Thursday 1 December 2011

Occupying the Conversation

Wednesday 30th November, Lowestoft I've just got back from the High Noon Rally and public sector workers' strike march up Lowestoft High Street and the meeting afterwards where I sat with Kate and Rita and Charlotte in the packed United Reform Church, listening to people speak about the effects of the government’s austerity measures on their lives, pensions, families and future prospects.

Teachers, therapists, cooks, retired gardeners and trade unions representatives all spoke about how the government (and the system) was ennabling more than ever the richest to rob the poorest, pushing mercilessly for privatisation, for fewer and fewer workers’ rights or job security and longer hours for less pay. For YEARS to come. How it considers ordinary people as being of no value whatsoever. Like the starlings Jon wrote about on Monday.

A woman who had worked as a public gardener for thirty years told how her annual pension of £2,500 was officially considered ‘gold-plated’. Another who had been a teacher for twenty years said she loved her work, it was all she had ever wanted to do, but the prospect of having to wait until she was 68 to retire made her feel like she was being squeezed of all her life force and there would be nothing left by then. And how that marred the love she felt for her job.

“It’s as if [the people running the system] want you to die so they don’t have to pay you any pension,” said someone from the floor. Everyone cheered.

One primary schoolteacher had left a well-paid media job in London to come and teach in Suffolk after he discovered that all the money he was paying into his private pension would bring him almost nothing when he retired.

“I keep hearing this one word,” he said. “It just keeps speaking to me - solidarity. Now more than ever we need to stick together. We can’t afford not to. Solidarity.”

The atmosphere of the march and the meeting in the church was alive, attentive and engaged. People were listening to each other. I wondered whether I should “stand up to speak” something about Transition or Occupy, mention fossil fuel depletion and energy constraints and the preparations we are making in our local initiatives in the face of these along with climate change and economic instability. After all, Transition is where most of my attention has been focussed for the past four years.

But I felt a bit tongue-tied (even though I hadn’t said anything), and there didn’t seem to be an opening. I thought, well I’ll write about the rally tomorrow and bring in the links with Transition and Occupy then. Better go and get on with that Transition Norwich bulletin. So I tapped fellow Sustainable Bungay transitioner Kate on the shoulder and mouthed “Got to go, see you soon…”

At that moment a woman stood up and brought Occupy into the meeting. I sat back down. She’d been to OccupyLSX and Occupy Norwich. It was really important to consider this movement, she said, because its presence in all these cities of the world brings constant attention to the vast economic and social inequality which exists and is exacerbated by the present gormengahst of the global financial system. Because of Occupy more and more people are seeing what they didn’t see before. And as Arundhati Roy once said talking about the social and environmental ravages of dambuilding in India, once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it.

And take care not to just side with the mainstream media when they talk about finding drug needles and the presence of alcohol at the London Occupy site, the speaker reminded us. This is the middle of London. Every day food is provided free and there are tents to sleep in. Of course you’re going to get homeless people, maybe even people on drugs. That’s what’s going on in our society. “I’ve been there a couple of times and I’ve noticed that the homeless are included. Maybe included for the first time in a long time. Not everybody here may agree with the protesters but it is a non-violent movement, with a lot of young people concerned about a future with few prospects. Just like we are here."

The people in the room cheered again and the retired gardener with the ‘gold-plated’ pension stood up and exhorted everyone to make sure their trades union leaders supported Occupy.

This was the cue for Kate and me. We put our hands up. Kate went first, introducing both of us and Sustainable Bungay and a few core Transition concepts around building community resilience. This is the woman who a few years ago at one of our core group meetings stood up and delivered a two minute talk on Peak Oil and Climate Change with no props and you just got it. It was also Kate who stood up at a climate conference in Bungay in 2007 and exhorted the people in the room to get together to come up with some solutions. That was the beginning of Sustainable Bungay. So she had to speak first! And it made me feel far less nervous about standing up to speak.

I said one of the most important things about Occupy was how it opened up and held a space for conversations to happen which aren’t normally granted any space at all, certainly not in the mainstream public discourse.

And what could be more mainstream than the vast and growing social inequality wrought by a small elite via an oppressive machine-like system that ultimately has no one’s best interests at heart? This is a time when our very humanity is at stake. We need to be talking with each other.

Pete then said how at OccupyLSX he had witnessed an intense conversation start up amongst a group of besuited city workers visiting the site. They were talking about it, too.

I‘ve visited OccupyNorwich a few times now and experienced this openness, both in listening to what other people have to say about our human situation and in being listened to myself. And I've encountered warmth and intelligence each time.

As I left the rally for the library yesterday a young woman at the door offered me a ticket for the Murphy's Lore gig later in the evening. I'd have loved to, I said, I really like Murphys Lore. But I have to write an article and help prepare a bulletin. Help keep the spaces open for those conversations...

Pics: High Noon Rally in Lowestoft yesterday; Marching up the High Street; Occupy Norwich general assembly; It's the private sector too; You don't have to be a Socialist Worker to read the Socialist Worker, Kate and I at the public sector strike meeting


  1. What a great write up Mark. Thank you for keeping these conversations going. There's not much of this kind of thing happening in Lewes. But there's an occupy Brighton. Maybe I'll escape the Late Night Christmas Shopping night tonight and go and hang out with them.

  2. Hi Mark ,
    Great post and in line with what I will post tomorrow on the Social Reporting site tomorrow. With this in mind am stuck for an image and wondered could I use the image "its the private sector too" from your blog yesterday.

  3. Thanks guys. I'm chuffed you enjoyed the post.

    I'd be delighted for you to use the "its the private sector too" pic, Marella. If you could just credit it to me that would be great.

    Look forward to reading you tomorrow.
    All the best,

  4. Mark, thanks.

    Just back from w/e away near Leeds, staying with my friend who is a surgeon specialising in young children. He told me of a porter at his hospital, 20 years in the job, who in addition to the manual labour he is employed to do has several times persuaded distraught kids (whom the medical staff had been unable to talk around) to undergo their operations. He had such a love of his job and empathy with the patients that this "unpaid" work was made possible. Now he's lost his job, shunted into some recess of the hospital to play out time until retirement because "The Trust" was making efficiency savings or whatever the management jargon of the day is calling it. Truly tragic.