OccupyDameStreet: The first 100 days

The camp outside the Central Bank on Dame Street has been there now for 100 days. If it is to remain relevant it must do more than simply survive. By David Johnson.

This past Sunday the Occupy movement in Ireland reached an impressive milestone, marking the 100th day since the camp on Dame Street came into being on 8 October last year. #OccupyDameStreet has provoked a wide range of reactions in the public and the press, from widespread and genuine support through to wry amusement and outright hostility, but what, if anything, has it achieved in those 100 days, and what lies ahead for this nascent movement?

On the face of it there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about #OccupyDameStreet. Protest camps have been a prominent feature of recent Irish history, from the Glen of the Downs and the Shannon Peace Camp through to the ongoing struggle in Rossport. And beyond the tents of Dame Street the spirit of alternative protest has taken root in the Irish populace in this, our very own Winter of Discontent: from the weekly Ballyhea Bondholder marches and the Spectacle of Defiance and Hope that wound its way with floats and costumes through Dublin's city centre in December; through to the sit-ins in Vita Cortex and La Senza; people who have never protested a day in their lives are suddenly taking a stand. But there is undeniably something about the #Occupy Movement and the camp on Dame Street that seems to have captured the public's imagination, perhaps in a way disproportionate to its ability to actually effect change.

To begin with let's dispense quickly with some of the things that #OccupyDameStreet cannot do. It will not overthrow capitalism, it will not lead to a single imprisonment of a corrupt banker, developer or politician, it will not remove the IMF from our national affairs nor return economic sovereignty to these shores. #OccupyDameStreet is just a group of tents at the gates of the Central Bank and the hundred or so people who have coalesced around them and while one should - as Margaret Mead points out - "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…it is the only thing that ever has," the probability of 100 people overthrowing by themselves decades of corruption and crony-capitalism in this banana republic we love to call home (until such time as we are all forced to emigrate) by standing around on a city thoroughfare making soup and handing out leaflets is unfortunately rather low.

A question asked of the Occupiers almost as frequently as "What are you trying to do here?" is "How are you getting away with it all?" For 100 days a group of activists have built and lived in a shantytown in the centre of Dublin, existing as living proof of the viability of alternative and self-organised social, cultural, economic and political spheres. As a symbol of defiance it is a pretty remarkable one, and according to listeners to the Joe Duffy Show, #OccupyDameStreet was the fourth most important thing that happened this year, after the Queen's visit, Dublin winning the All-Ireland and Ireland qualifying for Euro 2012, but (somewhat implausibly) ahead of the Arab Spring and Obama's visit. A chord does indeed seem to have been struck with the wider Irish public, and while many themselves may be unwilling or unable to take to the streets, it seems they are rather glad that someone else is mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.

Since its inception #OccupyDameStreet has always been about more than just the camp, though that certainly has been the core around which all else rotates. There have been the General Assemblies that opened up decision making and brought a model of participatory democracy to the wider public to the rallies; the marches, including one that attracted up to 3,000 people one Saturday to hear Billy Bragg sing the Internationale, fist clenched defiantly in the air; the pop-up soup kitchens outside the Dáil and the mic checks inside the bailed-out banks; and the musical nights and days on the Central Bank Plaza that have seen Michael Franti, Kristin Hersh, Damian Dempsey, Christy Moore, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Glen Hansard and many, many others all stand in solidarity with the movement. #OccupyDameStreet has continuously sought new and imaginative ways to engage with the wider public beyond its plywood walls and guy-ropes, and as the poll on Joe Duffy shows, the public are certainly engaged.

In fact the Joe Duffy Show is but one example of the widespread and largely positive coverage the Occupation has received since its inception. TV3 broadcast live from the camp during its first week and returned just before Christmas with Vincent Browne, who devoted twenty minutes of his show to interviews from the camp. Charlie Bird has broadcast live from Dame Street, and Occupiers have appeared on Marian Finucane’s Sunday radio panel and on television on The Frontline and The Late Late Show. Newstalk radio has been a frequent visitor to the camp and the newspaper coverage, ranging from full page articles in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times and Irish Daily Mail (not normally noted for their radical sympathies) through to international papers like the Guardian and the New York Times, has been both comprehensive and surprisingly positive. Al Jazeera even broadcast from the camp on the same day that Col. Gaddafi was captured and killed, making for a very unusual news cycle indeed. Beyond the mainstream media, online coverage from TheJournal.ie, Broadsheet and here on Politico has meant that there has rarely been a day when something from Dame Street hasn't appeared somewhere in print, on the airwaves or online. Early cries from the camp of a media blackout quickly faded and sound very hollow indeed now when they resurface.

Relations with the Fourth Estate have not been the only triumph for the Movement, for its engagement with the Academy has also been a roaring success. The #OccupyUniversity program, organised by a group of academics and students, has brought the classroom onto the streets of Dublin with a series of workshops and lectures from academics, economists, writers, authors and activists all held in the open air and free for anyone to attend, participate and learn. Harry Browne, Gavin Titley, Fintan O’Toole, Michael Taft, Helena Sheehan and scores more have all braved the elements to offer concrete examples of how another world is possible, and what form that world might take. All these talks have been recorded and will provide an online resource the like of which has never been seen before in Ireland. Dame Street has also been brought into the Academy, with participants appearing as guest speakers in a number of university classes. At second level a host of imaginative teachers have brought their students on field trips to the camp, to learn first hand of the joys and challenges of real participatory democracy.

The political establishment too has taken notice, for the camp has seen frequent visits from TDs, senators, MEPs, presidential candidates and party leaders, all whom have been asked to leave their office at the door and engage with the camp as individuals. Some have come to genuinely engage and some perhaps just looking for a bit of publicity, and while not all have been welcomed equally and not all in the movement have wished to engage with the established order, such visits are a clear sign that the established order is aware of the movement and sees it as something more than just a curiosity.

It is also important to note that since 8 October Dame Street has not stood alone, with #Occupy groups taking root in Belfast, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and this past weekend in Dundalk, all separate and autonomous and all emerging to highlight a complex group of issues both local and national. Activities in Cork, in particular, continue to attract a great deal of publicity, both for the camp on the South Mall and for the recent transformation of an abandoned NAMA building into a community centre. Through an informal arrangement of websites and social networks the sharing of ideas, inspirations and aspirations finally brought all these groups together for three national meetings, first in Dublin in November then Cork and Belfast. A fourth meeting is scheduled for February in Galway.

Thus in 100 days the movement has emerged from nothing to a central position in the Irish consciousness with politicians, the media, the Academy and most importantly the citizenry themselves all engaging with the idea of Dame Street to varying degrees (even if only to dismiss or belittle it). By any measure, if the purpose of #OccupyDameStreet was to capture people's attention, then it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. But now that it has everyone's attention, what is it going to do with it?

An early criticism from the media, borrowed from their counterparts across the Atlantic, was that #OccupyDameStreet had no aims and no goals - this despite the early adoption of four key demands at General Assembly (The IMF/ECB out of Irish affairs, a rejection of the transfer of private bank debt to the public purse, a return of natural resources to sovereign control, and a call for real participatory democracy on a local and national level), and when these goals were highlighted the subsequent complaint was that the movement offered no alternatives. The answer given to this has always been that #OccupyDameStreet was about starting a conversation on these issues, gathering ideas and then bringing back alternatives, and that to offer alternatives at such an early stage in the process would be to miss the point entirely. #OccupyDameStreet was a call to intellectual arms, saying to the citizenry that the language of “there is no alternative” is a lie, that the alternatives lie with the citizenry themselves and that movement could be a platform to articulate those alternatives.

Three months on it is clear that that conversation has most definitely started, and that groups and individuals across the nation are offering alternatives, but an accusation now leveled at Dame Street is that at times it no longer seems to be listening, and when it talks back its message is inconsistent and confused.

In the beginning the movement talked about the twin tracks of 'The Protest' and 'The Process'; that the camp was a symbol of protest and defiance and that in parallel to this would be the discussion, proposal and implementation of solutions - an ongoing process. Assemblies were held to solicit ideas and alternatives from the general public, and these ran in parallel to the #OccupyUniversity program, the idea being to offer education on a particular subject then provide a platform for productive discussion leading to actionable alternatives. Somewhere along the line 'The Process' seemed to fall by the wayside and though the #OccupyUniversity program continued on, the Assemblies and other camp meetings all turned inwards, focusing more on how the camp organised itself rather than how the movement could effect change.

This is understandable: conditions are harsh on Dame Street and there are never enough people to do all the work - a challenge exacerbated by the holiday season - and quite rightly those tasks essential for the survival of the camp were prioritised. However with the introduction of the Household Charge and the upcoming €1.25 billion payment to unsecured Anglo Irish Bank bondholders on 25 January (the first tranche of over €9 billion in Anglo-related payments and promissory notes this year alone) the time for navel-gazing is over. If ever we were approaching a societal tipping point in Ireland, the time is now, and #OccupyDameStreet needs to be able to articulate a clear and coherent vision of an alternative to our deeply unequal and unjust society, or risk being left behind in the wake of those who can.

Gone too is the time for isolationism, for the challenges the nation faces are too great for any one group to tackle by itself. At its birth #OccupyDameStreet resisted invitations from external groups and unions to work together, fearing that its own voice would be drowned out before it had a chance to properly develop. It should now feel strong enough to join with other groups to campaign on common causes, knowing that its own identity is secure and its voice will remain distinct even when raised with others.

For #OccupyDameStreet to remain relevant in 2012 it must do more than simply survive, its reason to be cannot simply be “to be”, a rain-soaked snake forever swallowing its own tail. It once again must be more than just a collection of tents outside the Central Bank and become the platform that it so aspirationally proclaimed itself to be.

#OccupyDameStreet has spent three months establishing its voice, now it needs to start using it.


Image top: UnkieDave.