Voices from the Occupation
A Week in the Occupy Movement – Day 2
One of the most common questions I get asked when people find out I am involved with the Occupy Movement, is ‘what is it like?’ The news may occasionally cover where Occupy is, but often not what, why or how Occupy is. So, today’s article gives you my ground eye view of the Occupy Movement last week – and covers Day 2.
The first thing to mention is the Occupy movement is a rapidly evolving and changing thing. The atmosphere and tone doesn’t simply shift by camp, but by day. You might have a horrid time on the Wednesday and think everyone has gone mad and the movement is in decline. On Thursday you realise those tough conversations the day before were necessary, something blocked has shifted and the movement surges on into a new space, as do the personal relationships within it. Occupy is simply a bunch of people working toward a better world. Some of those people make me laugh every day, some of those people I find really challenging, all of those people I love.
Home to Finsbury Square
I make no bones about this: I love Occupy London Finsbury Square. I have been camping there sporadically since its 2nd week last November. I have the utmost respect for the decent and level way that Islington Council, responsible for the public space the camp resides on, has dealt with our camp. They are clear that we are trespassing, but have endeavoured to help us to keep the site clean, safe and open to local people who want to use the space. Of course they would rather we weren’t there, but we are there, and the Council are working with us to make the best of the situation.
I arrived on Wednesday lunchtime, heavy back pack on, cold and a bit nervous after the Bristol thing. The Media tent, the Info tent, the Tech tent, Tent City University, the Library and the Theatre, all of which used to stand on the front of the site were gone. A night of terrible storms had struck a week or so before. The marquees had not simply blown over, but the strong winds had buckled the aluminium rods which made up the core of the structures. They were ruined. The frontage of the site was distinctive at Finsbury and without it, water logged, and muddy on a grey day, it looked like a bomb had gone off. The Kitchen tent remained at the rear of the site, the living tents (around 150) run in rows down the left side of the camp, but everything from the right side, the shrine, the event tent, was gone. The normal sawdust path through the centre of camp bisecting the residential area and the communal spaces was gone aswell.
I trotted over to a young guy I had never seen before who looked like a member of the Velvet Underground and sighed a little when he saw my rucksack. ‘We are absolutely rammed’ he said, waving a hand toward the tents. ‘Everyone has been coming down from the Bank and we’ve had a couple from St Pauls. I’m rushed off my feet’.
Both the Bank of Ideas and the St Pauls site had received their possession orders in recent days so some campers were making for Finsbury Square in advance of an anticipated influx at the point of eviction. I explained to the guy, who I established was a new member of the Housing Working Group called Raffie, that I didn’t have a tent as I donated one to camp – happy to sleep in whatever tent was available when I come down. I sensed Raffie was a bit under the cosh and told him I’d sort myself out.
I went from tent to tent, opening the zippers to check for occupation. On finding one blissfully empty, I occupied it. Quickly unpacking, laying down my roll mat and sleeping bag, and setting the number on the tent. Freed of my bags I set off to the only communal space left to seek out anyone I knew – Luke gave me a big hug and a ‘Hey Kerry-anne!’, which made my day. Later Margarida and Leo appeared. It was good to be in my second home.
Building the EcoVillage
Settling in the kitchen, an EcoVillage meeting was due at 4pm to talk about transitioning OccupyLFS into an eco-village. This means building a demonstration of a sustainable community, with as many renewable materials, utilising renewable energy, and principles of recycling and waste control.
The meeting ended up being about eight of us from the site discussing the build. So, the reason Finsbury Square looked like a building site that day, was because it was. Piles of timber stood in the middle of the square, men with tools and a purposeful pace whizzed by. It was mentioned that a geodesic dome was being delivered on Friday morning and a team was needed for construction. People in the meeting volunteered and it was taken to General Assembly that evening for greater engagement.
There was also a not-so-happy letter from the Council about various things on site which needed to be addressed, so I took on calling the Council to set up a meeting for as soon as possible. During the meeting, we checked with each working group about which things on the list had been completed, most had been, and where things were outstanding we took an action plan with timescales to be followed up at GA.
I left the meeting afterwards quite overwhelmed by the pace at which things were moving on camp. Even in the hours I had been there, the piles of timber were becoming structures. It has become a working camp; the atmosphere at Finsbury is warm and engaging, and busy. People ask you to get involved and do things.
Bye Bye Bank of Ideas
With some time to spare before heading to the St Pauls General Assembly that evening to test the atmosphere nearing eviction, I nipped over to the Bank of Ideas to take a last look round before its eviction. At the time, we thought it would be evicted that night. There were police vans in the street and a nervous atmosphere in the Bank. The Bank of Ideas has been in occupation of a disused UBS Bank office building for ten weeks. In that time it has seen over 300 lectures, seminars and events from the likes of Caroline Lucas MP, comedian/activist Mark Thomas, Thom Yorke and Massive Attack among many others. Local youth and community groups who had lost or could not find premises have used offices and spaces in the vast building. It has also provided residential space for Occupiers and the homeless on its upper floors – between 60 and 100 staying at any one time. The central idea of the UBS occupation, is the public reposession of empty buildings, to be put to social use by the local community and the Occupy movement.
I entered via a side door, rushed in to avoid police, to see people milling around sweeping the floors and filling bin liners. I skipped past and began a tour of the building, scaling the stairs and checking the nooks and crannies. I found so much art I hadn’t seen before. So, I’m going to hand it over to pictures to show you the rest.
Mural by T.Wat
Spiderman occupies the old reception
The film above shows just one of the art filled office rooms in the gigantic building. Almost no surface was left unadorned.
The film above was taken on the roof of the Bank of Ideas at night, showing the view across the City.
I left the Bank of Ideas feeling sad that we were going to lose that building. It seems to me, simply unjust, that a building which has been of so much public use has been reclaimed, simply to sit empty and rot on it's foundations. The building got more use in those 2 months than it had in the last 2 years. But the Bank of Ideas goes on in search of a new home, and the campaign continues.
GA at St Pauls
Fresh from the amazing adventure at The Bank of Ideas, I made my way up to St Pauls after 7pm for the General Assembly. The General Assembly is where the big issues, decisions and proposals for the camp and the movement are raised, debated, and decided upon by consensus. Yes, that means everyone must agree. Yes, that takes longer than a single authority making a decision. No, that does not mean we vote on things. After a proposal, a temperature check is held, people make had signals to show if they like or dont like a proposal. There is a symbol called the block, a raised fist, which means 'I am so opposed to this proposal that I will leave camp it is passed. It is completely against the principles of the Occupy Movement'. One of these stops a proposal. The blocker then needs to work with the proposer to get to an agreement. These dont happen very often, but they do happen.
This night's GA was taking place inside Tent City University at St Pauls as wind and rain pelted the marquee. The topic of this GA was internal and external representation of the Occupy Movement. The question was: is it useful for people to present themselves as spokespeople or ‘members’ of the Occupy Movement when talking with the media or external agencies, if what they are talking about hasn’t been approved by the general assembly e.g. the consensus of everyone. The central point seemed to be, we all have our individual opinions and if we send these out into the world as if they are the views of the Occupy Movement, it can unsettle and disenfranchise others. There was unanimity that the best way of dealing with this was something most people had taken on instinctively, which is to state that our views are our own. There was also some debate about 'airing our dirty linen in public' i.e. you have a bad day, get interviewed by the press and say 'I hate this camp, its full of tossers!'. Some argued that people should remember they are on film and that what they say can be used against the movement. Others argued that any suggestion of inringements on peoples speech or 'maintaining the party line' behaviour was simply recreating what most of us hate about mainstream politics. I came down on the side of the second argument. I think it is personally irresponsible of anyone to gossip, about anything or anyone, Its unhelpful and it doesnt solve the issues which have caused the upset. And, there is a difference between gossip (for instance, going to the media saying Joe Blogg on site is mean to you - you should take that up with Joe Bloggs) and when asked a direct question by the media, giving an honest account, while being clear that it is YOUR account. I figure that the mainstream media will say what they say and any time spent scuplting messages to make them more palatable or airable or attractive starts us on a slippery slope from principles to popularism. Well intended, but misplaced 'loyalty' can end up stifling all sorts of critical dissent, vital for the movement and all of us to learn and grow.
Secondly, we discussed the question: could you be a member of the Occupy Movement? As opposed to a supporter, or someone affiliated or involved with the Occupy Movement. An organisation or party has members, does a movement? But if all of us are merely supporters/affiliates – then what is the occupy movement if it isn’t us? It was a brainteaser. But important. The sense of identity that people have about Occupy does have a big impact on their level of ownership and responsibility. In the end, after toying with the ideas, we agreed it came down to personal perception. Occupy is a movement, and anyone who has given time or effort to supporting the movement, can consider the Occupy Movement their own. Rather than them being of it, it was them.
Finally, a statement which had failed consensus 6 weeks previously at general assembly, receiving just one block, was back for review. The rule of the block at St Pauls means that any one person can block consensus. However, if you block, you are responsible for meeting with the working group which raised the proposal and achieving a revised proposal to achieve consensus. If you do not engage the working group within a certain time period (weeks) then you are considered to have withdrawn your block. This makes thoughtless blocks less likely, and establishes a process for resolving real blocks.
The statement was being brought back for re-reading, and to update people that it was now considered passed. A vigorous debate set up. Some felt a new consensus was required on the Statement as 6 weeks had passed and new people were at this GA. Others felt that the process meant that it was passed, and to over ride the process meant effectively reneging on the consensus of the previous General Assembly. If people wanted to make changes to the statement once it was online, they could make a new proposal.
While this might all sound a bit pointless, I was riveted. The decisions were about honouring process, no matter how we feel – or honouring our feelings. After finding myself mentally on both sides of the argument, I finally got it. If you have an agreement, you honour it. If you think that agreement no longer works, then you get responsible for reworking the agreement. As a life principle, this is pretty robust. People know where they stand, you know where you stand, and if something really isn’t working it can be changed. But not on a whim.
I walked home to Finsbury Square regaling my wife with the tale over the phone and she got that a small conversation in a tent outside St Pauls, was bigger than it looked. How we create and honour rules in a society is fundamental. It is the bedrock of our relationships, our work, our laws and legal system and our politics. One of the issues we have right now is the lack of any kind of rigorously, consistently and equally applied rules. It was refreshing to see a group of people so engaged and committed to creating rules that work, and applying them.
I nestled into my sleeping bag just after midnight, after a chat in the kitchen tent with fellow occupiers.
Look out for Day 3....Exposing the Met and occupying the Bank of Iraq...