Wednesday 16 November 2011

New website, new city, new post...

Well, I arrived in New York, where I'm staying for a month, just in time to see the Occupy Wall Street camp torn down by the NYPD. You can read what I wrote about it for the Guardian, here (comment) and for the Independent, here (news report). Both were filed from my phone whilst standing in the sterile zone, watching police tear the occupation apart. There was nothing we could do.

In other news, I have a shiny new professional website. If you want to contact me, all the details are on there. La lutta continua.

Friday 14 October 2011

Dear Occupy Wall Street,

Mic check? Mic check! Ok...

Right now, I know that things are tense. I know that you're waiting for the word on whether or not you will be evicted from Liberty Plaza tomorrow, from the beautiful occupation you've built right in the the belly of the beast of global corporate power. I know that you are worried that there will be police violence, or another mass arrest. I know this because right now, I'm reading news reports about what you're doing from across the globe, and talking to people sitting in the square, even though I'm thousands of miles away. You see? The whole world is watching. You did that. Whatever happens tomorrow, the whole world will be watching the New York authorities try to clean the people of America off the sidewalks of Wall Street.

You knew this was coming. After realising that pepper spraying a few peaceful protesters wouldn't make you go away, they've been trying to evict you for weeks, and the pretext that Bloomberg and the NYPD have finally found is that Occupy Wall Street is 'unsanitary' - full of rubbish, attracting rodents. Anyone who has been to the Plaza and seen the water filtration system you've built and watched volunteers from across the city sweeping the sidewalks and handing round the antiseptic gel knows what nonsense that is.

We know what they really mean when they say 'Liberty Plaza is full of rubbish.' The trash they want to sweep out of their nice clean financial districts are the ordinary people of your country - the 99%. They are tired of seeing you on their way to work in the mornings, cluttering up the pavements with your uncomfortable little placards about grinding unemployment, a broken healthcare system and a feral business sector holding the party system to ransom. They are tired of seeing old women asking for medical attention, little children asking for education, young adults asking for work. They want those people tidied away. The question is: are you going to let them tidy you away?

You knew, deep down, that this was coming. If the occupation of Wall Street was ever going to succeed as it was meant to, there were always going to be crackdowns. And of course it's scary. It's always scary when you take a stand in the face of power, because power tends to fight back when it is threatened, and you have certainly become a threat. You are a threat because you are clever, and angry, and peaceful, and you refuse to stop asking difficult questions, and you refuse to go away. Hundreds of you have already been arrested. There is every chance that more of you will be arrested tomorrow, simply for daring to dream of a different future, simply for demanding the individual and collective human dignities that most Americans consider theirs by right. When the NYPD refused to let you march through Wall Street a week ago, you chanted, hundreds of you with one voice: "who are you protecting?" It is a question you must keep asking until you receive an answer you can bear to accept.

Your efforts at cleaning today prove that they aren't coming to scrub away actual dirt, but to sterilise the energy that this protest has inspired across America and around the world. Whether or not you let them is up to you. Whether or not you stand firm and resist, whether or not you come back to Liberty Plaza and to Wall Street, whether or not you take the fight through the winter and built a movement too big to kettle, is entirely up to you. It's up to you to stand firm or falter, and there are certainly good reasons for doing both. Being arrested in the United States is no joke.

But know this: what you decide to do tomorrow will touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

You could go home right now, and tell your kids in twenty years' time how wonderful it was when you were young and idealistic and you slept under tarpaulins in Liberty Plaza. Or you could take a risk, and see what happens next. Choose wisely, please, for all of us. With love, and greatest respect, but most importantly,

With solidarity,

Saturday 8 October 2011

"This is Patriotic": marching on Wall Street

My third report from Occupy Wall Street, from yesterday's Independent.


They said it could never happen in America. At the foot of Wall Street, in the belly of the beast of aggressive market finance, two thousand mostly young protesters demonstrating against corporate greed are attempting to push through a police barrier and occupy the iconic street. The NYPD are beating them back with mace and batons, one white-shirted officer lashing into the crowd indiscriminately with his nightstick.

The air tastes of pepper spray, and there are screams from the crowd. “Who the fuck are you protecting?” they chant. The Obama generation is beginning to receive an ugly answer to that most basic of political inquiries.

These protesters are part of a breakout march from the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan’s Liberty Plaza, which has now been in place for almost three weeks. Copycat demonstrations against economic injustice are springing up in cities across the United States, and many thousands are involved. Two hours ago, under the glowing windows of Wall Street's palaces of finance, I’m standing in the middle of a crowd of twenty thousand students, labour members, activists and angry citizens chanting as one, over the sound of drums: 'the people, united, will never be defeated!' 'Thank god for unions, man,' says Lauri Faggoni, a filmmaker, standing next to me in the crush.
Labour unions, enthused by the energy of the protest, have been swift to come out in support of the occupiers, and have joined them for amarch and rally in Foley Square, taking up their mantra: “We are the 99 per cent” –the majority of the American people who have been cheated out of their share in the nation’s wealth by the remaining “1 per cent”.

As night falls, drums beat on the steps of Liberty Plaza, where it’s standing room only. 'We are here to thank you!" a worker involved in the strike against Verizon tells the excited crowd. 'We have to take back this city, we have to take back this state, and most important of all, we have to take back our democracy.”

The process of taking back democracy, however, is rarely painless. As the cry goes up to “march on Wall Street” and a group breaks away to do just that, the cops begin to move in. To date, twenty-three arrests of peaceful protesters have been recorded in New York. On Broadway, at the intersection of Wall Street, demonstrators are dragged out of the crowd or off the pavements, roughly cuffed and taken away by the police.

One of them is a young white woman on her own, who I see being hustled along the road by a number of police officers. “I was just standing on the sidewalk. Apparently that’s illegal now, just standing on the sidewalk,” she says, as the cops twist her hands behind her back and shove her into a car. I ask what her name is. “Troy Davis,” she says, naming the man who was controversially executed by the state of Georgia last week. “Troy Davis. Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King.”

Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain has denounced the protests as “un-American,” but in the crowd, a cardboard sign reads “this is patriotic”. As I watch the crowd of mostly young people pushed back from Wall Street by lines of police, an extraordinary thing happens. A young man begins to shout the text of the First Amendment of the constitution. ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” he begins. Instantly, using the ‘human mic’ technique that the occupiers have developed to carry their voices, a thousand others chant it back to him, condemning the NYPD for “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As protesters take to the streets in cities across the United States, they are right to understand themselves part of a global movement – but there is something curiously American about it.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Bringing down the wall: Occupy Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge arrests.

I'm in New York, reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests. This was my first report for the New Statesman; you can also find my coverage at The Independent.


The big bronze bull is surrounded by metal fences and strategically placed members of NYPD's finest. The famous statue, the symbol of aggressive market optimism, is normally open for tourists to grope and fondle, but today, in part because of the "Occupy Wall Street" protest, it has been penned. Today, the Wall Street Bull looks amusingly like a panicked animal in a cage.

It might have been spooked by the couple of thousand activists, hippies, union members, laid-off workers and schoolkids camped out around the corner in Liberty Plaza. When I arrive at Occupy Wall Street, they've already been there for a fortnight, and have turned the square, which is normally scattered with City workers snatching lunch and chattering on their smartphones, into a little peace village, complete with a well-stocked library, free kitchen, professional childcare centre, sleeping areas, meeting spaces, and crowds of young people dancing and playing music.

The protest, which began on 17 September after a call-out by activist magazine Adbusters and the hacker collective Anonymous, has swelled from its original few hundred members after a weekend of police crackdowns. Images of New York police pepper-spraying young women in the face and arresting peaceful protesters spread around the world, which has been shocked not so much by the response of the police in a city where the term 'police brutality' was coined, but by the fact that here, in America, at the symbolic heart of global capitalism, ordinary people have turned off their televisions and come out to shout in the streets. "I never thought I'd live to see this in New York City," says my friend, a native New Yorker, as we watch a drum circle forming underneath the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan's financial district, speckled with rain.

Right now, as I write from the occupied Plaza, a mass arrest is taking place on Brooklyn Bridge, where 2,500 activists have marched to express their distaste for corporate greed. 'Banks got bailed out - we got sold out!' chanted the marchers, hesitantly at first, and then more confidently, keeping to the sidewalks, before they were led onto the car portion of the bridge by police - who promptly sealed the exits and began to arrest everybody.

The entrance to the Bridge is now completely sealed by a quadruple line of cops, as reports come in that a journalist from the New York Times has been arrested. Marchers on the other side yell angrily at the police to let their friends go. "Come join us!" they shout. "You are the ninety-nine percent!"

They mean that the police, like the protesters, are part of the "99 per cent' of the population whose livelihoods are threatened by the financial crisis, as opposed to the 1% of wealthy Americans still raking in profit. "We are the 99 percent," says the group on its Tumblr site. "We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we are working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent." It's a very polite way of saying 'class war.'

The '99 percent' statistic has become emblematic of the American wing of what is phrasing itself as a global protest movement, taking its inspiration from square occupations in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Great Britain. Another statistic you can see daubed on placards around the Plaza is that the wealthiest 400 Americans have more combined wealth than the poorest 150 million. Later in the day, the United Steelworkers union becomes the latest in a growing list of labour organisations and non-profit groups to throw its support behind Occupy Wall Street, ahead of a united march next Wednesday.

Economic inequality is a consistent undertone, but at times this occupation has the feel of a music festival; drifting through the square are young people who seem to have walked out of a wormhole from Woodstock, including a boy with dreads and tiedye scarves sitting on a skateboard next to a sign asking for 'donations for adopting puppies.'

I ask him what the puppies are for. 'Emotional support,' he tells me. Elsewhere, a young woman with long hair is handing out posies. "You're very beautiful," she says, smiling, "have a bottle of flowers." All of these people appear to be disturbingly sober: nobody wants to give the NYPD an excuse to crack down.

Not that they need an excuse. There can be no swifter political lesson than the first blast of pepper spray to the face received by a middle-class protester, and right now a lot of American activists are learning fast. "No Bulls, No Bears, just Pigs," reads one sign. As the light fades and the rain starts to come down hard, hundreds of protesters, reporters and members of the press are still trapped on the bridge. In the pouring drizzle, they strap their backpacks onto their fronts so the police can't take them, according to Kristen Gwynne, a New York writer. Gwynne tells Alternet that protesters are singing to keep morale up: 'this little light of mine.' Hundreds more are cuffed and on vans headed to jail. "I had a feeling as soon as we walked onto the bridge that this wasn't going to end well," says Michael, a member of the march. "The police allowed people to go on the car ramp on the bridge, and when they realised what was happening, people started jumping onto the pedestrian side, but then it was too late." Young teenagers are among the arrestees, in scenes extremely reminiscent of the Westminster Bridge kettle in London in December 2010. "You can't arrest an idea!" the protesters yell.

But what is the idea? The most consistent criticism laid against the occupiers is their lack of a central organising system or core message. Who are these people, and what do they want? The fact that the mainstream media is even asking this question can be considered a victory for the Occupy Wall Street.

Part of the point of this occupation, like the occupations in Greece, Spain and London, has been to create a different kind of political space, a temporary reality outside the lassitudes of mainstream politics where human beings are equal and respected. People have come from all over the country and all over the world to be here, and not all of them, contrary to most of the reports, are white and college-educated. I meet black high-schoolers from Brooklyn, young men from California, young women from St Louis, Maine and Wisconsin, older laid-off workers from Texas and Virginia, and activists from Spain who have come to see if America can really host the kind of revolutionary space that has been opening up across Europe and the Middle East. It seems that, in its own way, it can: copycat protests are opening up across the country, from Chicago to Denver to Los Angeles and Boston.

As night falls in New York, in a bright, busy space under some colourful tarpaulins, the media team is working flat out to deal with international press enquiries, as reports come in that 700 protesters have been arrested by the New York Police Department (NYPD). There is a tense, frenzied atmosphere, with laptops flung down in between knots of cables as volunteers scarf down donated pizza and field information coming in over the wires. Outside the media tent, thousands of people are taking part in a mass meeting, huddled inside plastic ponchos and under umbrellas. NYPD have forbidden amplification, so anything said at the front is immediately chanted back by three hundred voices so that the rest can hear, giving the meeting the call-and-response a feel of a sermon. Every evening, these large General Assemblies gather to debate the demands and direction of the group, and a loose statement is eventually agreed by consensus and published in the group's newspaper, the "Occupied Wall Street Journal."

So far, it's pick-your-own cause, with grievances ranging from bank bail-outs to animal testing, and yet what most of the mainstream media seems to have missed is the fact that the occupation itself is its own demand. It's a symbolic and practical reappropriation of space at the heart of the world's most financially powerful square mile, an alternative community opening up like a magic window on a fairer future.

Activists wandering back from the bridge are greeted by strangers with open arms, as members of the 'comfort' team dash around taking care of everyone. There is free coffee, free food, a young lady with a lip-ring offering free hugs, and painted signs saying "Freedom". Nobody expected the occupation at Liberty Plaza to last this long or to become this important, but the mass arrests today have ignited public anger and drawn the attention of the press across the world. Whatever happens next, Occupy Wall Street is sending a message to the American people: the 99 percent are still here, in the shadow of the glittering palaces of global finance, and they are beginning to dream dangerously, and they will not go away quietly.

Thursday 29 September 2011

News from Nowhere 2

Well, I'm back.* I spent two weeks on a tiny, beautiful ship, pitching and tossing in the middle of the high Arctic. I met a polar bear, a whale, some reindeer, several fat seals, an arctic fox, many drunk Russians, a statue of Lenin, and a very dear and well-meaning collection of British academics, activists and journalists all of whom, after three days throwing up at sea, found ourselves rather unsure what we were doing standing on a bare mud island underneath a collapsing glacier, four thousand and three miles from Islington, shovelling nine tons of rocks into plastic sacks. You can read more about the journey on the NowhereIsland website, or in a longer writeup I'm working on.

Did I find Utopia? Well, your mileage may vary. My darling Pierce Penniless wrote me a beautiful letter which he's turned into a blog post here, and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on what I experienced, crammed on a ship trying to teach everyone consensus decision-making whilst we held down our lunches as the Noorderlicht dived through the waves, trying to group-write a theoretical constitution for a speculative nation.

I had, I admit, arrived with pre-conceptions about my shipmates, especially when I turned up at Heathrow on the 10th of September to find that every single one of us was white and middle-class. As we discussed our ideal society on the lower deck over delicious snacks served to us by an accommodating Dutch crew, it really did feel like the last colony ship off a burning planet - like we were the chosen, special ones strapped to a cosy life-shuttle, looking for a new world at the touching point of symbol and substance. This, surely, is how the privileged will experience the end times.

However, you can't spend two weeks on a boat with twenty strangers without realising that nobody is quite the class cliche you'd like them to be. Against my instincts, I found myself becoming more and more committed to our airy Utopia, as we talked and talked and talked about what this NowhereIsland society might look like. Well, it was that or lie in my bunk listening to Kanye West for a fortnight, trying not to vomit bits of ship's pasta out the window onto an iceberg.

For me, this trip was partly about what can and should be salvaged from the liberal project, as it rummages through what's left of its selfhood after decades of neo-liberal capitulation. I discovered, gradually, that just because people are fortunate and insulated doesn't mean that they can't have good, brave and noble instincts that are worth hearing. I discovered that the world is full of bright, decent people doing important, beautiful things, and because of that, it might not be too late to build a better one. I also discovered that Geography professors CAN dance to dubstep. On the latter point, sorry Tim, there's video evidence.

Of all the myriad problems with the Nowhere Island project, the press have inevitably focused on the most anodine and inconsequential: the money. The main criticism, raised by commentators from the Guardian to 'Lucy, 26' on page 3 of The Sun, was that the project is expensive: half a million of dedicated Arts Council funding over several years. This is paying for construction costs, transporting the island material from Svalbard, travel funding, publicity, building a website which involves thousands of people in an accessible philosophy project about citizenship and the failures of nation-states to solve financial and ecological disaster, and employing an entire staff team for two years. Given that there are many other projects receiving the same non-transferrable funding as part of the Cultural Olympiad, one of which is apparently a set of giant crocheted lions, attacking Nowhere Island on the basis of cost to the taxpayer might seem a little snippy - but in the end, it's an argument that, if you choose to engage with it, can't be won. Of course a speculative Utopia involving lots of schools projects is better than a crocheted lion, but so is re-employing twenty nurses, or stopping a library from being closed down.

Is this it, though? Is this what human progress has come to? Fighting over the scraps of money left as the markets crumble? If we're going to argue the balance, the money being spent on replenishing nuclear weapons stocks and subsidising the Royal Bank of Scotland is wasted far more massively and comprehensively than the money being spent on the Cultural Olympiad. This, however, is about something more important. I believe in art, and folly, and dreams. I believe that if we can't collectively subsidise artists to imagine new worlds for us, we have no business speaking of social progress. The question is not whether we can afford to imagine a culture beyond the control of capital and the nation state, but whether we can afford not to.

For me, I found something up there, in the cold and clean and quiet, something I'm struggling to unpack, along with two weeks of dirty washing, bits of rock and memories. It was something between an epiphany and a sense of perspective, something between a manifesto and a dream, and it's hard to put into words, and for the rest of my life I'll feel lucky for having been invited to see NowhereIsland. We went looking for Utopia. What we found was each other. What else do dreamers do?

*Yes, it IS a LOTR Reference. Well done you. Well done US. *geekbiscuits*.

Saturday 10 September 2011

News from Nowhere

I've left London, and I am sailing to a new island that has appeared out of the ice in the Arctic circle. No, this is not a prank. I've been invited along with an eclectic collection of academics, artists, lawyers, activists, sixth-formers and scientists to sail to this small pitch of land, which has been named NowhereIsland, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Right now, I'm in Oslo, and tomorrow we travel to Svalbard, where we will board a ship, the Noorderlicht, which will take us to the island, where those of us who went to fee-paying schools will be devoured by bears.

Along the way, we're supposed to debate and discuss how to build a conceptual new nation, a model society in the wreck of late capitalism. There is a chance, given how many Guardian readers we seem to have on this trip, that we may just all turn pirate and start raiding the coastal towns of Norway and Finland and looting all the humous and complicated jam. Presuming we make it, however, we will have weeks stuck on a boat to debate utopianism, anarchism, feminism and environmental activism and try to avoid one another's eyes in the communal showers.

Anyone can become a citizen of Nowhere Island, just by signing up here. In fact, NowhereIsland already has more citizens than Vatican City* and we may soon outnumber Monaco, although you can't reroute your tax through Nowhere Island, because in this new nation the common wealth of humanity will be held above the pursuit of profit. Also, there isn't a bank.

I signed up for this journey because I was thoroughly enamoured with the possibility of going to the Polar circle, and by the human experiment of being crammed on a tiny ship with twenty strangers and no internet access for two weeks, a sort of Big Brother as imagined by Ian McEwan. As I've become more involved in the project, however, I've come to realise what a mad, brilliant idea it really is, and so, I need your help. I'd like you to write, in the comments here or in an email to me, and share your idea of Utopia - Nowhere, in Greek - of an ideal society, whatever that means to you. I don't care if your vision of Utopia is a zero-carbon society, a neo-libertarian dystopia, a world without gender, or a fantasy theocracy where everyone worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster and matters of state are decided by competitive playoffs of Dance Dance Revolution . It can be as detailed as you like, or just a few lines. I'll be keeping a travel diary of this mad, weird fortnight and will post as and when I have web access, which will depend entirely on the satellite service. And the bears.

*and not ALL of them are Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. :S

Monday 5 September 2011

One sunny September day: the EDL march in London

A drunk woman in a bright yellow tabard that marks her a right-wing organiser is crying on the pavement, as a yelling man is cuffed by the police inside a closed betting shop on Minories Street. Her face is red, and she is shouting incoherently at the officers.

It's unclear why her friend broke into the bookies, but on a hot Saturday afternoon, any semblance of order or purpose is disintegrating under the September sun. Behind her, a thousand tanked-up fellow members of far-right protest group the English Defence League are shoving and screaming as they try to break through the lines of police driving them away from Aldgate, where a thousand anti-fascists and local Muslim youths are waiting for them.

As marches go -- and despite the controversial police ban, this looks very much like a diverted march -- this one sends mixed messages as the crowd wrestles its way down the side-streets. Some of the EDL members are half-naked skinheads, some are wearing football shirts, and one sports a Yarmulke; even as other members at the front of the march gave Hitler salutes, according to a journalist who was embedded with the crowd.

At least one marcher is black, and there are many women, wrapped in England flags and looking curiously at the few journalists who have dared to stay with the march after a press photographer was attacked with burning lighter fluid.

By this point, the English Defence League have been on the streets of London for several hours, are tired, hot and frustrated and have been drinking since breakfast.

Almost exactly 75 years since the British Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East End at the battle of Cable Street, Oswald Moseley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren't wearing any shirts at all.

They had congregated at Liverpool Street after the RMT union obstructed their arrival by closing underground stations, and were met by thousands of police and prevented from clashing with anti-fascists by mounted officers and several lines of riot police. To prevent the EDL from marching, the Home Secretary had declared a 30-day ban on all marches in the London area, neatly curtailing several other less proto-fascist demonstrations in the process, and setting a worrying precedent for the prevention of future protests.

Given that London is a tinder-box of social tension, with nights of violence and looting and clashes between rival gangs and the police fresh in everyone's memory, the immediate concern, as is so often the case in this new state of exception, was to prevent more riots. On both sides of the police lines this Saturday, I see angry, disenfranchised social groups spoiling for a fight with people they see, with varying degrees of accuracy, as alien intruders threatening their way of life.

Two or three young Asian lads appear in the alley my friend and I have just ducked into. They are far enough away to be safe while they goggle at the EDL. As soon as the march catches sight of them, they start to jeer and holler, stabbing their fingers in unison like pikes.

The EDL claim to be opposed only to the "threat" posed to society by the Islamic faith, but there is nothing at all to identify these teenagers as Muslim, nothing at all that differentiates them from some of the teenagers in the crowd, apart from the fact that they have brown skin.

"Scum, scum, scum, scum!" yell the EDL, as the boys hang back, afraid. The street is narrow, the air still, and you can feel the force of the chant on your face [read the rest at New Statesman online].

Friday 19 August 2011

The Book of the blog, and why I'm not going on Big Brother.

I don't normally like to do this sort of thing, but the good people at Pluto Press have reminded me that unless I get off my tiny backside and actually tell people about this book of columns we've got coming out, nobody will buy it, and then they won't get any money. Which would be sad, because they're wonderful people, and they made me two separate cups of tea when I went to see them at the office.

So, here it is: The Book of This Blog. Titled, after some wrangling and a great deal of imaginative endeavor, Penny Red. It has a stonking cover design by This is Star, a New York artist and model whose inkwork makes me moist and excited. Warren Ellis has written a lovely foreword, which makes my inner fangirl vibrate with glee. Some of the actual words inside don't make me cringe too much on re-reading, either, although they undoubtedly will in five years' time. You can pre-order it here, and if you do, as the good people at Pluto Press remind me, not only do you get it much cheaper, you get free stuff, like extra books.

From the website, it appears that I'm going to be signing some copies as well. That sort of thing makes me nervous; it's been very flattering when people have asked me to sign Meat Market in recent weeks, but it all feels rather ridiculous. I may swan around like some kind of proper writer, but my signature still looks like an eleven year old girl's - it has TWO stars in it, and it used to be a heart and a star until two years ago when I got laughed at by a bank clerk. Similarly, I may act all casual about being asked to go on the telly and give my opinion on things, but I can't watch the clips back afterwards without doing that thing where you half-close your eyes and bite down hard on the side of your fist. Despite what a miniature army of trolls seems to think, all I ever wanted was to write useful words for a living.

It is this that lay behind my decision not to go on Big Brother.

Yes, I was asked to audition for Celebrity Big Brother. It was a few months ago, now. It took me a whole twelve hours to decide no, partly because - coming clean for a moment - I've always loved that mad bloody show, and I've wondered for at least ten years what it would be like to be on it. Hell, of course, but then I'm the sort of person who'd wander around hell with recording equipment asking people how they felt about the whole thing. There's even a chance that weeks of constant public surveillance might not leave me curled weeping in the middle of a day-glo floor, muttering about the Society of the Spectacle and trying to peel myself like a satsuma.

After turning over in my mind every possible way in which going on Big Brother might not be the worst idea in the entire world, I finally hit on the insurmountable counter-argument: the one where this isn't all a fucking joke, and I'm not a fucking cartoon character, and I actually have some serious things to say. I don't like playing the media game. I don't like doing the self-publicising that every freelancer has, to some extent, to engage in. I actually believe in something bigger than myself, and I like to think that the people who read this blog do, too.

There is a banality at play in the British press - and I mean the entire glorious sweep of it, from the Observer Review to Big Brother - that makes me more uncomfortable the more of it I discover. It's a banality that's inimical to the sort of reasoned, sensible debate we desperately need in these nervous times. It's not about celebrity culture, and it's not about 24-hour news cycles, though it has something to do with both, and it infects everything. It's about speed of turnover, a dull hunger for comment, the privileging of celebrity above content when it comes to argument, a culture that would rather watch people unravel than listen to their ideas, a culture that would rather bitch and carp spitefully amongst itself than actually try to change the world. Millions of words have been expended on the riots that swept our cities two weeks ago, and almost none of that analysis has been measured or persuasive enough to prevent the enormous, frightening right-wing backlash that's been permitted to happen on this angsty little island. The best overviews so far have come from outside Britain, like yesterday's explosive New York Times editorial.

There's a fight going on for the soul of decency in this country, and it's a fight that's obscured by gossip and bogged down by banality, and when you're just a person sitting in her bedroom, letting cups of tea go cold whilst you try to write useful things, that banality can feel insurmountable. Fortunately, I have some complete bastards for friends who do things like yell "LOOK, it's TV's own Laurie Penny!" when I come back from the loo. One of the most dangerous things a person can ever do is take themselves seriously. As long as I have those reprobates around, it's not a danger over which I'm losing much sleep.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Panic on the streets of London.

I’m huddled in the front room with some shell-shocked friends, watching my city burn. The BBC is interchanging footage of blazing cars and running street battles in Hackney, of police horses lining up in Lewisham, of roiling infernos that were once shops and houses in Croydon and in Peckham. Last night, Enfield, Walthamstow, Brixton and Wood Green were looted; there have been hundreds of arrests and dozens of serious injuries, and it will be a miracle if nobody dies tonight. This is the third consecutive night of rioting in London, and the disorder has now spread to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Politicians and police officers who only hours ago were making stony-faced statements about criminality are now simply begging the young people of Britain’s inner cities to go home. Britain is a tinderbox, and on Friday, somebody lit a match. How the hell did this happen? And what are we going to do now?

In the scramble to comprehend the riots, every single commentator has opened with a ritual condemnation of the violence, as if it were in any doubt that arson, muggings and lootings are ugly occurrences. That much should be obvious to anyone who is watching Croydon burn down on the BBC right now. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called the disorder 'mindless, mindless'. Nick Clegg denounced it as 'needless, opportunistic theft and violence'. Speaking from his Tuscan holiday villa, Prime Minister David Cameron – who has finally decided to return home to take charge - declared simply that the social unrest searing through the poorest boroughs in the country was "utterly unacceptable." The violence on the streets is being dismissed as ‘pure criminality,’ as the work of a ‘violent minority’, as ‘opportunism.’ This is madly insufficient. It is no way to talk about viral civil unrest. Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it. Tonight, in one of the greatest cities in the world, society is ripping itself apart.

Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday, when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station. A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.

Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"

"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

Tonight in London, social order and the rule of law have broken down entirely. The city has been brought to a standstill; it is not safe to go out onto the streets, and where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer. As I write, the looting and arson attacks have spread to at least fifty different areas across the UK, including dozens in London, and communities are now turning on each other, with the Guardian reporting on rival gangs forming battle lines. It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

Noone expected this. The so-called leaders who have taken three solid days to return from their foreign holidays to a country in flames did not anticipate this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.

I’m stuck in the house, now, with rioting going on just down the road in Chalk Farm. Ealing and Clapham and Dalston are being trashed. Journalists are being mugged and beaten in the streets, and the riot cops are in retreat where they have appeared at all. Police stations are being set alight all over the country. This morning, as the smoke begins to clear, those of us who can sleep will wake up to a country in chaos. We will wake up to fear, and to racism, and to condemnation on left and right, none of which will stop this happening again, as the prospect of a second stock market clash teeters terrifyingly at the bottom of the news reports. Now is the time when we make our choices. Now is the time when we decide whether to descend into hate, or to put prejudice aside and work together. Now is the time when we decide what sort of country it is that we want to live in. Follow the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter. And take care of one another.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Of Pies and Circuses

In Greece, they raise their hands. In Iraq, they throw their shoes. In Britain, we throw pies. This probably says a lot about us as a nation. Like everyone else, when I saw young comedian Jonnie Marbles lobbing a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch's face, as the elderly oligarch attempted to distance himself from years of criminal newsgathering, police corruption and government complicity, I felt like I was dreaming. One of the weirder dreams, where you have to ride a horse made of biscuits, or watch someone you know throwing a plate of gunk down the shirt of the most powerful man in the world. That shit doesn't happen in real life.

Many people have been asking me whether or not I condemn the pie. I would invite those people to stand in front of the mirror and say 'I condemn the pie' without collapsing into giggles. Chucking a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch's face was undoubtedly a silly thing to do- I, too, would have preferred the polite comeuppance being delivered by Tom Watson and other honest MPs to continue undisturbed- but it's hardly Baader-Meinhof, is it? Jonnie Marbles is no more a violent terrorist than Harpo Marx. He threw a pie, not a grenade. It was a stunt. It was, let's face it, a funny stunt. On its own terms, it was a successful stunt- and the problem with successful stunts is that they make headlines.

In terms of distracting attention from his wheedling refusal to accept responsibility for what went on at NewsCorp, Murdoch could not have bought better publicity unless he had personally hired a lackey to shoot his son in the middle of the hearing - an oversight which, at one point in the proceedings, he looked like he was regretting. During the Murdochs' questioning, NewsCorp shares jumped by five per cent, in part because of the pie, briefly splattering the entire debate open in a welter of wet foam, but also because the Sun King played his own part with tooth-aching finesse.

That was the real circus. The man who owns and dictates the news on three continents played to the crowd as a doddering, out-of-touch gentleman executive who had absolutely no idea why he had had back-door access to Downing Street for decades, no idea why his journalists illegally hacked the phones of grieving relatives and a murdered teenager, no idea why his newspapers seem to have bought and paid for the Metropolitan police.

The terrifying thing is that a foam pie in the face is almost certainly the closest thing to actual disrespect Rupert Murdoch has experienced for thirty years. The stunt gives the remaining pro-Murdoch press an excuse to distract attention from the ugly details of the snowballing hacking scandal- but at the expense of showing their fallen prince covered in gunge and baffled, like Emperor Palpatine appearing in an episode of Get Your Own Back. The whole point of the thrown pie as a comedy trope is that it's designed to humiliate, not to hurt - the 'heinous assault on an eighty year old man' line is unlikely to wash for long. One would hope that the police officers currently holding Jonnie Marbles in custody will remember that, rather than treating him like some sort of wanton confectionary terrorist, but unfortunately the only way to find that out would be to hack their phones, and decent people don't do that.

Hackgate is too big and purposeful a beast to be by distracted by a juicy pie for more than a few hours. The status quo has been turned on its head and shaken until the dirty cash falls out. The power elites in Britain and, increasingly, in the US, have been rattled to their core. Journalists across the media spectrum are remembering that their job is to report the truth, not twist the agenda to suit their bosses. The moral panopticon of the Murdoch press, manufacturing consensus for thirty years of war and the pursuit of profit with pictures of tits and celebrity chitchat, has been exposed as a circus of lies and corruption, lubricating politicians into lazy complicity, putting government ministers on its payroll to do its bidding, turning the police force into a bunch of hired lackeys and the justice system into a mercenary sham, pilfering the still-warm bodies of slaughtered soldiers and strangled schoolgirls for a story, any story. Murdoch is eating humble pie (I wish I'd been the first to make that pun) with or without Jonnie Marbles. Can you tear your eyes away, even for a second? No, nor can I.

And that's just what the British government is counting on. Today, in the middle of the select committee hearing, it was discreetly announced that the NHS will be opened up for privatisation- the very thing that nobody voted for, the thing that almost noone wanted apart from private healthcare firms, the politicians whose election campaigns they financed, and -guess who?- the Murdoch press. Last week's Open Public Services white paper threatens to confiscate state-provided welfare, social housing, schools, nursing homes, libraries, hospitals, hospices. The hacking scandal has made it almost to the doors of Downing street, but in the meantime, on the quiet, the agenda of Murdoch's tame cabinet is being signed and delivered. It cannot be permitted. If we believe in a fairer, more honest world, we can't allow ourselves to be entirely distracted by the circus.

Monday 16 May 2011

Books, etc.

A much-needed holiday, which of course means that I'm running about like a blue-arsed Tory SPAD trying to mop up all the little bits of things I hadn't had time to do for ages. Like some of the legwork on the three books I'm meant to have written and publicised between now and the end of September. I thought I'd drop a quick note about that here, partly to let you all know what's happening, but also because I've got to the stage of sticking my fingers in my ears and humming and pretending it's all not happening, so blogging on it is one way to make sure I actually bloody do it all

So. My book Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (Zero Books) is out now. Yay!

I'm also pleased to announced that Pluto Press are publishing a book of my collected columns from 2007-2011, including many from this blog - coming out in October-November this year. Double yay! Last but not least...*drumroll*....

Breaking The Rules, a big book of feminist essays and insurrectionary tactics, is published by Bloomsbury (!) in Spring 2011. This is awesome, not just in the way that a lucky break is awesome, but also in the way that a vast canyon or a huge insurmountable cliff face is awesome. It's due in - all 80,000 words of unsent chapters - in October.

So far, I'm only 1/7 of the way through. *gnaws nails* I've got tons of research, copious notes, and three chapters done, but I haven't actually started the proper writing-without-pause process yet. The very good reasons for this are that even without the book I've been working 70-hour weeks with no days off since May last year, I'm exhausted and overstretched and every day contains thirty other urgent things to do that aren't Write. The. Damn. Book. The very bad reasons, in case you were wondering, are terror, and an encroaching sense that this was all an awful mistake and I can't actually write at all.

Right now I'd give half my laptop for the spare time to settle down and focus. All my professional writing experience so far is living from week to week, column to column, thinking in terms of small 800 word chunks of work rather than vast 80,000 word oceans, so this will be a steep learning curve, especially as I'll be juggling both at once. Does anyone here write books or theses for a living? I'd definitely appreciate some advice!

Monday 9 May 2011

From persuasion to coercion...

I wrote about UKUncut, the intimidation of protesters, and what that says about the government's confidence in its own spending plans, in the Independent today. Read it here.

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Saturday 23 April 2011

Riots and romance: thoughts on journalism, revolution and the anti-cuts movement.

I am in the process of trying to write an article for ADBUSTERS about 'Revolution in the UK'. The question I was set - "can it happen here like it happened in Tahrir Square?"- is broad and, I think, misplaced. As in, I think it's the wrong question to be asking. For one thing, the simple answer is no- of course it can't, it's a completely different country and the conditions that produced the Arab uprisings cannot be replicated here. That simple answer, however, closes down debate on what really is happening in Britain right now. I believe that something is on the move in this country, something important. And it's important to document that something honestly, without resorting to caricature, blithe supposition or wild inference.

I've been thinking about this more in the aftermath of the riot in Bristol this week. There was a vast disparity between MSM coverage of the riot and what thousands of us watched live online that night. I held back from writing a report until, reading the BBC and Guardian coverage the next morning, I realised that noone in the sparsely occupied Bank Holiday press rooms was feeling inclined to dig beyond the official police statement that day. In the age of Twitter, we should be able to do better than that- so I hurried out a piece based on eyewitness accounts and as much insider info as I could collate.

Following this piece, as with my
reportage of March 26, I have been accused of bias, of glorifying and romanticising the protesters. I believe this charge, however tritely or maliciously put, deserves to be answered. More than that, I think I absolutely need to answer it if I want to get better at what I do.

On the charge of romance, I hold up my hands, with the caveat that the struggle of citizen versus state is essentially a romantic one. If one cares about accuracy and linguistic craftsmanship, it is very hard to describe these active clashes in a way that does not provoke passion on both sides. This is because the events themselves are moments of high emotion and challenge. Whatever their affiliations, a person's political passions are drawn with fierce accuracy when they are asked for their opinion on a given police ruckus- and every time it happens is another chance to take the political temperature of the nation.

The British people are, however, generally resistant to romance. We tend to get uncomfortable when too much of a fuss is made. There is also an important cognitive dissonance at play: when people read, for example, about children being assaulted by police officers practically on the steps of Parliament, the emotions that stirs, and the conclusions we are inevitably led to about the benevolence or otherwise of the state, directly challenge the desire that very many of us have to believe that the police have our best interests at heart, that our politicians know what they are doing, that the ship of Britain is being steered gently away from the worst of the oncoming rocks. That cognitive dissonance can make people incredibly angry.

Personally, I don't believe that romance can be overlooked- apart from anything else, the rush and thrill of the fight is one of the big reasons riots spread. But just because a riot is romantic does not mean that it is right.

Which brings me on to the question of condemning or condoning. I make no secret of the fact that, quite apart from my journalism, my political sympathies lie with the anti-cuts movement. But m
ore than anything else, since I arrived at Millbank on the tenth of November just in time to see the windows kicked in, I have wanted to understand the nature of the political changes taking place in this country. This is why I have taken care to record and speak out about any instances of deliberate violence against police I happen to have seen. It's also the reason I've resisted the temptation to become member of any political party or anarchist group: it's easy to reel off propaganda (especially if one's style has a sliiiiight tendency to drift towards bombast) but far more difficult really to anatomise a movement and a generation and a nation in traumatic flux.

I believe that riots, and our response to them, teach people a lot about themselves. They have taught me one fundamentally important thing about myself - apart from the fact that I have a reckless attitude to my own personal safety, tossing all 5foot nothing of me repeatedly into violent situations where journalistic integrity forbids any active self-defence. What drags me to the scene of any riot, to any interesting protest currently ongoing, is not just politics, nor thrill-seeking: it's chasing a story that the mainstream press are still not telling properly yet, chasing a an important story, a story to which I currently have unique access as a young person within the movement.

Being inside a big story is exciting, especially for a rookie journalist, because by our nature people who choose this job like to know things other people don't, to be 'in on it', whatever 'it' is, and then to tell the world. This often produces quality, important journalism. But - crucially- not always.

I am forcefully reminded of another story currently running in my own magazine, the New Statesman: John Pilger's reports on the Wikileaks affair and the trial of Julian Assange. Pilger is a phenomenal journalist. I admire his investigative work more than I can possibly say, and I hope one day to be able to meet him in person. However, in my opinion, Pilger's insider access to Assange and to Wikileaks - his understandable glee at which is barely disguised - have nudged him towards glorifying his subject. In my reading, Pilger pre-emptively exonerated Assange of all sexual assault charges, and that is extremely problematic. Wikileaks is unquestionably a force for good in the world, but Pilger's celebration of and reliance on Wikileaks in articles about other subjects are becoming rather predictable. Predictability is anathema to great journalism. IMHO.

If a reporter as renowned, brilliant and experienced as John Pilger can be susceptible to the professional virus of insiderhood, any of us can be, so it's advisable to check repeatedly for symptoms. I stand by the accuracy and rigorousness of my own reporting of the movement in Britain to date, but the potential for infection is there. How could it not be?

There's nothing wrong with a bit of romance, but this movement deserves to be reported honestly, warts-and-all honestly. The voices of anti-cuts protesters, student activists and everyone they represent and defend deserve to be heard clearly, not distorted to the point of caricature. Full-time activists are more than capable of writing their own propaganda. A real campaigning journalist should be able to amplify unheard voices without distorting them. I think it's crucial that hacks involved or interested in resistance movements hold ourselves closely to that standard. I'm certainly going to try my best.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Notebook: responsibility and writing

Hello, the blog. It’s been a very strange few months. Things have been moving fast and, due to an auspicious combination of luck, class privilege, working twelve-hour days and being in the right place when things were happening, I’m now a journalist who people have heard of and stuff. I’ve had a big think about the consequences of that this week, and this is my post about it, which will probably come across as massively wanky and self-indulgent, particularly when so many really important things are happening in the world. I’m mostly writing this so I can get it all out and get it down and concentrate on those more important things. If it helps, you’ll get the basic sense of this post from just skipping to the penultimate paragraph now.

So, I'm experiencing a bit of vertigo. Nine months ago I had just over a thousand Twitter followers; now it’s nearly thirteen thousand. Nine months ago it was a huge nerve-wracking fiasco for me to talk on a regional radio driveshow; last month I was a panellist on Any Questions. Nine months ago I was a blogger in the process of trying to improve my writing in the hopes of someday, maybe, being a ‘proper’ commentator’; I’m now a columnist for the country’s foremost leftwing magazine, earning a living as a full-time comment-and-features journo, and have written opinion pieces for the Guardian, the Evening Standard, the Independent and others. I got to talk at the Fabian Society conference! People from the BBC sometimes ring me up and ask what I think about things!

I’d be an idiot to pretend it's not all very exciting. Even when it’s terrifying and intimidating, which is most of the time, I remember that it makes my parents proud, and that’s always something to be glad about, because frankly my mum and dad have put up with quite enough crap from me over the years. I’m not trying to bitch and whine: manifestly, I’ve been handed a pair of golden slippers, and it would be ugly and ungrateful to complain that they pinch.

It does raise issues, though – because despite what some people inevitably believe, my writing is not a self-promotion exercise. Far from it. I care passionately about the politics and the movements I am engaged with, and I am having to learn very fast, by trial and error, how I can best behave in order to be useful to those movements. I’m having to anticipate what I might do or say that might damage or cause divisions within the causes with which I am associated. There is, bluntly, a lot more I can do now to fuck stuff up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under some delusion of being ever so terribly famous – it's not like I get recognised in the street. I have been recognised on two separate occasions at the same bus stop in Bethnal Green, but since I estimate that about half the people who read my blogs and articles probably live within shouting distance of E9 and have a tendency to wander down the Old Ford Road at midnight on a Thursday eating chips, that’s no huge surprise. I do, however, have a more powerful platform than I’d ever anticipated - at least not, in my nuttiest dreams, until I was in my mid thirties - and that’s daunting.

It’s daunting, because I’m in my early twenties and still learning the rules. The whole way I relate to my work and to my friends on the internet (and most of my friends are on the internet!) needs to change, now. This week I’ve finally knuckled under and accepted that.

It means accepting a certain level of responsibility. It means no longer posting quite so many profanities and details of my favourite bedroom activities in my Facebook profile. It means absolute integrity, being more mature and less impulsive. It means that the ripple effects of things I write and say are no longer small and friendly: if I call a fellow activist a cunt, it’s not just playful snark, it’s a big deal. If I tweet momentary disillusion with a protest movement, it might actively dishearten a few hundred people involved, and that matters. The way I choose to tell a story - romantic and human-centred, like this week's New Statesman cover story on the student movement, or theoretical and dispassionate, as some would have preferred? - matters to people. And I can no longer behave as though it doesn't.

All of this also means receiving a great deal more criticism – some of it good and constructive, and a whole lot of it frightening, horrible, threatening and nasty. I now receive rape threats and death threats on a daily basis; I am the subject of various spiteful right-wing hate campaigns and have my very own following of Tory and libertarian trolls. Haters gonna hate, and that's par for the course; but I can no longer respond to every criticism individually, as I used to make a point of doing. I have to block some of this petty shit out, or I’d go barmy.

I guess what all of this is leading up to is: please bear with me. This stuff is all new and vertiginous, but I’m not making the same mistakes twice. The biggest mistake, the one I regret the most actually, is neglecting my share of the housework with all the work and chores and running around I've been doing, with the result that it now probably seems, to my lovely and long-suffering housemates, like I suddenly think I'm too good for the washing up.

From now on, it's time to properly accept that what I write matters to people, time to step up to the responsibility I've been handed and do a lot more to earn it. It's time to behave like a proper commentator, not a terrified kid- even if in my head I’m still a weird schoolgirl who hides in the bin reading comics and has panic attacks when people speak to her without warning.

I anticipate that soon the fuss will die down, things will be less frazzled and I’ll have space to take stock. Probably not for another few months, though, cause I have a book coming out and another one on the way and I’m doing more things on the telly. Meanwhile, I’m gradually learning how to handle all the pressure without being a total dickhead.

That’s about it, really. Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far – I appreciate that your time is limited and that there are several revolutions on at the moment. If I ever lose perspective, or start praising George Osborne, or just turn into a massive wanker, I’m counting on the people whose opinions I’ve always valued to take me to task. I've relied on the advice and support of several very good friends and some wise strangers to get me through these past few months, and it's been invaluable. You know who you are. Thank you, I love you. Solidarity.