A few months ago I was invited by DPAC ( Disabled People Against the Cuts) to get involved with a protest about the Independent Living fund which is due to be cut. With out this living fund disabled people will no longer be able to live in their own home independently and will loose any chance of living anything that resembles normal everyday life. The kind that you and I take for granted.
To be honest working with disabled people is all pretty new to me and it is only through protest that I have got to know some active DPAC protesters. And I am now all to aware of the precarious balance that they have to deal with to maintain an anyway functional life. Some having to deal with the most complex health issues, accessibility, discrimination on a level that I can only compare to homophobia and racism which I have learnt is called Ableism.
So meetings were called and we got to listen to and hear what the disabled people wanted to do. Week in and week out we discussed plans, places, times, numbers and sometimes we went round in circles, but there more meetings I attended the more important this action became to me on a personal level as I got to know the people from DPAC and witnessed the difficulties faced every minute of their lives and how they fight every minute of their lives to overcome it.
It was very important to keep the action a DPAC action. It so easily could have become an Occupy action to outside eyes. I soon realised that I was there to facilitate DPAC’s action and to make sure they were not discriminated against in their right to peaceful protest. So as in all minority situations we had to make sure that the decisions of the DPACers were respected and we did not influence decisions to suit ourselves as what we may want to do as able bodied people.
So the meetings continued and the excitement was growing. We split into working groups, ( each group given a clean phone to be able to communicate with other groups on the day) logistics, Press, Church, Lock on’s and the Any other shit working group. DPAC had now made the decision to Occupy a church not any old church only Westminster Abbey.
We went on walks as tourists, we took films and we took pictures, we drew site maps and measured the depth of steps and the width of gates. We reported back. We discussed who would be staying and for how long. We then planned how many tents, kitchen sleeping, meeting, welfare, toilets. Then how much medial equipment would be needed. How many of the “crips” ( A term that disabled people seem to have reclaimed, another thing I had to get used to ) would be in wheelchairs, how many had P.A’s (personal assistances that are with them to aid them in everyday life).
As part of the logistic team we had to set up a fully working, with disabled access, fully functioning camp for about 30 disabled people and erect it in the grounds of Westminster Abbey with out anyone noticing. I can tell you that was a lot of sleepless nights. We drove up North and we collected 4 massive army tents, compost toilet containments, tables, sinks, plumbing, generators, electrics, lighting, tarpaulins, ramps, Sledge hammers, tent pegs……other tents would be arriving with the individuals and so on it was endless.
We met up in our different working groups and fed back on progress and problems, there was always a useful suggestion to work round any issues we had. The determination to make this work was over riding. We soon realised we needed a decoy and UK uncut were more than happy to oblige as it just so happened that Boots hadn’t been paying their taxes and they arranged an action at a Boots shop local to Westminster Abbey. After their action they would join us in the Abbey grounds
The day was getting closer and it was becoming very real. The weekend before the action we had rehearsals, the lock on crews practised till they had it down to a fine art threading those chains through their wheels with such skill and speed. The heavy goods crew took one of army tent to Hampstead Heath and put it up and took it down so may times we were doing it in our sleep.
The excitement and turned into nerves as the day got closer, press statements had been written up and communication to the Dean appealing for support was drafted. We worked on out timings. The lorry with all the gear in was to arrive at 3.00pm we had reserved some parking bays in a local street, a team unloaded the lorry whilst in the Abbey itself disabled people took their positions ready for the word go. We had to make sure that all the tourists in the area were made aware of what was happening and that they were free to leave and we had made a massive exit sign. We decided to have people informing the public that the area would be closing and if they could please leave.
D Day meaning Disabled Day arrived
The lorry pulled up into to it’s allocated bay and unloaded. We had trollies and wheely bins loaded full to the brim, the people dressed in their high vis and hard hats waited to take their load and walk 200yrds from the parking spot to the park this was fast becoming our riskiest part we were walking through the most heavily secure area of London with things that could be classed as weapons.
As soon as the first equipment arrived the locks ons happened and it was only seconds before the security realised what was happening and we had to get as many people in the area as possible. The rest of the equipment could be thrown in over the fence and so the mayhem began. Tents being laid out, gazebos erected, and banners and posts put on display. Before we knew it the grounds were being flooded by the police. The pushing and shoving over tents began and some clever copper decided to stand on the main structure just as we set to raise it.
So after a fast and furious half hour the situation was that we had 3 large gazebos erected giving the wheelchair users some protection from the weather and a few pop us tents of various sizes. We had disabled people locked on to every gate and about 200 police officers forming a line around the fencing so if anyone tried to join us they had to climb over the fence and would have been arrested. So at various points in the day you saw a loan protester running across the grounds chased by the police. Most of these we managed to D arrest and having stand offs where the police where happy to put disabled people at risk for the sake of a collar.
The police unsuccessfully tried to make announcements which the protesters drowned out with chants of “Save the ILF” and sirens. The crowd on the street had grown where a lot of disabled people that hadn’t managed to get in were giving out leaflets and educating the general public on the attack on the disabled communities by the cuts. Requests where sent to the Dean of Westminster Abbey to meet the protesters and false message where coming from the police. As one disable person cried he came to the church to find sanctuary and he had been turned away.
At one point there was a stand off as police tried to remove the ramps to allow wheel chair users move around and protesters had to intervene and stop them being removed. The police tried to block the use of the ramp by a wheelchair user. Once again disabled people right to the freedom of movement were being impeded whilst I could walk where ever I wanted. The officer was made stand down by his Sargent.
We stood around preparing what we could setting up tables to attempt to lay out food for people. It soon became evident that we had to sort out toilet facilities and the police standing on our tents meant that we had been unable to get some essential pieces into place. Any way that one was easy we turned one of the Gazebo’s into a toilet tied in the tarpaulins around with an entrance and a chemical loo with a frame. Presto. This bought as some more time.
Whilst this was going on more and more police were arriving, and the presence of tazars had been noted. Consensus meetings were being held on how to progress and a game of football took place until one female police officer got upset and confiscated it. So we just went an got another one. Courtesy of UK uncuts action we had a few. There were constant songs and chants of support coming from outside the fences and rumbles of press and interviews and MP’s
I didn’t get involved in the meetings other than to give the status on logistics and the equipment as any decision on how to progress was to be made by the DPAC and what ever decision was reached I would support. By 7.30 last night nobody from the church came forward to talk, to meet the protesters and the requests for support by the church in their plight. The church, the people they thought would show some understanding turned their back on them in their time of need. Oh how very Christian.
It was realised that some of the disabled people were unable to stay there as the intended structures hadn’t managed to placed. This meant that the number of able bodied protesters would outnumber the disabled people that were willing to stay. This raised concerns that as soon as some had left it left the remaining protesters at risk of arrest. In our hearts and minds we new we had not managed to occupy for as long as we had hoped but we could walk away knowing that the action had highlighted the need for an Independent Living Fund, trending on twitter and great coverage on the main stream media
Meanwhile we negotiated with the police to save all our equipment along the lines of ” There is so much here do you really want to have to log it all in and where are you going to store it all?” They still weren’t aware the agreements that the group had come to and the police decided to keep hold of the last 2 army tents until we were all loaded on the van “in case we pulled a fast one” The lorry pulled up and we loaded in. Every last piece was removed and the only blot left on the landscape was the 200 police left in the grounds,
I can tell you DPAC you can hold your head high. You are the strongest, most determined and courageous people I have had the pleasure of standing alongside. You make me so proud.
lots of love and respect Hampstead mum x