Notes On Occupy Dame Street

Occupy

This is a series of responses I wrote in March last year to questions about Occupy Dame Street from an academic researcher.  

1)      Tell me about your involvement in the Occupy Dame Street Movement?

My involvement was minor and largely peripheral. I was there on the first day, the 8th October, and for the next couple of weeks I spent a few hours down at the site most days. I gave a talk on the Spanish 15-M movement on the evening of Friday 14th, down at the Central Bank plaza. There was a big and rambunctious demo, by Dublin standards at least, on the 15th of October. It was all very exciting. I left for Spain the following day, and kept in touch with quite a few people who were intensely involved with the occupation over the next number of weeks. On my return I gave a talk on Writing In The Age of Networked Occupations as part of the Occupy University project, which was a series of nearly daily talks about things related to the occupation. After that I didn’t return to the site again, until a couple of days before it got destroyed. Over the Christmas period I wrote a piece online critical -though intended to be constructive- of the occupation and the course it had taken. It wasn’t favourably received by people who were down at the site attending to the daily and nightly business of physically occupying it, many of whom thought that if you had ideas about what course Occupy Dame Street should be doing, you should be down there expressing them. I can’t recall if the same people had attended my talks. I also helped draft a statement in the days leading up to the Anglo bondholder payments. The point was to help mend a few bridges that got burnt when an assembly decided, via a blocked motion, in the early days of the occupation that Occupy Dame Street would not participate in an anti-austerity march organised by Dublin Council of Trade Unions. I wasn’t there for that, but by all accounts it had a decisive effect on the shape the occupation ended up taking. Anyway, the statement I helped draft had zero effect, roughly. 

2) Why did this movement begin and where did you get the idea from?

I think the movement, if that is indeed the right word, was an attempt at emulating popular mobilisations that had taken place elsewhere in the world: Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and then the US. The Occupy Wall Street thing was raging at the time. Twitter had all sorts of hashtags demanding the occupation of public sites, private sites, other planets, abstract nouns, diseases. There are some people who spam social media with suggestive proposals for demonstrations and campaigns the way other people go pike fishing. For some reason, #OccupyDameStreet caught the imagination in Ireland. I thought it sucked. Still do.

3) What were the reasons for deciding to occupy outside the central bank?

I had been attending a series of assemblies with a grouping known as Real Democracy Now for months prior to Occupy Dame Street. It met up in Seomra Spraoi, an autonomous social centre near Mountjoy Square. People involved in that grouping had seen what had happened in Spain in particular, and were seeking to spark some degree of resistance, through popular mobilisation and occupation of streets and squares, to the anti-democratic dynamic of Irish politics, according to which, as with other countries in Europe and beyond, decisive political power increasingly resided with ‘the markets’, and elected representatives were basically a caste serving  financial institutions and their own urge for personal power. The point was to use direct democratic assemblies, in which everyone and anyone who turned up, regardless of who you were, would have an equal voice and would speak for themselves, as a counterpoint and a way of delegitimising the accumulated power of the political class, who basically use the word ‘democracy’ as an alibi for grinding people into the dirt on behalf of the likes of Goldman Sachs. It had a couple of demos that were quite well attended. Others weren’t. One place where they attended an assembly was the Central Bank. I don’t think those who went along had great things to say about the experience. In fact after that it got binned as a potential location, if I recall correctly. The problem is that there aren’t too many open public spaces around central Dublin suitable for that sort of event. In that sense Dublin is a very sterile environment for this type of political protest. If you want to make a proper impact you probably need to occupy somewhere like the GPO or the Four Courts. Preferably with guns, maybe. And I think we saw, in the way the occupation unfolded outside the Central Bank, that alcohol sterilises very well. Especially when mixed with the threat of violence.

I can’t remember hearing any particular reason proferred for the Central Bank whenever the chaps who had launched the #OccupyDameStreet hashtag came along to the Real Democracy Now meeting to seek assistance. It may well have been something as simple as the fact that Wall Street was the financial centre of New York and Dame Street was, well, a street with a few banks in it plus the Central Bank building. 

4) How many people were involved and how was it structure/organised?

Not sure how best to answer this question. It really depends on how you’re going to define Occupy Dame Street, bearing in mind that what was there changed significantly over time. And it also depends on how you’re going to define involvement. The first day, for instance, there were maybe 90-100 people outside the Central Bank, and they were basically standing around talking and there was an open mic thing going on. Would you say that they were involved in Occupy Dame Street? Probably. Then you had the big demos in mid-October with several hundred people at them. Clearly they were involved too: it would have been a rather different event if there had not been that degree of public participation. Beyond that you have all the people who prepared food, helped with the maintenance of the site, gave lifts, brought supplies, and so on. And beyond that you have all the people who did not necessarily spend much or indeed any time at the site but they communicated with other people involved via social networks, discussing what was going on, making suggestions, sharing images, denouncing traitors, feeding paranoia, and so on. Were they all involved in Occupy Dame Street? I would be inclined to say ‘yes’, but that is because I would consider the thing as entailing more than just the core of four or five dozen people (that’s a guess) who camped out there and formed part of the community there that concerned itself with maintaining the presence above everything else.

I guess I approached Occupy Dame Street in terms of my own preconceived ideas about how this type of occupation ought to work, based on the fact that I’d written and read quite extensively about how they worked elsewhere, particularly in Spain. Roughly put, you’d have an occupied space where people would come to talk about politics and think about how they might elaborate political solutions to the predicament in which they find themselves. At the same time, the fact of the space being occupied, for as long as it was occupied, would communicate a message to other people: that there was an event taking place and that the status quo -which, through the professionalisation of politics, the manipulation of perceptions of politics via mass media institutions, and the gradual enclosure of spaces that might serve people for talking about politics (think for instance about how the Irish pub, which is romanticised as a den of conspiracy and intrigue, is more often than not somewhere you go either to watch televised sporting events or drink heavily because the music is so loud that consequent conversation becomes literally unthinkable)- was being challenged. New ways of seeing and thinking about and describing our predicament, more specifically about the political and economic crisis and its effects and what to do about it, would be developed. And this would all be governed by the principle that each person who took part in it was considered the equal of everyone else, and their voice and welfare counted no more and no less than that of anyone else: what is sometimes referred to as ‘absolute democracy’. Moreover, this would be a networked event- you did not necessarily need a physical presence at the site to take part: in fact, the discussions and debates taking place on social networks would be a way of clarifying and resolving problems, developing new ideas, spreading the word, and so on. It would be the information flowing back and forth between the occupied site and the social networks that would constitute a kind of collective intelligence.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, thinking about the course that things actually took, it often seemed like a parody of the sort of thing described above. Yes there were open assemblies, which were well attended at first but then dwindled after the fractious DCTU thing. They seemed to be on a bit too early for many people. However for much of the time it was difficult for people on the outside looking in to access information where they could find out what was going on. So you never knew if it was worth your while attending an assembly because you didn’t know what they were going to be talking about.

Then the social network aspect of things was more like 10,000 angry status updates on Facebook. Rather than having absolute democracy as the horizon, what seemed to take hold was a fear of the Socialist Workers Party (or similar) coming along and turning it into Marxism On Dame Street. And so there was a ban on political parties and party political literature, which rubbed quite a lot of people up the wrong way.

Part of this was motivated, I think, by a desire to try and appeal to a notional apolitical citizen who, it was imagined, would need smelling salts after being offered a copy of Socialist Worker. By the same token, I think these notional figures were largely projections of the political outlook of the people involved. Personally, I think there are excellent reasons for keeping party politics out of the assemblies themselves, which is not at all the same thing as maintaining a space in which political parties and banners are banned, but it didn’t seem like any of those reasons were ever advanced. It’s important to bear in mind that lots of the people taking part were not very experienced in political activity and did not have much knowledge about politics in terms of different ideological currents, and so on. Rather, their outlook reflected the view of politics that is fostered by mass media: that it has nothing really to do with us at all but with the professional activities of people -the politicians- who more often than not turn out to be greedy evil swine.

Another -associated- problem was that maintaining the presence of the camp seemed to become an end in itself: it was the very act of camping that some people, perhaps a decisive number in terms of the direction things took, seemed to consider the fundamental political articulation.

Now, in terms of how the day-to-day workings of the site: maintenance of the structures, hygiene, food preparation, and so on, were structured and organised, I really don’t have a clue. However from the outside that seemed like a pretty impressive operation.

5) How did people perceive what you were doing and what were you trying to achieve?

We’d probably need some sort of distinction drawn between people who encountered Occupy Dame Street through media outlets and people who approached the site and spoke with people. And then it depends on who they ended up speaking to. Dealing with the latter first: a few times I was walking last the site myself and I got approached by people who were in something called the Irish Sovereignty Movement, or something similar. These are people from Freeman-style organisations, which revolve around a sort of naive belief in ‘good’ legal and political structures and institutions that, strangely enough, very closely resemble those of the present capitalist state, give or take an arcane ritual there and a lizard with a Jewish-sounding surname here. Some people get taken in by them, other people get simply nonplussed by them, and others think they’re nuts. The troubling thing is,  i have no idea in what proportion. But people like them did have an outsize effect on people’s perceptions of the occupation, even though there were others there who had more sensible and grounded analyses of what was going on. For a passer-by, it would depend who you ended up talking to, really. The same went for all the graffiti and posters and murals. On the one hand you could look at it and think, wow, these people are bringing vigour and creativity to a site of austerity and administrative tyranny. On the other hand you could examine it and think, what the hell is all this incomprehensible crap?

An anecdote: on the second night i was standing on the pavement outside the Central Bank and a man approached me, sceptical, asking what is it you wish to achieve here? And I said, expressing my preconceived idea about what it was going to be, something to the effect of, well, it’s a public statement that the present crisis is intolerable and that people must take democratic action to bring these institutions to heel. And he said, well that’s all very well, but people like me take one look at ye standing around here and all I see is..hair. He had a point, in that there was a lot of pretty gruesome prejudice against the people who occupied the site, ostensibly on account of their appearance, but I think it has more to do with finding a pretext for identifying with the power that is being challenged.

From the point of view of the general public, however, I think the perception was actually quite positive. I think many people didn’t care about the substance of the demands being made by the occupation -ECB and IMF out, nationalise Corrib, real participatory democracy, and whatever the other one was- or about the confused nature of the messages that were emanating from the camp, or about the fact that the Occupy movement in Ireland was not leading to the mass mobilisation people always say they want to see happening. Rather, i get the impression many were just glad that there was someone out on the streets demonstrating that not everyone was prepared to capitulate and that there was no mutated gene in the DNA of people living here that prevented them from getting out and protesting. Sure, a lot of the messages were garbled and sometimes I found them hide-behind-the-sofa embarrassing, but the fact of the occupation itself was a fairly powerful statement for quite a long time. I mean, a raised clenched fist doesn’t articulate any elaborate political thesis, but it still delivers a powerful message that anyone can understand. Same, at one level, with the occupation, I guess. At least, that is, until the State decided it was time to destroy it.

6) Was the organisation in touch with other movements? International coordination involved?

Yes, but I wouldn’t be able to account for the full range or extent of contact. Initially you had the Real Democracy Now connection, though to be honest I think it’d be pushing things to refer to that as a movement, just by virtue of the fact that it was so small. However it did have contact with sympathetic/similar groups in other areas -Cork, Limerick, Galway- though it was always hard to tell just how many people were involved in these. There were other groupings -which were sometimes just maybe four or five people, who had a Facebook presence and organised things like caceroladas, in imitation of the Latin American experience of people going out onto the streets to bang pots and pans so as to raise a commotion against the government. I think people from these circles all had some degree of involvement in the initial set up, and may have been involved also in the Occupy camps/presences that got set up in the aforementioned towns.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that for the 15th of October there was a Real Democracy Now march planned, which got re-billed and had its venue changed to incorporate Occupy Dame Street. That march was part of the a global mobilisation that had been initiated by the 15M movement in Spain, and there were marches that day in over 90 countries. After the march landed at Dame Street i took a call from my partner who was in Spain, at a march as part of the same event. It was strange and exciting to hear the roar of people on the streets of southern Spain who were taking part in the same event. I think that dimension to things faded a bit after that, in that Occupy Dame Street became more about how things were going to unfold in Ireland. Links were established with other occupations in Ireland, and there may have been some contact with US Occupy sites, but I’m not sure to what degree. There was also participation in the Spectacle of Defiance in December.

One of the interesting angles to the Occupy movement in Ireland that I didn’t see get much attention was Occupy Belfast. That was an occupation operating in a different political jurisdiction but it didn’t seem to get treated as such in the way it interacted with other Occupy sites in Ireland. What you have there is the makings of a political community that operates as though neither the border nor the different forms of official citizenship that the border calls into being existed. That to me is something very significant, because even if it appeared in a rather inchoate and fleeting form this time, the potential exists for its reappearance in more powerful and productive forms in future.

7) Why do you think the movement was moved?

OK, first I need to object to the terms in which this question and the one below are posed. A hundred or so Guards descended on Dame Street under the cover of night, tooled up and wearing balaclavas and pulled people out of their dwellings in the middle of the night, intimidating and inflicting violence on the inhabitants, stealing their property, destroying their dwellings and preventing any recording of what they were doing, I think that deserves a far more specific descriptive verb than ‘move’ or ‘move on’. Talking about how they were ‘moved on’ does not give sufficient account of the violence that was inflicted in the process.

Also, the movement was not moved; it was conclusively destroyed. Sure, there may be a core of people who seek to keep things going under the name, but the form and content of the movement has changed so fundamentally with the destruction of the camp that the only thing that remains of what there was before is the name, and the networks of people that were formed during the camp’s existence. (I may prove to be completely wrong on this, by the way. For all I know there may be a large contingent of people who still identify with ODS planning on making a comeback.)

I think it might be more fruitful to ask: why did it take so long for the Occupy Dame Street camp to get destroyed? On the second night a rumour swept the camp that the riot police were going to clear the place. I listened in on an assembly where people were making contingency plans for what might happen if the guards arrived, whether they would resist non-violently, or whatever. It seemed at the time like an eminent possibility. And then nothing happened for months. Why?

One reason, I think, is that nothing was ever done that impinged on the functioning of the Central Bank, either from an operational standpoint, or from the standpoint of trying to apply political pressure of some sort. The employees were not impeded from coming and going. There was no public declaration that i can recall about why it was the Central Bank plaza getting occupied as opposed to somewhere else. Now, it so happens that the Central Bank is basically the European Central Bank’s subsidiary in Ireland now that monetary policy is set by the ECB. So there was fertile ground for political agitation there, which never materialised. And as long as it did not materialise, what incentive would the authorities have for getting rid of the camp? If I were the governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, the guy who sits in meetings in Frankfurt with the thirty-odd other white male bankers and economists, in the room with the portrait of Hans Tietmeyer on the wall (the banker who basically told Europe’s political leaders after the fall of the Berlin Wall that it was time for politicians to start obeying the markets), deciding on the most profitable course of action for Europe’s banks, regardless of the consequences for the 100 million people living in poverty in Europe, or for the vast majority of the citizens of the State that sent me along to the meetings, I’d be pretty damn chuffed if there were a protest outside my building that seemed disinclined to point the finger at me for anything.

And more generally, since the occupation itself didn’t pick any targets (with the exception of the department of finance on the day of one of the Anglo bondholder payouts: a pretty effective piece of direct action), the government was probably happy enough for it to be there. Just as Enda Kenny and his Fine Gael party laid claim to a ‘democratic revolution’ when they got elected, it probably suited them to show the public just how tolerant the Irish government was of protest, by not clamping down hard as was the case in other jurisdictions, thereby illustrating that indeed, we live in a democracy. Moreover, they’re not completely thick: hubristic over-reaction on the part of state authorities had only fanned the flames of protest in other places. So perhaps the best course of action, from their point of view, was to let ODS have the run of the manor, since they weren’t really inflicting any real blows on the government’s plans or prestige.

Another thing worth bearing in mind, another factor staying the hand of the State, is the way ODS was represented in the media. The media outlets in Ireland, which are all right-wing, are geared towards producing a sense of resignation on the part of the population. So when you listened to the radio features, for instance the RTE ones with Philip Boucher Hayes and Charlie Bird, the line taken by the broadcaster was one of superficial sympathy but taking pains to drive home the point that this was going nowhere because of x, y, and z. A similar sort of thing happened with the Vincent Browne TV programme. It was all to easy for these broadcasters and journalists to look at the list of demands and, safe in the knowledge that they would never be achieved, invite the ODS people to try and tell the public just how they would be achieved. So I got the sense that the media was happy to have Occupy Dame Street too because it never did anything that was particularly problematic from their point of view: the nearest things got to RTE getting occupied was a sign reading #OccupyRTE. ODS’s innocuousness and -occasionally- daftness made it media-friendly.

Hopefully you can see why, contrary to what you might expect, there were quite good reasons for the powers that be to leave ODS as it was. But they probably weren’t expecting the camp to last so long. And with St Patrick’s Day approaching, commercial concerns, but also political concerns at the possibility of some sort of incident on Ireland’s national holiday, with consequences for our (I.e. the politicians’) international reputation, most likely began to take hold.

So the media machinery cranked into gear, channelling the collective unconscious of Dublin’s business and political elites. The grand marshal of the parade said it was probably time for the camp to move on, and this was duly reported in the press, as though the coming green tide meant Johnny Giles held some sort of political office that entitled him to more of an opinion on the matter than the average person in the street.

The consequences for democratic rights were basically ignored: the protesters, it was said, had now ‘made their point’. A man who sells disgusting pizzas was allowed onto the main evening news to make entirely unsubstantiated claims about ODS affecting his takings. There are thousands of small businesses up and down the country who could make highly substantiated claims about the effect of bank bailouts and austerity on their revenues, but these people are never consulted on the evening news.

So there was a process whereby the public was softened up for ODS’s removal in advance of the Gardai operation, so that when it happened, it appeared as if it were a neat and necessary procedure so that everyone could now, in the jaws of St Patrick’s Day, move on. At the bottom of all this was the basic fact that ODS were nearing a position in which they could have been able to interrupt the M-C-M circulation in and around one of Ireland’s major tourist events. For that circulation to work to the full, the regime needed images of happy, smiling faces to show the world that all was well. In town, the hoteliers needed the circulation of alcohol. And to bring it all together, the police decided they needed riot gear, brutality, and the application of pepper spray to the face of a peaceful protestor who was already pinned to the ground. The State does love a parade, after all.

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