Westminster Abbey protest: Activists explain decision to pitch camp outside the abbey


newslatestDisabled activists have explained why they set up a protest camp in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, sparking a huge police operation involving more than 200 officers.

Members of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) spent months planning the direct action with the mainstream grassroots campaign groups UK Uncut and Occupy London.

The protest was aimed at drawing attention to the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF).

The entrance into the grounds of more than 50 activists, including several ILF-recipients, took place shortly after 3.30pm on Saturday.

Some of the activists were not able to enter the grounds because security staff – who appeared to have been warned about the protest in advance – had already locked some of the gates.

By 4pm, there were at least 30 police officers on the scene.

A small team of protesters met with the dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Dr John Hall, who told them that the Church of England supported the theory of standing up against austerity cuts but could not support any form of direct action. He asked them to leave immediately.

By 6pm, there were more than 200 police officers surrounding the tiny camp.

The plan had been to set up a protest camp in the grounds, just outside the main entrance of the abbey and within sight of parliament, to act as a magnet for other disabled people to join them in the three weeks before MPs left for the summer.

But that idea had to be abandoned because of Hall’s refusal to allow the protesters to camp in the grounds.

Although activists left peacefully at about 9pm on Saturday – more than five hours after the protest began – the Metropolitan police had made it clear that they were prepared to make large-scale arrests to clear the green space, and had the dean’s approval to do so.

Officers had made two arrests earlier in the afternoon, but neither of the activists were believed to be DPAC members.

The Labour MP John McDonnell, who supported the action from outside the metal railings and attempted to liaise with the dean, said the protest was “terrific”, and that disabled people were “being pushed to their limits and are willing to take direct action to the government’s attack on the ILF”.

He said: “People have had enough. They have drawn a line in the sand and they have my 100 per cent support.”

A spokeswoman for the dean told Disability News Service (DNS) that he had spoken to “direct representatives” of the protesters earlier in the afternoon, and that the abbey had “huge sympathy for this case”.

But she added: “At the moment we are working closely with the police.”

Actor, performer and activist Liz Carr, one of the ILF-recipients who had not made it into the grounds of the abbey, said she was impressed to see so many fellow ILF-users at the protest, despite the poor weather.

She said: “People genuinely are prepared to stay if we are allowed to stay.”

She added: “It has been like no other protest I have been involved in. The secrecy around it was phenomenal.”

The writer and performer Sophie Partridge, another ILF-user who was forced to support the protest from outside the fence, added: “One of the reasons for today is that it has got to the point of what do we have to do to get any publicity. We are not going away.”

Ellen Clifford, a member of the DPAC steering group, said afterwards that the action had been a “massive success”.

Although there was no mainstream television coverage of the protest, the three hashtags for the action all trended on Twitter, and at its peak there were about 20 tweets a second about it.

Clifford said: “It has completely changed the profile of the Independent Living Fund campaign.

“Previously it was only known about in disabled circles. We needed to try to get wider attention because what it represents is so significant in terms of disabled people’s place in society.”

She said protest action was now “only going to escalate”, with less than a year until ILF’s planned closure.

Before the action began, DNS spoke to many of the disabled activists as they prepared for the protest.

Andy Greene, one of the members of the DPAC steering group, said that such a high-profile action was necessary because previous protests had not created the kind of attention they needed.

He said the best thing the Church could do would be to “stay out of the way and allow this protest to happen”.

Jenny Hurst, an ILF-user and DPAC activist, said: “I am slightly concerned as to how well it is going to be taken by people and whether it is going to further our cause in the way that we want it to.”

She said the government’s decisions had “forced us back into direct action to get our message across”, as had the failure of the mainstream media to support their cause.

Sam Brackenbury, one of about 10 ILF-users who took part in the protest, said if it had not been for ILF and his personal assistant, he would not be alive.

He said: “I trust her implicitly. She got me sober. If they get rid of the ILF, they are going to kill people. They will have blood on their hands.”

He said if he was faced with losing his independence then “people in power are not going to sleep”.

He added: “I am angry. I am frightened for the future. I am looking forward to the action but I am frightened that people will not pay attention.

“I don’t want any trouble, I just want people to pay attention. If disabled people want independence and freedom, they have to fight for it.”

Another disabled campaigner, Robert Punton, said disabled people were now joining forces with “all the oppressed of Britain”, which was a “big step forward in the disability movement”, and meant they had enough activists for bigger direct actions.

“It makes a difference because it proves that together we are stronger… it gives everybody a sense of belonging.”

He added: “For me this is about us making a stand, that whatever happens… whatever barriers they put up, we will still fight.”

Gabriel Pepper, one of three ILF-users seeking a judicial review of the government’s decision to close the fund, said: “I don’t believe this demo will save the ILF but it will make the whole thing escalate. The Church won’t know what to do with us.”

Maz, a disabled activist who is part of Brighton’s anarchist scene, said: “The only weapon we have in our arsenal is to try and embarrass them that they are arresting disabled people.

“They don’t take us seriously because we are cripples. I don’t want to have to go to Westminster. This isn’t a jolly day out for me.

“I have to be here to fight because I am petrified of what the future is.”

Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives (formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People), said the target had been chosen to be “as high-profile as possible”.

He said he hoped the Church would react in a “positive” and “supportive” way, and added: “Actions speak louder than words and they have to take sides.”

He added: “Everything else has failed. Reason has failed. High court decisions have failed because, despite Cameron lecturing everyone on how important the rule of law is, this government is acting completely outside the law.

“We were left with no alternative.”

He added: “It’s not just about the ILF. It is about nailing once and for all that austerity is not necessary; it’s a political programme to dump the crisis on the poorest in society.”

He said he hoped the protest would also help to bring an end to the work capability assessment, and see Capita and Atos “sacked” from their contracts assessing disabled people for the new personal independence payment.

Martin, a disabled activist from Ipswich, said: “My condition is not going to get better. Probably at some point in the future I might end up having to use it myself, but if it’s gone I will probably end up getting stuck in a home and I don’t like that kind of environment because you get no freedom.”

He would tell fellow protesters and onlookers later: “We are fighting back the only way we know how.”

Paula Peters, another DPAC activist, said: “When the government is not prepared to listen to us, other forms of action are necessary.

“We have a long history of resistance and fighting back. We have to make a stand for our rights and we have to force the government to look again at the ILF and reconsider its decision.”

1 July 2014