Thursday, November 24, 2011

Safety in the Camps

The Occupied Times November 16 2011

Keeping female campers safe has been an important issue discussed over the last week at OccupyLSX.

At last Thursdays general assembly occupiers discussed any personal safety problems they had experienced, and how they can keep women safe in the future.

While most females said they generally felt safe within the movement, it was people outside the movement, who passed through the camps at night that they were wary of.

Teenage occupiers B* and Ella* told the Occupied Times they both felt safe , especially since they had been adopted as substitute daughters to people within the camp.

They said unwanted male attention within the camp was ‘’annoying’’ but they never felt threatened.

Zena,* a student who had been camping on and off for the past few weeks at St Paul’s, was quick to state she felt safe within the movement.

“I think the majority of people here are on the same vibe, there’s not really a lot of violence or dodgy stuff going on that I have noticed.’’

She said she felt as safe at the St Paul’s camp as she would anywhere else in London, and is as aware of her safety as she usually would be.

“I’m not doing anything I wouldn’t usually be doing, I’m not out late by myself at night, and I’m around people all the time if I want to go somewhere I ask someone to go with me.”

She said her main concern was people outside the camp trying to cause problems, like drunken revealers stumbling past.

Natalia, also a student echoed her sentiments, and was particularly grateful for the Tranquillity group, who patrol the camp through the night, keeping an eye out for trouble.

While another woman, who did not want to be named, said she understood why women would feel vulnerable camping out at either occupation.

“I feel fine, but it (women’s safety) is a real issue in protest camps, the nature of them usually means there is a male majority here.”

She said she would not feel comfortable on her own tenting in the city, due to passers-by.

It is the people passing by in the night that the Tranquillity group are most aware of.

The group is made of men and women who patrol the camp from 10pm until 8am, some of who have worked in security in the past.

One of the tranquillity members, Bear* said the group urge “mutual respect,” so people can sleep.

They do not get physical with anyone, rather “purely negotiation and dispute mediation.”

They try and reason with those causing trouble and steer them away from the tents, but if anyone does feel threatened, they call over the police.

Weekends in particular were proving difficult for camper’s safety, said occupier Lisa Ansell.

She had come across people intentionally antagonising protesters, looking to incite trouble.

“We are in a real bind. We have no authority to protect the site; we don’t have the right to ask people who are not in the camp to behave in a certain way because this is a public space.

“We are firmly peaceful and keep repeating ‘you will not find a fight here’, and try and move away from them,” she said.

*Last names/real names withheld.

Night Watch Prevents a Suicide

The Occupied Times November 16 2011

If it weren’t for a quick-acting occupier, St Paul’s could have had a dead body on it’s steps last week.

George Mayne, a student who has been camping at the OccupyLSX St Paul’s base since October 15 was on night watch when he came across a suicidal man on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The man was already known to the camp as a problematic alcoholic with suspected mental health issues.

George said he was radioed by another night watch member who came across the man writing a suicide note, so the team all agreed to keep an eye on him.

George had the foresight to get the the first aid team members numbers, in case something happened.

He said night watch had been trying to get the man to cut down on his drinking, but this night it appeared he had drunk a bottle of vodka, and mixed four packets of painkillers into it.

George went to talk to the man, who was sitting on the steps of St Paul’s.

“He said he had taken all these pills and was holding my hand saying he was going to die.”

The man was shaking, and agitated, but slowly became tired as George tried to calm him down.

Knowing he could not radio for help, as it would further agitate the man, he slyly texted one of the first aiders, who got to the steps straight away.

“I went over and called an ambulance, telling them we needed someone here immediately.

“Then two police came along. I told them not to interfere because he would probably lash out at police, so they didn’t get involved.”

An ambulance came, but the man lashed out at the paramedics, so George and another night watch person had to put the man in the back of a police van, who then took him to hospital.

While the relations with the police were formal, George said it was obvious they were pleased with the work of night watch, because of the responsibility they handed on to them.

A Working Community

The Occupied Times, November 16 2011

As OccupyLSX enters it’s fourth week, the Finsbury Square camp has become a well established community, complete with a hotel, bike workshop and a group set up to help the homeless.

Conor Hohan, who has been camping at Finsbury Square said the occupation is “now in the process of refining” its space.

Conor is part of the housing team, and has implemented a system to make sure the camp utilizes as much space as possible and to accommodate new occupiers.

They have a peg system where pegs on a tent represent if there is room in a tent, and if it is male or females currently occupying it. For safety reasons, Conor said they try and keep tents to either male or female.

The camp also had set up a “hotel”- the only free hotel in London – which holds six people so if someone arrives late they can be housed in the hotels, then moved into a tent the next day.

The camp was currently at peak capacity and they were trying to come up with more ways to increase capacity, like putting up larger tents in place of smaller two person ones.

Even if people are sharing spaces with relative strangers in the camp they endeavour to make people feel comfortable.

“Even if people don’t own the tent they are staying in they feel comfortable and safe in it.” he said.

Also at the camp is Ace’s Bikes, a bike workshop set up by occupier Ace MacCloud who has been homeless for the last 25 years.

He spends his days fixing the bikes of the campers and also those not in the movement, at no charge.

He said it keeps his mind occupied, and he bikes between the two camps to fix St Paul’s occupier’s bikes.

He is also part of an OccupyLSX homeless working group.

He said this group is about “trying to get people back in hostels or a place like this.

“We tell them to go to the housing tent, see if they have a spare tent, give them something to eat and then try to help them out. We want them to stick around and help them out if they have a bike needing fixing.”

Seven Occupiers Arrested

The Occupied Times November 15 2011

Seven OccupyLSX supporters were arrested on Monday night after protesting outside an elaborate feast for London’s rich and powerful.

About 25 supporters of the occupy movement staged a peaceful protest outside the Guildhall, where the new Lord Mayor David Wooton entertained David and Samantha Cameron, Theresa May, the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and bishop of London Richard Chartres at his annual banquet.

OccupyLSX supporter Dan Ashman was present at the protest and said the Guildhall event was symbolic of the gap between the rich and poor.

“People are losing their jobs and are struggling to survive across the globe, and there is still this rich pompous ceremony going on where people are gorging themselves on food and almost behaving like this is of no consequence. It’s quite enraging.”

Protesters outside the Guildhall were soon kettled by police, who doubled them in numbers.

The police issued a Section 14 order on protesters – where police place conditions on public assemblies “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”.

Protesters were given until 11pm to disperse which they complied with, however, five protesters were arrested, one for allegedly assaulting an officer.

Eye-witnesses disputed this assault and told The Occupied Times the police were overly heavy-handed to the peaceful protesters.

Around 15 supporters went to the Bishopsgate Police Station to support the five that had been arrested, but while there another two were arrested.

Occupier Sean Ganley was one of them. He said police nearly broke his wrist after they tried to break his camera phone as he recorded events in the station. He was charged with indecent behaviour at a police station.

Those arrested were later released on bail, but under the condition they do not enter the City of London – where the St Paul’s camp is. However, they were able to camp at the Finsbury Square occupation.

Friends and supporters of those arrested held a small farewell ceremony for them on Tuesday as they left the camp to Finsbury.

One of the arrested, Robin Nikolai Von Mickwitz addressed the supporters before leaving the camp for the Finsbury Square occupation.

“Do not let them grind you down,” he urged.

“we will be back here as soon as we can.”

Rage with the Occupation

The Occupied Times Nov 16 2011

“What better place than here? What better time than now?”

The words roared through the frosty air around St Paul’s last Wednesday as anti-capitalist rocker Tom Morello led campers and student demonstrators in a literal rage against the machine.
Morello, best known for playing guitar in activist band Rage Against the Machine, joined the occupation after the November 9 student march through the city.

He played an acoustic set outside the kitchen to a enthralled crowd, and spliced his set with commentary on the global occupation movements between songs – told using the human microphone technique (when the crowd repeats what he says, so all can hear).

After the concert, he told press OccupyLSX was the ninth occupation he has visited across the globe.

“I’m on my occupy the planet tour at the moment to express my solidarity with the people of London who are part of the 99 percent who are standing against the corporate Malthusians that have torpedoed the global economy.’’

He said the movement represented the “stock and trade” of what his musical career has been about.

His music urged direct action, social and political reform and was often about injustice through the world.

Morello said that every successful struggle for social justice needed a good soundtrack and he was doing what he could to provide one.

“It (protest music) puts wind in the sails of the struggle, it’s something that speaks truth to the reptilian brain in people in the combination of melody, rhythm and rhyme.”

He had been to eight other occupations and said people are learning that “in order to change the world, walk out your front door and just do it.”

While You Were Sleeping

The Occupied Times Nov 16 2011

Thefts, drunken abuse, paranoid schizophrenics, argumentative bankers, copious amounts of coffee and plenty of pacing is all in a night’s voluntary work for one of the toughest roles in the OccupyLSX movement.

The Tranquillity Team – also known as Night Watch – is made up of a variety of occupiers who stay up all night to keep a beady eye on what’s going on around the camp. They pace around, keep in touch over radios and try to calm down any trouble that may be brewing.

I joined the team for a few shifts – on a Monday and a Friday – and soon realised it is a tiring, frustrating and dangerous role. But someone has to do it.

I attached myself to Antonio Maniscalco an Italian chef who alternates between tranquillity and kitchen duties. He is dedicated to the movement; is highly intelligent, compassionate and a natural at resolving conflicts and keeping the peace – the point of the role.

Antonio moved around groups loitering on the St Paul’s steps, in the tea tent and around the kitchen with ease. He is well liked, and spoke well of the people he was trying keep safe.

His main tactic was to “keep people relaxed.”

He urged everyone to “behave, be respectful and civilized.”

On the Monday, between 10pm and 6am there were always at least six people on the lookout, and the problems came from people who were not camping at St Paul’s but hanging around the area – some with the sole intent of causing trouble.

There was a group of young men spotted rummaging through people’s tents, trying to steal clothing and sleeping bags, they were quickly surrounded by Tranquillity as well as curious campers, and when they realised they would be intensely watched all night, skulked away from the camp.

Later on, there was an old man, with a hacking cough, wrapped in a shawl and carrying a staff. At varying points he was aggressive, dismissive and nonsensical to the Tranquillity volunteers.

He demanded Antonio organise a meeting with two campers the man had met earlier, so he could discuss meeting government officials and starting his own march.

He later asked for a taxi to be called to take him to a hospital, but it needed to bring him some ecstasy first. His final request, at about 3am was for Tranquillity to arrange a date for him with a 16-year-old girl he met earlier that day.

Antonio tried to offer the man, who was clearly in desperate need of medical attention, a place to sleep but he was not interested, and eventually moved on.

With not enough numbers and no one with experience on how to deal with the man’s delusions, there was nothing Tranquillity could do.

I also joined the team on a bustling Friday night, when there were rumours flying around of an English Defence League (EDL) infiltration, so numbers were beefed up after a call out at the General Assembly for more volunteers.

Despite the anticipation, the night was relatively quiet, made up of what is becoming the usual antics of a Friday night at St Paul’s; bankers and city workers on their way home from after-work drinks trying to instigate arguments with campers, people more aligned with the movement letting loose at the free concert by the St Paul’s steps, and others getting drunk and rambling to each other in the tea tent.

Antonio was pleased it was an easy night, as the one before certainly wasn’t – last Thursday one of the volunteers had been repeatedly assaulted, and had clothes stolen from his tent while other Tranquillity members had to try and defend the kitchen from campers’ drunken rummaging.

Tranquillity members that I spoke to all agreed it was excessive drinking that was making their roles difficult, and that was what made a division between those camping out to make a change, and those camping out to party.

“Seventy to eighty percent of the people here believe in the movement, but the rest have no idea, and should party elsewhere,” Antonio said.

They had been repeatedly called fascists last Thursday night, also a typical occurrence.

Military veteran Matthew Horne said when he was on Tranquillity duties he often came up against people who deemed the group as another form of authority to oppose.

“They need to realise that no matter what society you want to live in, no matter where you go in the world there will always be a need for a form of security or a police force, this isn’t something new it dates right back to the dawn of humanity, even in the animal kingdom.

“There are threats out there, it’s always better to have an alert system in place, if that means having people walking around at night with a radio in communication with each other, then so be it.”

Two nights with Tranquillity and it was pretty clear something had to change, there were people who could not hold their alcohol and got aggressive from it, and there were also people flocking to the camp for lack of a better option, and they needed help.

This is a sentiment many in the camp are aware of, and are trying to address.

Occupier Alison Playford is one of them. She is involved with the new welfare centre set up at St Paul’s – the centre aims to deal with all the issues I witnessed while with Tranquillity. When the centre is better established, it will provide help for Tranquillity as they patrol the camp.

Alison said the centre was set up to deal with peoples’ mental well-being, from stressed out campers to those who come to the occupation suffering mental illness, addiction or homelessness problems.

I visited the centre on a Wednesday afternoon when there was a counsellor and homoeopathist on site, waiting to help anyone who may need it. They were but two of the many who responded to a call out for health service providers to offer their expertise to the camp.

The centre was working on having counsellors, clergy and other service providers available around the clock.

Alison said as soon as they had the numbers they would support Tranquillity with remedying situations and getting people the help they desperately need.

She, like so many others I have spoken to at OccupyLSX, was aware the movement has become a beacon for London’s vulnerable and disaffected, but, unlike wider society, this community did not want to ignore them.

“We are supposed to be the change we want to see… an inclusive society that protects its vulnerable members and that’s what we are trying to do.”