The Occupy movement was not, initially, about land. It was about the economy, democracy, justice and climate change. It was about bank bonuses, public service cuts and being the change we wanted to see. It was also about joining the dots between apparently disparate issues and, recently, the realisation has dawned that land is one giant polka dot.
The London Occupy movement unwittingly flagged up the privatisation of public space from the outset. On 15th October 2011, protesters were prevented from entering Paternoster Square by an injunction brought by its private owners, Mitsubishi. Occupy has always been about using land for temporary camps, originally for the purpose of making a political stand and later – as the movement engaged with immediate local issues such as homelessness – to enable those without homes to enjoy shelter and community. Occupiers are now working with the Diggers 2012, a group of activists who claim disused land and use it to practise sustainable living. Occupy is joining with international campaign groups and indigenous activists to highlight landgrabs by mining corporations Xstrata and Glencore in Asia, Africa and Oceania. Occupy activists are also kicking-up a fuss about landgrabs closer to home, for example the appropriation of Metropolitan Open Land in Hackney for the London 2012 Olympic Village.
In the eight months since the Paternoster Square injunction, land issues have come to the fore and even the mainstream media has taken note. The Guardian recently published a piece by Jeevan Vasagar which referenced the Occupy movement, while describing just how ubiquitous and restrictive private ownership of outdoor space can be. Character, community and biodiversity are frequently subjugated to profitability and showcase ornamentation in privately owned spaces. Canary Wharf has practically been declared a no-protest zone, whilst in Northern cities such as Liverpool, quirky districts stuffed with recycled-furniture markets, independent bookstores and community cafes have been stripped bare and sterilised.
Occupiers have been educating themselves on the subject of land. In squatted social centres and tent universities, Anna Minton’s Ground Control (2012) jostles for bookshelf space with Kevin Cahill’s Who Owns Britain (2002). Minton considers the deeply undemocratic nature of private land ownership and the harm done to communities when open spaces are corralled for profitability instead of being tended for the public good. Cahill underlines the inequities inherent in land ownership, whilst uncovering the myth of land scarcity. He reports that less than one percent of the UK population own approximately 70 percent of the land and that land is nowhere near as scarce as we are led to believe. Only a tenth of the UK’s land mass is built upon. Rural landowners pay no taxes on land and actually receive subsidies simply for owning unused acres. Cahill’s conclusion is that a redistribution of land could go a long way towards addressing economic and social problems, not just in Britain but globally.
As Occupy supporters marched through the City of London during an international day of action on 12th May, issues of land ownership were raised with the chant: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Later, whilst temporarily kettled, protesters broke through police lines, only to be arrested soon after simply for having an assembly, hanging out and playing music on “our streets”. Elsewhere, squatters are continuing to fight for the right to use derelict buildings for the common good; bailiffs evicted Occupy’s squatted Bank of Ideas and went one further with the School of Ideas, razing it to the ground. Between April and July the Nomadic Occupy group was taken to court by Tower Hamlets council, evicted from a Hackney park and threatened with arrest when tents were erected on Hampstead Heath. The stated aim of the ‘nomads’ is to set up small, purely temporary encampments for outreach purposes while maintaining good relations with their neighbours and lending a compassionate ear to vulnerable members of local communities.
Politicians decry the decline of community and yet attempts to use our outdoor spaces for collaborative, creative activities are regularly thwarted by injunctions, health and safety regulations or trumped-up public order offences. Red tape and bureaucracy frequently prevail in preventing unauthorised gatherings, protests, celebrations, leisure or pleasure from occurring even in public places – unless, of course, the activity in question is an Establishment-bolstering Jubilee party. Policies instigated in the Thatcher years – from redevelopment of the London Docklands by an unaccountable, but publicly-funded Urban Development Corporation, to the Criminal Justice Act (no more subversive partying in fields) – have served subsequent governments well, while enshrining in law the separation of people from land.
Taking their inspiration from Gerrard Winstanley’s True Levellers, the Diggers 2012 are attempting to redress these injustices. On their simple website the Diggers “declare our intention to go and cultivate the disused land of this island; to build dwellings and live together in common by the sweat of our brows”. They believe that “…every person in this country and the world should have the right to live on disused land, to grow food and to build a shelter. This right should apply whether you have money or not”.
These latter-day Diggers set off to walk from a community allotment in London to the Crown Estate in Windsor on 9th June, with the intention of starting an eco-village on disused Crown land. The True Levellers attempted a similar project in 1649, with a view not only to planting vegetables on common land but also to reforming the existing social order. By the time the Diggers 2012 reached their destination they had an escort of police and an injunction had been slapped on the entire area. A walk along the banks of the Thames ensued, the peaceful Diggers tailed by police and Crown Estate officials. A succession of temporary camps were set up, despite attempts by police, council, estate and park officials to run the Diggers off the land.
On 11th June, as the group scouted for a suitable location to grow vegetables and community, one of their number was arrested. Simon Moore was deemed to be in breach of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order he was given for his participation in a peaceful Save Leyton Marsh protest. Jailed for a night, Simon rejoined the Diggers the following day. By then the group had managed to ‘dig in’ to a piece of woodland on the edge of Runnymede Park, the birthplace of our modern democracy.
Gathering around the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede – a memorial inscribed with “Freedom under the Law” – the Diggers discussed land, freedom, democracy, irony and injustice. Planning law is used to prevent groups like the Diggers from solving their own housing issues and is abused by those in power, who can declare ‘exceptions’ when it suits them, as they have done on the Hackney Marshes. For now, the Diggers 2012 are camped on a piece of disused land that was sold by Brunel University to developers in 2007. They are beginning to build structures from natural materials and are inviting all – but especially forest gardeners and permaculturists – to join them for a spot of guerrilla gardening.
Todmorden’s Incredible Edible project, dreamed up by self-proclaimed ‘old birds’, shows just how successful guerrilla gardening can be. In an unusual community-spirited ‘landgrab’ the town’s residents planted up roadside verges, roundabouts and council-owned flowerbeds with fruit, vegetables and salad crops. Now locals and visitors alike can grab a handful of fresh food as they walk down the street and international eco-tourists are flocking to this formerly down-at-heel South Pennine town. This project is a baby-step in the right direction. It is an example of the kind of dignified, creative, co-operative solution that Occupy in London is exploring in its ‘Creating Alternatives’ assemblies.
Regaining control of land and buildings, claiming space and building communities, living on the earth and protecting it from rape and pollution – these endeavours are at the heart of Occupy, even though we didn’t trumpet land rights in our initial statement.
Diggers 2012 meet every Saturday at 1pm, Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede Park. http://diggers2012.wordpress.com/
By Emma Fordham