Yesterday members of DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), Occupy, and UK Uncut staged a protest in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. This was to highlight government cuts to the ILF (Independent Living Fund), a fund which enables some of the most severely disabled members of society to live relatively independent lives*. Cuts to this fund are of course part of the much wider cuts the government is imposing on the most disadvantaged members of society in the name of Austerity.
I was fortunate enough to be involved in the organisation of this protest, and this is a brief personal view of how events unfolded on the day.
Having met at a secret location close to Westminster at lunchtime, and having meticulously gone through final preparations, we set off for the Abbey at 3.30pm. The plan was to occupy the front grounds of the Abbey, and set up camp before the authorities had time to act. However my role was as part of a small team that was to talk directly to the Dean of the Abbey, John Hall, and hand him a letter outlining the reasons for the protest. So while most of my fellow activists went through the gates and began setting up camp, I and a colleague went into the Deans Court Yard and asked to speak to the Dean. We weren’t sure if he would come out, but after about 10 minutes he duly appeared and we gave him the letter and explained our case. Discussions with him were amicable enough, and he did express some support for the rights of disabled people, however he was adamantly opposed to the concept of direct action, and particularly if it affected his church! We did explain how the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed great concern recently for the plight of people suffering government austerity, and how a couple of months ago 27 Anglican Bishops signed a letter condemning policies which have led to a massive upsurge in the use of Food Banks. We also said we wanted to work with the Church to ensure the protest remained peaceful and non-disruptive. However he was having none of it – and said he would not allow the protest to continue. After 10 minutes or so we parted.
On returning to the front of the Abbey it was clear things hadn’t gone quite to plan. The gates to the grounds were locked and the police had formed a cordon around the camp. This meant that although 100 or so protestors were inside the grounds, many more, including myself, were now trapped outside and unable to join the protest. More seriously, not all the equipment had made it inside the site, so it was not possible to build the camp in the way that was orginally planned. This was actually quite a big problem as several of the protestors were severely disabled with specific care needs.
There then ensued a long stand-off, with the protestors inside building the camp as best they could, while those of us on the outside provided vocal encouragement. On the outside we were also joined and supported by David Graeber (Professor at the London School of Economics) and John McDonnell (one of the few MP’s who actually seems to care about the plight of ordinary people). The performance artist Pete the Temp also appeared and got the crowd going in his usual exuberant style.
As time passed by it became clear that there were increasing concerns that, due to the logistical problems outlined above, it would not be possible to sustain the camp overnight (the original plan was to hold the camp for 3 weeks, until the close of parliament). Also police numbers were constantly increasing, far outnumbering the protestors, raising the threat that some sort of forced eviction was being planned. Finally, shortly before 9pm, the decision was made to leave the camp, and the police allowed everyone to go, taking their equipment with them.
On the surface it was disappointing that we weren’t able to hold the camp as long as we intended. However the protest was nonetheless very successful in generating a lot of publicity for a massive issue, with many reports across the media*, both about the protest itself and also cuts to the ILF. What I thought was particularly significant was that one week earlier no fewer than 50,000 people gathered in Parliament Square to protest against Austerity (including many well-known speakers) – and the media barely mentioned it. Yesterday 200 protestors tried to stage an Occupation, and it generated significant amounts of publicity for the issue in question. It goes to prove, in my opinion, that traditional methods of protest achieve nothing, and non-violent direct action is the only realistic way to achieve change. I was also personally disappointed that the church showed little interest in helping support disadvantaged people, and seems to be far more interested in looking after itself. Some would probably say I’m naive in expecting it to behave in any other way.
* ILF Details: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/31/independent-living-fund-disabled BBC Report on the Protest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-28074848