Thursday, November 03, 2011

Two Dramatic Hours at Occupy Bournemouth

I had little idea what the afternoon had in store when I arrived at the town hall at 2pm to visit Occupy Bournemouth. Of course, I knew what was happening in the Occupy movement globally, but I'd recently spent eight months living in the town, and had seen precious little sign that its people would challenge the austerity-blasted status quo. And now? Well, we'll see...

As it happened, 2pm was the perfect time to get there, because three events were about to shed some light on the occupation, and its relationship to the local community.

First was the visit of an extremely posh elderly man, apparently the only person to turn up and seriously criticise, on the fifth day. From the start, he was very aggressive, challenging the right of the demonstrators to camp as a) "How many of you are actually from Bournemouth?", and b) "How many of you have got a PhD? I have!". His approach immediately got some people riled, and they responded in kind. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and the man was led away from the main group for a calm down. An offer of tea disarmed him, and eventually he conceded that "It's not your ideals, many of which I support". More to the point, he was concerned that the "ornamental gardens" might be damaged. Eventually he went on his way, offering "best wishes" to all. It was a bizarre incident, and one that said so much about both the mental block that some have about direct action and the defensiveness of some activists.

Not that these were 'activists' by and large, in the sense the word might have meant a few years ago. Far from being part of any local 'scene' (there simply isn't one, or hadn't been), they had met for the first time at the campsite, and were still forming their relationships. Someone was a cleaner by trade though he'd trained in law, someone else had a struggling small business, yet another did something which put his back out with lifting. Yes, in keeping with the Occupy slogan, these really were representatives of the suffering 99%, though the absence of females was very noticeable.

The second scene I wish to paint for you happened maybe fifteen minutes later. A fire alarm went off in the Bournemouth Council building, and hundreds of office staff trooped off for what seemed to be a drill in the pissing rain. Now the council have announced they'll be seeking eviction in court on Friday. Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr John Beesley, has said that: “What started as a protest march on Saturday has now become an unauthorised occupation of public land and as such we are treating it the same as we would any other illegal encampment."

This is a lie. It was never a march. A group merely crossed the road to the site. And they had council permission to camp there, as they intend to prove over the days to come.

The scene around the brazier at 2.30
But "the 99%" of those tramping wearily into the rain could not be held responsible for this. They are contractually banned from taking 'political positions' (other than those held by the executive of course), and couldn't show much sympathy, for fear of losing their jobs. Still, even from a point of self-interest, Occupy Bournemouth need to try and make common cause with those people. Who knows? A crucial form could magically get lost somewhere...

As the ranks of the oppressed working class filed past the camp to their boss-orchestrated soaking, there was an air of unease at best, and distrust at worst. Someone in camp muttered something about "power to the sheeple". I raised a few smiles by shouting "Thanks for walking out in solidarity", but I was painfully aware that the gap between the camp and the office staff seemed far more than the five metres it briefly was in physical space. If the campers are camping on 30th November, I hope they'll be able to support those council employees striking over pensions. The camp must expand, or it will die.

And there's plenty of potential for growth, if the levels of public support for the camp are any guide. A glance at the comments on a Bournemouth Echo article had suggested this, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer number of supportive honks the campers got from passing motorists - especially taxi drivers. And important though this is for morale, far more vital are the supplies that well-wishers are donating. So far, they have enough food to keep them going, and while I was there a homeless supporter persuaded her brother to bring some blankets.

Battening down the hatches for a long, cold winter
But by four the rain was hammering down, and a chill wind was starting to threaten those high spirits with its promise of a long, hard winter to come. And just at this crucial point, a middle-aged man came with a huge supply of tarpaulin, which was gratefully received. Evidently, he'd seen the weather, and been concerned about the fate of the campers. So he'd got the tarp together, driven to the camp, and handed it over. A reasonably cosy "proper house" was quickly constructed, under the instruction of some guy who knew what he was doing with that sort of thing.

This last event crystallised for me exactly how different this new breed of activism is. Though of course the general public care about the environment, animal welfare and the like, the general public has never got involved in campaigns around those issues en masse. Ultimately, this is because it's easier not to. At the moment, Occupy Bournemouth may only be twenty tents, but even in a town with little to no tradition of militant class struggle, people 'instinctively' know that the campers speak for them, and wish to help in any way they can, even if they cannot spare the time themselves. This is because that 99% is staggering under the weight of the 1%'s massive onslaught against working class living standards.

For all the talk of "no politics" - a persistent hallmark of Occupy around the globe, it is the beginnings of a political movement. It portends a struggle by the immense majority against the tiny minority who are living it up at our expense. 99% of people are aching for something to change, and for someone to show them how to resist. If the Occupy movement links up with workers in struggle, there may be nothing the 1% can do to hold back the tide.

Follow Occupy Bournemouth on Twitter.
Join the Occupy Bournemouth Facebook group.
View my Occupy Bournemouth Flickr photoset.
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