
And ask for my autograph.
My autograph is on the wall like a poster
And if anyone tears it they pay one pound.
I’m so hot all the dragons retired
And the sun melts.
When I go outside and sing the police feint
And the bins dance with me.
I’m a volcano that’s going to erupt flowers.
I’m so happy my head jumps around the grass!!
Because I am Happiness:
I am the bubbles in coca cola,
I am the tick on the register,
I am laughter spreading its wings.
I come from a town called Happy
Where everyone calls your name
Like God throwing down money.
In my head there is a toilet laughing,
A chocolate cupcake calling my name,
Pies are screaming for me to eat them,
And there’s an apple tart that can sing.
During maths test I think about
Numbers street dancing.
And when I go to sleep
I dream of going to Art Land.
But what I hate about heads
Is the way they carry around bad things
In my head there is a potion
That has gone wrong.
I am Anger!!
You die as I work out my plan
I kill your happiness
I drink your love and rip out your smile!
I am a bag full of pain.
I am the brown leaves
That fall in your heart.
Growing up is like sad people
Climbing up a ladder.
You see love is a twinkler
Love is stars singing soft songs .
I love you, Mum
You are my song that keeps me awake
From little monsters.
You are always there, even in the dark.
You are my camel if I get tired,
You are my shadow that never leaves my side,
You are my zip that keeps me together,
Protecting and warming my heart.
You are the thing that makes my heart golden.
If you were pants I would wear you forever.
If you were a guitar
I would play you like a mad genius.
If you were un-credible
I would turn you into credible.
If your heart were a tomatoe
I would get my five a day.
I love you more than a rainforest
Wants to dribble down with tears.
I love you more than an Everything Burger.
When I grow up I’ll have so many happy memories
I will store them under a king sized bed.
In my head there is a never ending story
And dreams waiting to come true.
I was born with a rare disease
Arriving at Finsbury Park station I came across a group of men people in high vis vests. Their vests read ‘Business and Community Warden’. I’ve
learned to be suspicious of people who claim to be ‘public officers’ or ‘wardens’ so I went up to one to ask what they do. My mistrust quickly
melted to sympathy. The man I was speaking to walked with a heavy head, sagging eyes and a narked expression. His colleagues also looked seriously bored and disaffected.
He told me he is on a six month, 30 hour per week Workfare placement. The work is a compulsory condition for receiving his Job Seekers Allowance – a meagre £240 a month to live off. Of this he has to pay his own travel (£88 a month) to get to and from his unpaid work. That leaves him a grand total of £152 a month (or £38 a week) for food, bills, and any other services or contingencies needed to maintain his home and his health. I don’t imagine his weekends are particularly lively.
The frown on his face crept over my own as he told me that he they do not provide food so many days he can’t afford to eat at work. One day he was ill with a virus and needed to miss a day. He was told that “that wasn’t good enough” so he worked through his illness. If he misses a day of work he loses 1 month pay. If he misses 3 days he loses months of pay.
I was left wondering how much time he and his fellow unemployed colleagues were able to look for work while they stood motionlessly and reluctantly outside the station waiting for members of the public to ask them directions. They told me that they “have a list of things to do” including patrolling local supermarkets (they have been dealing with shoplifters for both Sainsburys and Tesco) but mostly they have to just stand there. Why do these supermarkets (who have already dodged so much tax) get free forced labour from some of the borough’s most vulnerable involuntarily unemployed? Was it not these same corporations who lobbied so hard against the minimum wage and are now cutting costs on their own security? If they are benefiting from this labour then why don’t they, and not the tax payer, pay the Job Seekers Allowance ?
“How do I complain?” I asked the Warden.
“Phone the number on my vest and speak to Courtney Bailey, he’s the boss”
When I phoned I got through to The Finsbury Park Business Forum. This is an odd place to be directing a complaint about a body of public wardens, regularly briefed by the MET to carry out low level police patrol and ‘counter terrorism’ duties as a kind of forced volunteer unit of para- police. The Business forum’s website says that one of their duties is to ‘lower the perception of crime’ at the station. In helping the police clear the area of ASBOs this can be seen as the civilianisation of social cleansing. Poor people forced to police poor people on behalf of business.
Courtney Bailey met my complaint by quickly becoming loud, aggressive and insulting. When I pressed him on the scheme he accused me of being “wrong in the head”, “full of it” and “one of those anarchists” (he was at least right about that last point).
“Name me one person who is has no choice to work for us?!” he shouted.
“I’m not going to name them because you might report them to the Job Centre and they could lose their benefits” I replied.
He hung up.
Kerry- Anne Mendoza, in her fantastic new book: ‘Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy’ points out:
‘Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights clearly states: ‘No-one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.’ If the government threatens to withdraw a person’s sole lifeline unless they supply their labour, then it can clearly be argues that this labour has been obtained forcibly. The labour is also clearly compulsory.’
She goes on to point out that benefits such as the JSA are a safety net that help citizens ‘live in dignity’ and are a ‘foundation stone of social democracy’. Why are we now submitting people to compulsory work in order to get it?
I don’t envision Courtney Bailey has much affinity with his unpaid workforce. As well as being the Chair of Finsbury Park Business Forum he is also the chair of an energy company and the executive director of four other companies. On their website I learn that, in collaboration with Job Centre Plus, the Business Forum are providing ‘opportunities for people to gain work experience, educational and police training’. On digging a little deeper I found that the ‘training’ consisted of a one day visit from the Duncan Greenhalgh of the Metropolitan Police in ‘SELF
CONFIDENCE’ (their italics).
The Forum describes the Wardens as ‘volunteers’.
‘This is truly a community coming together as one team for a safer neighbourhoods in Islington…Our aim is to promote community solidarity and encourage neighbourhoods to identify and solve problems and be a trusted friend for Business and the Community.’
The newsletter thanks VIPs in the police, local businesses and stakeholders. Not a word of thanks goes to the Wardens themselves, who will be working without pay outside Finsbury Park station for the next six months. The scheme is soon set to be rolled out to Drayton Park, Arsenal, Highbury & Islington, Holloway Road, Angel, Camden, Kings Cross – tube and train stations.
Last weekend I went to visit a community of families who, until a month ago, never considered themselves activists. They are now political squatters, staging an occupation of the soon to be demolished estate of Sweets Way in Barnett, North London. The tenants, many of whom were previously homeless, have lived there for 6 years. Some are being forced to move out of London to Wolverhampton if they want to be re-housed.
If you dont live in Barnett, if you are not in need of housing and if you are not a squatter you may think this has nothing to do with you. Think again.
Barnet has become a ‘test borough’ for the sell-off of the functions of local government to a corporation called Capita. Unless resisted, what is happening here in Margaret Thatcher’s old constituency, will be rolled out across the country.
When they privatised Barnett’s planning department (yes you did read that correctly), developers started “rubbing their hands” says Mark, an activist at Sweets Way who works in a local nursery due for demolition. “They have started selling off public facilities for private development, including schools, community centres, libraries and care for the elderly and disabled.
The company redeveloping the estate, Annington (part owned by tax exile Guy Hands worth an estimated £250 million) looks set to make a killing on the London property market. Only 20% of the new properties are being leased as ‘affordable rent’ (80% of market rates).
Yesterday Barnet County Court judge decided to rule against our protest and social centre occupation on the Sweets Way estate. They grant Annington possession over the 160 or so homes of the Sweets Way estate, they even gave them an injunction against future protests taking place anywhere on the site! This is worrying for all involved in housing justice work and political protest. A statement from the community reads:
Upon our return from court, we found that the social centre at 60 Sweets Way had been emptied of all the things that made
it beautiful. Meanwhile a new property – a five bedroom at 76 Oakleigh Road North, owned by Annington as well, but just beyond the injunction and possession zones – had been occupied and filled with all the makings of a new social centre!
As somebody who spent two years living in squats, occupations and social centres, I have to admit that we never achieved the same level of popular support that the families of Sweets Way, and their sister project the E15 Mums in Newham have enjoyed.
As with E15, the occupation was made in alliance with squatters. Some of the squatters have been occupying places in Barnett for a number of years. Many will remember the famous Friern Barnett Library which was saved from closure by an unlikely alliance of squatters from Occupy London and conservative voters. Then there was the encampment on the front yard of local MP Mike Freer MP who helped spearhead the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings. Later there was Our Bohemia, in which the closed Bohemia pub was reopened by squatters and turned into a thriving community hub. I had the pleasure of playing there two years ago.
These sort of alliances of direct action are now popping up all over London, many under the banner of the Radical Housing Network. The spirit of resistance taking place in Barnett deserves all our support. They are the test case we can roll out across the country.