DAY 3333 18th July 2010
Democracy Village set to be demolished
The chaotic, never-to-be-seen-again curiosity added a fresh look to the seat of British power.
Democracy Village, a ragtag community of peace activists, pro-democracy campaigners and the homeless in central London, is about to be torn down. It was born on May Day this year, when an anti-war march from Clerkenwell Green to Trafalgar Square stumbled a few hundred yards further to hang effigies of the party leaders on a gibbet in Parliament Square.
And ever since it has lended something of a fresh look to the seat of British power.
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, went to the courts to have the protesters evicted, on the grounds that Parliament Square was "becoming an eyesore".
They appealed, but on Friday their appeal was denied, and now the end is nigh. Some have already left; others are waiting for the police to remove them.
On Saturday afternoon the camp seems like a carnival ebbing to its end. There are 20 tents, some homemade signs and a sailing boat near a sound system which the inhabitants use to make speeches and read poems. It is not, as the mayor and other critics have claimed, filthy, but it does have a chaotic, never-to-be-seen-again curiosity: a campsite surrounded by the Treasury, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey. A three legged dog lies on the grass.
It is perhaps inevitable that the homeless have come here; for the security, the fellowship and the money donated by passers-by. They sit in a circle of chairs but they do not wish to be interviewed.
The activists say they have become social workers to their homeless comrades, which has left them less time for direct action. In the early weeks they climbed on to the roof of Westminster Abbey and the window sills of the Treasury, but now the protest is less active.
Some of campers were regulars in the square long before the May Day crew arrived. Maria Gallastegui, 51, has run a vigil for Gaza in the square for four years.
"The camp has got bigger because people who need a place to stay and be fed have arrived while the activists have got tired and left," she says. "We have a major alcoholic problem on the site. Some of them are quite dangerous. But some people have terrible lives all their lives."
In its 11 weeks the camp has changed, she says, from 100% activist to 30% activist and 70% homeless.
The food, which used to come from a field kitchen on the south corner, has become ad hoc, and the hay bale toilet has been abandoned for the public loos in St James Park. "People donate things," Gallastegui says, "a cake, some water, a jar of olives." A blonde woman with blue tattoos on her face, holding a bottle of wine, walks up, to ask Gallastegui to buy food. "We're starving, darling," she says.
Gallastegui is also watching over an autistic teenager who arrived with activists from a London "eco-village" which had been dismantled by police. She points him out as he runs around, hugging people and talking into a microphone. "He has found a new freedom," she says. "He has never really had the freedom to roam. Normal society wouldn't associate with him at all."
On the south side of the square, the peace protester Brian Haw stands facing the Palace of Westminster on his crutches. He will not speak to me, or to anyone involved with Democracy Village.
He is said to believe that the inhabitants of Democracy Village are agents of the state, whose only purpose is to have him evicted from the patch of pavement where he has been protesting against the Iraq war since 2001.
A few yards away is Len Miskulin. He has been on a hunger strike here for 22 days, he says, to protest about the state's removal of his children through the family courts. He is shrivelled by the sun and bone thin. He sits on a deckchair and weeps. He says the police will have to drag him from here. "I have run out of choices. I am homeless and 59 years old and I have no future."
There is some optimism here though too. Anita Olivacce, one of the few remaining activists, looks astonishingly serene. She is very young. Last week she was arrested for sitting outside Downing Street singing the Bob Marley song One Love; or rather, she was arrested for obstructing the highway and fined £95, which she refused to pay.
"I didn't want to pay for asking others to join us in peace," she says, so she was sent to Holloway prison for seven days. "I embraced it. It was a great experience. I managed to get the women [prisoners] to meditate and hug in the garden." They released her after three days.
Later, there is a dispute at the microphone. After a bearded man has read a poem called Strange Brains, a visiting Christian group sings Jesus Loves You. A female activist protests. "Why are you talking about God?" she shouts, pointing at the singers. "You! You! This is oppression." "We are all children of God," says the singer, "I believe that Christ died to set the captives free."
There is no coherent plan of action for when the police arrive to clear the square, although I suspect the remaining activists will not be biddable. Whatever happens to Democracy Village, and whenever the police come to shut it down – today, tomorrow? – it has survived through the early summer of 2010, a metaphor for the gulf between its inhabitants and the MPs just a hundred yards away.
by Tanya Gold
photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
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