24 October 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - The Whys and Wherefores

The Revolution will not be Televised
ADW, Pricks and Mortar, South Street Studios, Dublin, Sunday 23rd October
For the last two weeks on Occupied Dame Street I have stood and answered the questions of passers-by, supporters, detractors and, on more occasions than I ever imagined, the media. I have existed in something of a bubble, largely unaware of the reactions to the Camp in the wider public or to the portrayal of the #Occupy Movement, both local and global, in the mainstream press, but judging by the repetitive nature of particular questions from journalists I had my suspicions that the media just weren't getting it, that they couldn't wrap their heads around the reasons why a small group of women and men would give up everything and plant themselves firmly down at the gates of the Central Bank, enduring all the misery and hardship that the Irish weather could throw at them.

The media seemed only to ask the 'whats', "What are your demands?", "What are you looking for?", "What will bring this to an end?", looking for nice and simple, easily digested soundbites, and never questioning the 'whys'. For me the words "Why do you want?" are a much more potent question than "What do you want?", and this short phrase embodies everything that #OccupyDameStreet means to me.

The answer that I give to many of the 'whats' is the same, "To start a conversation'. I and my fellow Occupiers do not claim to have all the answers to our nation's ills, though we do think that we have highlighted four of the gravest (the transfer of private debt to the public sphere, the surrender of fiscal autonomy to the IMF and ECB, the loss of control over our natural resources and the lack of true participatory Democracy in the State) that need urgent attention. The conversation that is envisioned is not between the government and the Occupiers (though that may be a part of it), but between the people and the people, directly and without the need for mediators or intermediaries. When I offer this to the press, they stare blankly and move on to the rest of the 'whats', "what will this accomplish?", "what do you hope to achieve with this?", "what do you want the Government to do?", they never pause to reflect and follow up with what to my mind is the obvious response, "why do we need to start a conversation?".

Answering that question is the key to understanding everything about #OccupyDameStreet.

In 2010 the Greeks took to the streets to protest at the draconian cuts being introduced by their Government in a failed attempt to forestal external financial intervention, and once again when that intervention was accepted. Across our screens we saw the ordinary citizenry of the birthplace of Democracy exercise their rights in a way as old as Democracy itself, en masse, on the streets and with a hundred thousand voices calling to those who style themselves the economic and political leadership, demanding that their voices be heard. More than once these ordinary women and men fueled by indignation and outrage bore placards that simple stated, "We are not the Irish".

The message was clear, they were not going to accept indignity upon indignity being heaped atop their shoulders to be borne with quiet humility while the originators of the crisis walked away unchecked, they were going to start their own conversation, and it would be loud, and robust and chaotic but it would be a Real conversation, and it would take however long it would take. They would not be silenced, their voices would be heard.

Celtic Tiger Cement Mixer and Monopoly Blocks
ADW, Pricks and Mortar, South Street Studios, Dublin, Sunday 23rd October
In Ireland we wanted no conversation, content to let others wring their hands on our behalf. The politicians and the media told us that there were no alternatives, and we rolled our eyes and shrugged and said, "ah, sure what can ye do?", and turned our heads back to the match and raised the pint to our lips one more time. Only three marches, in February of 2009 (100,000 people) and two in November of 2010 (the student march of 25,000 and the second Union march with 80,000), approached anything like the levels of disquiet seen in other countries, even though our own deprivations were much, much worse. On the day of the last Fianna Fail budget debate in December of last year, only a handful of people turned up outside the Dail to bang their pots and pans in protest over the decisions being taken inside. The rest of the country sat on their stools and drank their pints and said "ah, sure what can ye do?".

In February of this year we finally got our chance to go to the polls, Fianna Fail and the Greens were wiped off the political map and that nation celebrated as a new era of accountable government was ushered in. But once the dust had settled and the deals had been done, the first visits with the IMF and ECB had been held and the new faces introduced to Brussels, 'Labour's Way' quickly became 'Frankfurt's Way' and the new Government sat back in their Dail seats and shrugged, saying "ah, sure what can ye do?".

For fourteen years this country has been run for the benefit of a small group of property developers and financiers. We have been led to worship at the altar of Mammon, been told that greed is good and businessmen (and it is men, for according to the Irish Times less than 7.5% of Board Members of the top 25 ISEQ-listed companies are women) have been lionised as the new Fianna, running through the forest without breaking a single twig or leaving a single print in the forests of the Exchequer. As the bubble burst and the Government rushed to save these Lions of Capital, bailing them out with our own mortgaged futures, not one but two Taoisigh gathered together the great and the good of Ireland's tax exiles, or 'international business elite' as they prefere to be known, to bend knee and doff cap and ask to be saved by their wisdom and grace, only to walk away with nothing more substantial than a call for more Riverdance, a second Paddy's Day and offers to serve on State quangos (but only if this doesn't jeopardise their non-resident tax statuses), as they cried "ah, sure what can ye do?" all the way back to Bermuda.

And after fourteen years of political malfeasance and economic mismanagement at the hands of what can only be called a Fianna Fail oligarchy, we wake up this morning to discover that the person most likely to be selected by the citizenry to be the living embodiment of the nation is, drum roll please, a Fianna Fail oligarch, a self-stiled 'Dragon' who sits on a State-funded throne, whose licence fee salary criminalises anyone who refuses to materially contribute to his upkeep, as he dispenses financial largess to bended supplicants like a nobleman tossing trenchers to the peasantry after feasts as a magnanimous manifestation of the Divine Right of Kings, and the citizenry turn back to their pints with a shake of the newspaper and a shrug and say, "ah, sure what can ye do?".

Fintan O'Toole has a thesis that the release valve for tension in Ireland has always been emigration. That the best and the brightest, the most active and rebellious or simply those most oppressed have traditionally left our shores rather than stay behind to press for change. We have thus become a nation of people bred for docility and acquiescence, the herd thinned of agitators and organisers in each and every generation. This is why we sit meekly and quietly by while all of Europe erupts in anger around us, this is why we relinquish our autonomy to the same political dynasties election after election, this is why we let back-room deals silence us on the streets and this is why after fourteen years of Neoliberal oligarchy we look set to come back on Thursday and ask for more.

We have become a nation of sheep that delegate our conversations to others; the politicians talk to the businessmen and the businessmen talk to the politicians, and the media report back their decisions and deliberations for us to shrug our shoulders at and declare "ah, sure what can ye do?".

And in relinquishing the 'what', no-one ever stops to ask "why?".

That is the 'why' of #OccupyDameStreet. To show that the national conversation that we have avoided can, and must happen. Not with the Government, not in the pages of the Press, and not just in the pubs. It must happen in the streets and in the schools, in the shops and offices and in the homes of every man, woman and child in this nation, and it must happen between the people, citizen to citizen with no intermediary or third party in between. Do not ask #OccupyDameStreet for answers or solutions, ask instead your friends, your family, your neighbours and, above all else, yourself.

Ask, and then do.

That is the "why" of #OccupyDameStreet.

Images are from the Pricks and Mortar solo exhibition by ADW, a Dublin-based street artist, held in the South Street Studios this weekend.

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