Sunday 14 October 2012

ARCHIVE: The Occupy Movement with pragmatist-tinted glasses

A year ago tomorrow a world-wide protest kicked off against the global financial system and people sat down together in city squares everywhere to discuss the future. This was the Occupy Movement that informed many of last year's blogs on This Low Carbon Life. Today's archive post is by Olaya de la Iglesia, one of the movers and shakers within Occupy Norwich, which held a protest camp on Hay Hill from October 15 2011 to February 2012.

To be able to put this into context I feel you need some background. I have worked full time since the age of 19 when I emigrated and I have gained a qualification through work and a student loan which I will be repaying for many years to come. I am now a healthcare professional who has worked up the NHS’ ‘ranks’ during the course of 10 years. I am what I would consider middle class with some quirks; I come from divorced well educated parents, grew up in an incredibly nice house for Spain in the 80s and my mother, who raised me, is a self confessed politically minded feminist who grew up in a fascist dictatorship but loves the fact I was hand-fasted for several years before I decided to get married. Up until 3 years ago I was apathetic and uninterested in the state of the world we live in. I did not understand or care for politics and I avoided watching the news because it depressed me slightly. I was asleep.

Then I started noticing that my life was not getting any better despite the promises that getting a better career would be fruitful. I was earning slightly more but with the increase in daily living costs I was still struggling to make ends meet. When I graduated the job market started to deteriorate and I ended up working 25 miles away from home. By this time it was the end of 2008 and nothing had changed much despite the ‘credit crunch’. There were talks of recession; apart from the rising diesel price I was not feeling it. But then came the day that I realised that banks were being bailed out and I started to feel slightly annoyed. I looked further into it and one day, while I was ‘Stumbling’ I came across the Zeitgeist movement movie ‘Addendum’ and then my blood started to simmer. I was outraged that this was allowed to happen. I wanted everyone to know but bringing this up at lunch, the pub or a family dinner, was answered with negativity and a sense that I was scaremongering. They would say ‘there is nothing that we can do about it’, ‘They would not allow things like that to happen’, ‘That is just a conspiracy theory’ . So I stopped talking about it.

In the meantime I was finding myself yelling at BBC breakfast quite often because all I saw was a small percentage of people getting away with huge bonuses for contributing next to zero to society. At work I saw the care I could provide deteriorate and I saw the consequences of lack of social and health service availability for vulnerable people. I was now getting annoyed enough to do something about it. I wrote to my MP and despite the fact I am not allowed to vote in the general elections I looked into manifestos to inform other people of policies and options. But they all turned out to be lies, ‘manipulated truths’. Promises were unfulfilled and the austerity measures were beginning to hit me. It was when the Health and Social Care Bill hit the limelight that I realised politicians were not representing us. They were failing at demanding transparency, accountability and responsible behaviour from the financial institutions that caused the downfall of our economy. They were getting away with it. The more I looked the more I realised the depth of the problem with widespread corruption and profiteering in the US and UK which had done nothing more than crunch numbers and speculate. Now I was angry.

I decided to start looking at the news in Spain to see if things were any better there and a couple of months later, on May 18th 2011, I saw online news of the ‘Indignados’ in La Plaza del Sol. I was awestruck; I kept looking for videos, blogs, Facebook pages, web sites. There were 30,000 people in a square protesting because ‘Politicians do not represent us’ and they were ‘not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers’. They were camping and by the beginning of June there were reports of camps all over the country where the aim was to take time, sit down, discuss the problems and use each other’s knowledge to provide solutions; this was getting deeper.

Tahrir square had shown a youth that was angry because their problems are worthy of anger. In Spain the graduates that still lived with their parents for lack of jobs and housing, got out on the streets and started to educate each other and devote their time to reach conclusions through consensus led assemblies. Soon older people started to join because those on the streets were their children and because as a worker or a pensioner they also had lost a lot in this crisis. But we were hearing nothing about it… at that point the line between ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘hidden truth’ began to blur.

I woke up. I realised I was not alone in feeling cheated and exploited. Validation brought me new resolve to raise awareness. I started a Facebook group and posted all news I found about Madrid, then the rest of Europe, Greece and, as I searched I followed educational links in sites, YouTube videos, lectures… I started to really look into why; I looked further into economics, politics, corruption, environmental issues. I was convinced this was going to spread far and wide because the conditions were ripe and a lot of ‘developed’ countries were at a tipping point.

Then, in September came Occupy Wall Street. I was amazed at the quick progression but was also confused by the lack of uptake from my Facebook friends and people in general. I was even accused of spamming by some and I have come to believe that too many are still unaware, asleep. They might not be affected enough (yet), they might not realise it, or they might simply be trapped in the freezing stupor that is apathy (I was there not that long ago), all this underlined by the lack of mainstream media coverage of the events.

Thankfully Occupy Wall Street teemed up with ‘Adbusters’ and called a day of ‘Global Occupation’ for the 15th October 2011. I searched day after day and soon found a local initiative and joined under some premises which were the few known characteristics of ‘Occupy’:
  • There would be no leaders so ‘facilitation’ and contribution to assemblies would be voluntary and shared amongst all.
  • There would be a ‘consensus’ framework where all had a chance to speak and discuss, finally agreeing on some actions in the future.
  • There might be a camp that would require maintenance but would outweigh its demands by providing a point of communication and a space for education while raising awareness. The camp was the pebble thrown in the pond.
  • We would aim to use the knowledge available to us and form Workgroups to educate each other and reach conclusions about the problems we face and possible solutions. Also events would be planned to raise awareness and aim to bring the 99% together in a public and open forum.
A lot of these things did happen but we also realised, like hundreds of other occupations worldwide, that our society is in disrepair and that a community is something some of us have to work at. Really hard. Many occupations became a beacon of understanding and social contact for those that are not able to maintain what we have come to consider a ‘standard’ lifestyle. I was faced with a daily choice between inclusiveness and maintaining a space that the majority of the population (the 99%) would feel identified with. This was for me a hard task. I am goal driven, to some extent I am a ‘means to an end’ and ‘glass half empty’ kind of person and, ironically I just saw Occupy as too big to fail, but highly likely to do so.

Regardless I got stuck in and I have contributed in the ways I could depending on what I felt was most beneficial to the movement. I camped when I thought that was helpful and I stopped when I thought it was more productive to utilise my time in other ways. Through the last 12 weeks I have learned a lot, changed my mind a lot, gone through emotional turmoil (mainly as a result of my impatience with lack of change) but I have come to some conclusions:
  • The financial system is broken, it’s unsustainable, it’s programmed to funnel wealth to a small percentage of the people in this world at the expense of everyone else.
  • We need to change financial processes to avoid speculation and overuse of limited resources for the sole purpose of profit and consumerism. In order to achieve this we need to change the law and socioeconomic policy.
  • The current political system is geared to benefit profit-driven enterprises (neoliberalist to generalise) instead of having social wellbeing at its core.
  • We need a political system that has dialogue, transparency, reflection-based change and accountability as their pillars.
  • In order to implement socioeconomic change, politicians and political process must also change.
  • For politicians to change and for the democratic process to evolve ‘the people’ (or the 99%) that are not represented by elected governments need to exercise this right proactively.
  • For the people to feel empowered and able to participate they need to educate themselves and others, raising awareness. If we all understand the system we can be involved in the dialogue to find solutions and implement them.
  • Greed is not, in my opinion, part of human nature. It is a cultural noxious trend and change needs to come from the individual, with the support of the wider community. We need to return to cultural values and a system where being productive to society is much more rewarding than abusing it solely for personal gain. We have to bring out our moral compass and start using it.
  • I want news establishments I can trust to tell me the truth, not some biased and misleading report or lack of coverage altogether.
  • Our planet has not limitless resources and the current system works under the premise that it has. We need to change the system but also ourselves to stop the consumerism and waste that is destroying the world we live in.
While ‘the global village’ is a beautiful concept, I feel localisation of resource gathering, markets, politics and general way of life is the only way to make change possible. There was a time when the leader of a community knew all its constituents by first name and probably had shared a meal with them. Now we have been disconnected from each other in a way that is impossible to truly empathise. We need to get out there, speak to each other and gain an understanding of the impact of our actions on others. Take action and once local communities are better managed we can set our sights further afield. There is some truth in the saying ‘You have to look after yourself before you can look after others’.


We start by changing ourselves, our way of life, and once enough of us are clear in what our aims are and are actively participating in a open dialogue we will begin to improve this unsustainable and unjust system. We have to think in terms of global community, serving each other rather than ourselves because surely, in a very selfish way, that would be a much nicer world to live in; supporting each other instead of screwing each other for money…

In the meantime, those that are awake can help the rest by condensing years of research and knowledge into bite sized chunks that we can explore at our own pace. And when we need it we can approach an Occupy initiative or other alternative source (i.e. alternative to current corporation funded institutions like news channels or governmental bodies) for further information and dialogue where the information exchange is two-directional, asking questions and getting answers from a physical person that you can build a trusting relationship with.

At the moment Occupy is in its infancy, and given that it is an inclusive movement there are many different standpoints on what we should DO. Some are set on getting the causes of the collapse written on stone, others rather wait for it to hit rock bottom because they can see that many will not join us until they stare at the abyss.

Some of us are keen to begin the discussion about solutions for many reasons but we can also see that we cannot rush the process because we all have different ways of communicating and working. It might just be too soon. One thing is certain, one by one we are all waking up to the injustices we suffer for the benefit of a few, and through revolution or evolution this will change because humanity needs to survive for the next generation to enjoy. The bottom line is self-preservation and nowadays predators wear Armani suits and talk about ‘how the rich contribute to society more than most’. But they do not have the upper hand because we ARE the 99%. Olaya de la Iglesia - Occupy Norwich

Photos: poster and black and white photographs from occupy Norwich gallery; colour photos (Charlotte Du Cann)

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