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Black Sky Thinking

The Problems Of Joint Occupancy: Reporting From The Bank Of Ideas
Sam Spokony , January 5th, 2012 23:56

Over the festive period, our man Sam Spokony spent several days in the UBS 'Bank Of Ideas'. His experiences have coloured his views of the Occupy movement, as he explains here

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One of the guys in dreadlocks catches my glance as he turns to go back upstairs.

“Hey man, social dreaming review starts in ten minutes if you’re interested.”

When my questioning pause makes it clear I’m new around here, he continues: “Social dreaming. We’ve been writing down all of our dreams since the beginning of the movement, and now we’re going to share our all those thoughts and feelings and learn from them as a community.”

I don’t follow him up to join the meeting, but I can’t help noticing that he leaves bearing the same gaze you find on most residents of the Bank Of Ideas as they go about their business. It’s somewhere between exhausted and beatific; it’s a constant acknowledgement of hard-fought success and a preparation for some kind of impending social martyrdom.

The thing is, those grave stares are almost never followed by a discussion about the ills of capitalism, or the white-collar crimes committed by multi-billion pound financial institutions. The lectures on economics, political science and environmentalism that once took place here have been phased out of the daily programming. Aside from poorly written pamphlets strewn about the floor or handwritten signs taped to the walls, the modus operandi of Occupy London seems strangely absent.

As I walk around the squat that was, amidst complex legal battles and media scrutiny, built triumphantly from scratch within a UBS office building a month ago, I don’t feel as if I’m witnessing a beating heart at the core of one of this generation’s great social struggles.

Depressingly, but perhaps inevitably, it feels more like reality television.

I remember first showing up to the Bank of Ideas as a wide-eyed supporter soon after its inception in mid-November. Like so many other comfortably middle-class, college-aged demonstrators taking part in their first protest, it was appealing to me not only because of the building’s symbolic importance but also what was, quite honestly, a sense of boyish excitement. I’d been smacked by a cop during the confused struggle of the first night at St. Paul’s; I’d written a wildly passionate opinion piece in defence of the movement once it started hitting the rocks of public opinion; I’d camped out in a police station with nothing but new friends and my camera. But a squat! Gee-fucking-whizz! I showed up to listen to talks by some white-haired socialist professors, lent a hand here and there, didn’t shower, smoked cigarettes on the roof, and figured it was just about the most effective way to go about exposing the way corporate power structures have developed a stranglehold on democracy.

And what I realise now is that, regardless of the naïve stupidity of my own perspective at that time, the squat really did serve as a vital place at which to congregate for major decisions, as well as creating a small example of a society sans corporate influence. The problem now lies in the fact that, a month later, the substance is gone. Even the rhetoric – buzzwords like the villainous “neo-liberalism” and the heroic “99 percent” – seem spent, giving way to petty arguments about how to allocate kitchen supplies or deal with resident nuisances, whether violent or verbal.

“It’s all theatre”, says Bryn Phillips, as I help him move his air mattresses and desk into a fresh new room in the basement of the building. He’s been living at the Bank Of Ideas for weeks and is one of the only people I’ve met here who remains focused on the original objectives of the Occupy movement. As the head of the City Of London Corporation working group, Bryn isn’t usually present at general assemblies and group meetings because he’s busy doing research on the corruption of the City’s major financial institutions.

While we arrange what will also be my place to sleep, he tells me that living at the Bank doesn’t even hold any special meaning to him anymore. “I’m just here because I haven’t got a flat,” he quips, dragging in a new heater – his second – which he’s just found on top of a rubbish pile outside the room. It gets incredibly cold in the basement, and Bryn’s made the move down the hall mainly because now he won’t have to use an extension cable anymore in order to plug them in. He’s still the only one who lives down here. The pamphlets, the dirty dishes and the arguments are all above us, pleasantly out of earshot.

“It’s so fucking warm in here!” he yells as we finish setting up, and flops down onto a mattress with a huge smile on his face. But the smile doesn’t last long; he has the phone to contend with.

Bryn, after co-writing an influential opinion piece in The Guardian on 4 December to mark the 50th day of the Occupy movement, is constantly in touch with both journalists and high-profile politicians regarding his often single-handed efforts to undermine the City Corporation. With friends like Maurice Glasman, a member of the House of Lords and Ed Miliband’s chief policy guru and Jenny Jones, the Green Party’s 2012 London mayoral candidate, his reach as a spokesman spans much further than most of his fellow protesters seem to appreciate, or even realize. I realize that I’m occupying two different worlds here: what amounts to little more than a strained hippie commune above, and a bunker full of classified information below.

We head upstairs for the Bank’s 7pm general assembly, for which Bryn’s put together a proposal to make a new media statement on behalf of Occupy London. He’s found out, through sources at HMRC and former city councillors, that the Corporation may not be paying taxes on billions of pounds stashed in a private cash fund, and wants to formally request for the details of their accounts and tax history to be made public. It has the potential to be a huge blow to London’s financial kingpins, and it feels like a climactic move this movement has been building towards since the first anti-banker chants filled the steps of St. Paul’s. But his words are going to be drowned out.

I walk in to find the assembly packed with people who’ve come primarily to take part in a raucous discussion about a troublemaker named Dom – a lanky, grinning man who dresses like a witch doctor and has insisted to me that money won’t exist next year. Some want him to leave, some don’t, and some seem to have just come for a laugh. Dom’s brought friends in order to make the whole thing into his own production, and they point cheap video cameras at him in the corner while he boasts about his “trial”.

As Bryn and I sit down to take a place in the group circle, he gets so frustrated about the whole situation that I have to grab his shoulder and tell him not to leave before making his point. When he finally gets a chance to speak, there are a few reassuring statements of support; but the attention just seems to lie elsewhere. One man, who’s come to the meeting to represent the St. Paul’s camp, goes so far as to block the whole proposal just because it’s not taking place at his own general assembly. The process gives way to chaos: debates about whose turn it is to talk, quarrels between the various Occupy camps, personal grudges developed as the result of living under the same roof for too long; and by the time it’s over, I feel as if few of those present are even going to remember what Bryn said. I can’t help thinking that that sense of apathy would have shocked these same people two and a half months ago, when they fought to protect their tents in the name of financial transparency.

“They have these kitchen wars now,” Bryn says, laughing, as we walk back downstairs and try to make sense of it all. “There’ve been two so far. The occupiers occupy the kitchen when they get too pissed off.”

Is that what all of this has come to? If the change I’ve found in the Bank Of Ideas really is representative of a broader organizational failure of this movement, the whole thing is hanging by the thread of a hippie’s hemp necklace. As it enters 2012, and leaves the original spark of wild fervor behind, Occupy seems to have taken on a very different meaning. The rhetoric, after ingraining itself so quickly into the common language of media and public debate, has taken a back seat to the disheartening images of protesters who have turned their chants inward upon each other. What was once a powerful mass of tangled, overlapping voices has become a strained duality.

From the outset, the greatest criticism of the demonstrations was always that they lacked a central message; but what they didn’t lack was a central spirit. Reasons for showing up varied with every person I met, but it never really stopped them from standing together in order to draw attention to the issues of corporate dominance and recapturing democracy. They were right. Now, withered by media pressure, court battles and the struggles of everyday life, that sense of purpose is on life support. It lives quietly within the tired few I’ve seen congregate here in this small room in the basement, a pulse driven by Bryn and Naomi Colvin, a freelance journalist who co-wrote the 4 December Guardian statement with him and who, in her time down here, said something so crucial to the movement that I’d be wrong to repeat it.

Above, the general assemblies decompose amidst eco-friendly rubbish piles; below, calls are made to Lord Glasman with a bottle of wine in hand. Two worlds: the hopelessly stagnant and the perpetually questioning. This is what Occupy London has become, and this is how it will greet the New Year. And the question isn’t whether or not the two sects should find some way to reunite in order to regain the fire of those early days of only several months ago. It’s whether or not – amidst the self-imposed theatre of it all – that could even be possible.

Wyndham Wallace reported from Occupy Berlin last year

kindle
Jan 5, 2012 3:39pm

This is written very well and a great read, but it is not a fair snapshot at all of the Occupy London movement. BOI struggled for a little while with a destructive crew being there and you were there for that time. A few days ago, by using consensus and the peoples assembly, the residents decided to sort themselves out, and found consensus on only a small, dedicated crew living there to hold the space and run the events by day and everyone else left. You also have focused on a very interesting pair of people who are working really hard but not in a way that is what is normal practice at all for how the occupy camps have evolved. Without going to the other camps, you wouldn't have got the feel of the thriving working groups, economics, outreach, education, union liaison, corporations, environment, international, global outreach, tech platforms, occupy the mayor... these are all busy groups with around ten people on average each meeting and they meet regularly, take and publish their minutes, invite people in through the assembly and give updates to the assembly regularly. It is participatory democracy, consensus found through the assembly that has been at the heart of the London occupation from the first few hours of occupation. Something like this: "Bryn isn’t usually present at general assemblies and group meetings because he’s busy doing research on the corruption of the City’s major financial institutions." is not really giving you the full picture at all because it implies a single person acting singularly as a representative of Occupy, as if a leader of sorts and anyone who has been there since the beginning will tell you there are no leaders at all but hundreds of people dedicated, focused and determined and all working cooperatively (not on their own) and extremely well, the camps are achieving press regularly through a continual stream of activity. It's a shame as you wrote so vividly, just wish you'd have caught more of what is going on on the other camps. But great piece nevertheless!

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Luke Turner
Jan 5, 2012 3:54pm

In reply to kindle:

Hi Kindle, thanks very much for such a thoughtful response to this piece, and it's very good to hear that things seem to have moved on since Sam was there. We're sure to be reporting more on Occupy and Bank Of Ideas over the coming year, so do stay in touch with the Quietus with developments and news, cheers, Luke

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John Doran
Jan 5, 2012 3:56pm

In reply to kindle:

Personally speaking I'm glad other Occupy ventures have been more positive for those involved. As Luke said, please let us know when you have big events planned.

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Sam Spokony
Jan 5, 2012 5:02pm

In reply to kindle:

I also thank you for your reply to the piece. And I also agree, of course, that I may have missed certain aspects of the bigger picture with regard to the movement as a whole. But I do think that the consensus process and the idea of a truly leaderless movement are no longer wholly effective in the mainstream, and exist more readily in descriptions like the one you've given than in reality. I fully support the movement in its attempts to expose the massive problems with the City's (and the world's) major financial institutions -- but to say that petty squabbles and the development of certain troublesome hierarchies haven't hindered Occupy to some degree, as well as having led to both ideological stagnation and a lack of overall unity is, in my opinion, completely false. But I do hope the movement improves and continues bringing important social, political and economic questions to the table.

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kindle
Jan 5, 2012 6:02pm

In reply to Sam Spokony:

"but to say that petty squabbles and the development of certain troublesome hierarchies haven't hindered Occupy to some degree, as well as having led to both ideological stagnation and a lack of overall unity is, in my opinion, completely false"

With all respect, I have been there pretty much every day since October 15th and that's a somewhat sweeping statement, to stay the movement has stagnated simply indicates that you didn't really get a full and comprehensive picture of what is going on in Occupy London. And that's understandable as it is sprawling and complex and still getting to grips with the dual tasks of bringing forward a revolutionary movement while holding our space and dealing with huge influxes of alcoholics, homeless people, people with mental health issues, drug users and free riders there for the fun. It may be insulting to all those who have sweated it for three months to say that we are stagnating and beaten by petty squabbles. The people here have got through some seriously stressful and difficult situations on an almost daily basis. The issues you witnessed were addressed two days after, ask anyone there. The next day, at St Paul's, there was a mass convening of all the working groups, all feeding back updates about where they have got to and where they are going.

We had 63,000 people watching the live stream yesterday when Jesse Jackson contributed to a discussion at Tent City University about how Occupy can build outreach to ethnic minorities and directly embrace anti-racism. Tonight at one of three working group meetings, retired bankers corporatists are coming to advise on a second statement by one of the economic working groups. Tomorrow, there is an assembly devoted to youth outreach, feeding back on two major gig nights that have had bands like Low Key, Enter Shikari, Engin Earz and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly play to large crowds of youth on the steps of St Paul's while mixing in an assembly and break out groups where all the young people participated in direct democracy in facilitated groups and fed their ideas into the movement about how Occupy can outreach to youth more effectively.

There is intense organization nationally, getting ready for the third national Occupy conference in Sheffield.

There is nothing remotely stagnant about this movement and although some of those squabbles were far more than simply petty, people have been here persevering and winning through for three months.

Simply follow www.occupylsx.org to see how much is happening or follow @occuylsx. This is moving forward way faster than you are implying in your article or your comment.

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Dan Jones
Jan 5, 2012 9:40pm

Brilliantly written and totally true. Hopefully the movement might get of its arse now and make some proper decisions - that is unless the general assembly is full of agentes provocateur trying to stop them from attacking the banks in the first place. why would they turn down proposals to life the lid on RBS and city corp unless theyd been infiltrated by naysayers working for the elite? the problem with the consensus process is that it can be hijacked by anyone who wants to screw things up. they just have to use a block. occupy needs leadership

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kindle
Jan 5, 2012 10:56pm

In reply to Dan Jones:

That's simply not true, blockers go off with the group behind a proposal they are blocking, they meet and amend together and bring back to the assembly maybe the next day. Then it runs through for consensus again with the changes. It works, has allowed improvements to be made because of blocks. But, it does take a commitment to respecting the process and in the early days, people were turning up and just blocking for the hell of it. That's why the process got changed so that blockers have to agree to meet with the working group.

There are times when assemblies are a mess, there are times when the Occupy camps are faltering and screwing up but you got to admit, what they are trying to do is pretty hard.

I really think curious readers should come and see for themselves. There are 45 camps across the UK and Ireland. There will be one near you.

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Mike Shore
Jan 5, 2012 11:26pm

In reply to kindle:

The article is brilliantly written and i learned a great deal from it. Additionally i have learned much from Kindle and his comments in reply. And it is because of Sam's excellent piece here that we get to see more of this ever changing picture. I remember my freshman year in college as i ran down the hall, opening up classroom doors with students and professors looking at me as i yelled, "STRIKE, STRIKE, downstairs everybody now. KENT STATE!"

So the OWS movements are near and dear to me as i watch the generation of my son, and his friends, find their voice and hopefully are able to join together to fight the 1% who have taken over the world. To all of you, many of us are with you in hearts and minds, and if not for thought provoking pieces by writers such as Sam, these wonderful give and takes would not be happening. I applaud you Sam for living and writing such a beautiful piece and i admire Kindle for his thoughtful responses and for the information he has shared.

To the 99%! Long May We Run!!

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Mike Shore
Jan 5, 2012 11:26pm

In reply to kindle:

The article is brilliantly written and i learned a great deal from it. Additionally i have learned much from Kindle and his comments in reply. And it is because of Sam's excellent piece here that we get to see more of this ever changing picture. I remember my freshman year in college as i ran down the hall, opening up classroom doors with students and professors looking at me as i yelled, "STRIKE, STRIKE, downstairs everybody now. KENT STATE!"

So the OWS movements are near and dear to me as i watch the generation of my son, and his friends, find their voice and hopefully are able to join together to fight the 1% who have taken over the world. To all of you, many of us are with you in hearts and minds, and if not for thought provoking pieces by writers such as Sam, these wonderful give and takes would not be happening. I applaud you Sam for living and writing such a beautiful piece and i admire Kindle for his thoughtful responses and for the information he has shared.

To the 99%! Long May We Run!!

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Occupier
Jan 6, 2012 10:05am

Unfortunately, you have listened to the wrong person at Occupy.

Bryn Phillips is his own press release. He does not speak on behalf of the Occupy movement, in fact is is very clear that he has in fact been co-opted by Maurice Glasman of Blue Labour, and speaks on his behalf. Bryn has an eye solely on his own future prospects, and is using the Occupy movement in order to advance that. Compare Bryn and Maurice and see if you can fit a cigarette paper between their thinking. Bryn does not have any original ideas of his own.

Bryn has upset a lot of people within the Occupy movement. He does not follow procedures, does not attend GA's as stated, and really should not be quoted as representing the movement. As his wikipedia entry claims, by quoting one of the hundreds of interviews he has given to the press, to be one of the leaders of the movement. The Occupy movement does not have any leaders and anyone claiming to be so should be treated with a great deal of suspicion.

Frankly, Bryn and his constant press whoring, is an embarrassment to the movement. He is not prepared to work with anyone but his own small circle of followers who are unable / unprepared to think for themselves.

Bryn is destructive to Occupy and should leave the movement and not be given any more press like this. Whilst this article is well written, I hope that this will give some sort of objectivity as to what sort of person you have spoken to.

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LML
Jan 6, 2012 2:02pm

In reply to Occupier:

Well in my opinion the GA's are a complete waste of time and anyone with any sense would have given up on them some time ago. The movement is ridden with infiltrators that use the GA as an opportunity to disrupt decision making and progress.

Bryn set up the City of London Corporation group, and has many people supporting this cause, which in many peoples minds has made the most progress in terms of addressing the real reason we all claim to be there. What of any use has come out in the press since?

Maurice Glasman has hardly co-opted the movement, and is not an advisor of Miliband, you would know this had you seen the recent press on him. Why anyone would want to co-opt the the Occupation given the state it is in is beyond me.

Frankly we need more people like Bryn who are intent of giving the corporate elites a good kick up the backside.

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kate ross
Jan 6, 2012 2:14pm

@ occupier

"Frankly, Bryn and his constant press whoring, is an embarrassment to the movement. He is not prepared to work with anyone but his own small circle of followers who are unable / unprepared to think for themselves.
Bryn is destructive to Occupy"

OMG - quite a few hundred people only joined the movement because of his work to expose the elite. i didnt take occupy seriously until it turned its fire on the city. i met breyn oonce and he's very pleasant and dilligent and bent over backwards to help me as i am registered disabled and use a wheelchair. how patronising to say that he has followers who cant think for themselves. as for not following process, having read this it seems that he attempted to do that in the general assembly but got nowhere because of the petty bitching you have exemplified in your sad comment. i feel sorry for someone who clearly works really hard for the movement that they get so much abuse just for doing the right thing and working hard. obviously if you do something historically important people will have it in for you? where is the logic or solidaity in your statement? no doubt the movement will implode on itself if its filled with bitchy internet trolls who care less about the movement than those who actually do work hard for it. i certainly wont be going back now if its going to be like this, but i hope for your sake bryn stays put or frankly you are doomed.

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John Higgins
Jan 6, 2012 2:24pm

In reply to Occupier:

you suck mate. lived in BOI with Bryn for a month now. He did most of research for BOI court case which is why they are still there. in court case for st pauls his research was bloody vitial - or werent you there. idiot. you sound bitter and envious of him for being in a newspaper. i have seen Bryn wandering around at 4 am still working whilst others are fighting. he never complains just gets on with it, even if he is almost pale with malnutrition and stress. if he is being talked about in the press i have to say as an occupier from the very start i am very proud of him for coming and fighting the fight. dont believe in leaders and nor does bryn if you actually ever met him. as for upsetting people, i think the most upset people who have had contact with him are the fat cats in the city of london itself who you probably work for. theyd love him to sod off and let them get back to business. grow up and show some love or get out!

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LUCYOCCUPY
Jan 6, 2012 2:46pm

In reply to John Higgins:

Ok, OK, i think its clear 'occupier' has it in for bryn, but shes also making a good point when she says that process is sacred and there are no leaders. there arent. i know bryn is a bit controversial and no one in the movement is saying he hasnt done amazing things for the movemnent but that shouldnt mean he IS the movement. and yes have met him a few times and yes hes very nice but maybe he should compromise on his work and step back a bit and let others be in the newspapers too once in a while. we didnt come to fight the city anyway, but to create a loving wholeness. one love. xx

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LML
Jan 6, 2012 3:07pm

In reply to LUCYOCCUPY:

"we didnt come to fight the city anyway, but to create a loving wholeness. one love. xx"

As lovely as that sounds let's face it the (London) movement is called 'Occupy London Stock Exchange' and I certainly do not want ,to create a loving wholeness with them'.them.

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Liz
Jan 25, 2012 1:48pm

Maybe the core of the movement isn't in those camps, maybe it's online or in smaller groups. I think people should live among small groups of like-minded people. Infighting happens because you can't move in with someone you barely know. It's like a couple who got married too soon. You don't know eachother.

I have faith in Occupy because there has never been anything like it in my lifetime. The people are so friendly, smart, courageous, and focused at Occupy Philly. It's become a really really small Occupy group but I don't see why, so I continue working with it.

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liz
Jan 25, 2012 2:21pm

In reply to Occupier:

great point.

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