By The Bristol Blogger
I first came across Steve Norman in late 2004. Ian Bone, then editor of The Bristolian, called one evening: “You’ve got to meet Steve Norman and Andy Richardson. Top geezers! They’re running a campaign directly with the elderly and learning disabled to save their daycare centres, which are being shut down by the council.
“The protests are crazy. You’ve never seen anything like it. Steve was quoting Martin McGuiness’s ‘Armalite and ballot box strategy’ to me. They’re doing a protest next month outside the Council House. Make sure you get there.”
So that’s how I found myself outside Bristol’s Council House on a crisp January morning in 2005 at some protest to save something I didn’t know much about. Although that was about to change because Bone was right, I’d never seen anything quite like this before.
A protest over council cuts in those days would usually consist of eight – maybe ten – well-meaning socialists brandishing a few crappy placards and a fake petition for the public to sign. Maybe they’d be accompanied by someone flogging a badly written newspaper listing the crimes of the Labour government alongside an urgent plea to join their marginal socialist sect.
This protest consisted of about 20 elderly and learning disabled people accompanied by Andy and – as the public ringmaster-in-chief with a megaphone in hand – Steve. However, the genius of this protest didn’t lie with Steve’s quickfire Bristolian epithets aimed at various social service bosses and out-of-touch Labour councillors but with the 20-odd extremely vulnerable elderly and disabled people who were very, very slowly trooping across the pelican crossing on Park Street directly outside the Council House.
When a protestor finally made it to the other side, they would press the button to cross again and wait for the ‘green man’ pedestrian light. Meanwhile, the other nineteen would continue their ramshackle progress across Park Street. By the time they all finally reached one side, the green man appeared, allowing them to troop across the road all over again!
Few cars were going anywhere that morning. Traffic chaos engulfed the heart of the city directly outside its notional seat of power and there was fuck all anybody could do about it! Motorists might be fuming but they were hardly going to get out of their cars and start threatening a load of vulnerable adults, some with zimmer frames, others in wheelchairs.
The police arrived, mildly (and not very realistically) threatening arrests. Only to be told by Steve they would require full risk assessments and specialist lifting equipment before they attempted to remove anyone in a wheelchair into a police vehicle. The police seemed to accept this logic and drifted away to do something more useful or, maybe, they were trying to find their equalities policy and a disabled access police van with a wheelchair lift? (Steve knew perfectly well that the Avon & Somerset Police had no such vehicle in service. Police were therefore unable to arrest or legally remove wheelchair using protestors).
Meanwhile, the target of the protests, Bristol’s councillors and senior council officers remained hiding behind closed doors. Not one of them daring to venture the few metres outside to meet with their own vulnerable service users on a chilly January morning. Stephen McNamara, the council’s legal boss and town clerk, then at the height of his high camp wig-wearing “Look-at-me-I’m-a-very-important-man-I-am” phase, was even stationed in the lobby of the Council House to personally prevent any of his vulnerable adult service users accessing the toilets!
The protest broke up after a couple of hours when council transport arrived to return the service users to Lockleaze Day Centre for their lunch. Steve and Andy invited me to come to a ‘Campaign to Save Daycare in Bristol’ meeting.
These meetings happened most Thursday evenings in a back room at the – now – sadly demolished Wedlocks pub at Ashton Gate. From this disorganised ragbag of vulnerable service users, carers, political activists and anyone else who showed up – sort of led by Steve and Andy often with their heads in their hands – a ‘spring offensive’ of actions was devised and launched.
This offensive kicked off on the 1 March at the annual budget meeting of Bristol City Council. A meeting flooded with the elderly, disabled and their carers. So many attended that wheelchairs lined the length of chamber and a victory came early when it was announced that Labour’s piss weak and wimpy council leader, Peter Hammond, had thrown a sickie and his long-suffering deputy, Helen Holland, would be standing in for him. Lib Dem Councillor Simon Cook, that year’s Lord Mayor, provided further amusement prior to the meeting when he agreed to depart from tradition and let the public speak at a budget meeting “as long as you don’t mention Hitler”.
Helen managed to mumble through almost five minutes of her boss Hammond’s odious justification for cuts to the city’s most vulnerable at the height of an economic boom for the rich when the council chamber descended into chaos and the budget meeting – as planned by the council – ground to a halt. Kicked off by a single carer interrupting her speech and loudly accusing Helen “of trying to fucking kill me” in 2003, the Hitler speech was soon rolled out by another protestor as councillors, the Lord Mayor and town clerk, McNamara, resplendent on his throne in his absurd judges wig, were aggressively heckled into silence.
A full blown retreat by councillors from the chamber soon followed when Steve and Andy handcuffed themselves to a rail in the public gallery and McNamara was confronted with the reality that he had lost all control of his own council meeting and had no means of restoring order. He had no clue how to remove the handcuffs from Steve and Andy and couldn’t use his security to throw out any other protestors. Even he understood manhandling any vulnerable adults he was legally responsible for protecting out of his building might end badly.
The people had seized the council chamber and the Lord Mayor, councillors and highly-paid administrators from the UK’s eighth largest city were cowering from vulnerable adults in a back room unable to set a legal budget for the city. Mission accomplished.
Many of the “spring offensive” actions have now taken on a near mythical status. Not least, the Friday afternoon of March 18 2005 when twelve service users occupied their own day centre in Lockleaze after some of them handcuffed themselves to rails and refused to leave at the end of the day. Steve, Andy and friends remained outside all night, supporting the occupiers – and thwarting the plans of council staff, who had to remain on site to “protect” service users, to starve out the occupiers – by pushing fish and chip takeaways through an open second floor window on long sticks.
The occupation created a huge amount of high profile coverage from the press, TV and radio. While the council’s daft PR man, Simon Caplan, invited open ridicule and more publicity when he helpfully explained, from the front page of the local newspaper, that the protest “served no useful purpose”. Except introducing the daycare campaign to new audiences across the city through headline coverage on every available local news platform!With the wind in their sails, the campaign moved on to even more logistically complex protests. Within hours of the announcement by Tony Blair of the 2005 General Election on April 5, Steve and a number of protestors with major mobility problems had occupied the Labour Party’s first floor South West HQ on Portland Square with an ITV News camera crew in tow!
On May 3 2005, just days before the election, Steve and protestors targeted hundreds of bank holiday customers at @Bristol. Many of these punters were less-than-impressed that the learning disabled and the frail elderly were having to take the streets to campaign to keep their own services. Bristol’s Labour boss for social services, Robin Moss, however, insisted to reporters that the daycare protests were “political stunts”. Although the real political stunt arrived just a few days later when Moss was unceremoniously dumped out of his Easton council ward by the Lib Dems while his party was similarly dumped out of power in Bristol, again, by the Lib Dems.
Steve, Andy and the protestors weren’t done yet and continued putting pressure on the new Lib Dem administration that had promised a review of daycare services during the election. On June 6 2015, the group appeared on College Green directly outside the Council House for the day with a series of 10ft-high placards directly naming seven council officers under a large headline: “Bristol social services’ list of uncaring professionals”.
This produced an aggressive response from town clerk and part time Council House toilet attendant, Stephen McNamara. “If necessary,” the wannabe tough guy thundered from the pages of the Evening Post, “the council will take legal action through the courts to prevent any such activity. The council will not tolerate its employees being harassed in this way.”
Steve loved these kind of threats from puffed up bureaucrats. “This campaign will not be bullied by city council legal mumbo jumbo and empty threats,” he replied in the same article. While he told the BBC, “I would love a legal action for the publicity”. That same day, Steve publicly forwarded his name and address to McNamara, inviting him to take immediate legal action. Steve was only too happy to see this – or any other – pompous old fool, who habitually made the law up to suit the interests of the powerful, in a proper court where the real law would apply.
When Steve, predictably, received no response from McNamara, he borrowed a flat-bed truck and on June 11 2005 spent the day humiliating the council by driving around the city centre, followed by a convoy of the press, parading his ten foot placards publicly shaming the same seven council employees all over again.
And the council’s response? Immediate legal action? Police? Arrests? Injunction? ASBO? Er, no, unconditional surrender and an invitation to Steve and the protestors to immediately attend talks with the Lib Dems to try and settle the dispute. Within weeks of these talks, the Lockleaze Day Centre was officially saved and the campaign drew to a close.
Steve went on to fight many more battles after this one. But the basic template of the ‘Armalite and ballot box strategy’ altered little: use persistent and high profile PR-friendly direct action ignoring all police and legal threats from weak and desperate politicians until the useless fuckers surrender. And they always will.