Saturday 9 February 2013

The love of something, shown in action and not in words: the saving of Friern Barnet Library, and ' A Polite Revolution'

At one point during Tuesday's celebrations for the re-opening of Friern Barnet Library, Mrs Angry was standing in the doorway with community squatter Phoenix, discussing his role as the Mary Poppins of the occupy movement, (a comparison for which he claimed he has forgiven her, but only just) and he reminded her of the first evening of occupation, where, as the sun slid slowly over the rooftops of Broken Barnet, we introduced ourselves, over the  fence by the back door. 

 occupier Phoenix

We were wary of each other at first: but as he explained what he was doing there, and Mrs Angry explained the background to the Barnet insurgency, and the interesting coincidence that the new criminalisation of squatting was promoted by local MP Mike Freer, cordial relations were soon established, and it became clear, as Phoenix put it, that: hello ... the story of this occupation was going to be something altogether different ... 

And so it was, and so it is.

The story of Friern Barnet library continues: now not only the tale of a local community, and the saving of a much loved service; the significance of what has been achieved here is reaching far beyond the boundaries of Broken Barnet and carrying a vital message to every community in the UK, and further still.

A brilliant film is being released today, National Librariesm Day - made by members of the occupy movement, and focused on the events at Friern Barnet Library. It's called 'A Polite Revolution'.

A Polite Revolution from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.

This is a fabulous, moving and inspiring film, with contributions by local residents and campaigners, who speak about the impact the occupation of the library has had on their lives, and community, and points to the wider significance of the story, the possibilities of a future where communities take control of their own destinies, not through the faux democracy and empty promises of the Tory localism agenda, but through direct action, and grassroots campaigning.

In the film Noam Chomsky talks about the sense of disenfranchisement that the majority of people now feel from the mainstream political process.  Here in Barnet, local Labour councillors have been directly involved in the library rebellion - this should be an opportunity to re-energise the political opposition, and target new force where it should be focused, in the Town Hall - it is the way in which to engage with the community, as events these last few months have shown. Let's hope the party as a whole can learn from this experience and harness some of this new energy.

Local resident and library campaigner Fiona Brickwood makes some very interesting personal observations in the film: she describes herself as coming from a 'privileged' background, never having been involved before in political protest; she watched with some astonishment as the campaign for the library appeared to move from a peaceful and 'legitimate' protest into something rather different - she compares this to 'like going to war'. 

A fair comparison, because it seems to Mrs Angry that we are in the middle of a war, and a war fought on several fronts. We are seeing the emergence of a new class war, with a newly defined underclass of dispossessed, and yes, disenfranchised citizens, whose lives are being made intolerable through a concerted assault, by a government run by a privileged elite, intent on removing from the less advantaged members of society the most basic requirements of everything fundamental to a decent standard of life. 

Our public services, our health service, our benefit system: all being destroyed and laid open to the predations of the market, while those with immense wealth and unconstrained power and influence exclude themselves from any process of accountability.

As this film observes, the Friern Barnet story represents a microcosm of what is going on around the country. 

The One Barnet programme, which aims to privatise almost all our public services, and turn our borough into 'Barnet Plc', with profit for Capita shareholders taking priority over the duty to support the needs of local residents, is, ironically, a model for local government that central government now rejects, not so much in principle but in terms of scale and scope. That will not prevent the similar model being used to open up the new market possiblities of the dismantling of our NHS, of course, or in any other area of opportunity.

The One Barnet programme has been imposed on the people of this borough by a cabal of Tory councillors, and a handful of senior officers, without the consent of the residents of this borough - that this has taken place without engaging in a process of consultation is now the main argument leading the current Judicial Review of the privatisation. 

The closure and sale of Friern Barnet library demonstrated, as Fiona Brickwood points out in the film, that even when a show of consultation is made, the Tory councillors in Barnet display utter contempt for the opinions of residents, and she speaks of the sense of impotence, injustice and unfairness that residents felt when their views were ignored by their elected representatives.

 campaigner Fiona Brickwood

An overwhelming objection to the closure and continued campaign to defend the library was defied until direct action, the occupation of the building, the creation of the people's library and an extraordinary court case which gave validation to the protest, forced the Tory adminstration into a humiliating retreat.

In the process of the residents' library campaign, what happened was not just the saving of a building, but the creation of a new sense of community, and even, as the film testifies, the renewal of sense of identity on a more personal level for many of those involved, as the contribution of Danielle reveals.

As occupier Leon observes, everyone wants to save a library - a library is 'sacred', a thought echoed by Chomsky, who says the power of such public spaces is not just that they are where people learn, but where they interact. I

It is curious, is it not, to reflect on the totemic place of the public library in the British psyche? It represents something very precious, if indefinable: something we do bit want to lose.

Perhaps the reason is this: our public libraries were established in order to give access to education and information to ordinary people, the working man and woman in search of self improvement. It was part of the undoing of the rigid social barriers which held people in their place, powerless, and without a voice. Now in the twenty first century, in a society where the potential for upward social mobility is becoming harder and harder to maintain, the preservation of a public library still represents the hope of something better, for those who may have nowhere else to look.

In the film Fiona Brickwood refers to the power of shared information. Knowledge is power, and a book is the most dangerous weapon in the world, and a necessary part of class warfare, even in the new battle between our public schoolboy led Coalition government and the dispossessed of Broken Britain. 

Here in Broken Barnet, where all 'sensitive' political information is redacted, thought is a crime, and public discussion of council policy forbidden by our elected representatives, nothing could be more dangerous than a library. 

Friern Barnet library posed a real threat to the 'relentless drive for efficiency', the psychopathology of One Barnet - it might even be said that the closure of Friern Barnet library was a trophy killing: look at us, what we can do, if we only want to ... 

Or so they thought.

One of the residents featured in this film is Alfred, a single parent who came to this country as a refugee from the unspeakable horrors of the Rwandan genocide. In his country, of course, a public library system is being created, as a mark of recovery from barbarism and madness. Here in Broken Britain, once the bastion of civilisation and cultural triumphalism, we are taking an axe to our public library system, and returning our profit driven society to a wasteland of philistinism. 
Residents Alfred and Fred

For Alfred, his local library was a refuge too, a place of safety for his children. 

In the film he and his children sit in the People's Library, watching old footage of traditional warriors back in Rwanda. Perhaps one day children will sit in this library and watch the footage of the fighting  of our urban warriors, men and women of the local community engaged in a very different sort of war. 

Alfred states something obvious, but no less true, and spoken by someone who clearly knows from first hand the value and fragility of the things we all take for granted:  'the love of something - it's not only by words, you have to show actions'. 

If you love something - or someone - fight for it, protect it, reclaim it - or someone, or something, will take it away forever. 

This is the lesson from the occupy movement - direct action is not just for urban warriors and professional activists: it is something everyone can take part in. 

The film moves at one point from a group declaration taken on the steps of St Paul's to the declaration made at the recent takeover of the committee of Barnet councillors about to approve the Capita contract: it finishes with residents, middle class, middle aged and older, protesting about a local hospital about to lose vital services - and calling for an occupation. It is an extraordinarily significant moment. 

And the war moves on, now, from the library to One Barnet, and to the NHS, and beyond: time to sign up, maybe. Your country needs you.

The message of this film, and the story of the People's Library is this: you are not powerless.

You can do something to change the world you live in.

You may not reach the immediate goal you set out to achieve, but in the process, you will find something perhaps more important - a new  sense of who you are, and what you are, and where you live: your community, and your life. 

Not just by words, then, but by actions. 

Fight for it.


Anonymous said...

I was amused to read Cllr Cornelius's comment in his column this week; not a peep about the library...
"..........we can be proud that Barnet’s Conservative council has saved taxpayers’ money being used on bureaucracy rather than on cutting valued services.

We have excellent schools, good roads (even after January), top-class social services, beautiful parks and weekly waste collections.

Despite the froth from critics and undoubtedly difficult decisions that we have not hidden from, the innovative policies which we have pursued have kept us in good shape, providing the top-quality service that we all expect from the council."

Mrs Angry said...
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