By Mike Czech
Something exciting is happened. A wave of loosely affiliated occupations are springing up across the Western world, drawing thousands of people to the streets of hundreds of countries in an expression of dissatisfaction with the current economic order. We are creating a network of unignorable reminders to those in charge that we demand better from them, while at the same time finding ways to relate on a direct and human level, forming closer and more meaningful bonds of communal cohesion than government can provide. Occupation is the word of the moment, and this movement of tents and banners is reshaping the way we discuss politics. We are reaching a point where the idea of occupation has taken on a mythical quality, divorced from the act itself, and the meaning is becoming distorted and confused.
The word has spread from the streets to new domains, as people heed the call to #occupyeverywhere. In the US, the website Occupy the Boardroom declares “THE 1% HAVE ADDRESSES. THE 99% HAVE MESSAGES” and provides the contact details of various “Wall Street elites” to facilitate their personal harassment at the hands of the disgruntled. Taking the struggle in another direction is a call to “Occupy Congress” in order to secure jobs for the “99%” – by signing an online petition. Perhaps most impressive is the work of studentvote.ca, encouraging people to improve poor voter turn out and “Occupy the Ballot Box”! There are very few certain commonalities between those across the world who are camped out on the streets of their cities, but perhaps the most obvious is that they have lost faith in established democratic processes and are demanding (and creating) a new way to have their voices heard. Telling them to return to Parliamentary voting, even under the trendy guise of “occupying the ballot box”, is to miss the point entirely. Furthermore, the more ubiquitously the word “occupy” is used, the more it becomes the default verb for any kind of political engagement, the more meaningless it is. Put simply; to #occupyeverywhere is to occupy nowhere.
So, what is occupation? Thethirdestate.net recently published a document of practical advice for students occupying university buildings which stressed, above all, that once inside people must initially secure the doors, rather than the space. By controlling access, occupiers have total control of how the building it used, and secure their safety within it. This exemplifies the way occupation has been used as a tactic of direct action in the past; it is the act of inhabiting and controlling a space; university buildings, workplaces, government buildings, shops or anything else (rather than just loitering in it). Sometimes this is to cause as much disruption as possible in order to create a bargaining chip when making demands. Sometimes it is simply because people believe they can put a space to better use than those who currently own and run it. When protest is inspired, as it is now, by the effects of austerity, and when those involved do not have the luxury of their own space, taking control of new areas from which to organise is essential. Whether undertaken to disrupt or to re-order, occupation is a truly radical act. Among the many iconic images to have come out of Greece in recent months, the six-story banner dropped from the roof of the Finance Ministry in Syntagma Square which proclaims to the world that it is OCCUPIED perhaps best shows the escalating power of the protesters. Similarly, the true practical value of occupation is demonstrated in Caracas as 2,500 people squat an abandoned 45 story skyscraper to alleviate the Venezuelan housing crisis. Personally, when I hear the word “occupation”, I think instantly of the 2010/11 actions of student protesters in the UK, but walking around camp, veterans of the anti-war movement have been quick to remind me that “occupation” is what the British and American military did in Iraq (or the Nazis did in France). When put into this context, an occupation must be seen as a potentially aggressive act, and certainly something which is confrontational.
So what is occupylsx? Though dogmatically peaceful and avoiding causing any damage, The occupation is a defiant and antagonistic action and we started to properly acknowledge that when we decided to stay after St. Paul”s asked us to leave. There had been a mood around the camp while we nominally had the Church”s blessing to be there that we were guests, making a protest without causing any trouble. Now we more fully recognise that the existence of an occupation is a point of conflict between the property owners and the occupiers, and that we are in a rebellious position. During the first days, I heard someone advise us not to risk our camp”s future by responding to the provocations of the “1%”; but the camp is a response, and by being here we are taking the first steps towards fighting back. We are radicals, though some are still in process of realising that. We need to continue with this, to embrace the radical nature of our presence here and our power to be disruptive.
The more we reject the interferences of outside influences, the more we resist the interference of authorities, the more we control the space as our own, the more we are an occupation.