16 November 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - The Idea and Reality redux

Two protestors, One tent
#OccupyDameStreet at the US Embassy, Dublin, Tuesday 15th November
So I made it through my fun evening of Facilitation on Monday night, an epic three hour General Assembly that left me in no doubt as to why no other Facilitators wanted to touch it with a 10' pole (which surprisingly there are a number of lying around the Camp in preparation for the construction of a new kitchen. 10' poles that is, not Facilitators - they were somewhat sparser on the ground on Monday night). As I really believe in the neutrality of the Facilitator role at General Assemblies, I am not going to comment on the outcome of the Assembly or on the deliberations that took place therein, but towards the end of the meeting a point was made that I do think bears some reflection on.

After the substantive issue had been dealt with, a person stepped forward to speak, a person who while not a Camp resident has been involved with #OccupyDameStreet since day one, and indeed has often graced the pages and airwaves of the media's coverage of the Movement. He expressed concern that the Camp residents, those who habitually stay overnight on Dame Street, are becoming insular, that for them the main focus seems to be the Camp itself and not what happens beyond its tents and pallets. This wasn't an attack on the residents, he was sounding a note of concern and a warning.

Caught up in the business of Facilitation I didn't take in his words at the time, but over the subsequent twenty-four hours I digested them, and talked about his fears with many others on Dame Street, both residents and non-residents, even more so after our trip to the US Embassy.

I awoke yesterday to the news streaming in of the late-night clearance of Zuccotti Park in New York, home of #OccupyWallStreet, of the police brutality and pepper spray, of the tear gas (or burst fire extinguisher?) and the media blackout (with air space above the city being closed to news helicopters), of nearby residents being locked in their buildings by the police so they couldn't witness the horrors happening outside, of the destruction of the camp, its kitchen and over 5,000 books donated by members of the public, and the subsequent scrubbing clean of the park by the first light of dawn removing any traces of the joy and hope that existed there for the last two months, authority erasing history in a manner so painfully familiar and predictable.

#OccupyDameStreet owes its existence to the inspirational events in both Madrid and Zuccotti Park, it stands in solidarity with Zuccotti Park as well and two thousand other #Occupations around the world, and the actions of Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD outraged us all. Across the globe #OccupyMovements called for protests outside US Embassies, and Dame Street was no different, meeting up at 3pm in Ballsbridge to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brothers and sisters in New York.

All ten of us.

Almost none of whom were Camp residents.

Seven protestors, One tent
#OccupyDameStreet at the US Embassy, Dublin, Tuesday 15th November
On any given school night there are between twenty-five and thirty people camping on Dame Street. On weekends this rises considerably. Over the course of the day these are joined by another twenty-five to thirty regulars (like myself) who have been there since day one and spend a good portion of every day on-site. Evening General Assemblies often see a hundred participants and weekends see the numbers grow to anything up to two thousand. There are a lot of people that have been involved with #OccupyDameStreet, and while calling for a Direct Action at 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon with but a few hours notice is always going to be a tricky thing to get right, given that there were probably close to fifty people in the Camp at the time the response was still very disappointing.

That is not to say that ten people cannot make an effective protest. #OccupyCork have been staging a series of Direct Actions with groups as small as this, everything from leafleting outside banks to Teach-Ins inside the banks, silent protests with mouths taped shut and group meditations on the city streets. They habitually take their protests to the people in creative and imaginative ways. While #OccupyDameStreet has indeed drawn out two thousand people to march down O'Connell Street, beyond these four marches (and some pre-march publicity) there has been almost no sign of #OccupyDameStreet beyond Occupied Dame Street itself.

I have written before about how the Idea of #OccupyDameStreet, while so much bigger than the physical structures of the tents and pallets, cannot exist without the Reality of those tents and pallets at its heart. Unfortunately the worry is growing that those existing within the Reality are weighed down by it, and at times can no longer see the Idea.

Day-to-Day life in the Camp is hard. While there may not be the spectre (or actuality) of police brutality that exists for other #Occupations, camping for thirty-eight days on a major city thoroughfare with no facilities, sub-zero temperatures and all the wet delights the Irish winter has to offer, and the constant stream of drunk and abusive passers-by is far harsher an experience than I could ever have imagined. That fact that so many people have been doing it for so long is a testament both to human endurance and the strength of their beliefs. The residents are quite simply some of the most amazing and inspirational people I have ever met.

Seven protestors, Three photographers, Two gardai, One cameraman, One tent
#OccupyDameStreet at the US Embassy, Dublin, Tuesday 15th November
But the purpose of the Camp cannot simply be to exist. While it is a place of hope and defiance, a space for learning and conversation and proof that another world is possible, if it is to have any impact beyond the symbolic it needs to reach out beyond the shadow of the Central Bank both figuratively and physically. When it has found its voice it will need to engage with other voices in the external world, but to find its voice it needs to do more than simply Be, it needs to Speak Out, it needs to Act Out, and it needs to Get Out.

What occurred to me though after speaking with many residents yesterday is that if there is truth to the fear that they have become too insular, the fault lies not with them but with the non-residents.

If the Reality of life in the Camp is too demanding to allow residents to do anything beyond simply trying to ensure that they are still there tomorrow and the next day, then we in the wider #Occupation have failed them. We have not given them the support and resources they need to not merely survive, but to thrive. If they cannot plan for an action tomorrow because they are too concerned abut making it safely through the night tonight, it is because we have not stepped up to cover the overnight security shifts, to organise the evening meal, to help tidy up after the General Assembly or to staff the information desk and give the residents a well-deserved break. If they are hesitant about engaging with external groups because they fear that their own voices will be drowned, it is because they feel that they are so few and carrying too heavy a burden to be able to stand up and resist, that in times of great stress they are on their own, and we all will have deserted them.

They fear this, because it has all already happened.

When we accuse the residents of not living up to the Idea, the truth is that we are not living up to the Reality. Before we castigate them for not being out on the streets, we should first stand up and watch their backs while they sleep at night. Before we criticise them for being weary of external groups, we should cook them dinner so they have the strength to defend their beliefs constructively and not fear that they will be overrun in a moment of exhaustion, abandoned and alone. Before we say they are too insular and cannot see beyond the Camp we need to come forward and take their place, to sleep over in the Camp for a night and give them a chance to go home and recover, unafraid that their absence will cause the Camp to wither away and die.

We who are too enamored of the Idea need to step up and shoulder the Reality, and allow those living under its burden to emerge and reclaim the Idea that brought them all together in the first place.

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At 1:54 pm, Anonymous K. Daniel said...

As someone who commented on your blog a few weeks ago and reads it most days (with an appreciation for your writing, first-hand experience, and the time you commit to your blog) I'm still left waiting for the double dutch ropes to reach any sort of rhythm so I can jump in.

What I state is without judgement, but bemusement. "Reclaim the Idea that brought them all together in the first place." - but what is that idea? If a goal is to engage the hypothetical 99%, it seems more of a focus has been placed on treading water within a camp than conveying ideas to the public. I do realise that is one of the main points of this particular post, but it may be too late for the many who have forgotten ODS is still there.

It seems like more and more, the content of your posts is less about what needs to be accomplished on a macro level (what I, or someone like myself, could engage with) and more about the microlevel - about the fly-on-the-wall reflexivity and recursion ('let's have a conversation about starting a conversation about conversation starting') of a nascent movement. And it's all (to the admitted outsider) gone slightly, if predictably, Lord of the Flies-ish.

I realise you've not taken upon yourself the mantel of speaking for the movement, but given your frequent, thoughtful posts, I'm sure for many you are that by default. I guess I'm still the dirtiest of dirty things - a fence-sitter, a bench-warmer, a draft-dodger. But perhaps rather than fighting on the field I'd rather be part of the underground resistance. Hard to do when I can't source the information I'd gladly distribute behind enemy lines.

A separate point, however; I certainly hope that the events surrounding the clearing/cleaning (depending on the line one takes) of Zucotti Park are properly reviewed and dealt with if abuses or illegal actions occurred. However, writing when things are so fresh and passions are so high may not be the best tack to make your point.

For example, how is it that police supposedly locked residence indoors as you stated? Take a moment to think about that. How did they contact each individual landlord and decide to fit every door with locks that can't be disengaged from the inside? In violation of fire code, giving hours of warning to park inhabitants, and generally doing something that makes no logical sense if it's though about for a second.

This is but one of various stories about helicopters/media blackouts, etc. Some are worrying in their plausibility and ramifications. But many seem to not stand up to logical scrutiny or a bit of googling. And every time they are credulously parroted, a bit more legitimacy is removed from those who repeat them.

It's best to have a bit of dust to settle. Many people are understandably upset but perhaps not in possession of all the facts. I could well believe that police may have gone house to house warning to residents that their safety may be best served by staying inside for the duration of the clearance/removal/pick your term.

I would hope that, in the case of New York, renewed focus is found and if possible, not too long is spent ruminating on yesterday. Not that it doesn't deserve reflection, but because it takes away from the bigger story, the bigger point of the protest (which I can get my teeth into a bit better there. Perhaps I'm one who needs a sound bite, but I can wrap my head about 'income inequality' as a rallying point).

I hope Dame Street is able to find a fresh strategy soon. 29 November last year had snow on the ground. And even if I was diametrically opposed to the movement (which I don't consider myself.) I don't want anyone in the city's health or safety to be in danger due to the elements. I realise part of the issue is plenty are in danger due to actions of banks/poor government policy. My point was just in relation to hoping a movement with passion should not fizzle out due to Mother Nature.

At 6:04 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@K.Daniel - cheers for the long comment, very much appreciated.

I agree with your first point that the Camp and Movement in general isn't doing enough about conveying ideas to the Public. It was acceptable in the first week or two to say it was all about starting a conversation, but its over five weeks in now, the conversation is going on, its time to start bring stuff back, taking a stand on issues and getting active.

On the microlevel viewpoint, my blog is purely personal, its not now nor ever has been anything more than that. I write as a discipline, a way of formulating my own ideas and understanding things better, and if people occasionally read it I am always surprised (thank you for reading though). If it seems like I am stuck in the micro-level and not focusing on the big picture stuff that is largely because I *am* stuck in the micro-level and not focusing on the big picture stuff, and this is a big problem I have with where Dame Street is at the moment, its all minutia and no grand ideas - i also try to be as honest as possible in my posts and if something isn't hunkey-dory I try not to paper over it. You are also right about the resemblance at times to Lord of the Flies, though on some days its more like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

You are also right about the reliability of the NY reports, my reference was to the Twitter feeds I awoke to and the outrage these caused in me, but of course everything on twitter should be taken with a pinch of salt!

In fact I find myself in agreement with almost everything you say, Dame Street needs to find a renewed focus, and find it fast before the worst of winter really sets in.


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