On Saturday the 9th of November, near London's financial district, the occupy movement opened the doors to its third site in the city. And yes, it has doors. The building, which is owned by the UBS banking group and has been empty for several years, covers 43 street address numbers on three sides. Inside, most of this space remained blocked off by agreement while the safety working group set about checking the rooms, apparently virtually endless and including a 500-seat lecture theatre. Talks, performances and meetings were already going on in large office spaces on the ground and first floors. Although many were exhausted after long stints sleeping outdoors, all while involved in working groups from finance to recycling, faces and voices showed the difference that the move indoors has made. “It's really lifted spirits", commented one long-time occupier (1) as he attempted to find some wifi (turning up only the “UBS guest” network).
The group's website made it clear that the choice of venue was not random: “as banks repossess families’ homes, empty bank property needs to be repossessed by the public… We hope this is the first in a wave of ‘public repossessions’ of property belonging to the companies that crashed the global economy.” The intention is to throw open as much of the space as possible to public use, and the number of people sleeping in the building is being kept to a minimum for that reason. The “bank of ideas” will be base for further activism and a venue for organisation, debate and talks, and also a resource for the community. As part of their initial statement, a member of Occupy London said “we will make space available for those that have lost their nurseries, community centres and youth clubs to savage Government spending cuts.” The offer has already been taken up by Off-road Productions, a youth centre group who lost their previous home, despite one of the organisers remortgaging her own home to help meet the bills.
Newcomers and veterans of the Finsbury Square and St.Paul's occupations, as well as many activists visiting from the dozens of smaller camps across Britain, have came together to hold general assemblies and listen to a talks on topics from the political to the practical. Meanwhile the organisers continued to work on the building, lights and kitchen area. “It's not just people from the other camps here,” said one of them in a spare moment. He pointed out the involvement of a direct-action group opposing the criminalisation of squatting in the UK after a recent change in the law (2). “Practically speaking, I came to use the space to teach martial arts and hopefully to get a street-theatre group going.” Beyond his own projects, he added, “I want to be engaged with all this. We're starting to discuss why all this is not sustainable, discuss alternatives.”
Sheena, another occupy London activist, was helping out at the hectic helpdesk. “The act of occupying has given us media attention, some quite positive attention,” she said. “The act itself questions, challenges social assumptions. We have seen a really diverse crowd in here today, a lot more older people than we have seen before,” perhaps a consequence of the indoor conditions. She added her agreement to the view that, at the moment, the occupations were about raising ignored social questions and giving people space to discuss them and generate their own programs, rather than laying down one program at the outset. “At the moment, this is a question, not an answer. Many people are so angry about how things are going but they have no political outlet.”
The new location promises to make some of the messages a little less avoidable for the media, who have previously focused on the controversy within the church caused by the site next to St. Paul's. Although the history and rationale of occupation is seldom explained in the mainstream media, taking control over a space claimed by UBS raises blunt questions about the way society is ordered, whether it needs to be that way, and how it could be changed. Firstly there are the particular case of UBS, and their gains straight from the losses of UK pensioners (3), highlighted by the occupation as an example of the corporate profit-motive at work. The focus is also brought back to where it was in the first place: banks, as an important part (especially in finance-dominated London) of the vast concentration of wealth and power that the occupy movement sets out to challenge. But in the end, even when many (often pretty detailed) critiques of the workings of this power, and various options for change, can be given by the occupiers, little of this will find its way into the papers. Last Saturday, almost every one of the people I talked to inside the Bank of Ideas stressed the need for our outreach activity, face-to-face discussion and alternative media projects. The phrase “we are the 1% of the 99%” has been doing the rounds in the London camps, carrying in the joke a serious call to inspire more support and committed activism.
The Bank of Ideas also represents an evolution in tactics. In an aside to a recent blog post, long-time anti-corporate-globalisation activist Brain Dominick wryly reminisced over the days “when occupy meant you actually took over something of value to your opponent”. Occupying a large bank building, albeit and empty one, takes a step further in this robustly confrontational direction. It is a tactic that could inspire others elsewhere in the world.
There are many purposes to the occupations at this early stage, but they are all working towards winning positive social change over the longer term. Even just as a space to get together and organise for future projects, this time has been useful for activists. When aims come out of working groups, whether shared by all or taken on by smaller groups, this can help bring people in and orient protest and resistance. Most of all, a movement that is gaining in numbers, awareness, commitment and willingness to use direct-action tactics — as it still seems to be doing in the UK — can become a threat to the interests of those in power. And that is the way that change happens. In the UK the movement is supported by an already active movement opposing austerity measures, including a direct-action wing exemplified by UK Uncut. As the cross-industry strike of the 30th November approaches, there will be plenty of opportunity for occupy and the wider anti-cuts movement to get together and take things another step further.
(1) Quotes from the Bank of Ideas taken from brief notes and to my best recollection accurately reflect what was said, although the wording may have been slightly different. If you disagree, comment below!
(2) The focus on reducing squatter's rights rather than reducing the number of empty homes in the UK (737 000 at the last count, along with 266,000 vacant commercial units, while around 2 million families suffer from inadequate housing) is naturally causing outrage amongst squatters.
(3) UBS is a Swiss firm that received a 60bn bailout from its government and has recently been linked to the “Sams” mortgage scandal in which mortgages were “aggressively sold” to 15 000 elderly homeowners in the UK. While seemly offering low interest rates, pensioners were in fact signing over 75% of gains in the value of their properties to the banks. This apparently netted pounds 1 bn for UBS alone.