In an age of “freedom of information”, news on constant overload and access to people, places and procedures never-before seen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that hooking yourself up to Twitter or 24/7 news, Matrix-style, would suffice to understand the world we live in.
You would be sorely mistaken – or at least I was.
Last Wednesday, in Parliament, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) staged an occupation of Central Lobby, against the on-going decimation of the Welfare State by the previous and current Governments. I’ve supported DPAC since I started using Twitter and have always been overwhelmed by their resilience and use of effective, inventive direct action – which trade unions could (and need) to learn a lot from.
However, this was the first time I had witnessed it “in the flesh”, if you like, and it was a truly remarkable and pellucid experience – for numerous reasons.
The organisation was excellent. Ali Playford and Paula Peters, among others, did a superb job in staging what was an extremely last-minute “event” – and the stealthily manner in which they managed to gain access into Parliament (banners and all, which are not allowed), was simply brilliant.
It was extremely disconcerting and upsetting, however, that the majority of activists were left outside until gone 1130. As Paula quite rightly pointed out, some people needed to take medication, and plus it was an extremely cold day – however that did not seem to wash with Parliamentary security.
I always involve myself online in whatever action DPAC take, and have heard stories of how the authorities deal with them on the ground – but being there? Very eye-opening.
The sudden flourish by which the occupation began was amazing, as was everyone’s unrelenting vigour in conducting it. Chants of “No more deaths from benefit cuts”, “Tories… Tories… have blood on their hands” and (my personal favourite) “Osborne wont apologise… He just snorts coke & tells us lies” rang cacophonously around Central Lobby for more than an hour, and continued outside of Parliament to the awaiting TV crews.
No violence, no aggression towards the police, no incitement – just a very loud, very forthright bunch of people expressing their palpable anger at an elected Government.
Watching the police at work on Wednesday, however, you would’ve thought that a group of suspected terrorists had entered the lobby.
Frantic mumbling into earpieces that were so hard-pressed into skulls they nearly drew aural blood; scurrying around telling people “No Filming! If you do, you will be forced to delete it!” (referencing the leaked GCHQ documents DPAC’s Paula Peters’ was holding up, obviously); line-holding manoeuvres being executed that would’ve made the Stasi blush, and pushing around Ali Playford and her umbrella – I assume they were concerned it was a poison-tipped one…
But it was interesting that the police did not attempt to shut DPAC down during this occupation – and I think, in hindsight, they had learnt a lesson from the last time the activists were there (when the rozzers received widespread criticism for forcibly moving wheelchair users, and generally being unnecessarily heavy-handed).
It also helped that, as it was the final PMQs before Easter, central lobby was packed and the Chamber was full of MP’s – who, judging by the response from some, could hear very well DPAC’s chorus of disapproval.
Credit has to be given to John McDonnell, Jess Philips, Caroline Lucas and many SNP MP’s (I lost count of the latter) who came into the lobby to show their support for DPAC’s action. It’s just a shame that other “left-wing” MP’s could not extend the same solidarity – Labour’s Chris Leslie scurried past me quicker than a rat up a drainpipe, and maybe I missed Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions Owen Smith; I certainly didn’t spot Rachael Reeves, that’s for sure…
But, and in some respects sadly, the only coverage that was garnered in the newspapers for this superb act of civil disobedience was the fact that media coverage of proceedings had been silenced – specifically the BBC had been told to suspend their broadcast, while live on air.
The parliamentary response to the ban on filming in Central Lobby on Wednesday, and specifically the BBC’s Norman Smith, was that “broadcasts must be related to debates taking place in the Chamber on that day” – and that DPAC’s occupation was not related to any.
It would appear by the timings that Parliament security told the BBC’s Norman Smith to stop filming after John McDonnell had already been out, a show of support in which he specifically said that “Jeremy (Corbyn) has just used all of his six questions, to the Prime Minister, on disability cuts.”
So contrary to what the official statement from Parliament said, DPAC’s lobby was related to the debate that was going on in Parliament – and DPAC are awaiting FOI requests to learn more.
It’s also a damning indictment of the supposed “democracy” that we live in that members of the public are not allowed to film or take photographs unless prior permission is given – which will, of course, only be granted to the main television news stations.
The very fact that we (the people who MP’s work for, who pay their wages and who can sack them if we so wish) are not allowed to film our employees place of work (a publicly-owned building whose upkeep we pay for, which may well run into £billions), where said people who work for us debate and discuss matters that affect each and every one of our lives, is beyond parody.
Herein also lies the problem with our media.
While Osborne and every other obnoxious bastard from this Government are regularly wheeled out, to espouse on national television that “We’ve increased benefits for the disabled!”, “Compassionate Conservatism!” and whatever other simpering, mindless platitudes they can pull from the folder marked “Lies” – those at the sharp-end of their “Social Justice” rarely get a right-of-reply.
The media’s general rule of thumb has been to ignore the £30 a week cut to ESA; the chaos that is Universal Credit; the diabolical fitness for work tests; the unnecessary stress surrounding the move from DLA to PIP; forget that 800,000 people are set to lose out because of clandestine changes to the tax credit system; forget the Independent Living Fund that was abolished last year – and conveniently side-line the fact that there are already two UN investigations into possible human rights breaches by this Government going on (due to their “benefits reforms”).
But more than any of the above, 1000’s of individuals have died after being declared “fit for work”, and countless more have committed suicide after being left destitute by sanctions; rough sleeping has doubled since 2010 and 500,000 more children are in poverty.
It is inconceivably preposterous that, in a supposed democracy, MP’s are permitted to shout, hurl insults, espouse lies and propaganda and generally behave like a braying mob in one part of Parliament, yet members of the public aren’t allowed to justifiably raise their angry voices and display some banners because they disagree with the actions of those they employ in another.
But sadly, I believe that in some way this is symptomatic of the world we now live in.
We are a generation of “ThatcherBlairites”, tricked into the mantra of “aspiration” – which is corporatist hieroglyph for “Fuck thy Neighbour”; it’s no wonder, either, when you witness first-hand the disregard shown by so many MP’s.
But we are also a generation of inspirational people like Ali, Paula, Ellen, Martin and everyone else involved in DPAC, and while many appear not to care – plenty of us do.
Judging by last Wednesday’s triumph? Their steadfast resolve is as unyielding as ever – and they are going nowhere quietly.
Great video of before and after the occupation, here, from @letmelooktv