An article written by a contributor who is currently serving a 120 hour community payback order, in which they are required to do a program of unpaid work for the terrible “community”1. This article forms the first part of a short series detailing different aspects and analysis of the community payback program, from thinking about the actions being performed and their implications to offering a kind of insight into what this shit is actually like.
Part 1: Honor amongst thieves.
I’m going to dive straight in, it doesn’t really matter how I got to this moment; from the hands of thugs in blue uniform, to the loving embrace of the sham judicial system weighted against the poor/non white and indeed anyone who doesn’t fit the citizen factories standard model, through the hands of a lazy probation office more concerned about why I identify as gender and sexuality queer than my welfare, broken wrist or what work I’d like to do; and finally into a council estate in Sydenham (South London) where i’m expected to clean railings for seven hours a day with one half hour break and a theoretical further two fifteen minute fag breaks for no money whilst some middle aged, wanna be screw gets on my case every time I miss a spot.
I arrive at five to nine,and spend ten minutes looking for the room that we’re supposed to be in; by the time i find it it’s about ten past nine- today's particularly jobs worth supervisor decides that time will be taken off my hours and will therefore have more to complete. Suddenly there is an explosion, five guys (two of the literally jumping out of there seats) start kicking off, fighting MY corner, telling the fucking supervisor that i don’t deserve to loose 15 minutes from my days work and that they should give me a break. After about ten minutes the arguing subsides and low and behold by the end of the day i’ve been given my full time- this is the vein by day begins in, I feel like one of the tribe.
Flash forward a day or to and I’m at another site in another part of the city sat under the shade of a tree, all of us (there are 4) convicts sharing a spliff and talking about our various crimes. I feel more at home here than i have in a long time, we take it in turns to watch each others backs, pick up the slack of the guy rolling the spliff, and cover for each other when someone wants to sneak off to the shop (an offense that can get you sent home, and therefore breached which means going back to court and potentially facing prison). Everyone here is friendly and helpful, of all the guys i’ve met on these “projects” not one has done any harm to an individual- all us are victims of a system that targets us for our poverty, ethnicity, or lack of complicity with our own oppression/refusal to assimilate.
Like in the workplace, or the community, organizing happens through a series of friendships, and through organization we are stronger. Similarly to the workplace our organization is most apparent when we are in opposition, when we must fight for our survival, when we come into direct conflict with the authorities that are enslaving us. When a supervisor attempts to send one combatant home for not working quickly enough, our collective action, our friendship, and our realization of what this would mean enable us to combat effectively the wishes of the supervisor (who in this case has no understanding of the loneliness and alienation of the court room, the bias of the judge, or the reality of the prison) and protect our comrade through the threat of non compliance.
Isolation is a parasite. In the footsteps towards our current situations, each of us was singled out, plucked from the homogenous mass by the camera, the state thug, the security guard, the ticket barrier, the bank; isolated from our friends,our comrades, our lovers (physically in the cell, the prison, the courthouse, and mentally in so far as our charges, our convictions are our individual crosses to bear), and attempted to be individualized, demonized and disconnected. In finding each other, in sharing our stories and in experiencing struggle together we come a step closer to liberating ourselves both from our physical situations and our subconscious labels as outcasts; our hi visibility jackets become a symbol of our brotherhood where they were intended to mark us out, to other us and power shifts back into our favor, away from the hands of those who oppress us.
Friendship sticks, there is honor amongst thieves. Many friendships form from our “projects” which extend beyond the parameters of the seven hour days in which we are forced together. Many combatants drive each other to and from the days slavery, we socialize after “work” and we learn more about each others situations, we build solidarity, we advise each other on claiming benefits, personal security against state intrusion, and on basic methods of survival in the face of capital. Together we make each other stronger.
And then the state strikes me a blow. The phone rings “Hello Mr/Mrs/N/A ———, i’m just calling from the control centre to tell you that you have been redirected to an A.P placement 2(see footnote); from now on you will be working X/Y/Z day in a charity shop; you will be the only community payback member at this placement” End call. I protest to every level of authority, but that's just the problem I am forced cap in hand as an isolated individual to the feet of my oppressor, without my fellow combatants to back me up I inevitably loose my battle and I’m shunted to the charity shop a few miles from my home. It’s ok there (at the shop), the days are easier and as an individual I’m treated more fairly by those who own the rights to my body for seven hours a day than on the “projects”, but I’m isolated and alone in my struggle against my detention. I find some solace in my sisters, brothers, and gender fuckers enslaved on the workfare program 3/4 (what we share is of course that our bodies are the property of someone else, and our labour does nothing to improve our material conditions) who are similarly the victims of their own low economic status; but it is not the same, because whilst our struggle is not connected; we are not organizing for the same freedoms or against the same oppression.
After my first day I call up a friend from one of my old projects. I discover that they too have been moved onto an A.P placement and are finding the adjustment similarly hard. We hang out and we chat about it, and we conspire to fight it, and we vent; but our ability to act in solidarity with each other has ultimately been stripped from us and it is hard to feel that same feeling of camaraderie when we are not fighting shoulder to shoulder any more.
I continue to meet my fellow combatants from the “service” of the terrible community, and i will continue to do so; the state can not take that away from us. I will continue to talk with them, to share with them, and to publish with them tales from our enslavement; we will never surrender.
My advice to anyone about to start on the community payback program would be to try your dammed hardest to get on a project, not an AP placement. You can help this process along, by answering your initial assessment questionnaire (which will be done by your case manager) in a way that makes it seem like you may need supervision. If they think you are likely to steal anything (bring up previous convictions or fixed penalties for theft if you have them), hurt yourself or anyone else or anything similar to this, you will almost certainly have to be put on a “project”. Good luck to all future combatants.
Combatant A, South London Forced Labour Camp.
2.) AP or agency placement means a program of work that is not directly supervised by serco/the state; it is outsourced to a charity or other organization who feels it can benefit from our slave labour in order to lower its running costs and maximize profit; from serco's point of view these placements are goldust since they reduce staff costs massively (taking away the need for supervisors, much of the infrastructure etc) and from the states point of view they are a perfect tool in isolating, alienating, and reducing our power; if we don’t see each other we can’t organize.
3.) For more info on workfare see http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/
4.) For more info on workfare see http://www.boycottworkfare.org/
5.) The full series is also avaliable at thesituationlondon.wordpress.com
Please distribute this to anyone you know who might be about to get sentenced to community payback.