As everyone knows, the austerity cuts issued by the coalition government have been truly catastrophic and have effected the most vulnerable people within our society. Andy Greene campaigns for the Disabled groups whom have seen their welfare benefits taken away from them.
Illustration by Hannah Meese
Direction Action – Because we’re worth it by Andy Green
A young man at one of the countless meetings I’ve attended over the last few years told me his theory of change, during a lull in proceedings.
“Two things have to happen in the public’s mind” he said. “One, they have to find out for themselves that the deal between them and the state is, and always has been, one sided; andtwo, they have to recognise they are worth more – then they begin to demand more”.
As an activist, I am constantly having these kinds of conversations. What do we need to do? How do we connect with the public? When will people wake up? But this statement was a bit more interesting. It didn’t mention campaigns, messages, direct actions or the media: it was all about people’s own experiences bringing them into confrontation with policy makers.
Working hard, paying your taxes, living within the law, obeying the rules:that was meant to be our end of the bargain; a democratic voice, accountability, equality of opportunity, services and infrastructure, building a better future for those coming up behind us: that was what we expected in return. Fat fucking chance. Instead, those we select to represent us took our votes and our money and duck ponds, moats and heated stables were their priority. The order of the day was serving themselves, answering the call of the corporate masters and avoiding, evading and/or laughing in the face of, the general public. As punters we’ve voted and we’ve paid, so now our job is to go away until we are called upon again, and leave the important business of running shit to our representatives.
‘Whoa tiger!’ I can hear you say, ‘We are 4 paragraphs in and you still haven’t mentioned the DPAC Westminster action – get to it quickly please’. Well to understand this action, you have to understand why it came about, and some of the people that made it happen. How those people found themselves confronting the state, the church, the police. How we use wheelchairs as weapons of protest instead of mobility aides. How people who need support to eat, wash, get out of bed and dress themselves, found themselves planning for bedding down in (accessible) tents opposite the ‘mother of all parliaments’, in the same grounds as the eternal resting place for kings and legends.
The Independent Living Fund (ILF) is a support funding stream provided by central government and managed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This is a bit of an anomaly, as most ‘care’ (or support) funding is normally provided and managed by local councils. The fund was set up by the Tories (I know, I wouldn’t have thought so either) in 1988 to provide extra support for people with the highest support needs. The fund is also an anomaly in another way. Local council care is based on the ‘deficit’ model – what are your ‘needs’? What support do you need to do the things you can’t do? The ILF process is based on an aspirational model – what do you want to do with your life? What are your interests/skills/priorities, and how can the ILF make that happen? A model of support for the 21st century, one would have thought.
There are about 17,500 – 18,000 users of the ILF at the moment. On average, the ILF costs just over £330 per person, per week. There are ILF users who are artists, actors, performers, writers, musicians and CEO’s of disabled peoples organisations. The whole idea of ILF is that people are supported to be all of these things, and live independent lives, contributing to and benefiting from society on equal terms.
Without the ILF, many councils couldn’t even begin to provide this kind of support, and many users would face being put into residential homes – who operate on the ‘stack ‘em deep, feed ‘em cheap’ format of care provision. Many ILF users already came from the ‘care homes’ we are talking about, where dignity and humanity were cast aside like dirty boots upon entry. Where people didn’t even own their own toothbrush, or underwear. Where, staggeringly, BUPA recently discovered that up to 45% of older and disabled people die within 12 months of coming through the door. Remember, these are residential homes – where people go to live – not nursing homes where people go to die. To many, the ILF literally means the difference between life and death.
With that kind of past, and that kind of future laid out, no wonder people place such a high value on the ILF.
But not the Coalition. You see the ILF was closed to new applicants in 2010. This was soon followed by the announcement (on the UN International Day of Disabled People 2012 – you couldn’t make this shit up) that the fund would close altogether the next year. Naturally, users were a bit miffed, to say the least. Many a letter was written in ire, to MP’s, Lords and the media. Social media was blitzed, as social media usually is. With protest actions, meetings, short films, briefings in Parliament to politicos and articles published hither and yon to follow.
ILF users reached out to those organisations who had positioned themselves as vital to the lives of disabled people – the disability ‘charities’ – little realising that these same organisations had fattened themselves gorging on the Government millions doled out to ‘support’ disabled people, and weren’t interested in the forced dieting that challenging Government decisions would inevitably bring. These organisations value their ‘inside the tent pissing out’ status more than anything, certainly more than helping the voices of disabled people to be heard, or empowering people to find out what was going on.
Crucially, a legal challenge was also mounted by a group of users. And in November 2013, the Upper Tribunal Court of Appeal decided that, in essence, the government’s argument was a crock of shit. That the Government hadn’t considered the implications of closing the fund. That it was unlawful, and breached the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which the UK had signed up to.
‘Ah, right’ said the Coalition, ‘give us a moment to pause and reflect would you please?’ Fast forward to March this year, when the pausing and reflecting was done and the new announcement came: “We couldn’t give a flying fuck what the courts think” they said, “Nor two fucks could we give about the users we now acknowledge might end up in prison – sorry, homes. We are going to close it anyway”.
Having exhausted all ‘legitimate’ forms of protest and resisting this decision, users found themselves back in the same position with no more avenues open to them. Unless they were prepared to raise the stakes, unless they were prepared to create the kind of space which is undeniable. The kind of space which cannot be swept away by government rhetoric, or swamped by a barrage of incorrect, misleading or simply made-up statistics. To do this, users linked up with those who have been fighting this fight where it matters – on the streets.
Through DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), disabled people have carried on the form of protest that disabled people have been doing since the 19th century – direct action. DPAC have shut down city centres through road blockings, occupied government departments such as the DWP and Department for Education. We have pitched up at Cabinet Ministers homes (including the homes of Iain Ducan Smithand Nick Clegg) with UK Uncut. DPAC have been central in the campaign to drive Atos out of welfare reform. We have also been instrumental in the Save ILF Campaign since the beginning, and were keen to find new ways of challenging this government. The idea for a time limited, accessible protest camp was discussed, and together with the frontline activist groups Occupy andUK Uncut, plans were laid to build the camp under the noses of the parliamentarians – across the road from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Abbey.
The plan took months to prepare. Weekly meetings in sweaty rooms, working groups, sourcing funding, borrowing infrastructure, rehearsals, the whole nine yards. It was ambitious. But the fight to defend disabled people’s rights and position within society won’t be won through petitions and marches. If you think it will, there are plenty of opportunities for people to take that kind of action – check your local Peoples Assembly or TUC website for listings. But DPAC are about disabled people taking collective action on our own terms. And about supporting, and being supported by, the broader anti-cuts and anti-austerity movement.
In the end, this action managed to get over 100 people, plus 7.5 tonnes of infrastructure, to within 100 yards of ‘the mother of all Parliaments’. And we only missed by a hairs breath of achieving our primary goal – setting up a camp. Only the efforts of over 250 Met Police, combined with the ignorance and callous disregard of the Dean of Westminster, thwarted our plans. Butlessons have been learned and we will be better, bigger and bolder the next time.
The challenge has been set.
The challenge for government (of any colour): to reject corporate lobbying, and create societies which are inclusive for all its citizens. They should do this by engaging and responding to its citizens; they must stop perpetuating myths and untruths about groups like disabled people, immigrants and claimants, in a bid to progress neo-liberal, profit-driven agendas.
The challenge for society: to figure out at what point we stop talking about the ‘economies’ we live in, and start talking about our communities and relationships again. And what our role is in empowering people to take their part in building stronger communities and relationships.
The challenge for activists: to step up their action. To see the marches and demos for what they are:merely part of the solution, not the solution in themselves. To look at ways of building alternative structure, such as occupations, workers councils, communities reclaiming their streets and assets. All of these give people a chance to see for themselves first-hand how society is created by us, not for us.
And the challenge for the public is simple: look at the deal you have with the state, and ask yourself if you are worth more.
Andy Greene is an activist with Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC)