It was two years ago today that a frustrated UK public stormed towards Paternoster Square, determined to Occupy the London Stock Exchange. The police acted to protect the City of London, and acted to remove thousands of protesters from the area. Giles Fraser, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral offered sanctuary to the protesters in the churchyard and grounds of the Cathedral. And there we stayed. Over time grew another camp, Finsbury Square. I had been participating in Occupy Bristol, and moved to the South East in late October. I headed straight to join the camp at Finsbury Square. And there I stayed, on and off, through to the end. It was one of the most dramatic, educational, exciting, scary, hopeful periods of my life.
So, this anniversary means a lot to me. It is an anchor to a transformation in my own life, where I went from management consultant to tent occupying activist and writer overnight. I started writing this blog in earnest as part of the media team at Finsbury Square, doing coverage from camp and protests called Voices From the Occupation.
To those who say – almost nothing has changed and what has changed, has changed for the worst – I have the same message then as now: That’s why we Occupy, because things are really bad and getting worse. If you feel that more could be done, or be done in a different way (say it with me now) DON’T GET ANGRY, GET INVOLVED! Occupy never was and isn’t an organisation, a political party or an answer. Occupy is a call to question our beliefs, question the rules we live by, question our complicity and passivity in the face of real human suffering. It is also, for each one of us who get’s off their ass, stops acting like a spectator and begins to conceive of themselves as someone who can make a difference, a coming of age.
Today, I am so grateful to have been and continue to be a part of this awesome movement. I am grateful too for the extraordinary people I met, who still play a big part in my life on a daily basis, and for all of you then and since who have taken up the call to get involved and transform the world for the better in our lifetimes. I salute you all. It is a pleasure to stand with you still and always.
Here is my very first Voices from the Occupation blog. I have resisted the urge to amend or edit anything.
Thursday, 3 November 2011
Voices From The Occupation
Occupy Finsbury Square London
Mahatma Ghandi ~ “A nation’s greatness is measured by the way it treats its weakest members”
We Need To Talk About Kenneth
The Occupy movement is spreading around the globe. Over 1000 locations in 90 countries. Britain alone has more than 20 established camps, and more planned each day. The movement is diverse – doctors, lawyers, office workers, community workers, the unemployed – and the homeless, the infirm, the alcohol and drug dependent. Each Occupation seeks to balance creating good neighbourliness, a safe space for women and children – with the will to offer welcome to all, including the more erratic and unstable of our number. How we respond to this issue is not just important for the individual and collective wellbeing of occupiers, but as a living demonstration of the real capability of groups of people to meet the needs of their community.
I should let you know that I live a nice sheltered middle class life. I have a great freelance job and an income, which means me, and my wife can live in a nice house, in a nice area. I don’t have to deal with alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous, the welfare system, the police and prison. Someone else has got it covered. By placing myself on an open camp, where anyone can walk in, I have seen a much wider panoply of human existence, and had to start questioning my own prejudices, opinions and fears. I’ve had to ask myself questions and answer them publicly. It’s been extraordinary.
So, rather than sit there feeling scared, embarrassed (oh don’t let the cameras film THAT guy), and frankly, upset by the behaviour I’ve seen, I decided to write this article and sit and chat with these guys.
What I realised, is that we have a choice on camp. We can do things the way we always have. We can make it someone else’s problem to deal with. We can honour our fears and embarrassment over our compassion and principles. Or we can have a conversation. We can work together to find a means of creating a system that works.
This issue is being discussed at a meeting on camp at 3pm today. A team has formed of community and social workers able to provide one to one and group counselling/mediation on site to support this process of managing our diverse community. This is something ALL occupy camps will need to address, and it is of great import that each of us remembers why we are here. To demonstrate an alternative. To discuss and agree a way of living together that works. To do that, it needs to work for everyone.
So, here are the men behind the condition.
Kenneth Austin, 36
Kenneth wears a dark blue t-shirt and jeans, stands at over 6ft and is well built. He has short wavy chocolate hair and twinkly blue eyes. He looks like Brad Pitt, wandering home after a week of heavy nights, still slaughtered. He asks me my name and as the introductions finish he drops to one knee, takes my hand and kisses it.
Kenneth has been an alcoholic since we was 14. He served in the army in Belfast, West Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan.
I ask him – what is your experience of being an alcoholic?
Kenneth: You bleed from you arse, puke everyday, smell like s***. There’s nothing glamorous about it. You lose friends, break up relationships. You’re selfish, unkind and you get into fights.
What happened in your military service?
Kenneth: I handed out eight cans of coke to eight Iraqi children once. They were thirsty. I killed four people, I saved nine. I was ordered to shoot this Iraqi woman. She was quiet and looked depressed and my officer says ‘shoot her!’ I tell him ‘no’. He kept on and on. I snapped and punched him in the stomach. Really hard. I get court martialled, discharged and I’m in Colchester (military prison) for 18 months. But I did some awful things out there. People just say ‘It’s your job, it’s what you’re paid for’.
What did you do for work after that?
Kenneth: I retrained as an acupuncturist. I also teach music. I made enough money that way. I was sober for seven years, went to AA, was the golden boy. My best, best moment was, I taught this 10-year-old kid called Arthur how to play ‘Voodoo Child’ by Jimi Hendrix. It was wicked. But yeah, I was inappropriate at AA. I started going there to pull chicks. I got loads. People said ‘oooh Kenneth, you shouldn’t do that’. I relapsed and you know.
When you look at the future, what do you see? What are you inspired by?
Kenneth: I love attention and making people laugh. I love teaching, opening people up and giving them motivation and confidence. Compassion, love, time, kindness.
At this point, he tells me I’ve dropped something. After I’ve looked around for a bit, he says ‘Your smile!’ Funny guy.
What are you afraid of?
Kenneth: (takes a long time to answer and his smile fades) Myself. I’m capable of terrible things. My drinking. I’m anxious. I just have this anxiety.
Why are you here, at Occupy?
Kenneth: I want to rejoin the human race. Be a part of something. Like now, we’re talking, getting to know each other. I’ve been really isolated for two years. I’ve been really lonely.
He then tells me I have got two things.
He pulls a whiteboard marker from behind my left ear, and a yellow flower from behind my right, much to my astonishment and entertainment.
But Kenneth isn’t alone on site. I also meet Ace.
Ace also served in the army. He became an alcoholic, his mother asked him to leave their home at 21, and he has been mostly homeless since. He did meet a woman, get married and have a child called ‘Daniel’. His son is now in the care system, and Ace has no contact with either his son or his former wife.
Ace looks like a soldier. He is tall, wiry, wears a military style green coat. He has a handful of teeth left and one of those is causing him a lot of pain.
What has being here done for you?
I feel like I’ve got a purpose. I’m not bored. I was drinking six-nine litres of cider a day before this. Now I have two cans in the morning, and two cans in the evening. I had the shakes for a few days but I got over that. Now I can work.
On site, Ace is a guy who finds himself a job. He is up each morning by 8, taking abandoned crockery back to the kitchen tent, emptying bins, and clearing up the public spaces. He has also set up with Ace’s Bike Repairs on site as a fundraising venture. He gets donations in of bike parts, sits in a workshop under a gazebo at the edge of camp, and fixes the bike of passers by for donations.
I am sitting talking to some guys on camp about life, capitalism and the monetary system in the wee small hours when Sergei shows up. He is a bear of a man. A ruddy pug nose, slits for eyes, bearded and a large mostly bald head. He wears split mittens and a big black coat. He talks with a think eastern European accent, slurred with drunkenness. As I wriggle a little in my seat, he looks straight at me ‘Can I talk to you?!’.
Yes, of course, come take a seat.
Sergei: I hate this capitalism. I hate it. Stupid pigs.
Me: Where are you from?
Sergei: Lithuania. I am Lithuanian. I grew up in Soviet Union. They horrible soviets. I study at University; I study Law, three years. I not finish.
Me: Why didn’t you finish your degree?
Sergei: I go to prison.
Me: What for?
Sergei: I blasphemy the system. I say things, stupid. They give me maximum sentence. 3 years. I come out, no job. I become carpenter, labourer. I have my hands always.
Me: And why are you here?
Sergei: I told capitalism freedom. Soviet bad, capitalism good. They all thieves. I come here, no home, no job, hate it.
At this point, Sergei pulls a bottle of whiskey from his bag. We let him know that drinking isn’t permitted on site and he smiles, puts his bottle away and we spend the next hour or so discussing the finer points of fractional reserve banking.
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