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Occupying Dublin: Considerations at the Crossroads


Another global wave of critique and resistance would come, I told myself and anyone who asked. For many years I watched and waited. Not passively, but actively, keeping alive the social memory of movements past, analysing the ever shifting shape of the global system and going into the streets to protest against many forms of exploitation. We no longer had the wind at our backs. Our numbers were small. Our voices were marginalised. Nevertheless we knew that the structural problems that had brought us on to the streets in the beginning had not been solved.

As boom led to bust, expropriation intensified by means we never imagined possible. The level of anger rose greatly, but activity not so much. The powerful were even more powerful and we were so powerless.

Iceland, Greece, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Chile, etc, etc. Would it be everywhere but here? Here being a country that had plunged down in the world far more dramatically than most. Yet we beheld signs of Greek protesters saying ‘We are not Ireland’. The shame of it. What would it take to get Irish people to act?

The trade union movement got 100,000 out on the streets of Dublin in November 2010 and everybody went home again. After beholding the indignant on the squares of the world in 2011, I thought that we had to get out and stay out.

Then came Occupy Wall Street. I tweeted: “#OccupyIFSC. Up for it?” I wasn’t the only one. It was in the air. During the first week of October, it got focused. There were already several actions planned for 8 October. There were several small groups planning to be at the Central Bank in Dame Street with a street theatre flavour: one going for ‘pots and pans’ and another for ‘the shirt off our back’. Then #OccupyDublin and #OccupyDameStreet started trending on twitter. On facebook too we got liking and planning.

It was spreading like wildfire throughout the US and other countries and continents too. I got reports from Occupy Philadelphia, the place where my protesting began. A meeting to plan it that week attracted massive attendance, including many of my new left friends, veterans of many protests, greyer now but still going, along with many new to protest. The occupation started on 6 October and I was mesmerised by the livestream. I was fascinated by a general assembly where participants responded to the question ‘Why are we protesting?’ by telling their stories in the call-and-response of the mic check ritual.

There was a sixties feeling sweeping over me. A Buffalo Springfield song came back to me. It went “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” I found it on youtube and posted it and it spread. It kept playing in my head. Of course, I knew there was a difference between the 60s and my 60s, but I was determined to be up for it.

All week I was on the social networks stirring it up. I do not believe in the idea of facebook or twitter revolutions, because the impetus comes from real social conditions and relations, but these technologies and networks greatly enhance the capacity to connect and to build social movements. I am especially aware of it for having organised for so many years before they existed.

I put everything else on hold. I stopped writing a book in mid-chapter. This book is an attempt to synthesise autobiography with intellectual and social history. It would not do to stay home and write about struggles of the past as a reason for not engaging with the struggles of the present. This was still my time. My position as a professor emerita gave me a certain freedom of time and movement.

I met with a number of people planning for Occupy Dublin / Occupy Dame Street to start on 8 October as well as for the international day of solidarity on 15 October at Seomra Spraoi, an autonomous social centre in Dublin city centre. It reminded me of many spaces of the sixties. I met people I had been interacting with on facebook and twitter, but had never met face-to-face. I saw a lot of them in the coming days. This was the weekly assembly of Real Democracy Now, a group that had formed out the 15-M movement in Spain. They had asked me to speak at the event they were planning for 15 October. Those who had put the #OccupyDameStreet hashtag on twitter and set up the Occupy Dame Street facebook page were there, looking to RDN as experienced organisers, as they had been in the field for a few months already.

On 7 October, the US embassy in Dublin warned US citizens to avoid the area around Dame Street, because of anti-financial-sector protests. I posted this to facebook, which led to some discussion of a paranoid nature. I revealed that the US embassy was following me on twitter. It meant that we were getting the word out there, which was what we wanted to do. At the same time, we wanted to project it as a peaceful communal gathering to address what was happening in the world and not a skirmish between testosterone-charged hoodies and cops.

On 8 October, I woke up with a great sense of excitement, not knowing quite what to expect, but hoping for a new momentum in our political scene. I arrived at the plaza in front of the Central Bank on Dame Street just after 2pm. There were many people I had never seen before, along with ones I met during the week and a few I knew for many years. Most people did not know each other. There were 300 or so. I look back on that day with fondness, because the atmosphere was so fresh and open, because all voices were equal, because there was such hope in the air.

I suggested that we use the mic check idea, as I had been so moved by watching it in Philadelphia via livestream. One by one people came forward. It was a powerful ritual, reinforcing attention and building cohesion. We told our stories and said why we were angry and why we weren’t going to take it anymore. We served notice that we were organising to take back the world that had been taken away from us. There were also conversations, one-to-one or in small groups. There was a sense of vital bonds being forged.

After seven hours, I went home and slept in my own bed. I didn’t camp overnight, as I didn’t think it appropriate to my age. I had done so in my youth, especially in 1971, where we created a massive encampment in Washington DC, as a base for mass civil disobedience in response to the continuing war in Vietnam. As soon as I got in the door, I tuned in to the livestream of Occupy Philadelphia, where there was a march from City Hall to Independence Hall. A young black girl was speaking, while the assembled repeated her words. “I am homeless. I am homeless. I am hungry. I am hungry. My grandmother is sick and can’t afford health care …” It was powerful. Resistance had stepped up its tempo.

I returned on day two, a Sunday, which was a much quieter day. I participated in a smaller assembly and found it really frustrating. It was about defining what we were. Over and over in the next days, I heard things that made me cringe at the conceptual confusion that seemed to prevail: assertions that this was not a political movement, that it was neither right nor left, that participants were welcome as individuals, but had to leave their politics at the door. I tried to be patient, to argue that a person’s political philosophy was something integral to his/her being and not something that could be left at the door, aside from the other absurdity of this constant injunction – the fact that we had no door! I invoked a conception of politics that was broader and deeper than party politics. We need to reclaim the polis, I contended. Some took the point, but others continued with the ‘no politics’ rhetoric regardless.

There was also a problem, especially when speaking to the media, about when a person could say ‘we believe’ as opposed to ‘I believe’. ‘I, the people’, one tweeter wryly remarked. There were many personal opinions put forward as collective expressions, which I found really objectionable, especially the declarations of ‘no politics here’. Someone from the Workers Party came along with some copies of the latest issue of Look Left, an attractive, intelligent, broad left magazine, to contribute to the library and was told ‘no politics here’. However they were eventually accepted and hopefully read.

 

I understood and accepted the determination to create a movement with no affiliation to political parties and to resist entryism on the part of any existing political formations. However, discussions were dominated by an unhealthy emphasis on who / what to keep out rather than who / how to bring in support for this movement. There was an obsession with a ban on political and trade union banners and literature. There was fear of any organisation bringing its own agenda into this movement. In fact, Real Democracy Now brought its participants and its agenda into the occupy movement in an entirely natural way. They involved themselves in all aspects of the occupation in a way that was hard working, enthusiastic and constructive. Another political grouping was the Workers Solidarity Movement, an anarchist group, whose members participated in an organic and constructive way, which no one found problematic.

From the beginning, in fact before the occupation actually started, much of such discussion was driven by hostility to the Socialist Workers Party. The immediate cause was that the SWP-driven Enough campaign had changed the date of their planned anti-IMF-ECB-EC march from 8 to 15 October, because of a change in the date of the troika visit and then asserted that their march was the Irish event in the international day of solidarity, whereas RDN had been organising to be the Irish event for that day for several months. Others involved in the occupation had some previous experience with the SWP and accused them of dominating broad organisations by monopolising membership lists and aggressively recruiting. These specific changes escalated to a way of talking about them as if they were sinister and evil, rather than being another force on the scene that was mobilising on the same issues. Any attempt by the SWP to relate to the occupation was seen as an attempt at infiltration. Perhaps, if they involved themselves more organically from the beginning and contributed to the camp and working groups, instead of coming along to assemblies when they wanted to argue specific positions, it might have been better, but then again it might also have increased the charges of infiltration. Some of those who became most hostile to the SWP had to ask initially ‘What is the SWP?’

In the first week of the occupation, the working groups began to form. Eventually there were groups for food, security, construction, facilitation, solutions, outreach, media, talks and events. With every passing day, things became more organised and our lives moved to a new rhythm. There was a flurry of activity, especially on the plaza and the social networks. The times they are a changin’ rang out in the night air. I loved the presence of this powerful song from my past in this present scenario. The music on the street during these months was one of the best things about the occupation. Christy Moore, Damien Dempsey, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Glen Hansard and many others sang at the site.

On day three, I went from ODS to the Mansion House for a memorial for Kader Asmal, who had lived and been active on the left in Ireland for many year before returning to South Africa, where he became a government minister. I felt an odd sense of dissonance in moving from one milieu to the other, where I was mixing with the next president of the nation, the mayor of the city, a minister in the government, some academics, even several Central Bank economists. ODS was barely a blip on their radar. Most all of them were left of centre, looking back in comfort at a spell of activism in the anti-apartheid movement of the past. When asked what I was doing these days, I mentioned ODS. Some showed an indulgent, but distant, interest, while others couldn’t get away from me fast enough.

From day two on, the weight of my efforts went into organising a series of sixties-style teach-ins. We called it Occupy University. I hoped it would help to bring theoretical clarity and historical perspective to this project. We had two or three talks a day, all out in the open air on Dame Street, except in the heaviest rain, when we found nearby indoor venues. There was something bracing about doing it on the street and struggling with big ideas in the midst of noise of the buses, ambulances and fire engines and the interruptions of attention-seeking alcoholics and drug addicts. We also got passers-by, who stopped to listen and stayed to talk, while others tarried only long enough to tell us that we were wasting our time. We invited them to feel free to participate, but not to disrupt.

Many of our talks were about the global financial system: hedge schools versus hedge funds. We also concentrated on talks about previous social movements, as well as branching out to ideology and culture. We also had workshops on practical matters: writing, media, music, direct action. Those attending were of different ages, genders, races, occupations and, most importantly, different educational levels. There were professors and doctoral students along with people who had left school at an early age. Most speakers pitched their talks well to encompass this diversity. Speakers were academics, journalists, politicians, poets, bloggers, trade union officials, alternative media practitioners. Sometimes discussions stayed reasonably well focused and sometimes they went all over the place. There were conspiracy theorists and currency crazies and fluoride fanatics, who used the discussion of anyone else’s talk as an platform to give their own talks. Mostly there was sincere sharing of knowledge and earnest interaction, pursued with a purity of purpose, all too absent in academe. In two months we organised 78 talks and workshops.

Sometimes we got so fired up about the nature of the whole global financial system and the revelation of local details of how flagrantly we were being robbed that we could hardly stand it. The Sunday morning when we listened and questioned blogger David Malone, while sheltering from the rain under the structure of the Central Bank, it was revealing, unbearable, poignant and funny all at once. Sometimes lecturers were asked questions that stopped them in their tracks. Andy Storey gave a lecture on the IMF and asserted that there had been zero rise in GDP in African countries ‘assisted’ by IMF programmes. An earnest young man was astounded and asked ‘What? Even with Live Aid?’ Actually he spoke for many Irish people, who believe that Bono and Bob had basically sorted out Africa. Sometimes people suggested measures to reform capitalism, such as a transaction tax, while other times people tried to imagine a future without capitalism. There was a lot of debate on the crisis in the eurozone. Terrence Mc Donough, professor of economics in Galway, made the strongest case for exiting the euro, whereas other economists cast doubt on this as a strategy.

Our system for booking talks was ad hoc, really rough and ready, but it worked. At least it worked until we had a minor crisis. At first the problem was being too tightly circumscribed. When I proposed a series of talks at the assembly on day three, everyone was all for giving us the go ahead. When I started elaborating further on topics and speakers and mentioned that Michael Taft was a trade union economist, the anti-trade-union reflex was triggered. Then one person, who was very assertive in week one and disappeared thereafter, suggested that we come back when we had the list more complete. It was looking as if every topic and every speaker would be argued at every assembly. I did not think that would be viable. It was logistically too awkward. A few days later we brought it up at an assembly again under the name of Occupy University and agreed to operate it autonomously. We set up a facebook conversation as our mode of meeting, supplemented by texting to the site. I contacted radical academics, journalists and writers, whom I knew, as did a few others. Sometimes somebody appeared at the camp with a proposal or contacted us through the website. Not only was ODS a necessary venue for progressive tourists to visit and musicians to play, but an OU talk was the same for visiting progressive intellectuals, such as Patrick Bond and Michael Albert. Others who spoke included: Fintan O’Toole, Siobhan O’Donoghue, Harry Browne, Gavan Titley, Conor McCabe. The full list of speakers and topics is here.

 

We never discussed criteria for speakers, because we assumed common understanding of the project. Until the name of Eamon Ryan appeared on our timetable. He was now leader of the Green Party, but had been a government minister, defeated in the election earlier in the year. He was a particularly arrogant exponent of the decisions that brought us to our knees. I was told that he would speak on ‘energy, no politics’, which I did not find acceptable. I introduced the session in a civil, but less than welcoming, way, asking participants to let him have his say, but indicating that all should be able to address the politics of energy as well as to air their grievances with the last government. The discussion veered from people losing their tempers at his very presence and walking away to engaging him in ideological debate to being honoured by his presence and trying to impress him. I was astounded at the latter, especially

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