The Peace News guide: How to occupy!

IssueNovember 2011
Tool by PN

Joining in

If you’re going along to an Occupy event, you may not know a lot about it before you get there (and none of the Occupy groups seem to put up information on their websites for people interested in attending), but the basic idea is that it is an open political space that anyone can join, and be heard in, aiming to challenge economic injustice.

As you’ve probably heard, a lot of what goes on at an Occupy event is the work needed for the camp to maintain itself: food, tents and structures, childcare, first aid, laundry, toilets, waste disposal and recycling, finance, decision-making meetings. Then there’s direct action, media, community outreach, technical and internet support, legal support (maybe police liaison), “free school”. At larger camps, most of these will have working groups that you can join in. At smaller camps, these will be agenda items to talk about.

It seems to be common for people to get swept up in the larger camps and stay longer than they originally plan to, so it is probably a good idea to take a little bit more kit than you think you need: waterproofs, (lots of) warm clothes, water bottle, bowl, plate, mug, cutlery (to cut down on the use of non-recyclable kitchenware) as well as sleeping bag, karrimat, and tent (in London, there was a lot of spare tent kit around in the early days). It is hard to put up tents on pavements, but solutions are being figured out, including the liberal use of gaffer tape: in London they were collectively buying wooden pallets and bags of sand, having used bottles of water in the early days.

Setting up a camp

Each Occupy is different, and independent. An Occupy camp is governed by the decisions taken by its own (usually daily) “general assembly”, using some version of consensus decision-making (while delegating many tasks to working groups). Having said that, PN has some advice for people thinking about setting up an Occupy camp.

  • There is a lot of anger out there – and a lot of support for the Occupy movement. If you do some preparation, there is no reason why you can’t have a real impact in your area.
  • This may be obvious, but the best preparation is definitely to visit a successful Occupy camp, to experience it and to ask for advice and help from the people there.
  • As one British Occupy initiative has just shown, you cannot start a camp with one person setting up a Facebook page and issuing a call for support.
  • Occupy is a group effort. You have to bring together a core of organisers before you go public and announce your camp. Occupy London came out of the merging of the efforts of several different groups including the London group of the Spanish 15M movement, the People’s Assembly Network and UKUncut. If Occupy is going to be successful in your area, your best bet is to get as much involvement from local anti-cuts activists, unions and groups in advance, preferably at a face-to-face meeting. As Mother Jones magazine has pointed out, Occupy Wall St started with 30 activists getting together, committed to creating “general assemblies”.
  • Don’t set aims for the event that you don’t know you can achieve. This is setting the project up to fail. It’s perfectly reasonable to announce that if you can take a site your camp is just for the weekend or the week – but that this can be extended by the general assembly if it wants to.
  • Our advice, based on past urban occupations, is to be alcohol-and-drugs-free on-site from the very start. It is very easy for a small number of active addicts or alcoholics to disrupt and even to destroy very promising projects. Obviously, this is a decision for the general assembly, but we suggest starting with a no-alcohol-or-drugs policy and then reviewing it. This policy does mean that camp members (inevitably, the initial organisers in particular) have to be prepared to enforce such a ban, which may be something you don’t feel comfortable doing. Our feeling is that there is a choice between making a safe, inclusive space or having a free-for-all. Making a space in which everyone can feel comfortable and welcome means putting in quite a lot of effort, and stopping exclusive, intimidating, oppressive or disruptive behaviour.
  • Running an effective and inclusive general assembly requires quite a bit of facilitation skills. It may be a good idea to get some training for facilitators (for everyone!) before and during your camp (Seeds for Change and Rhizome are two leading training groups).
  • Relatedly, in the US Occupy movement, a strong principle is “step up, step back”. This kind of announcement is made at the beginning of meetings: “Part of the general assembly is calling for you to ‘step up, step back’. This is in place so that all types of people can be included and heard in the meeting. Those who are shy, step up and consider sharing/talking more. For those who are frequent contributors, consider stepping back and listening more.”
  • In the US Occupy movement, they often also use what is called a “progressive stack”, which is to say facilitators don’t just call people to speak in the meeting according to the chronological order in which people put up their hands. They give priority to women over men, to people of colour (mainly black and Asian people in the UK context) over white people, to people who’ve spoken less over those who’ve spoken more. In a small group this can seem odd. Once you’ve got more than a dozen people, however, this helps work against the prevailing culture which empowers some people and discourages others from participating. In some of the huge US Occupy general assemblies, there is a specific role of compiling the “stack” (the list of people waiting to speak) – and an extra role of speaking to the people wanting to be on the stack (which may help to bring out issues of class or hidden disability). These are issues worth thinking about, even if your camp is quite small.