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Occupy the north

The shock of budget cuts has inspired folk across Britain to take to the streets. Tim Gee meets some of them.

When I was a child, Wigan Pier was a museum with clog dancing, a mock Victorian schoolroom and a boat down the canal to a cotton mill. Last week I visited again. But this time it was empty. The one sign of life was a pub, appropriately called The Orwell. ‘What’s happened?’ I ask the bartender. ‘Oh, you know,’ came the reply, ‘budget cuts.’ In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell is an outsider looking in to The North. I am not. Going north is going home. But it now looks different. And it isn’t just me that has changed.  

My visit to Wigan followed a series of talks and workshops in Salford, Stockport, Manchester, Leeds, Huddersfield, Bradford, Durham, Newcastle and Liverpool. In conversation after conversation, two words were to be heard again and again. Why is the Churchtown museum in Southport shut? Budget cuts. Why is the youth service in Leeds being delivered through a mobile van? Budget cuts. The only silver lining is that the shocks are inspiring people to take to the streets together to campaign for a better world.

This has manifested itself in various ways, but by far the most visual are the Occupy camps: liberated spaces that physically and psychologically defy clone town corporate high streets and sanitized financial districts. There were rarely more than 20 people at the four that I visited, but I left with no doubt that within them are the seeds of something new.

At some sites I facilitated workshops which began by asking people to name one campaign they have been involved in before. The replies were striking. There were a few experienced activists there, but for the vast majority, Occupy was the first political thing they had ever done.

My questions as to what motivated people to get involved were answered at length. One person told me he had applied for more than 80 jobs and not got one of them. Another man dreamt of opening a café, but with no capital, jobs hard to come by and access to affordable education closed down, didn’t see how he could do so. Another person told me he’d been consistently applying for jobs for three years. Staying full time at the camp, and visibly shivering in the Merseyside wind, he told me being involved in Occupy was the best thing he had ever done and he intended to see it through to the end.

There was no sense of tension here between the employed and the unemployed within the camps or beyond them. Among the many images that stick are lorry drivers honking their support, a photographer presenting the Newcastle camp with a picture he’d taken, and some cake decorators promising a cake. I arrived in Liverpool on 30 November – the day of national public service sector strikes – and the city centre was alive with banners, flags, whistles, vuvuzelas and the city’s Socialist Singers. By far the largest cheer of the rally went to the Occupy campers braving so many challenges to make their voices heard.

Those challenges are by no means small. The first is the weather and the constant struggle to stop tents from blowing away when there is no grass to peg them in to. As I prepared to begin my workshop at Occupy Newcastle, the sleeping tent almost blew away, triggering an all-hands-on-deck effort to retrieve and re-secure it with ropes, rocks and water butts. The day after my visit to Occupy Leeds a camper told me that the tent I had facilitated my workshop in hadn’t survived. The night before my visit to Occupy Liverpool everyone had got soaked in the rain. But still the protesters continue.  

Another challenge is safety. The Occupy Manchester camp had to move from its first site because of the challenge of passing drunk people, some of whom sought to stay. By the time I reached them, every camp I visited had adopted a no-alcohol policy.  

Another safety challenge is more political. I heard stories of fascists from the English Defence League attacking camps with bricks and threatening to burn tents. In Liverpool I encountered them myself. As the five or six men approached the site, I joined a defensive line around the camp. The EDL’s strategy seemed to be to goad one of us into hitting them, to give them the excuse to start a fight. A couple of them started addressing campers by name, searching for weak points. Another snatched a phone from a camper which we succeeded in retrieving. A couple of women then moved in between the lines to de-escalate the situation until the police arrived. Once they had left, a lively debate ensued. Are the police part of the 99 per cent? What about the EDL? The violent passers-by? And if they are part of the 99 per cent, in whose interests is each of them acting?

If one thing is for sure though, it is in whose interests the government is acting. On the last day of the tour I flicked on the television to be greeted by a very different perspective. In an attempt at spin after the announcement that youth unemployment has risen to record highs, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was on the news congratulating Starbucks for their plans to expand. I had to rub my eyes. Starbucks, frequently charged with destroying jobs and small businesses through its expansionist tactics, was now being congratulated by the government for ‘creating jobs’. There is a word for such a position coined in another Orwell book: doublethink.

The sense of distrust in the words of those who claim to be in authority came across strongly in every conversation. To my mind, the joy of Occupy is that it is a space for seeing beyond the doublethink that prevails in politicians’ words and the mainstream media. It is a rejection of the doublethink that cutting jobs and services will create employment. It is a rejection of the doublethink that the way to stop climate change is to consume more. And it is a rejection of the doublethink that the only way to address injustices in society is to join a political party whose policies perpetuate injustice in society. Everywhere I asked campers what they would like me to include in the article I was writing. The answer to this question was almost always the same: ‘This is a space to discuss and to come up with our own solutions to the problems we face.’

In the 1960s the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire advocated for education and consciousness-raising to be based on discussion and co-learning. What might now be called ‘Freirian’ methods can be seen as far back as the 1790s, when workers and artisans met to debate with one another whether they should have a say in the running of their country through electoral democracy. Now, in our struggle for economic democracy, people all over the country, and all over the world, are doing so again.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011

A version of this article appears in the latest issue of the Occupied Times of London.

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