Flanked by a QC and a crowd of protesters, 33-year-old Tammy Samede strode from the Royal Courts of Justice last month and addressed a crowd of microphones and cameras. “An idea cannot be evicted,” said Samede. “This is not the end.”
A judge had just ordered the Occupy London activists to leave their camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. But she was defiant: the occupation would launch an appeal.
Standing next to Samede, Matthew Varnham was close to tears. “She was speaking in front of the world’s press, and she was on fire,” said Varnham, 22, a recent law graduate and fellow occupier. “Knowing her backstory, it was incredible.”
Samede first arrived at St Paul’s one Saturday morning last October. There were few other people around, so she sat on the cathedral steps, and waited. What she was waiting for, she did not really know. She had been following Occupy Wall Street, then only a few weeks old. Through Facebook, she had heard something similar might happen that day in London. But there was little sign of anyone else, and for a while Samede thought she might have wasted the train ticket from Crawley, west Sussex.
That she was even there was slightly surprising. She had never been particularly political. She found it difficult talking in group situations, and had low self-esteem. The only protests she had attended were about child abuse.
From the age of three, and until her late teens, Samede had suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Leicester-born, she left school at 16, got a job as a care worker, got married, and had four children – now aged nine, eight, seven and four. Six years ago, she started having flashbacks about her childhood. Then she started blacking out. Soon she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and spent eight months in a psychiatric hospital. In the years following her discharge, she separated from her husband, and lost custody of her children. She struggled to find work because of her medical history. She saw her kids every Saturday and the local mental health team every fortnight. A friend gave her informal work looking after her ailing mother. But last summer the mother was sent first to hospital, and then a care home, and Samede was again left without much to do.
On 15 October, she travelled to the capital with nothing but a handbag. “I got here about 11am,” Samede said, “and I thought: ‘Oh, there’s not many people here. This isn’t going to happen.’ So I sat on the steps and had a smoke. And then all of a sudden I looked up and the place was swarming with people.”
Police blocked them from entering the Stock Exchange, so the thousand-strong crowd sat on the nearby steps of St Paul’s and held an impromptu meeting – or, in Occupy parlance, a general assembly. They used the obscure hand signals employed by seasoned activists. Samede did not understand what many of them meant, but she was intrigued enough to stay until the police kettled the crowd. In the melee, she was thrown down the steps by riot police. “I thought: ‘What the hell is this?’ All I could see was a group of people sitting down to have a conversation.” Angry, she resolved to stay. “Apart from six nights away, I’ve been here ever since.”
She had no tent or sleeping bag, so Samede spent that first night outside on the steps. When the sun rose, a man in a dog collar was pottering about, drinking from a mug. As a Christian, Samede felt comfortable approaching him. “I said: ‘Morning, father. You’re not happy about this, are you?’ And he turned around and said: ‘Actually, I don’t mind you protesting. But I don’t like the police on the church steps.’ Then he asked me to hold his mug, and he walked over to the police. And they left.” The man was Giles Fraser, and he and Samede have been friends ever since.
In the first week, Samede lacked confidence. She would stand at the side of the many meetings, and simply listen. “I didn’t know anything about the 1% and the 99%, but over the next few days I learnt about it. And I learnt about the banking system.”
Initially, she busied herself with practical things, like the kitchen, and the “tranquillity” team, a night-time patrol group aimed at keeping the peace and warding off invasive journalists. “I remember one night, we saw this journalist with a camera, unzipping people’s tents and shining a light inside. He was looking for empty tents. And we said: ‘A tent is a home. If there’s a female in there, and a bloke just opens a tent, it’s a bit much.'”
Gradually, Samede made friends: “Now, when I get up in the morning, I’ve had about 10 hugs by the time I’ve got to the loo” – and she started speaking up. “I wouldn’t have spoken in public to two people let alone a crowd of hundreds. But now if I’ve got something to say, I’ll say it.” She soon grew to understand the hand signals. “They’re like a second language now. I’ve even got my kids doing it.”
She joined working groups: the church liaison group; the sanitation group. “I even joined the economics group for a while, but it was a bit above my head.” For the first time in her life, Samede felt like she belonged. “When you come from an abusive background, you forget that you have a voice. It’s beaten out of you as a kid. But Occupy gave it back to me.” Not everyone initially agreed. After she started missing her therapy sessions, her psychologist rang her, alarmed.
At the end of October, the cathedral chapter tried to evict the occupiers. They quickly made a U-turn, but it was enough to disgust Samede. “That building over there,” she said, pointing at the church. “That museum, that business – it’s nothing to do with my Christian faith. I once said to the dean: ‘I’ve been in the cathedral for communion, and you blessed me. And yet when I’m outside as an occupier, you reject me.’ So what I’ve learned is that organised religion is not for me. If I want to find God, I don’t need to go in there.”
Instead, she spent Christmas in the camp. Instead of midnight mass, the occupiers had a drink on Millennium bridge. For Christmas dinner, they set up tables in one of the larger marquee tents, and everyone helped with the cooking. “For me, it was how Christmas should be,” Samede said. “It wasn’t commercial. No one was stressed out about getting the latest iPod. It was about sharing. I loved it. A proper, dysfunctional family Christmas.”
Towards the end of 2011, Samede made a decision that would change her life. She agreed to be the single “named defendant” in eviction proceedings instigated by the City of London. Because the occupiers would have otherwise been collectively liable for legal costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds, Samede volunteered to take on the liability alone. The case is now called “City of London v Samede”.
While the corporation later promised not to pursue her for costs, the decision had more negative consequences. After reading about Samede’s involvement in the case, her employment officers argued she was no longer actively seeking work, so they cut off her benefits. As a result, she stopped paying rent, and soon her flat will be repossessed.
It was, nevertheless, the making of her. She, and the camp, lost their eviction fight, and they may well lose their appeal on Monday. But things are coming together. After her speech outside court, she got a call from her mental health team. “At first, I thought: ‘Oh here we go’. But instead they said: ‘We’ve seen you on the TV. We watched your speech. And we’re signing you off because clearly you don’t need us any more.'”
Then, last week, social services called. For the first time in two years, she was granted overnight access to her children, and so the five of them spent last weekend in a youth hostel near the camp. “It’s not that the camp’s not safe for children,” said Samede. “But I don’t trust the city bankers. When they get drunk, they kick the tents.”
Samede hopes her story will inspire other people who have suffered from mental health issues. “I spent time in a mental hospital, but I also took on the City of London. So I hope that it shows people going through the mental health system that, yes, it may be really hard right now. But never feel that it isn’t going to change.”
She has lost her home, but gained others – literally (Varnham has offered to put her up if the camp is evicted) and metaphorically: “I’m 33 years old,” said Samede last Friday. “I’m living in a tent. I have a couple of changes of clothing. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”