I have been struggling a little with this blog. Over the past couple of weeks I have visited Occupy's Finsbury Square camp several times and each time have returned home disappointed with the pictures and the interviews.
I decided on a change of scenery and over the Easter weekend visited the rain-sodden Leyton Marsh camp only to be told, in a quite forthright manner, that they aren't Occupy. "In fact I am quite insulted that you pitch up here and accuse us of being part of Occupy" said one camper, a young Irishman. No matter. They are gone now, evicted.
So back to Finsbury Square.
Just a couple of days back I wrote about how Finsbury Square had been tidied up. It didn't last. From a photographic point of view, I can only take so many pictures of a dirty, filthy, nearly purposeless camp before it all becomes too much of the same thing. Ditto the dirty, filthy purposeless people who make up the majority of the residents in the camp. I try to be respectful, to accept that there are people with severe problems with addiction and mental health issues, but it is wearing me down. There is only so much slurred mumbling from spittle-spraying, dribbling drunks that I can take.
When I started this blog, I was sure I'd meet interesting, off-beat characters with genuinely different solutions to the problems that are afflicting the world - and I did. But I am seeing a decline. There are few people left for me to interview in the camp, few with whom my readers would bother spending ten minutes of their time.
Basket case? A few beers, a supermarket trolley and boredom lead to light-hearted mischief, forgivable, perhaps, but yet more evidence for the critics who challenge Occupy's assertion that it is a serious organisation committed to changing society.
Occupy, you have a problem. Finsbury Square largely, but not totally, misrepresents you. You need to sort it out. You need to sort it out on behalf of the handful of heroes there who, in terribly trying circumstances, are struggling to hold things together. I have already written about the problems - and now responsibilities - you have for the many rough sleepers and substance abusers who have joined you. I don't envy you in trying to come up with a workable solution. I cannot think of one and wish I could. You need to do something and you need to do it fast, because any well meaning activism undertaken by Finsbury Square is totally undermined by your hangers-on. Let me give an example:
On Tuesday 10 April one of the few heroes at Finsbury Square, Stephen, organised an "Occupy the Rush Hour" event. Video clips were assembled, a feel-good music play list was created, the cinema screen and projector erected and the sound system hooked up in the info tent. His intention was to play music and "cheer people up" on their way to work after the long Easter weekend. A bridge-building exercise. It failed, dismally. Here's why: There was no actual engagement with the public. They just heard music. There were drunks (yes, in the morning rush hour) hanging around outside the front of the info tent. Do you really think a twenty-six year-old secretary from the "99%" (98% actually) is going to stop and listen? Do you think she'll want to engage with someone whose breath is so disgusting as to make one retch? Do you honestly believe anyone passing by would believe you have something to teach them?
Passersby largely ignored the music and video clips playing and avoided stopping at the info tent during Occupy the Rush Hour.
There's more. You had someone smoking a joint in the info tent. At ten in the morning. I was shooting pictures across the street, thirty yards away and could still smell it.
You had the same dope smoker addressing his foot rot issues in the tent whilst another of your number slept open-mouthed in a chair, his rotten teeth and tonsils on display for all to see. Your just and deserved reward for this? The public's disgust. Their scorn. Their indifference.
I feel sorry for Stephen. He and a handful of compadrés at least made some sort of effort at activism. I am not sneering at them. I am sneering at the rest of you who Occupy nothing but your homes with your electricity, your laptops, your running water and your showers who have cut loose and disowned your comrades at Finsbury square. You might say you haven't, but to me it sure looks like you have.
Occupy, right now, you are no rebellion against anything. Despite your few heroes, you are a mess. A dirty, unkempt, stinking, boozewashed, drug addled gaggle of hawking, spitting, public-urinating beggars and thieves who have nothing, nothing at all to tell anyone. All your own work.
The efforts of the very few in your camp amount to little, but they have my admiration because at least they try. They try because they believe. Yes, Occupy, despite the sorry state of your camp and your neglect of those on the frontline, you still have believers. Good people. Good, forgotten footsoldiers who are floundering whilst those who occupy their ivory towers and pitch up at your achingly 'democratic' General Assemblies (never held in the camp - and the subject of much eye-rolling by many of the more lucid of the campers) feeling all radical and wavy-handy and concensussy and, like yeah, man, plan to make "May the beginning of a summer the 1% will not forget".
You need to face something, Occupy. Your Finsbury Square camp, not your website, not your Occupied Times, is you. Finsbury Square is what the tens of thousands of the public sees, day in, day out. That is your face and no amount of "we're following a different path now/we're in a different phase now" is going to change that. The decisions you make at the General Assembly will mean nothing whilst you have no control over your camp. Your brand is in steep decline. Your goodwill, such as it ever was, is draining faster than the two litre cider bottles that litter the camp. If you believe you in any way represent us, the 98%, you are as out of touch with your audience as David Cameron.
Once again, let me reiterate, you do have heroes in the camp. People who I think you don't deserve. People whose assets you waste. Take for instance, Malcolm.
This quiet-spoken Northerner does you credit. It is people like him who you need in your info tent. People like him who could help Stephen put meaning and resonance into actions such as Occupy the Rush Hour. People like Malcolm who could help restore some measure of credibility to your organisation.
How long have you been in the camp?
Two months. I was at St Paul's before we were evicted.
What were you doing before you joined the Occupy movement?
I was a trainee teacher, learning how to teach adults English as a second language
Are you a full time resident in the camp?
Do you have a specialist role in the camp?
I suppose I am the camp Padre
What compelled you to become an occupier?
My Christian beliefs. Whilst I don't have a particularly strong faith, I believe what happened at St Paul's was something God wanted me to see and to see with his eyes, the underlying human story.
How will you as an individual make a difference?
By seeking the spirit of truth. I hope it will change me as a person rather than I try to change the world to suit my personal agenda. If I become a better person, I can serve humanity better.
Who is your Enemy Number One?
I'm on the front line of an information war. Like it or not, that's what it is - the state and corporate power misinforming us about what they are doing with our resources.
Who do you admire?
Pope John Paul II, Mahatma Ghandi, John F Kennedy, Leo Tolstoy, Shakespeare and lots of other writers.
If I had to narrow it down to one person, obviously, Jesus. I think if he'd been at St Paul's the authorities would still have evicted him. I admire many more people who will probably never make it onto the pages of history.
What is the best part of being in Occupy?
The chance to engage with different people on the issues that Occupy is addressing. It is interesting to have that discourse especially since Occupy itself is a work in progress. All people, not just those in Occupy but the public as well - it is interesting to explore their ideas and to find how they identify Occupy with their own interests. When members of the public ask, "What is Occupy about" and "What are you trying to achieve?" I find it quite revealing to try and answer it honestly. I think it is more than just about greed, fat-cat bosses and bankers' bonuses. These are all just parts of the system and in all rationality, how can we expect these people to act any differently. If we have any illusions about changing the system, then that engagement with the public is an especially revealing way in which to shatter them.
What is the worst part?
The sub-human conditions, living in a little tent with nowhere to get a shower, no facilities etc. Also, listening to drunks talking bollocks to the public whilst trying to present ourselves as a serious worldwide movement. Any work you do to win the public over gets pissed up against the wall by some ass who gives the impression we're just a bunch of degenerate pissheads who sit around all day smoking pot and getting drunk.
Is Occupy making a noticeable difference?
On a global scale, negligible, but the very fact that it has lasted this long with the pressures it faces, is a fair achievement.
Where do we go from here? After the St Paul's evictions we're having a bit of a breather. We need to reorganise and rethink our strategy. My view is we need training courses and a more structured routine for full time occupiers. We're the public-facing part of the movement and a lot of Occupiers don't want to talk to the public because they feel confused about some of the issues we're tackling. They find it hard to articulate their feelings about why they're a part of Occupy in a way in which the public would find makes sense.
With a structured training programme we could teach our people about talking to the public, as well as subjects such as who controls the media - especially important in an information war, where content is twisted and dumbed down to address the requirements of politicians, PR people and advertisers.
More than anything, though is we need our days here in camp to be structured to keep people busy, to give us a sense of purpose and to change public perceptions about us.
All images and text © Paul Davey 2012
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