"You cannot establish an organisation that inevitably attracts the homeless and addicted and then absolve yourself of the responsibility of looking after them. We need help."
I have written before about the divisions within the Occupy movement. If one spends any time with the occupiers, it isn't long before talk of factions, disagreements and discontent arises. It is inevitable. No young, leaderless movement can expect to be perfectly harmonious from the outset.
But Occupy London has created an additional rod for its back: its acceptance of numerous rough sleepers and substance abusers in the camps. Like moths to a flame, they have found a place to stay that's better than a shop doorway. With the company and added security of others, tagging on to Occupy also gives them a sense of purpose. They are now "activists" - and some gladly participate in Occupy London demonstrations and events, sometimes clashing with the police, perhaps misunderstanding their role as demonstrators, perhaps trying to exact a little revenge for the hundreds of times they have been woken up and moved along by the law.
I have never been homeless, never been an addict, but if I think about it, if I put myself in their shoes, as a drowning/addicted/marginalised/spat-upon/pissed-on/ignored/invisible person, to call myself an activist and feel part of something when I have nothing, would be a straw at which I would gladly clutch.
To some, Occupy's Finsbury Square camp is nothing more than a homeless shelter. Amongst these individuals are those who cause disharmony - and I have witnessed incidents first hand and listened to peoples' stories that highlight the fact that there is a real problem.
I saw one young, feral homeless bloke attack another with a half brick-sized battery, flooring him - and watched him being escorted out of the camp by a woman, hugging him, soothing him as he screamed his murderous fury at his victim and those who'd helped him. I was interviewing Dom at the time and he told me that these sorts on incidents are not uncommon - and it was part of the price to be paid by having so many homeless, substance addicted people in the camp.
I heard one Occupier stating his intention of visiting Finsbury Square for one of their General Asssemblies. "Better wear your stab-proof!" another piped up. There are people in Occupy who will no longer go there, having been threatened and in one case I heard of, beaten up. Whilst I personally have never felt threatened - and have in fact been welcomed - or at least tolerated with my camera and questions, I do feel that it is entirely possible, maybe even inevitable - that I will at some point be threatened or worse case scenario, attacked. There are a handful of people in the camp who could, I think, blow a fuse without too much provocation.
To my mind, Finsbury Square now has a lot less to do with Occupy now, than it had several weeks back. To the workers in the city, it has become a landmark they barely notice anymore; a once conscience-pricking symbol of anti-capitalism, anti-greed - and indeed something to be nervous or maybe just curious about, is, I would suggest, almost moribund. I would hazard a guess that at least 60% of the occupants are simply rough sleepers, many of whom are substance abusers. The remaining 40% might indeed be "active" activists, but I know that amongst them too, there are those who battle the same demons.
Oblivion. Have hangers-on with addiction and alcohol problems become Occupy's burden? Is this what Occupy wanted?
I visit the camp once or twice a week, looking for my next interview and have several times returned home empty handed. The reason is simple: My blog is about Occupy and the motivations of its individuals as to why they have made the commitment to camp in a cold City square. I'm not after art school-type grtitty-grainy images of homeless people. That would be too easy. I am rapidly approaching the conclusion that If I want to talk to serious Occupiers, as in people who will eloquently and persuasively state their case, people who will open my eyes to real issues and solutions, I won't find them in the camp. I'm not the only one with this view.
Claude Melville, writing in the Occupied Times' On the Soapbox column, believes it could be time for Finsbury Square to be cut loose from Occupy. "What I certainly did not join Occupy for was to turn a blind eye to the abuse of fellow activists, abuse I'm afraid to say I have witnessed both at St Paul's and now Finsbury Square. I am fully aware that individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems have become entwined with Occupy - or the camps at least, if not so much for the politics - and I have huge sympathy for those people. But I do not think we are doing them any great favours, or ourselves, by pretending Occupy can, or should, help them."
To some in Occupy, it seems best to ignore the elephant in the room. They don't want too much noise made about the problem of hosting a large number of rough sleepers with alcohol and drug addiction problems - it will be ammunition for the "right wing press". It has been intimated to me that there are those who take a dim view of Occupiers talking to the press about these issues. To others however, the problem of addiction within the camps cannot be ignored.
On Saturday 24 March I attended one of Occupy's General Assemblies, held in the warm spring sunshine on the steps of St Paul's. It was there that I met Andria who, using the "Human Microphone", asked for volunteers to help her in her work with the many alcohol and drug addicted people living at Finsbury Square. She kindly agreed to do my interview.
After having started our chat on the steps of the cathedral, she asked, "Do you mind if we go somewhere quiet? This place makes me uncomfortable. Let's get a coffee." We headed off to a nearby Pret A Manger.
Andria is, I think, quite highly strung, and clearly sensitive to the atmosphere wherever she is. She likes peace and quiet when she needs to focus, and once installed at our table, she opened up. She is articulate and expressive, her hands never still - an extension of her words - she gave me a clear glimpse into the lives of addicts and the and problems they face in dealing with the current system.
An ex-addict herself, she is now engaged in helping people with addiction problems. Unashamed of her past, she thinks and works from a user's perspective and believes that a radical rethink of the UK's drugs policy is needed. She believes those creating current policies are completely out of touch with the realities of addiction, looking at it through their own lens rather than that of the addicted, handing down ivory tower edicts that do little to solve problems. "You have to accept addicts as they are, deal with them as they are, otherwise its all bullshit, all piss in the wind".
Andria has more faith in people who have experienced the realities of alcohol or drug addiction, in creating policy or providing genuine help, both in the wider context of the debate and closer to home, in Finsbury Square. In the camp, the main problem is, but not exclusively, alcoholism. She is looking for recovering addicts and alcoholics to get involved in helping her and other Welfare Working Group members at Finsbury Square. "We are swimming against the tide. There are so few of us in the camp doing welfare." Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How long have you been in the camp?
I don't live there - I have health issues.
What were you doing before you joined the Occupy movement?
I was - still am - a drugs policy reformer.
Are you a full time resident in the camp?
No. But I visit Finsbury Square regularly.
Do you have a specialist role on the camp?
I am a member of the Welfare Working Group., focusing on conflict resolution at Finsbury and elsewhere.
What compelled you to become an Occupier?
I was inspired by the powerful idea that we could expose the banks and the drug money laundered therein.
How will you as an individual make a difference?
I will keep talking about drugs policy reform and will persuade Occupy to take on the issue of the multi-billion dollar drugs war money, laundered through the banks.
Who is your Enemy Number One?
Social and economic inequality driven by the One Percent rather than by scientific evidence based solutions.
Policies are written by powerful, solvent people who actually don't know the needs of the most vulnerable.
Who do you admire?
Martin Luther King.
I read his book Strength to Love when I was a teenager. He wanted to die knowing that he'd helped somebody.
What is the best part of being in the Occupy?
I love meeting so many different people. I like spending time with the most demonised people in the camp - not always the most easy of moments.
What is the worst part?
There was this injured Eastern European boy - I don't know how he was hurt - some say he was attacked, others say he fell. He lives with his mother in the camp. Watching her wailing [when she saw his injuries] was terrible. Awful!
Is Occupy making a noticeable difference?
There ia a national conversation about bankers' bonuses, whether they should get them and whether it is actually fair for taxpayers to pay for the banks' dirty business.
I would like to see resolution within the whole London Occupy scene, particularly the healing of "wounds" between those most hurt.
All images and text © Paul Davey 2012
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