Grasp The Nettle and My Thoughts on Activism

The 27th Leeds International Film Festival has started!

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It’s one of my favourite events of the year, and my first foray was on Friday when I went to see a documentary named Grasp The Nettle by Dean Puckett.

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Grasp The Nettle is about activism during this period of austerity in the UK. It mainly focused on two movements, one about sustainable living, one about opposition to military action in the Middle East, and two camps that were set up to try and further these aims. One called Eco Village established in March 2009 Kew Bridge and Democracy Camp in Parliament Square.

eco village

Eco Village was a plot of derelict land occupied by activists looking to live outside society in a self-sustainable way. The land was disused for about 20 years until the village was created. The residents were able to get drinking water from the Jet garage (free of charge), washing water from the river and they raided supermarket bins for food, although the eventual dream would be growing and cultivating their own food. The local community by and large were happy to have them their; many of them had spent years protesting against potential development of the site. Generally the community didn’t really to have much to do with activism, at least in this section of the film. Rather, many people felt that they wanted to be outside society, that they didn’t agree with the way life is organised and didn’t see why they couldn’t try to live differently. They considered  modern life to be unsustainable in terms of resource and disliked the corporate nature of today’s society. However, as the film progressed the war in Afghanistan became a much larger focus, and that is where Democracy Camp came in.

Peace campaigners had been camping on Parliament Square for a decade but gradually as St George’s (the company who owned the Eco Village land) started to win the legal battle people gravitated over to protest the war. Despite the best intentions of the activists, it became a magnet for the homeless, drink and drug addicted. Some were happy about this; the homeless by definition are on the edge of society and so people that want to change the way society functions should cater for those, and some were not; they consider that they are campaigning and anyone that is not helping the campaign and being productive is a hindrance.

My thoughts on a social conscience are very divided., and watching this film really made me consider them in more detail. I feel like I have one, yet I am constantly irritated by others who are socialist, or activist. It seems imperative for these people to pretend to know everything about every little piece of current affairs and to have an opinion on everything. This was perfectly exemplified by the ‘freeman’ in the film, who had their own (frankly ridiculous) ideas of how to behave in a legal situation. The way he talked was so self-righteous and superior, but so devoid of common sense I just couldn’t bear to listen to him.

However, a lot of the activists were really very reasonable. They didn’t come across as preachy or overly pleased with themselves, and I had a lot of respect for the way they conducted themselves. I find some activists are very keen to be accepted for wanting to live outside of society, but intolerant of anyone who chooses to live within society and that really wasn’t the case here.

I particularly agreed with the idea that there should be similar eco villages across the UK for people who do want to live a self-sustained lifestyle. There are so many plots of unused land, and when they aren’t taken over and flogged as car parks, weeds just proliferate. G4S apparently provide security for just such a plot of land at the bottom of my street. The epitome of money for old rope! It wouldn’t be big enough for a whole eco village, but one or two homeless people could be comfortable there, and why shouldn’t they? I would be surprised if anyone really chooses to be homeless. If there is somewhere to give them that isn’t being used, why not? Surely that would be cheaper than paying G4S to gaze at a plot of weeds.

I suppose a lot of what I don’t agree with is the way that
activists go about things. I think change occurs either from within or through direct action (not necessarily violent). It doesn’t occur by setting up camp outside the Houses of Parliament and creating disruption. The point may be noble, and of course doing nothing changes nothing, but at the same time I didn’t see anything that looked like it was going to bring about change. At one point, the activists were standing in a circle holding hands visualising winning a court case. It’s hard to think of anything more ineffectual.

Ultimately in order to bring about change, you have to have the majority on your side. Democracy is fully entrenched in this country, and while there are problems with government that is the system we have and I think by and large it is a good one. If you want to make a change, you have to try and have your say through the power of your vote, among other things. If people are serious about campaigning for peace, it needs to be done through reasoned argument and debate. Of course, the problem with debate for some people is that it involves listening as well as speaking.  A minority cannot just put banners up and stop traffic and try and force people to agree with them. That is a very disrespectful approach. You have to credit people with some intelligence and try and change their minds.

By contrast, the Eco Village looked to have made a lot of difference. There was one particular fellow called Leuan, who is one of the people who had a perfectly reasonable life but lost his job in the recession and wasn’t lucky enough to have someone who could help him out. He found his way to the Eco Village and was welcomed there and has found a new path among this community. That, to me, is the epitome of the Big Society that is so championed and so unfacilitated by this government. While there is all this talk about scroungers, the people who scam the hard-working honest taxpayers, there is no talk of the people who were hard-working honest taxpayers but now fall through the cracks. The Eco Village assisted all these people, and it was not a place for the lazy people we are always hearing about. There was a lot of work to be done, but inevitably the world found in favour of the company who owned the land.

It was utterly heartbreaking to see all the hard work they had done being destroyed. It makes you think that there must be some way for communities like this to have some sort of rights. I do appreciate that if I owned some land, I would want the right to do as I please with it, but when the local community so clearly preferred the Eco Village to the proposed development surely there should be some obligation to take those feelings into consideration. Perhaps if land remained unused for a period of time, there should be some sort of forfeit. Or perhaps there should be some sort of tax on unused land, and some process in place so that should the land be about to be put to good use, the people are not physically evicted and all the hard work bulldozed. It is such a shame to see the immediate aggression that seemed to spring up, when actually, no harm was being done. One point that the freeman made that I did agree with (the only one) was that he is a human being. We are all human beings, and somehow when we talk about groups such as companies, activists, the unemployed, we forget that these groups are all made up of individuals who all deserve to be treated with respect. Maybe if we remembered, the world really would be a better place.

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