Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Dear diary ...

What a lot has happened since Brexit! Fear not, I wasn't eaten alive by angry remainers, but instead put my money where my mouth was - so to speak. I had no money but through my work with ReSpace Projects - and a very kind endorsement from Sian Berry - I won a scholarship to Westminster University to take a Masters in Energy and Environmental Change.

Good decision. I highly recommend the course and hope the next intake of students features more than one Brit. Graphic design will only take the country so far ...  After dabbling in energy markets, international law, global politics, planning and energy transitions, I focused my attention on community energy initiatives generating renewable energy in London. The brief glimpse I saw into energy economics and financial markets was remarkable in one respect; the disconnect from reality was obvious, even to a student.

This is not to say I understood half of what was going on in these lectures; things are kept about as difficult for a layperson to understand as possible, but the gist seemed to be that markets were all guess-work, not least because of unpredictable 'black swans'.

"Such as 911?" I ask.

We then tip toe down a path discussing who might have known what about such an unexpected event - and who might have invested in particular markets. Without meaning to imply disrespect for the lecturer, the fact that after this discussion we simply carried on learning about what we had all just agreed was a dangerous farce - as if there was no problem with this and no alternatives - felt very disconcerting. The Bloomberg financial suite is also bizarre - in particular the news headlines which run across the screen giving the very latest need-to-know for the money men. Such as Beyonce's new haircut ... living the dream guys.

It was during the uni trip to Brussels that I felt most redeemed in my Brexit decision. We met with the Head of Trade at the European Parliament and afterwards got to ask questions. I asked about the human and environmental implications of TTIP and my uni colleagues later remarked to me that he seemed unable to answer me. The thing that stuck out for me - although not until a week later - was how in response to my question about human rights, he had replaced 'human' with 'consumer. Consumer rights. This is a dangerous switch and one which is evidently being pursued at the top. Brexit - hard, soft or even just respectful and mature - could be a chance to avoid the systematic destruction of human, animal and environmental rights.

Friday, 24 June 2016

It is time for you to stop all of your sobbing

And here we are. Having voted for Britain to leave the EU, on waking up I experienced that same sickening shock that shook the country. I didn't think it would happen and for my own personal comfort I was sort of hoping it wouldn't happen.

The next reaction was terror: Specifically the not-baseless fear that our country is currently unequipped to be lead in the required manner - with wisdom, dignity, respect and forethought. I didn't feel guilty though, and I would vote the same way again.

I also realised I'd made life very difficult for myself. I made my vote public because people had asked me what I thought and I felt the need to explain why I had apparently become a short-sighted, selfish, racist bigot. I knew that on Facebook, friends have a tendency to become opinionated, whilst seldom bothering to follow up with links or information, so I anticipated the backlash. And it came - some unexpected vitriol, but more tellingly the absence of engagement.

I cried three times this morning because I was frightened for our future - hiding in a boardroom, not remotely professional. But now more than ever there is actually some hope. Our governments have come to be increasingly wary as the British public grow restless. Marches, protests, riots and resistance have again become an increasing feature of the landscape and whilst I'm certainly not advocating riots, it's time for the lovely liberal lot to wake up and realise that they shouldn't really keep looking away from the consequences of our lifestyles.

I voted out because the TTIP agreement designed by the EU and US threatens to erode human, animal and environmental rights far too quickly for the world to recover. I also voted because the Remain campaign was sponsored by JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, amongst others - hardly notorious for their social responsibility obligations. These two huge voracious corporations already have too much blood on their hands to allow them even more power.

This morning my flatmate looked at me like I was a little thick and said, "but the banks are just looking to do whatever is safest for them, of course they wouldn't want to threaten the market". Yes, banks aren't known for taking huge irresponsible risks with other people's money. Incidentally she works 'in oil', which I've never really understood. The banks will be fine - need I remind people the banks MAKE THEIR OWN MONEY. In you or me it would be fraud, but the Fiat system says let it be.

Now to the future. It is sensible to guess that whoever ends up leading Britain will probably sign some similar agreement to TTIP anyway, so we may as well have stayed in the EU, right? I nearly wrote 'in Europe' except there shouldn't be any question of us being 'in Europe' - unless the non-British Euros are so sick of the drama that they want rid after all. That's basically what one Facebook 'friend' said to me.

NEWSFLASH: the EU is a neoliberal financial agreement, which should have little bearing on the comradery between nations or the desire to collaborate on issues such as human rights. Incidentally I find that human rights being apparently so intrinsically linked to such an agreement is totally inappropriate.

Back to TTIP. Yes I'm sure whichever fool ends up leading the country in the near future may well push ahead for a TTIP style agreement, however it up to us to take some responsibility for our future and stop it. There was no chance of us stopping it from within the EU but if people want to get off their Facebook high horse and vote with their feet and protest, vote with their purses and boycott, we might actually be able to take back some control from a neoliberal society (ours) which increasingly damages the very earth that sustains us.

We can do it in small steps. If you care about an issue don't just complain about it on Facebook or in the pub - find out when there's a demonstration or just organise one. We need to educate ourselves. Most of us had no real idea what the EU was until all this referendum palava, but it transpires that even now most of us still don't know. The papers are full of spin - get on the internet and read things. Follow up links from credible sources and watch documentaries about stuff - sign a few petitions, annoying though they may be. Also understand this, atrocities are being carried out in our name - be it actual warfare, pharmaceutical machinations, deliberate displacement of people or fracking the planet generally.

I'm no angel and I voted to leave, but I voted knowing that I'm careful about which companies I patronise, knowing that I've almost bankrupted myself by working for the last year on a social project that promises to bring positive to changes to our own laws and knowing that I spent about sixteen hours researching before I came to my decision.

Our priorities are all over the place. A new car won't fix your insecurities. New shoes may look great, but they don't assuage the anguish you feel on seeing desperate refugees fleeing from their homes.

It's time to place value on something other than gold, or rather paper - paper that for every dollar printed creates five dollars of debt under our current Fiat system.

Further reading/ viewing:

The Four Horsemen - must watch documentary about the economy

The Yes Men - these guys are brilliant and fucking funny. Short clip here - worth finding the whole film.

Propaganda - North Korea mockumentary

Crisis of Civilisation - 'A dark comedy mash-up about the end of industrial civilization'

Please read and share the second half of The World Without Cancer by Edward Griffin. He outlines a situation in which profit came before people, with the German chemical conglomerate, IG Farben eventually funding Hitler because his policies suited their plans for monopoly. Incidentally the EU traces its origins to the European Coal and Steel Community ...

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Deserting Europe, or taking one for the team?

I think I'm going to vote for Britain to leave the EU, which will surprise most of my friends and colleagues. I'm surprised myself, but having spent the last two days extensively reading, watching and discussing, I'm convinced that for me, I'd feel like a coward voting to stay.

I don't think this is the best decision for me personally - I don't welcome more financial uncertainty, austerity and huge governmental fuck ups etc. However I am certain that voting to leave the EU is the right decision for Europe and the right decision for the rest of the world. One day it will benefit Britain, but I doubt we'll see that for a while.

I'm faintly stunned to find myself reaching the same conclusion as Donald Trump, but then the smoke and mirror media show has so thoroughly clouded the issue that I stopped worrying about who thinks what. The dangerous possibility that UKIP sympathisers will gain some kind of stronghold over the nation's psyche should we leave, is very real. I have no issue with immigration anyway, but according to George Eaton in the New Statesman, immigrants to Britain contributed £3bn in taxes in 2013-14, whilst receiving just £0.5bn in benefits - so everyone can all just calm down on that front and stop reading the papers.

The first and fairly critical point to raise, is that the EU is NOT Europe. We're not 'voting to leave Europe' - we're voting to leave a neoliberal agreement that "can trace its origins to the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community" (Telegraph). It is designed to benefit large corporations, such as those terrifying institutes, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs - amongst others - who are sponsoring the Remain campaign.

If this information isn't enough to alarm you, I invite you to dig around the internet and read up on I.G. Farben, a conglomerate of German chemical manufacturers. By pressing ahead and putting profit before people, the result was that they funded Hitler's campaign back when he was running against three candidates - because his politics suited their plans for monopoly. I recommend reading the second half of The World Without Cancer by Edward Griffin - on whose life there have been several attempts - which goes much deeper into the history of IG Farben, as well as the deliberate and vile consequences of their actions - with which the world is now dealing.  

Environmentalists look askance when there is talk of leaving - as did I after having researched that it was the EU who insisted we ban a certain type of bee-killing pesticide, which the delightful British government were loathe to do. I found about three environmental reasons to remain in the EU, but the TTIP tentacles are too much of a threat to both human, animal and environmental rights to ignore. The TTIP agreement was set up between the EU and the US and - if I'm understanding this correctly - essentially means that corporations can sue governments who impose laws that damage profits. It is of course a trade agreement and will negatively impact almost every area of our lives - such as restraining our freedom to limit sugar in drinks, give workers longer breaks and allow animals bred for meat to range 'free' and not be pumped with chemicals. The implications of a TTIP agreement are far reaching and terrifying.

I hope that by leaving the EU, Britain will provide at least some challenge to the absolute power wielded by those such as the aforementioned Goldman Sachs - voracious even by banking standards. Sadly, I'm sure that should we find ourselves flying solo tomorrow life is going to suck for a while. I for one will have to fight off assumptions of underlying racism and idealism - and one glance at the people set to govern the country, should we leave, indicates that my generation will be left even more screwed than before.

The real joke is of course the fact that the public vote might not even count - the government still has the final say over whether they decide to give notice to the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty constitution. Makes you wonder what all this EU nonsense has been distracting us from!

I don't call this deserting Europe, I think it's taking one for the team.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The struggle is real.

The struggle for space in London is real. Even if you're reading this from the luxury of your own London flat, you can probably appreciate there are plenty of people living in fear of eviction, unable to afford the space to set up a small business - or even to do yoga, frankly.

This morning I exited the tube station, noticed the heavy rain and muttered 'Jesus' to myself. A guy sitting on the floor, with no-where else to go, commented cheerfully, "He doesn't exist". 

Across the city people are being evicted from homes that have been sold off for private development. The not-for-profit company, Respace Projects has received requests for help from groups across the country; from pensioners willing to physically occupy a contested leisure centre and movie directors looking to grow vegetables amidst an eco-village, to legendary London venues in danger of being squeezed out - for profit. 

The point about yoga was not facetious. If you can't do yoga at home - my friend has discovered the limitations of her new flat on her long limbs - even this simple exercise becomes expensive. A recent free trial in a centre in Camden was so packed that you couldn't stretch without touching a sweaty stranger. And this privilege normally costs £16 a class ...

News fresh from my underground network of spies informs us that although the disputed leisure centre hasn't yet been sold, developers have moved in their equipment - without permission from the council, according to the current owner, the council. Whether the community will have anything left to respace after heavy machinery renders the space unsafe, remains to be seen. The author would like it noted for legal reasons that this outcome isn't guaranteed but could be considered likely. 

A similar tactic has been deployed today in London at The Hive's sister project and renowned Hackney arts and music venue, Passing Clouds. Contrary to a prior agreed term of 3 months tenancy, the developer's 'security' broke into the building overnight and changed the locks. Such behaviour means that unless the Passing Clouds family can reclaim their space, London will be robbed of yet another treasure. There will be a lot of disappointed customers this weekend and staff, musicians and artists will lose money.

A 'developed' London need not have the negative connotations of evictions, privatisation, gated communities and loss of public land. In the true sense of the term, a developed London would be one that has evolved to meet the needs of its inhabitants - a sustainable, healthy and community-led city that affords space to residents to work, rest and play.

There are nearly 80,000 empty buildings in London. Whilst every city has its limits, surely it is illogical and inefficient to let so many buildings go to waste? ReSpace is just one of many groups pushing to use wasted space - we reuse bottles and cans, why not empty buildings?


Word has just reached me that 70 of Passing Clouds' nearest and dearest have rushed the door and regained access to the building - yet another example of the power of community!

Click here to watch some of the action

Upstairs at Passing Clouds

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

What homeless people?

Graffiti has long piqued my interest, but it wasn't until 2 years ago - when my mum was seriously ill in hospital with cancer and I was in the process of splitting up with my boyfriend of 8 years - that it resonated more deeply. Sitting on the top of a bus going god knows where, I saw the white rolled-on word, 'HOPE' emblazoned across the red brickwork opposite St Pancras station: It did give me hope.

HOPE is dotted around North London.
My mum survived hospital and I survived the breakup, but still I found myself searching out HOPE across North London. Later on, graffiti would have an unexpected and pivotal role in my life: I was writing an article about the topic for a local newspaper and had gone to visit a piece in Camden, which was next to a bank - on the wall of what someone had told me was a squat.

I'd never been inside a squat before, but as I was looking up at Mau Mau's 'Get Rich Or Try Sharing', the door opened. I asked if I could go up on their roof to get a decent photograph of the graffiti - they said yes. We had a long conversation and I realised that these particular squatters were politically active and socially aware. We exchanged numbers.

After that I became more involved - first it was writing about open days and community events in various squats, then I began to work on a more detailed article about homelessness and the underuse of wasted spaces and empty buildings. Finally I found myself deeply involved in a social project which ran parallel to my own documentary - now called 'Get Rich Or Try Sharing'.

Well placed: Mau Mau painted this between a squat and a bank
Graffiti has a long history of offering social and political commentary - Banksy was really nothing new; right time, right places, clever angle. I find that once you start noticing graffiti, you begin to read a city in a new way. Subtle scribbles and clever artwork can reflect and reveal a city's character. In the same way it can provide a real insight into the issues and concerns faced by those who live there; just this week The Independent ran an article about a piece of graffiti in Syria which has been shared throughout the world for its simple truth, "When I leave, be sure I tried everything in my power to stay".
Picture stolen from The Independent
Perhaps the power behind graffiti is this very immediacy and truth. Usually graffiti isn't selling us something, isn't sponsored by someone and hasn't been manipulated by the media. Often it merely makes an observation or encourages thought.

One such example appeared last night on a boarded up doorway in Kentish Town. It reads simply, 'What homeless people?' Whilst this may be confusing out of context, residents of Kentish Town will know that this particular doorway had sheltered at least 2 homeless people from the wind and rain for several months. There has been a noticeable increase in homelessness on the streets of Kentish Town and locals responded by giving food and other essentials.

Boarding up this sheltered doorway hasn't solved anything.
Covering up a problem doesn't make it go away: by boarding up this doorway, the causes of homelessness haven't been miraculously solved - instead, vulnerable people have again lost access to that basic right to shelter.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

"A border issue" France 2016

Photograph by Lisa Furness

The Jungle. An old rubbish tip between two chemical plants, is where the 'bordees' - i.e. Calais refugees - have been living over the course of the last two years. Two of my flatmates have been over recently to help sort donations in warehouses close to Calais: both have returned fairly scarred from the experience. Imagine then, the very real trauma of living in The Jungle, separated from family with a deeply uncertain future and appalling living conditions.

French police, taking their cue from their government, fire tear gas into the camps daily. There are accounts of volunteers being beaten up in Calais and Rosy recalled that "one night a bunch of people left [volunteers], because there was a threat their minibus was going to get attacked in the night". Worrying though this aggression is, perhaps even more concerning is the vans of skinheads who have actually travelled from Britain just to cause trouble for an already persecuted population.

In a depressingly uncompromising move from the French, this week the decision was actioned to raze to the ground 1/3 of the camp at Calais - including structures that are little more than huts but still provide significantly more shelter than the ubiquitous tent slum. It is then of little surprise to learn that the French government had to be sued by a charity to provide sanitation in the first place - if one loo per two hundred people can be considered as such.

Another friend, Lisa, recounted her trip to the jungle last summer - check her blog for photos: Having heard about a hunger strike being held by several migrants she set off with her camera and arrived as the sun was rising and the camp sleeping. Within minutes cries of 'police!' woke the camp and soon the place was surrounded. Those who tried to resist were pepper sprayed.

She went on to describe scenes in which volunteers, journalists, activists - and general white people - were ushered out of sight of the large-scale eviction. Lisa had been deeply worried by the consequential lack of witnesses and so she swapped her memory card for a fresh one and passed her camera back into the chaos, hoping that someone would record events taking place.

At this point the story gets a touch surreal, as an old German hippy who had been rounded up with the other white types - and was carrying tomato plants - announced that the only way to proceed was to demonstrate. And so they did. A small motley crew of activists and volunteers found themselves leading a swelling crowd of stray migrants into the town of Calais. Townspeople actively helped them evade the police, who were sweeping the streets for migrants, by passing on information of their whereabouts.

Amongst the volunteers was a vaguely held belief that an 'emergency meeting point' existed in the town. When the crowd finally reached the small empty church hall they realised that there was no more help. Lisa recalled the conversation between the volunteers and activists, about how they could hide nearly one hundred now destitute migrants in a city being searched by the police. One notable feature seems to have stuck out; the passivity with which the migrants now resigned themselves to others making decisions about their fate. The decision, reached due to lack of options, was to usher them into the park to hide themselves.

Over a year later and this situation has only escalated. Calais is considered a picnic compared to Dunkirk where some two thousands migrants are enduring significantly worse conditions. However, this is not a humanitarian crisis, the UN is not overtly involved and official aid channels are blocked. It seems France maintains this is merely "a border issue". The UK doesn't come out well either: Cameron pledged twelve million to help France secure the border and despite agreeing (somewhat loosely) to accept twenty thousand refugees in the next five years, he insists that these will only be from Syria and not our own borders. Given the struggle that these refugees have endured to reach the UK, this decision seems arbitrarily cruel.

The majority of applications for asylum in the UK are from Eritreans, a small country that borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The country has been shattered by an "unhinged dictator", President Isaias Afwerki and was described by the Guardian as being "Africa's equivalent to North Korea". The systematic repression, torture and indefinite military conscription has caused many to flee. In addition to the river of refugees, over fifty footballers have escaped the country as well as two pilots and even the Minister of Information.

Should a miracle occur and France and the UK decide to show some compassion, our "border issue" could be solved with a bit of co-operation and some empathy. Whilst accurate figures are hard to obtain, even if combined figures at the Calais and Dunkirk camps reach eight thousands, the two countries could easily accommodate the refugees. Seeing as we're allegedly taking twenty refugees from Syria but continue to sell off social housing to private developers, the government may want to consider opening up some of these empty buildings. As Rosy observes, anything must be better than the "violent mental cunts, riot shields, intimidation and fascist locals" at The Jungle.

Lisa Furness' photography offers insight into abandoned settlements, empty buildings and protest sites throughout Europe.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Mothership lands in Barnet

Watch the Barnet Mothership video here

At the weekend twenty community campaigners, who had occupied what could have been one of London's largest community centres, were woken up to the building's front door being smashed in. They were swiftly ejected with their few belongings, onto the streets of Camden.

"It was some of the same bailiffs who evicted us from Sweets Way estate in Barnet," says Daniel, a Human Rights activist. "It was kind of funny when we recognised each other, we were both like, "Oh, hi!" The group behind the controversial squatted Camden Mothership were evicted on Saturday morning at 8.30am, despite Jeremy Corbyn's brother, Piers negotiating with the Labour Camden council and denouncing their treatment of the squatters.

The Mothership was an ex-Housing Advice Office which stood empty for three years, costing Camden council approximately £5000 a week in security and building rates. A local estate agent estimated that, had the 25,000 square feet been hired out as office space, it could have generated £1.5 million in revenue for Camden instead. The group behind the project requested a meanwhile lease - which allows the temporary use of a building - and proposed that they be allowed to use the space for community purposes until the building is ready to be redeveloped. This suggestion was popular with local residents and several councillors, but the fact that they occupied the building without asking appears to have got some Labour councillors' backs up.

Camden Finance Chief, Theo Blackwell took to Twitter to condemn the activists as "self-indulgent freeloaders" claiming that the council had been willing to consider a meanwhile lease before learning that the group had already occupied the building. Conversely, the Neighbourhood Development Forum state that they and other local groups have long been trying to obtain access to the building at 156 West End Lane for office and community use, for nearly two years, but have been "repeatedly rejected and stonewalled". Blackwell claims that by occupying the building, the squatters cost Camden residents money to have them taken to court and removed. However, as Piers Corbyn points out, "the occupiers offered to give the keys back and leave on an agreed date - it would have cost Camden nothing to negotiate with us."

According to Community Organiser, Pete Phoenix, who represented the Mothership in court in front of Judge Lightman on Friday, this is only the second time in twenty-three years that he has experienced an eviction the day immediately after the court case, "it just goes to show how desperate the council were to get us out and stop the debate about the use of empty buildings."

The Green party's mayoral candidate, Si├ón Berry, went to the Royal Courts of Justice to support the squatters, saying she thinks "the council were wrong to take this to court in the first place." She went on to point out that "the council should be acting in the interests of the community and not act as if they have been personally offended.”

Phoenix relates that the bailiffs were more reasonable with the group than they had been at previous evictions, noting that "they smashed their way through the front door but gave us two hours to get our stuff out. Sometimes they give you ten minutes." With more efficiency than some councils can muster, the Mothership campaigners then set about finding the next space to continue their community work and by 3pm the same day it was mission accomplished. Their new building, just over the border in Barnet, has also been empty for three years and has fifty rooms and several communal spaces.

Earlier this year Barnet Council suffered reprisals from protesters when they evicted a whole housing estate in order to sell off the houses for £400 each to a private property company; an area known as Sweets Way was occupied by campaigners to highlight this mismanagement in the face of increasing homelessness in the UK. Tom Copley, Chair of the Housing Committee at the London Assembly, recently spoke at the Respacing Conference and observed that when it comes to selling off public assets, "Barnet council are one of the worst offenders". He states that their actions over Sweets Way amounted to "blatantly doing the wrong thing" and said that the council was "extraordinarily bad in terms of value for money for tax payers".

Whilst the Mothership group are well aware of Barnet's questionable stance on matters relating to housing and empty buildings, they are diligently making preparations to put in a proposal to the owners of their latest property. They will again request a meanwhile lease, which would enable them to put the space to good use for the local community and provide themselves with some accommodation for the interim period, prior to the building being developed.

At the Camden Mothership, the group had planned to offer Christmas dinner, across two floors, to those locals who may be vulnerable or alone at Christmas, such as the elderly and homeless people. Camden council declined to comment about these plans and their decision to leave the building empty has so enraged residents that an online petition was created asking for the immediate resignation of both Theo Blackwell and Sarah Hayward, Leader of Camden council. Blackwell insists that the site will shortly be developed into flats, 50% of which will be 'affordable', but he has so far been unavailable for comment as to how long the building will remain empty. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, commented that 'affordable' is an example of the "increasingly Orwellian language" surrounding the housing debate, it simply means that a property is rented at 80% of the market value - still a far cry from social housing.

Community campaigner, Phoenix remains optimistic about the ongoing project to help relieve homelessness and bring practical community solutions to wasted spaces. He points out, "you stand out in the street shouting about homelessness and a few people will take a leaflet. You occupy a building and talk about the same things and the media circus descends."

Watch the video of Mothership activists settling in to their latest squatted building