The Occupiers who confronted fortifications at Parliament Square last year are themselves under siege from the Mayor’s Office. But are they about to beat back Boris and the GLA in an even more unlikely arena – the Courts?
We caught up with lawyer and activist for Occupy Democracy, Matthew Varnham, to find out more
Last March, veterans of Occupy London formed an autonomous focus group. Under the conceptually difficult name of ‘Occupy Democracy’, they have redirected what Tim Black called the ‘directionless anti-capitalism’ of 2011, towards the megaron of ‘representative’ democracy: the British Houses of Parliament.
Here then, was a smaller and more strategic Occupy. With an actual list of demands, their aim was to articulate the sentiments of Occupy London, using the same mode of occupational protest. This time however, it was to be arranged in the more forceful location of Parliament Square.
Not far into the proposed week-long occupation, police and Alsatians and big metal fences descended, along with some pretty bizarre excuses. Apparently, they were making improvements to the lawns, and also training the police dogs, (usually mutually exclusive activities, given the excremental disposition of dogs towards greenery).
This intervention, which may well have been an overlooked attempt at radical permaculture by the establishment, was, nonetheless, pretty inconveniently timed. The Million Mask March, student demonstrations, and other protests planned in last autumn were all restricted by the same project. (Another problem with the gardening spiel was that they arrested a lot of protesters on superficial charges, many of which are now likely to be dropped. David Graeber translated this as the ‘illegal practice of democracy’.)
Although technically the responsibility of the Greater London Authority, Parliament Square has historically held court to protest and various forms of people’s politics. Yet, it has increasingly become an exhibit for the paranoia and intolerance of our political class. In 2010, at this evolving Théâtre de l’Absurde, Boris Johnson shut down Democracy Village; more recently, BBC journalists received threats of arrest for filming the Occupy Democracy protesters at the site without official permission.
I met with Matthew Varnham the day after he joined a panel of speakers at ShoutOut’s ‘Power of Protest’ event at LSE. A law graduate, Matthew has been an independent supporter and legal advisor to Occupy since 2011. He recently approached the civil liberties organisation, Liberty, for the purpose of launching a judicial review against the GLA’s territorially obstinate policies.
Since this challenge, Occupy Democracy has declared monthly protests at the square until the General Election this May. The first of these was held just over a week ago, on the 24-5th of January. It was mostly uninterrupted, and went ahead as (anarchically) planned.
I wanted to ask Matthew more about the potential of this legal challenge, what this balance of power means for the future ‘power of the protest’ in London, and how he thinks Occupy Democracy can operate as a real mechanism in addressing the severe limitations to our democratic system.
I was encouraged that he found nothing ironic about us meeting in Pret, (the practical option being next to the station). Suited and impeccably informed, Matthew is proof of the diversity and seriousness which is at least present, if not ubiquitous, within Occupy Democracy.
This legal challenge on behalf of the greater Occupy movement seems a departure from the street protest it’s famous for – could you give us a bit of background on the judicial review, and also explain a little more about Liberty as an organisation, and how it’s working with Occupy Democracy?
Well Liberty, though they don’t have any overt ties to a party or ideology, have been around since 1934. As an organisation, they’re very accustomed to taking up progressive or controversial causes, and are very effective at doing so – Maggy Thatcher had their offices bugged in the 1980s, so they’ve been a thorn in the side of Britain’s political establishment for quite some time now.
They decided to get involved after the square became definitively inaccessible, with the re-erection of fences that completely partitioned protesters from the square when Occupy Democracy attempted to return in November and December. It’s important to note that the judicial review specifically challenges the tactic of fencing, which essentially shuts down Parliament Square for protest.
In fact, Occupy London has challenged hostile law decisions from the start – George Barda, and several other occupiers represented themselves and the encampment in 2011; George is also the acting applicant for this review, on Occupy Democracy’s behalf.
What is the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (PRASRA), 2011, and how has it impacted Occupy Democracy?
Also, what does PRASRA mean for the future of protest in London?
PRASRA and the bylaws were issued, in part, as a response to Occupy London, but it relates specifically to Parliament Square. They said, vaguely, that it was brought in to prevent ‘unlawful activity’, a broad gambit that includes sleeping on the square, (or using anything suspected to be sleeping equipment), filming without permission, etcetera.
Again, it’s definitely true that when you look at it, and you review the powers that Parliament’s given to the GLA, you realise that this has very chilling effects upon the right to protest at what’s arguably the most important stage for demonstrations in the country.
However, it blows my mind why PRASRA is being cited in terms of these fences and the blockade of the square by the GLA. It’s actually about who has authority over the square. Now, Parliament can pass laws regarding it, because, technically, the land there belongs to the Queen…
(Doesn’t it all?)
Right, so in 1999, the GLA were given responsibility of the square, which included the permission to pass byelaws. They’re now acting as if it’s the Mayor’s private property; as if there’s no constituted right to protest on Parliament Square. So the real issue is one of authority and whether the square is a public or private space. PRASRA is a product of this, and that’s why you get examples such as BBC journalists being threatened with arrest for standard coverage.
And the BBC aren’t exactly known for their radical agitation…
Exactly – it’s the BBC, filming outside Parliament!
If that’s the case though, what were the grounds for a judicial review?
So the review is addressed directly to the Mayor. The argument is that, as a public organisation, the GLA have a responsibility to the Human Rights Act (HRA), which prohibits interference with the right to political assembly and free expression.*
Great, so you’ve basically gone above their heads…
Yeah, in a way. So Liberty is claiming, with this review, that the closing of the square to protesters, (something the Mayor’s Office has refused to say it won’t do again), represents a failing of the GLA in their duty to the HRA.
I have sometimes found that, following the phenomenon of 2011, the Occupy ‘movement’ has lacked a set of underlying principles, (an encompassing ideology or critique of the current ‘system’), that might expand beyond mere opposition. The concern then, is that any list of demands seems a bit random, or arbitrary, so long as there is an absence of first principles from which to formulate a complete, functioning alternative to capitalist, representative democracy.
In terms of your role as a personal supporter of the Occupy movement, do you think these are fair accusations of the movement and Occupy Democracy’s demands?
Also, do you believe the term ‘left-wing’ is relevant here?
I can only speak for myself, and give my personal viewpoint as the movement is very heterodox. These demands came out of the lessons learned from Occupy 2011. The aim, this time, (with Occupy Democracy), was to focus specifically on Parliament as an institution.
My reading of the movement, more generally, is that it isn’t left or right, because as soon as you classify things in those terms, you’re alienating people. The point is, that all people in British society, whether their persuasion is left or right, are suffering from the consequences of things such as lack of democratic representation, in terms of how we tackle the deficit, and so forth. So Occupy Democracy as a movement has tried to be really careful about aligning itself with any one political ideology. For example, there are real discussions within the movement about political allegiances; many in the movement are supportive of the Greens, but it wouldn’t make sense to align with them or anyone else.
Right, and I guess part of the point is that Occupy Democracy is looking to challenge parliamentary democracy as it stands.. So endorsing a parliamentary party, or candidate would be beside the point, perhaps?
Right. But saying that, six Occupy supporters are standing in this General Election, and they’re running in part as a response to that engagement. These are candidates who support Occupy – it’s five from Green, and one from Labour.
The Greens certainly seem the most reflective of the Occupy movement, and they’re similarly difficult to place on either the Left or the Right. Again people have criticised their lack of political coherence in offering an alternative to that which they’re opposing. So in Lenin’s words, what is to be done?
Do you feel that the lack of a solid ideological foundation is an advantage, or a new approach?
Well it’s certainly interesting that it differs so much. Some people don’t necessarily look for the overthrow of our democratic system, and a complete overhaul, where others might.
Occupy Democracy’s demands are drawn from the initial Occupy movement, and were issues which were then, and have been since, expressed widely across society, both nationally and internationally. So it has the heritage of that early movement, and so this is giving a focus and a voice to that early, widespread outrage.
I guess then, is it a case of, let’s start off with these objections that we can all agree upon, and we can discuss ideology, and the Left and the Right and all the rest of it the morning after?
For example, some polls have suggested that many UKIP voters, aside from the issue of immigration, can be seen to share a lot of the same demands as leftists and Green Party voters – bank reform, renationalisation of public services – is this the kind of basis from which Occupy is looking to begin?
Absolutely. This is a photo of October. There’s a lot of people on the grass. Usually around 700-800 people at any one time. But I don’t think you could argue that they were reflective of the population as a whole, nor able to replace the Parliamentarians. I think it’s symbolic. In the sense that the issue of whether or not we can protest in Parliament Square is a bit of a side issue – it’s one that I’m particularly interested in from a legal perspective – but it’s not the issue. If you look at Occupy Democracy, like I said, as a direct descendent from the Occupy movements in 2011, then it wasn’t even about necessarily providing solutions to the big issues. It doesn’t even need to go that far. It was about creating a platform where people can engage in and share ideas, and be a power from.
So, would you say that it’s the admission that we’re not even so far ahead that we can be pushing through big solutions, because we need to address the very issue of whether representation currently exists, and where power lies?
Exactly. But just asserting that shift in power can be a solution in itself, to some extent. We’re now looking at potentially five or six people coming to government, not as occupiers, but as politicians interested and informed by the movement. Now if that were to continue, and a shift occurred whereby more MPs came from grassroots movements, where the attendees are an important voice within politicians’ stances and approach, then you have a shift in the location of political power. (Namely, somewhat further away from the House of Commons).
That’s interesting, because you have sociologists like Max Weber who talk about shifts in the legitimacy to govern, whereby, power can often be appropriated by institutions and movements which operate outside of the ruling system; the idea is that they eventually displace the incumbent institution. Instead of an all-out, cinematic, ‘street-fighting man’ revolution, the shift could be revolutionary nonetheless.
So how, and when, can the curious and/or sympathetic get involved with Occupy Democracy?
The next demonstration in Parliament Square is going to be this coming weekend, the 14th and 15th of February. After that, we’re planning for the 7th and 8th of March, but that’s not confirmed yet. It’s going to return each month until the General Election. This, we think, is a more effective and sustainable approach, for the moment, than sustained overnight occupation.
What’s next for the legal challenge?
Well we’ll hopefully hear back this month and be able to move it towards a Court.
But in any case, there’s certainly been at least the intimations of them backing down, right?
Absolutely – it was last weekend when it dawned on us that, we won that battle, for all intents and purposes. Compare last week to when it first got shut down almost as it started; I spoke with the park’s manager, and he didn’t even use the powers he was authorised to use. He just let it happen.
And who knows what it’ll mean for the judicial review, we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s certainly interesting that they responded in the way that they did, that is, not with the six-foot high fencing and arrests of last time around.
It’s funny. We were asked only yesterday by someone whether they could do an internship with Occupy Democracy! And before that, a private school student was trying to introduce a group of 17-20 year-olds to the movement, as if we have a head office and all the rest of this.
And I guess, as funny as that is, it at least shows that despite the mainstream media’s virtual silence on Occupy Democracy, we’re still getting engagements from young people, and from individuals and groups across the world. And really, it’s that potential which draws me in. There this sense that the real movement is still to come, hence the curiosity and all the rest of it.
There’s certainly some real momentum at the moment, particularly in Europe with the new parties like Podemos and Syriza.
Occupy has contributed a certain lexicon, and also re-popularised occupational protest. But I guess you’d agree that this momentum is not so much because of Occupy per say, but very much comes from the same conditions which brought people to the streets four years ago?
The atmosphere within this movement, is very much one of preparation. Certainly my last few years have been trying to help lay the groundwork; the hope is that when the focus returns to these issues, we, as a movement, will be there as a platform for the issues and voices that will have to be raised.
It’s not even necessarily that we need to start replacing our democracy with direct democracy, but it is providing an established and alternative avenue for engagement with such questions.
I think it was Slavoj Žižek who said that the interesting thing about Occupy was that it challenged the very architecture upon which the current political and economic systems operate, whereas before, large movements even when anti-capitalist in origin, tended to be about, for instance, the Vietnam or Iraq War or whatever – would you agree?
Yes. It brought into the question of traditional protest versus how we will continue to protest in this century, and also how you measure the success of these movements. My view is that the Trade Union demonstrations you get, and student protests, are obviously very much single-issue protests. These protests have been about re-examining the fabric of how society is organised. It’s very contemporary; in part, it’s a direct progression of the internet revolution, in terms of the body of information which can be brought forward. But what’s brought people to the streets is austerity, which has motivated people, by impacting their quality of life, to ask questions.
On the BBC show, The Super-Rich and Us, there’s a reference to these Citigroup documents written up in 2006. These documents pretty much lay out the mechanisms by which the wealthy can accumulate more.
And now we’re seeing the rise in purchases of luxury goods, against a rise in lending phenomenons like Wonga. These documents led to that. They openly view the poor as resources with which the rich can make more money.
Sure, so further proof the ruling class treat the poor as another form of capital. But it’s interesting that this stuff was planned almost openly.
Yeah. And people are realising now. And maybe we’re looking at the real transformative changes not necessarily occurring with this election, but with the next one, nearer 2020. That’s the timescale we’re looking at.
* The HRA doesn’t prohibit any interference with protest. Article’s 10 & 11 are ‘qualified’ by Article 10(2) and 11(2) which set out the reasons for which Article 10 & 11 rights can be interfered with. Crucially any interference must be necessary, proportionate, and the least interference necessary to achieve a legitimate objective. This is not the case here. So, Article 10 & 11 rights can be interfered with, but only where appropriate.