31 December 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - #OccupyOuroboros (an End of Year review)

On what has to have been the mildest Christmas Day in living memory there was just enough time between the whys and the wherefores to stop off on Dame Street for the briefest of visits to wish everyone well and make an embarrassingly paltry contribution to the planned Christmas meal later that day. While you might happily write off the residents of the Camp as a bunch of idealistic lefties and hippies, do not write them off as a bunch of idealistic leftie hippie vegetarians, for I have never met a more carnivorous group of activists in my short but frenetic time of hanging around watching other people march and shout. Many is the night when the Camp has almost come to open revolt at the thought of having to eat another bowl of "vegan mush", and so on this of all days I thought my own preferred fare of Tofurky or Quorn Roast would be as welcome at the table as Fingers Fingleton or Seanie FitzPatrick, and so I opted to bring along an altogether less gastronomically-charged pack or two of mince pies.

Which was nice, until less than two minutes after I arrived a member of the public stopped by with a rack of piping hot home-made ones that caused my own store-bought contributions to wither away in shame like a water-soaked witch in Oz (the technicolour children's wonderland, not the prison drama). If you have seen the Christmas dinner photos on Broadsheet, those are not my mince pies being enjoyed.

Oh well, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", as the man said, as true for pies as it is for revolutionary egalitarian utopian planning.

Christmas on Dame Street was nice (however brief a visit is was for me), and a chance to see some familiar faces that, like myself, hadn't been down to the Camp for a while. Illness had kept me away for the bulk of two weeks, venturing down during the eye of my pancreatic storm to staff the information stand, get harangued by Vincent Browne and facilitate a three-and-a-half hour long Active Participants Meeting (the supposedly twice-weekly planning session that figures out what the Camp is doing on a day-to-day basis) that was an exercise in Bionian group dynamics as seen through the lens of the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was this experience that was foremost in my mind as I spent the bulk of the next week battling the twin evils of my pancreas and An Post's humorous approach to Christmas postal deliveries (items that I ordered from Amazon in the first week of December still haven't arrived as of this morning, leading to a mad dash around town on Christmas Eve Eve in a fevered state to find last minute replacements, a very First World problem, I know), and the enforced break presented an opportunity to sit back with a little distance from Dame Street and try and make some sense of the last two and a half months.

When we first gathered together at the gates of the Central Bank on that second Saturday in October, I don't think any of us thought that we would still be there on the following Monday morning, let alone on Christmas Day. #OccupyDameStreet has survived attempted take-overs by external groups, floods that threatened to wash away the entire Camp and sub-zero temperatures that made hypothermia a genuine fear, attacks and assaults by drunken passers-by and more coordinated exercises by trouble-makers armed with video cameras, Range Rovers and the sense of superiority and self-worth that only comes from being born into privilege. It has lived through media frenzies and journalistic blackouts, marched and sung and shared its experiences both good and bad with the nation, and witnessed both the very worst and the very best of the Irish public (happily not in equal proportions), and as of today it has outlasted almost all the other physical Camps in the US and beyond that it drew inspiration from.

#OccupyDameStreet is still here, but 83 days later is simply still being here enough?

At the Information Stand I have been asked by many, many passers-by, "What is this all about? What do you hope to accomplish?", and for 83 days I have been saying that #OcupyDameStreet is a catalyst, a starter of conversations and a symbol of people power, and while all these things are true I am left wondering if these have enough value in and of themselves or if #OccupyDameStreet needs to become something more.

To begin with let's dispense quickly with some of the things that #OccupyDameStreet cannot do. It will not overthrow capitalism, it will not lead to a single imprisonment of a corrupt banker, developer or politician, it will not remove the IMF from our national affairs nor return economic sovereignty to these shores. #OccupyDameStreet is a just group of tents at the gates of the Central Bank and the hundred or so people who have coalesced around them and while, as Margaret Mead points out, one should "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has", the probability of a hundred people by themselves overthrowing decades of corruption and crony-capitalism in this banana republic we love to call home (until such time as we are all forced to emigrate) by standing around on a city thoroughfare making soup and handing out leaflets is unfortunately rather low.

However a question asked by passers-by almost as frequently as "what are you doing here?" is "how are you getting away with it all?". For 83 days a group of activists have built and lived in a shantytown in the centre of Dublin, existing as living proof of the viability of alternative and self-organised social, cultural, economic and political spheres. As a symbol of defiance it is a pretty remarkable one, and according to the listeners of Joe Duffy #OccupyDameStreet was the fourth most important thing that happened this year, after The Queen's visit, Dublin winning the All-Ireland and Ireland qualifying for Euro 2012, but ahead of the Arab Spring and Obama's visit. A chord does indeed seem to have been struck with the wider Irish public, while they themselves may be unwilling or unable to take to the streets it seems they are rather glad that someone else is mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.

In fact many is the time that someone has approached me to say, “I am working all the hours that I can just to make ends meet, otherwise I would be down here standing beside you. I am so glad you are doing this when I cannot”, and I have frequently said that it is kind words like this from passers-by that have kept the Camp going, as much as their donations of food, clothing, tents and more.

Since its inception #OccupyDameStreet has always been about more than just the Camp, though that certainly has been the core around which all else rotates. From the General Assemblies that opened up decision making to the wider public to the rallies and marches that attracted up to 3,000 people one Saturday to hear Billy Bragg sing the Internationale, fist clenched defiantly in the air, from the pop-up soup kitchens outside the Dail to the Mic Checks inside the bailed-out banks, from the musical nights in Sweeney's to the musical days on the Central Bank Plaza that have seen Michael Franti, Kristin Hersh, Damian Dempsy, Christy Moore, Liam O'Maonlai, Glen Hansard and many, many others all stand in solidarity with the Movement, #OccupyDameStreet has continuously sought new and imaginative ways to engage with the wider public beyond its plywood walls and guy-ropes, and as the poll on Joe Duffy has shown the public are certainly engaged.

In fact Joe Duffy's show is but one example of the widespread and largely positive coverage the Occupation has received since its inception. TV3 broadcast live from the Camp during its first week and returned just before Christmas with Vincent Browne, who devoted twenty minutes of his show to interviews from the Camp. Charlie Bird has broadcast live from the Camp, and Occupiers have appeared on Marian Finucane’s Sunday radio panel and on television on Frontline and The Late Late Show. Newstalk radio has been a frequent visitor to the Camp and there has been a steady stream of requests for interviews throughout the Occupation from radio stations as far away as Derry, and the newspaper coverage, ranging from full page articles in the Sunday Times and Irish Daily Mail (not normally noted for their radical sympathies) through to international papers like The Guardian and The New York Times, has been both comprehensive and surprisingly positive. Al Jazeera even broadcast from the Camp on the same day that Col. Gaddafi was captured and killed, making for a very unusual news cycle indeed. Beyond the mainstream media, online coverage from TheJournal.ie, Politico.ie and Broadsheet meant that rarely has there been a day that something from Dame Street hasn't appeared somewhere in print, on the airwaves or online. Early cries from the Camp of a media blackout quickly faded and sound very hollow indeed when they resurface.

Relations with the Fourth Estate have not been the only triumph for the Movement, for its engagement with The Academy has also been a roaring success. The #OccupyUniversity program, organised by a group of academics and students, has brought the classroom onto the streets of Dublin with a series of workshops and lectures from academics, economists, writers, authors and activists all held in the open air and free for anyone to attend, participate and learn. Harry Browne, Gavin Titley, Fintan O’Toole, Michael Taft, Helena Sheehan and many, many others have all braved the elements to offer concrete examples of how another world is possible, and what form that world might take. All these talks have been recorded and will provide an online resource the like of which has never been seen before in Ireland. Dame Street has also been brought into The Academy, with participants appearing as guest speakers in a number of university classes, and at second level a host of imaginative teachers have brought their students on field trips to the Camp, to learn first hand of the joys and challenges of real participatory democracy.

The Political Establishment too has taken notice, for the Camp has seen frequent visits from TDs, Senators, MEPs, Presidential candidates and Party Leaders, all who have been asked to leave their office at the door and engage with the camp as individuals. Some have come to genuinely engage and some perhaps just looking for a bit of publicity, and while not all have been welcomed equally and not all in the Movement have wished to engage with the established order, it is a clear sign that the established order is aware of the Movement and sees it as something more than just a curiosity.

It is also important to note that since October 8th Dame Street has not stood alone, with #Occupy groups taking root in Belfast, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Letterkenny and Waterford, all separate and autonomous and all emerging to highlight a complex group of issues both local and national. Through an informal arrangement of websites and social networks the sharing of ideas, inspirations and aspirations finally brought all these groups together for two national meetings, first in Dublin in November and the second three weeks later in Cork. A third meeting is scheduled to happen in January in Belfast showing that the demand for social and economic justice is not just a Dublin issue, or a Cork issue, but an all-island issue.

Thus in 83 days the Movement has emerged from nothing to a central position in the Irish consciousness with politicians, the Media, the Academy and most importantly the citizenry themselves all engaging with the Idea of Dame Street to varying degrees (even if only to dismiss or belittle it). By any measure if the purpose of #OccupyDameStreet was to capture people's attention, then it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. But now that it has everyone's attention, what is it going to do with it?

I have talked before about the disconnect between The Idea of Dame Street and The Reality of Dame Street. In my mind Dame Street exists somewhere between the Battle of Seattle and Paris ’68, a coming together of workers, students, the unemployed and the disenfranchised, academics and tradespeople all coalescing around the idea that another world is possible, and that they will demonstrate this by building that new world right on the gates of the old, self-organised, non-hierarchical, leaderless and egalitarian, a shining beacon in space, all alone in the night. This is The Idea of Dame Street, and it is, of course, complete nonsense.

The Reality of Dame Street is that of a group of disparate folks from varying backgrounds with widely differing motivations have ended up together, and against all the odds, are still managing to just about hold together a ramshackle collection of tents, yurts and wooden shacks in the face of extremes of weather and whose greatest threat, as with any family, is never anything external but the never-ending risk of internal conflict boiling over into catastrophic implosion.

Ironically it is perhaps this lack of external threat that paradoxically has hindered the Movement the most, for other Occupations from Wall Street, Boston and Oakland to London have all experienced their greatest moments of unity when faced with the threat or actuality of external institutional violence, bringing everyone together in an instant of shared lucidity and a clarity of purpose - to simply make it through the next few hours alive and unharmed. Without this threat of external trauma, the adrenaline-fueled and sleep-deprived world of Dame Street sets loose the specters of imagined internal conspiracies, where paranoia and suspicion are twin bedfellows that like to see more time spent on arguing over the washing up than how to realign society along the themes of social justice and equality.

That is not to suggest that The Reality of Dame Street is either all trivialities or endless talk (though it cannot be denied that there are hefty elements of both), but I cannot escape the fact that nearly three months later there still exists a gaping chasm between The Idea of Dame Street and The Reality, a chasm that erupts at your feet every time you ask someone in the Camp, “Ok, so you have everyone’s attention, now what?”, for three months later there is still no unified answer to this. The danger is that the Camp has become so fixated on its own continued existence that for many that has become the sole purpose of the #OccupyDameStreet Movement, simply to be.

In the beginning the Movement talked about the twin tracks of The Protest and The Process, that the Camp and Direct Actions were a symbol of protest and defiance and that in parallel to this would be the discussion, proposal and implementation of solutions, an ongoing process. Themed Assemblies were held to solicit ideas and alternatives from the general public, and these ran in parallel to the #OccupyUniversity program, the idea being to offer education on a particular subject then provide a platform for productive discussion leading to actionable alternatives. Somewhere along the line The Process seems to have fallen by the wayside, and though the #OccupyUniversity program continued on the Assemblies and other Camp meetings all turned inwards, focusing more on how the Camp organised itself rather than how the Movement could effect change.

An early criticism of the Movement from the media, borrowed from their counterparts across the Atlantic, was that #OccupyDameStreet had no aims and no goals, this despite the early adoption of four key demands at General Assembly (The IMF/ECB out of Irish affairs, a rejection of the transfer of private bank debt to the public purse, a return of natural resources to sovereign control, and a call for real participatory democracy on a local and national level), and when these goals were highlighted the subsequent complaint was that Dame Street offered no alternatives. My answer to this has always been that #OccupyDameStreet is about starting a conversation on theses issues, gathering ideas and then bringing back alternatives, that to offer alternatives at such an early stage in the process would be to miss the point entirely. Dame Street was a call to intellectual arms, saying to the citizenry that the language of “There is no alternative” is a lie, that the alternatives lie with the citizenry themselves and that Dame Street could be a platform to articulate those alternatives.

Three months on it is clear that that conversation has most definitely started, and that groups and individuals across the nation are offering alternatives, but I fear that at times Dame Street is no longer actively listening, so consumed is it with the challenges of day-to-day existence.

There are legitimate reasons for the current ebb it finds itself in. The composition of the group has changed significantly over the months, with only a determined handful of the original Camp residents still in situ, as are a core group of non-residents like myself who still participate as much as life, work, families and other commitments allow. But the toll it has taken on many has been great, both physically and emotionally, and I can only hope that the New Year will see many familiar faces return refreshed and rejuvenated and ready for the next stage of this amazing adventure. These absences have been balanced somewhat by an influx of new faces, all drawn to Dame Street with fresh ideas and enthusiasm, though hampered by a lack of institutional knowledge and perhaps more focused on the excitement of The Protest and uninterested in the perceived tedium of The Process. As always there are never enough people to do all the work, a challenge exacerbated by the holiday season, and quite rightly those tasks essential for the survival of the Camp are prioritised.

But for #OccupyDameStreet to remain relevant in 2012 it must do more than simply survive, its reason to be cannot simply be “to be”, a rain-soaked snake forever swallowing its own tail. It once again must be more than just a collection of shacks and tents and must become the platform that it so aspirationally proclaimed itself to be.

#OccupyDameStreet is at a crossroads. Along one path it can re-engage with The Process to drive itself closer to The Idea. To do this requires the support of a much wider group of active participants who are willing to do the less glamourous tasks necessary for The Camp to survive, and in this way free up more time for everyone, residents and non-residents alike, to refocus on the ideas that brought everyone together in the first place, and how to effect positive change. While not everyone will want to be part of The Process, its value to the Movement as the equal of The Protest needs to be recognised by all.

Along the second path lies a Movement disengaged entirely from The Process, existing purely to Protest. This too is a legitimate course of action. From its inception people have been drawn to Dame Street as an outlet for the expression of their anger and outrage. They know something is wrong and they are tired of sitting back and accepting it quietly, and for them resistance is an end in and of itself. This is a greater act of defiance than that shown by the majority of the citizenry and is to be commended, but if this is the path chosen by Dame Street then someone else needs to continue The Process, for the knowledge that has been gained and shared these last three months is too precious to be abandoned by the side of the road. While this path of Protest alone has a value both symbolic and real, it is a road I have little interest in traveling.

Something truly revolutionary could happen to Irish society in 2012, only time will tell if Dame Street is the mother of this revolution, or merely its midwife.

All my posts from Occupied Dame Street can be found here, there's quite a few so be warned.
Photos from the last three months can be found here.

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At 1:06 pm, Blogger Stephen said...

I feel the catalyst has become an end in itself and we do need to develop into something not just resisting but directly changing the political power structures in Ireland. We have changed the conversation for some, but I constantly meet people who don't even know what we are protesting against, never mind what we want to do about it.

It looks like we will have to get directly involved in the vile political machine that is Ireland and change it to be more moral and fair. No one said change was easy, but it is better than the alternative of doing nothing.

At 1:17 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

U should totes shag a footballer....

At 11:14 am, Blogger Alex Leonard said...

Finally I got round to reading this very extensive round up. It's been sitting in my read later list for a while..

Excellent write up as ever. Well thought out and clear.

It will indeed be interesting to see how 2012 develops.

Although perhaps some footballer shagging would spice things up..

At 11:15 am, Blogger Alex Leonard said...

oops, forgot to subscribe to updates..


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