Voices from the Occupation
Where Is All This Occupation Stuff Going Anyway?
As Occupy London Finsbury Square looks to celebrate its one month anniversary this weekend, with a big party on Saturday night; the question commonly levied on and off camp is – where is this going? This question represents an ‘in order to’ means of thinking which has us as human beings, often not present to the wonder of something in and of itself. It will go where we take it, because we are it. A more pertinent question would be – what am I committed to contributing to this? This is a question for something, rather than at something. It puts the person asking ‘in the game’; a participant, rather than a commentator on the sidelines looking on.
This article is to bring those unable to be on site at Finsbury Square, The Bank of Ideas and St Pauls an opportunity to experience some of the wonder of sharing a space, a conversation and myriad ideas with other human beings.
The Big Fat Bank of Ideas
An idea central to the Occupy Movement is the occupation of physical space in order to re-appropriate it for public use. This is the point of the camps themselves, and with winter coming and a commitment to Occupy being a permanent fixture in the world, new Occupations are spreading. For Occupy London, The Bank of Ideas marks a great step forward in this process. Essentially, the Occupiers have taken over a giant disused UBS Bank office building on Sun Street in Hackney, a stone’s throw from the Finsbury Square camp.
The building is vast. Walking through it made me light up with a cheeky sense of joy which I hadn’t felt since being a teenager and playing hide and seek on the building site of a new housing development. We shouldn’t be here! It’s not allowed! But we are anyway!
So why the Bank? It’s close by; it has lots of meeting rooms, facilities and space, including an underground car park and a 500 seater lecture theatre. It is also owned by UBS, a bank which took welfare from the Swiss taxpaying public. UBS also happens to have a building directly opposite its reclaimed sister – now, all the blinds in all the windows of that UBS building are closed all day every day. Literally, blind ignorance.
What’s the point? To claim the space for the use of the public. Local youth centres, community groups and support agencies which have seen their budgets cut and their premises lost recently, have been invited to use the Bank of Ideas as new premises. It is a learning space, with talks and workshops on all kinds of important topics by all kinds of people put on every day. Everyone is welcome and it is a drug, alcohol and smoke free zone. One long term aim is to establish a Free University on the site. Free, meaning both without charge and free from state and market control. According to Bank of Ideas, there has already been interest in this from lecturers at Sussex University and elsewhere.
Here are just some of the wonderful things already happening. To find out more please click here.
Mark Thomas – The People’s Manifesto
Billy Bragg – How to Write a Protest Song Workshop
Allessio Rastani – Independent Trader
The Bank of Ideas is an incredible resource for the people and long may it continue, in the face of mounting legal action from UBS.
Bloomsbury Social Centre
In collaboration with members of Occupy London, a group of students, workers and residents have successfully occupied the disused SOAS University of London building in Bloomsbury. The group aims to reclaim the space for residents of the area to use for community purposes in the longer term, and to prepare a base for organising the November 30th protests in the short term. They have reported intimidation from security guards and police.
This move, alongside the Bank of Ideas and the growing occupations happening across the country and across the world, can be seen as the kind of mass civil disobedience we thought impossible just weeks ago. People are willing to risk physical danger, legal sanction and public misrepresentation to make a stand and say, ‘up with this we will not put’.
The statement from the Bloomsbury Fight Back makes inspiring reading. Please take a few moments to review and your reward will be a shot in the arm for your faith in humanity. For the statement, click here.
The Importance of Wellbeing
Occupy Finsbury Square now has a wellbeing support group set up to focus on the mental and physical wellbeing issues on camp. I happened to be walking past the events tent on my way to get a coffee, when a young woman caught my eye and asked me if I was coming in for the wellbeing workshop.
Now, on the whole, I have a stock reaction to ‘welbeing’ workshops. My immediate response is ‘oh get me away from this airy fairy nonsense’.
But, as part of my personal experience and aim of Occupy is to challenge my own behaviour and opinions as much as anyone else’s, I promised to return with my cup of coffee and take part.
There were seven of us. Charlotte, facilitating, is a blonde dread headed social worker – think of a grungier Drew Barrymore. She held in her hand a talking stick ‘oh not a frickin talking stick!’- yelled the voice in my head. She explained that we would pass the stick around the circle and the person holding would speak for as long as they wanted about whatever they wanted and our commitment was to listen without response – not even jazz hands.
The stick would keep going around until we had nothing left to say. There was Mark, a middle aged, shaved headed, leather jacket wearing northern accented member of The Rainbow. There was Phil, a mid 50’s new Zealander, now living in Islington, drawn to camp by the sense of belonging and community. There was Roxy, an early 20’s force of nature, living on camp with her equally young boyfriend. There was Paul, a man suffering from Emphysema but determined to see the revolution he’d waited for all his life, happen before his death. There was Alan, a prematurely aged disillusioned hippy. There was Andrew, a bespectacled young man with an inquisitive mind and an urge to discover community.
As I listened to each person speak in turn, it struck me how our visible, political, existential seeming diversity was a very thin veil for a common humanity. We shared dreams. As my inhibitions fell away, my curiosity grew and the world was just these voices. I experienced one voice. In essence, the remarkable oneness of human being.
The conversation was of the realisation that we are one thing, that our differences and individuality are wonderful distinctions but not true. Of how amazing it is to open your world up in this way to experience such a broad range of people and the impact of that experience on personal growth. Of the genuine heartbreak of looking at the state of the world right now, the clustering of power and wealth and the isolation experience of feeling ‘why isn’t everyone screaming mad about this???’ Of the need to be the change we wish to see in the world, it starts and ends in each of us. Of some people experiencing family for the first time, on camp. Of the great gift that listening is to humanity, and how often people who listen the least, feel the least heard and vice versa. The group grew as time went on and people seemed to gravitate in towards the intimacy. We laughed, we cried, we talked, we listened, for a couple of hours.
Finally, as we felt complete, that we’d spoken what we needed to, we sat in a circle, held hands, shared a series of long ‘ommmmmmmms’ with our eyes closed, and then gave each other a big hug. I left that tent in a state of complete bliss and peace. It had a remarkable impact on my physical and mental state. I realised how stressed and uptight and uncomfortable I had been feeling before the workshop, just by the elation I felt afterwards. I really needed that. So did they. We really can contribute to each other as human beings just by speaking and listening, by being open to conversation and expression. No one needed to fix anyone’s problem or sympathise or validate. Simply to listen, to hear, to let be.
I hope this gives you something, some sense of understanding, a flicker of recognition, a giggle, a moment’s pause for consideration. If you have yet to visit a camp, visit one. It may very well change your life.