tent Xx

Revisiting Archives: Democracy Village

  Parliament Square 02.07.2010

 

The 20th of July this year marked the tenth anniversary of the eviction of Democracy Village from Parliament Square. The tent occupation of Parliament Square began May Day 2010 and was evicted 20 July 2010. To recall that spell of time, the 81 days, is to reflect on how the world of activism was about to change. And by that in turn, the nature of its prospective change for the next ten.

 

Perhaps the best measure of the significance of Democracy Village as a tent city is to contrast it with what followed in the space of an year. The Arab Spring and the huge encampment at Midan Tahrir Cairo in February 2011 and in the coming spring the Occupy tent cities around Europe and America. Compared to these, Democracy Village was old school. The confrontation it brought to the centres of power, of bare life against War Money and its monuments was rooted in the naked face to face, and certainly not media savvy. In fact the opposite. The people who really made this occupation into a form of 'life as change' had little interest in media.
The contrast with the new school of activism could not be greater. The site of activism moved onto the virtual platforms - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on. The political value of electronic communication took precedence over real life mediations. Embracing dependence in corporate platforms shaped the new activism and its mediatised generation – it also changed the idea of what institutional politics was; as I explained in my review of Netroots UK in January 2011. A decade on, we can now reflect on that faith, the selling of your soul to social media platforms – submission to its unprecedented arbitrary control, aside from the fake news and hate crime. But there is also a reflection of how it was activism that facilitated the operational migration from the world of personal mediation to the world of impersonal electronic exchange.

 

So what was the driver at Democracy Village? Perhaps this was best summed up at the High Court when on the 17th June the Judge, Justice Griffith Williams asked one of the defendants Anita Olivacci, What right do you have to be on Parliament Square?
To which she replied, Love.
Proclaiming that she had the duty to be there, the defendant said, We the people are the change, love is all there is. The Judge nodded, barristers and court secretaries took notes for their files.

 

amp archives · SAM 0291 13.07.10a

 

It is futile to analyse Democracy Village in terms of sharp revolutionary agendas that some had set out because no one agenda could have fitted its time. With its ragtag mix of activists and the homeless, many ex-servicemen returning from war, the village lived on the solidarity bound by its everyday. Life in a traffic island consumed the revolution, so life became the revolution. It was to be found not so much in the village assemblies or 'talking circles' but more in the acts of its daily chores - of skip-diving meals from Covent Garden, conversations with the walking partners over Westminster Bridge to St. Thomas' Hospital to access clean washrooms and toilets. This thicket of village life in a traffic island required agents of another order to explain the way it had materialised. In ways known only to itself. What is meaningless outside in has every meaning inside out.

 

The one man who had nothing to say to Democracy Village was of course Brian Haw. For he understandably saw the village encampment as agent provocateurs who the State would use to remove him. Brian had been at Parliament Square since the 2nd of June 2001 in his one-man pavement protest against British foreign policy and War. And he would remain there even after the eviction of Democracy Village. Brian departed only when his lung cancer became terminal at end of 2010. The court order to finally evict Brian in fact came in March 2011 but by then he was in a Berlin hospital never to return. His pavement pitch, which he called the “disputed 'British Mandate', the 'Golan' of Parliament Square” was removed in its tenth year.

 

Throughout Democracy Village, Brian in his keffiyeh and his hat of badges along with Barbara Tucker was there always there at the front of the square facing the parliament; the Palestinian flag flying overhead. No-one since Brian has offered such sustained critique of British and Western coloniality in its selective use of morals using War under the ruse of democracy; using sanctions towards political ends in the knowledge that it's the children who die in their thousands. Brian's protest had started as a campaign for the suffering of Iraqi children against sanctions before the ill fated invasion of 2003.
I had always struggled on how we would place a character as large as life as Brian within the annals of English history or an alt-history. A few years before Democracy Village, I was in a chance conversation on Englishness with the writer Jonathan Rutherford. A week later a surprise parcel arrived with his book Forever England, Reflections on Masculinity and Empire. It contained Rutherford's studies on Rupert Brooke, Lawrence of Arabia, Enoch Powell. All Men of Empire. Into that lineage came the life of Brian as a new form of English masculinity, an alt-messiah, an anti-hero on the other side of the masculinity that drove the new imperialism in the killing fields of the Middle East. And in its turn forced open new fields of activism like wikileaks for us to see behind the wall of news.

 

Fly Democracy zine mobile

 

tent X was my contribution to the village. The tent that belonged to the fiction of the Persons Unknown that the British judge Lord Denning had created in 1973 in order to evict unidentified squatters from a house in Islington. An English generation grew up and experienced urban life as this Persons Unknown - there is a hardly a popstar or artist who did not spend time in their formative years living in a squat. I had a small library at tent X to augment the unstructured village assemblies; it led me to produce a series of zines - or zine mobiles that could be dispatched onto other tents. These were sent in the spirit of recovering democracy for ourselves, as quirky didactic fragments. Most were simplified bits of theory from the library. The Ark of Experience, fly Democracy, The Hegemony of the Tent, the Fact and Act of the Tent etc (reconstructed samples here).
Alongside the zine mobile were sketches crumpled up into throw-able ping pong balls. Those that survived were boxed and sent to Ethnographic Terminalia for an exhibition at Montreal in 2011.

 

 

Who stayed at tent X was another story but the naming of it at the start signified the cross X of the democratic vote. X signified an ideal, a purity of meaning that still claims the word democracy even as it decays into nothing more than the "ideological fetish" of our times; as the philosopher Alain Badiou would describe it in 2013. In that decay, Democracy Village was a flowering of it as a symbol which sprouted and died. In a way it marked a closure of possibilities on the horizon of life in London. The end of the days when a generation could create its very own social milieu in squats and social centres with self-made clubs, theatres and kitchens. Even through the Thatcher years, it had remained possible to live entirely within this autonomous bubble with minimal dependence on the rapacious "there is no such thing as society" being normalised. But new laws were tabled to make the squatting of residential property in England a criminal offence. From 1st September 2012 they not only put an end to centuries of a very English history, they also killed off the imagination and sustainability of its other life. The days of London as an adventure playground outside Capital were finally ground down by an ideology that fed a new civil militarism as the war came home.

 

The Ark of Experience zine mobile

 

It's in the time of this pandemic lockdown that I began to look through collected archives of Democracy Village – opening legal documents that stayed unread, records of discussions at assemblies simplified into discursive diagrams, voices of those who sought a place at Democracy Village and contributed in what best way they could (sample recordings of 25 by villagers-activists with #3 and #10 here). Collectively made banners. Photographs and videos; the portraits of those with their life stories showing in their faces. In our conversations we each understood a meaning of democracy which had nothing to do any more with either the parliament or the state. For these had been turned into war machines in the service of money. But the experiment of living in its patch yet outside of its fold was to draw out the primacy of life over it along with the necessity of growing a new imagination, a reorientation. For all the demonisation the tabloid press could throw at Democracy Village, the necessity of a place for that new imagination to grow could not be more urgent, then and now for a post-pandemic future that enables a change of pattern. As Great Depression 2.0 looms and we are further herded into the proprietary space of digital platforms, it couldn't be a more timely moment to assert the priority of recovering the ground of the social bond and rewriting its contract.
Thinking anew, it's only in the process of revisiting the archives that I realised how the naming of tent X had unintentionally converged with what the village was all about. Why that may be so decisive now. That the X in the tent X also stood for love; which upon its tenth anniversary became tent Xx.

 

 

Related writings:
tent X records at xyzlondon with links to previous publications essays and exhibits 2010
Revisiting Laing, with 2 page extract from the Hermeneutic Circular October 2015

Download templates:
Ark of Experience zine pdf
Fly Democracy zine pdf
Note: Experience required to fold to shape. Tutorials available on Youtube