Occupy, and the common good

"This is what I know about Occupy, what I have experienced." Alexandra Stein, moving between Minneapolis and London, inhabiting the reclaimed public spaces that Occupy opened up, reflects on the movement's influence and potential.

Alexandra Stein
28 June 2012

I left the United States nearly five years ago, a few months after the great crash of August 2007. After thirty-five years there I wanted to return to London, my previous home. My children were grown. My London-based parents were getting very old. Besides, with a fresh PhD in hand I had successfully rendered myself unemployable and had no likely access to health insurance, thus adding one more undeserving scrounger to the 50 million uninsured in the land of the free and the brave. The US had worn me out.

I put my house up for sale in September 2007, only days after the credit-crunch hit. The value of my house proceeded to drop by half and never did sell. The bank owns it now. I visited it the other day on a trip back to pack up my remaining belongings. The house is empty, but I can report that the bank makes sure the lawn is nicely mowed.

The financial breakdown too moved from the US to Europe. After almost half a decade of its effects, Occupy also emerged in both to become a new element in the landscape. Many of my friends tend not to think much of the movement. Occupy is dead, they say. Occupy has no clear demands. Occupy missed its opportunity. Occupy is simply doing things others have been working on for years. Why doesn’t Occupy get serious? Why doesn’t Occupy participate in the electoral process? Occupy hasn’t developed coherent leadership.

Sometimes, though, the point is made with just a subtle, but not quickly enough hidden, curl of the lip. That curl says much: they are a bit dirty; they probably smoke too much pot; perhaps they’re vegan? And these are my friends! Leftists with years of activism behind them. Artists living on the borders of 9-5 life. Scholars of the social sciences.

But step forward towards Occupy, and the view can look different.

In the beginning

I heard the call to Occupy in October 2011. I was demonstrating on London's Westminster bridge against the privatisation of the national health service (NHS). A young woman with a bullhorn (megaphone) invited those of us blocking the bridge to meet the following week for the first London occupation. Well, I thought: I’m underemployed, and angry, and terribly worried about the increasing privatisation of everything in the UK, and the complete unaccountability of the banks, and so off I went. Together with hundreds of others I sat down in the square in front of St Paul’s cathedral and, after small group discussions in which anyone who wished could have their say, I too voted to occupy the square.

Although I didn’t camp - my bones are already stiff and subject to damp - I showed up on a regular basis, argued with passing stockbrokers, joined in general assemblies and participated in excellent discussions at the Tent City University (TCU). One talk by an NHS doctor described in detail how US healthcare companies such as United Health Group are stalking the enormous NHS market now laid bare for all comers.

My brother-in-law, a grey-haired musician and former college teacher, came almost daily to bring supplies to the occupiers, bonding particularly with the Texan drummer who staffed TCU’s library. One day a friend came with me. As we approached, he confided: "I’ve never been to a protest before. In fact, until last election I always voted Conservative". I was surprised I had not known this. He loved the occupation – he roamed the square reading the posters and announcements, sat in on a TCU talk, and finally asked how he, an IT consultant working in Canary Wharf, might be able to help. But other friends who didn’t visit rehearsed the dismissive kinds of comment ("They have no focus, they are messy and unserious, what’s it to me?") that I would hear over and over again.

TCU called an open meeting for people interested in expanding the education effort beyond one-off lectures to full courses. Forty people came to that first meeting, held in the occupied Bank of Ideas, a large disused building owned by a bank. Out of this was born the Free University, where six or so of us volunteered to teach courses - on topics from "economic literacy" to "the right to the city" to my own ten-week course, "the social psychology of democracy and totalitarianism". After we lost, to repossession by riot police, the Bank of Ideas and then the School of Ideas (which was located in an abandoned primary school, and had been put to wonderful new community use by the occupiers - only, in an act of real meanspiritedness, to be demolished on the day of eviction), our courses entered into their diaspora stage. Some taught in the public space of the Royal Festival Hall. I ended up teaching, (to my immense satisfaction), in the George Orwell pub with a half-pint of Junction bitter at hand.

Teaching at the Free University is a refreshing pedagogical challenge. Students come and go in a somewhat random manner. I have to think on my feet to keep the loose thread of discussion moving in a coherent direction. My students have included: a young French student from Martinique studying in London; a Polish-German woman studying at UCL; a Tottenham-born and bred 40 year-old IT consultant who did all the set readings, bought me beer and has a mind sharp as a tack; a young man who works in the gift-shop of a museum; and a 60-something cabinet-maker. Others only attend via the blog. People have strong opinions and reserve the right to express them. I cannot bend the "class" to my will, and have no assumed authority. On the other hand participants do not text all the way through class as do my less engaged students in the unfree university where I teach part-time.

In the neighbourhood

In Minneapolis, where I used to live, Occupy Homes MN, along with other neighbourhood organisations, physically surrounded the home of Bobby Hull, a marine corps veteran. The bank was foreclosing on the house he had lived in since 1968 when it belonged to his mother. Together the activists made US Bank sit down and negotiate and Bobby Hull’s family is now secure in their house with a modified, and affordable, loan. I know how difficult that was to achieve, because when I was still trying to hang on to my house the bank refused to talk to me at all. I called them numerous times - I with my once perfect credit score - and they refused to discuss any arrangement whatsoever.

So Occupy Homes MN, moved on from Bobby’s house to help others, including the latest effort to save the Cruz family home. Colleen McKee Espinosa, mother of Nick Espinosa, one of the most active organisers of Occupy Homes MN, found her own home threatened with foreclosure. In the US over one-third of homes are underwater, rising to over 40% in Minneapolis-St Paul. Occupy was able, once again, to bring the bank to the negotiating table and Espinosa’s home is now safe. Now the bank can leave the lawn-mowing to Nick.

The spark of Minnesota’s Occupy Homes movement has now lit a national anti-foreclosure movement in the US - such a broad anti-eviction movement has not been seen since the last Great Depression in the 1930s.

In London, while the Leveson hearings unpick the corruption of the Murdoch press, the Occupy Times of London continues to publish monthly - both in print and online - having started just nine days after the initial occupation at St Paul’s. Occupy Records began in a room in the Bank of Ideas and has just released its first record, Folk the Banks, with tracks by Billy Bragg, Ani de Franco, Peggy Seeger and others.

Occupy joined in solidarity when 30,000 police marched against the cuts in England and Wales’s largest ever police demonstration. An Occupy sign much appreciated by some of the marchers read "Occupy Support Police. No Privatisation. More Accountability. Living Wages."

Occupy has also policed itself. When the international political cult run by Lyndon LaRouche appeared at Occupy Wall Street, those in the know about the exploitative, manipulative, and sometimes deadly ways of this group simply formed a human cordon around the group’s literature table. What a great way to protect the movement - a sort of human condom to keep the virus of cultism away from the people.

In most Occupy work-groups and assemblies there are few barriers to entry, to participation. But what you do have to do is show up. True, there is sometimes a level of chaos (and of course this openness can also be a vulnerability, as in allowing access also to the ill-intentioned). But in most cases, if you show up you have a voice, and a vote.

The Free University is free - at the pub, seeing my back-of-the-cereal-box sign "Free University (portable)" I set on the table at each session, various pub-goers enquired and expressed interest. One young man, arriving for the later pub quiz, liking the sound of the course, asked "Where do I register?" "You don’t need to register" I said, "Just show up - Tuesdays at 6.30". "Do I have to enrol?" "No." "Is it free?" I pointed to the sign. People find this hard to understand.

My friend Helen hesitated to come to a general assembly on the steps of St Paul’s: "But don’t you have to camp there to attend?" "No." "But I would feel awkward not being able to vote." "You can vote. If you are there you have the right." This too has been very difficult for people to grasp. They are used to barriers. But my experience of Occupy is that if you show up you are part of it. This creates problems sometimes - difficult or disruptive people may show up. But for now it also creates a public space, a place for discussion, for conversation, for saying how it is, and trying to work on how it could be.

The process sometimes works really well and sometimes not so well. Meetings - from general assemblies to work-group meetings - have a protocol. From what I have seen no one gets to hog the meeting. Large meetings usually break up for small-group discussion in order to get as wide participation as possible. Not only does this encourage all to speak, but it also makes it easy to meet people. All of a sudden your neighbour becomes somebody. Somebody you introduce yourself to. You listen to. You speak to.

Occupy is not a thing, not a person, not a group. It is a wildly dispersed, spontaneously arising social movement. A response to the great crash. Perhaps the result of a critical mass of educated under- or unemployed people (like me?) joining up with the angry, the young, the marginalised.

In the open

This is what I know about Occupy, what I have experienced. Who knows where it’s going. But don’t we need some resistance? Some argument against what is happening? Some joining up of our manifold causes into a rather angry, creative, human effort? I’m not saying everyone need join, or even support Occupy. But recognise it for what it is. An international expression that things cannot go on as they are.

And no, there is no neat demand. How can there be? There are too many different threads - like the movements of the 1960s and 1970s it is an expression that the system, the culture must change and is changing. So don’t make assumptions about it. Go visit your local Occupy. You might find a choir of 300 or so mostly middle-aged women singing today’s equivalent of freedom songs such as I ran into on one visit to St Paul’s. Or, in the US, you might spot someone with leafy branches antlered about their head "hiding" in the bushes of a foreclosed home while the police, once again, try to remove a persistent crowd of occupiers who refuse to believe that it is the banks’ right to repossess someone’s home.

Occupy is reclaiming public space, creating public dialogue, opening discussion, describing the current realities of money and power, attempting to define the common good. It has enabled people to have serious conversations about things that matter. In the US it is saving people’s homes. It is open to all. It is a place where people meet each other. Visit Occupy and see what it means to you.


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