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The Hunger Strike in Westminster Square

Just over a week ago, being in London to advertise the 2012 Global Strike for a Moneyless World and with nowhere to stay, I got permission to move into one of the little tents in the ‘Democracy Village Peace Camp’ surrounding the pavement around Westminster Square in front of the Houses of Parliament in London. Described by Prime Minister David Cameron as a “shanty town” which must be removed, the camp has been going and growing since 2001, when peace activist Brian Haw, who died of cancer last month, first sat down there alone in protest against UK and US foreign policy.

On my first day I found some rolls of carpet underlay being thrown away on a dumpster near Westminster Abbey which I retrieved and lined my floor with, covered with a large red and black silk anarchist flag I found thrown away in Istanbul, so it’s not uncomfortable to sit or lie in my tent. I also found an empty container of latex fluid which I use for pissing in. A bit difficult in the cramped conditions, but I’ve learned the knack. The nearest free toilet where I crap and wash and brush my teeth in the morning is in leafy Green Park. There’s no mirror. I’ve been doing my 30 minute morning yoga session on the grass in the park before the lavatory opens at 7.30 am. The weather has been changeable; sunny and hot, cold and cloudy, and the rain of course falls on the just and on the unjust whenever it wants in England.

There’s a constant roar from the passing traffic, and the loud chimes and gongs of Parliament’s Big Ben are as regular as clockwork. My tent, emblazoned with the message ‘ABOLISH MONEY’ is on the side of the metal-meshed square facing Westminster Abbey. I sit on the kerb and watch the constant stream of tourists pay sixteen pounds each to enter the hallowed building. That Church must be making a mint! In the evening my view is still a constantly shifting scene of vehicles and people with a dramatically lit background of the Abbey and the gold-tipped spires of Parliament. Mice scamper and scavenge around the tents at night looking for food in the rubbish. Scavenging is something I’ve been tending to be doing myself recently in my travels around the streets of London, and I’ve dined pretty well on my findings from trashcans and dumpsters. Olives, cheese, pitta bread, hummus dips, sandwiches, crisps. The stuff people throw away! Maybe I’m just lucky. But rather than feeding hungry people with their sell-by-date surplus, some stores lock their dumpsters with food inside which will be tossed into a landfill and covered with dirt.

I’ve met interesting people on my rambles, and learned some interesting things too. For instance, on a mission to clean up the streets of London prior to the coming Olympic Games next summer, cops are hassling homeless people who sleep rough on the streets, sometimes rounding them up and driving them miles out into the countryside and dumping them there. I also learned that the City of Westminster police’s “counter-terrorist focus desk” had recently published a leaflet asking for members of the public to come forward with information if they are acquainted with any ‘anarchists’. Who me?

Approaching 9 pm last week as I came back from Trafalgar Square where I had been attending the countdown for One Year to the Opening of the Olympic Games Ceremony in the presence of Princess Anne, David Cameron, and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London (I should have booed!) I found Westminster Square cordoned-off to pedestrians and traffic, and camp members being moved away by the police. A suspicious packet had been found in a telephone box on the other side of the square. I was allowed to go to my tent to get something and then argued with an officer who was trying to get my hunger striking South Korean neighbour Okhwan Yoon, out of his tent. I said Okhwan was too weak to walk after 30 days of fasting. The policeman moved off, saying he should stay then, and I crept into my own tent and decided to remain. The square was deathly silent without the usual roar of the traffic and wail of police sirens. I lay down and rested. After about half an hour there was a loud explosion, and half-an-hour later the traffic and tourists were back as usual. Police had made a controlled explosion of the package, which turned out to just contain polystyrene.

Okhwan Yoon is a gentle man, a writer and philosopher. He has been on a ten year global cycling tour to promote and inspire the message of peace. He has travelled to 191 countries by bike since 2001. He began his hunger strike in Parliament Square on 26th June, 2011, to call for the unification of North and South Korea. Now he lies in his little dusty white tent, the once tough and resilient cyclist’s body in a weak and emaciated condition. Maria Gallastegui, one of the founder members of the camp visits him in the morning and evening and administers to his needs, disposing of bottles of urine, taking his pulse rate and bringing him water, sometimes diluted with lemon juice. She changes the number on the announcement attached to the fence behind his tent advertising how many days it is since he last ate solid food. Already he rivals Jesus’ forty days and forty nights.

The other morning a vicar from Westminster Abbey arrived, saying they had received a message about Okhwan and asked to come and say hello. The Reverend Tony didn’t know about the reason for the fast and I filled him in before he sat on the kerb, leaning into Okhwan’s tent for a few minutes to hear his story. Eventually he stood up and said: “Of course the Church can’t interfere in politics, but you will certainly be remembered in our prayers!” And then he was off.

How much longer will Okhwan continue before breaking his own fast? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divided Koreas united first? Like pigs might fly. But let it be soon.

Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com

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Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.

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