With the banking crisis seeming a distant memory to some the knock on effect is becoming very evident. People having spent all their savings, given up their holidays and the cars have been sold on at rubbish prices. What we are seeing now is the people that have used all their reserves are now loosing the fight. The appearance of payday loan companies on every high street and in some deprived areas 2 or 3 tells us that for many of us these companies are now part of the fabric of our existence. There are lots of reasons for the increased use of these companies rising cost of living, energy prices, bedroom tax, cuts in benefits and wage freezes. If you are disabled you are 3 times more likely to take out a payday loan than any other group of people. To me this is the cruel reality that the crisis has hit our most vulnerable and working classes whilst the bankers that we bailed out are once again enjoying their bonuses and record profits.
On May day Occupy London decided to take to the streets to highlight the immoral business of Payday loans and in particular the company Wonga. The reason that Wonga stood out above other payday loan companies was because of their slick style of marketing. They have flooded our screens with adverts involving nice friendly old folks. The very people we associate with stability and honesty. The adverts are everywhere, everyone knows the Wonga puppets. With outrageous APR and openly admitting that their market is in deprived areas there is nothing nice, safe or friendly about this company. If anything their techniques are sinister. Advertising on children’s T.V. is blatantly grooming our children into perceiving the life of debt as normal. This is not OK on any level and an abuse of people we should as a social country be protecting. The payments to MP’s, the involvement in local councils shows how entrenched they have become in our so called democratically elected bodies. Debt is the new commodity.
So we set about researching our prey and wow that proved to be very difficult. The company carries out all it’s business on line. The people behind the company are nicely tucked away in foreign lands and found that the company had no presence on the ground. No one you can go and talk to if your struggling, no phone numbers if you are in need of advice or guidance. They did once have an office that was owned by the Queen who also has some interest in these companies along with the Church of England , the Roman Catholic Church, We could target any number of companies involved in Wonga but we wanted Wonga itself.
With May day looming we still had no target, and Wonga soon to be floated on the stock market we still felt was our only option. So we continued, we had meetings, we promoted, we designed, we invited, we had banner making workshops, we reviewed press lists, we looked at Wonga’s relationships with government bodies , football teams and we had sleepless nights. The more we researched the more we knew that we were spot on. We organised speakers for the day David Graeber to talk about debt and Barb Jacobson to talk about Basic income. We also had people from DPAC (Disabled People against the Cuts) and Fuel Poverty action to talk about how these companies where effecting their members. After the speeches Occupy London were to hold a roving GA which was to have no agenda. The agenda to be decided by the people that were in attendance. Democracy at it’s purest level. It was all in place we just had nowhere to go.
As you often find with things that are right and just, information comes from the strangest of places and a little bird told us that Wonga had recently taken the whole 4th floor of the famous Black cat building in Camden town. This was a cause for a minor celebration in itself. We now had a physical target. Armed with this information we ran some checks and found a little piece in the Telegraph from February confirming this. But nowhere else was there any information relating to the company being in the building. Names of all the other companies residing there where proudly displaid in the foyer to the left of reception, Asos, various advertising companies, Cancer research, but nothing that indicated that Wonga had any presence. Our reconnaissance team casually walked into the building and asked the receptionist innocently if they could talk to somebody from Wonga about their loan and on cue the receptionist confirmed that Wonga were there by saying that they do not see anybody regarding loans and that needs to be done on-line. Even a joke was passed about how they where unapproachable. So content in the knowledge that the company were there we had a renewed enthusiasm and preparations continued.
May day arrived and the rain came with it. As in tradition all the unions and various social organisations gathered in Clerkenwell Green. The day was set as a memorial for Bob Crow and Tony Benn and as such had a huge turn out. The plan for the day was to join the parade and show our respects to the 2 icons of the left at Trafalgar Square. Then Occupy London was to move on from the march and go and Occupy Wonga. From the moment we arrived we had our assigned police presence. Not approaching us but writing in their little note books our descriptions, our movements and the general observations of our activities. I must add here that nothing that was arranged was done in secret and our facebook presence and event page was very public for all to see. We had no intent of criminal activity just a simple protest.
We marched proudly with the May Day parade and paid our respects to Tony and Bob. Listened to the tributes and stood in the pouring rain with thousands of comrades. It was special. Whilst this was going on we a received a phone call from a friend who just thought he would let us know he had been in Camden and there were vans of TSG parked outside the building and police lining the steps. This only confirmed to me that we had hit the target and it seemed the police had already been there from time.
Come 3.00 O’clock people were getting twitchy and it was cold and wet. Even with the weather we managed to pull around 300 protesters as we marched from Trafalgar with our sound system, our banner and the press. We had a nice little mix going on, we had Anti-capitalists, Anarchists, Academics, Activists (loving the A list). We marched towards Camden stopping the traffic, closing the roads, Police frantically on the radio. Asking along the way “Can you tell us where your going?” Oh the games they play.
We arrived at the Wonga offices to be greeted by lines of police guarding the building. A line on the bottom steps, with a second line half way and a line across the door. The side slopes entrances where we had hoped to be able to take the people in the wheel chairs to gain entry to the offices was blocked. So with a little jostling and pushing our entry to the building to protest at the company was denied. Our requests to talk to a representative of Wonga had been prevented by the assumption that we were there to commit a crime (I shall return to this important point). So we chanted and used the loud speaker to announce our presence. It wasn’t long before half the workers were hanging out of the windows a welcome break of the daily grind of selling shit to people.
It was all a little too hectic to pull off a GA so we voted and got consensus to hold an open mike and so the speeches began and they were brilliant. David talking about the commodity debt and Barb explaining that if everybody was given a basic living income there would be no place for these comapnies. The speech from the DPAC member was emotional and depressing but the reality of the effects have to be heard. Fuel poverty action backed up the horrendous figures of people that had died because of fuel poverty and the use of pay day loans to try and meet the ever rising fossil fuel energy bills. Everybody had something to say, a pensioner said it perfectly when he said that at his age he shouldn’t have to be out on the streets protesting against the vile money lenders who trade in peoples misery.
The police had relaxed and you could see as individuals they were nodding in agreement to the emotive speeches. You know that there was nothing that was being said that they couldn’t disagree with. A police officer came over and told us that all the employees had been sent home that we were “shouting at empty offices” as though that was a loss. Where I would had taken that as a win. The police protecting the building for hours before we got there, and the employees being sent home early. I bet they were well happy having an afternoon off rather than having to sell their souls to the money lenders. We finished our speeches and we told Wonga that this was only the start and we had them in their sights and we would be back. All in all a successful start to the Occupy Wonga campaign. At the end of the talks we cleared up any mess that had managed to accumulate i.e. soggy placards and the odd water bottle. The police watched us clean up in what could be only described as a look of respect on their faces. So we all drifted off some to dry off, some to the pub to feed back on the action and how we could improve it, what worked, what didn’t and some went to the students May Day Carnival.
So back to the police. It was evident that Wonga had been informed that a protest was being arranged targeting the payday loan companies. Yet there was no talk or plans of any criminal activity this was just an ordinary everyday protest at the corrupt and immoral finance system. So when did our police force become a private police force. Surely the police should only be in attendance if they are called because a criminal activity is taking place when infact the criminal/immoral activity that is taking place is by the very company they are protecting. I thought that was what companies like this had security for? Whilst outside the building we noticed that along side various inspectors we had been graced with the presence of a gold commander . Something I haven’t seen in years. Did it really warrant a Gold commander on the ground. What is the threat here? What role are the police playing here when they can inform a company that a protest is going to take place and then protect the building for the said company. That surely is not policing ? This is where once again they have crossed the line and become the enemy of the people rather than the servants of the people. One of the foundation stones of democracy is to be able to protest the Right to protest and the freedom of association. The police are here to protect the very people these companies are targeting but alas they have shown us their lack of independence. Maybe the day has come that we set up our own police force? Have we been left with any other options.