Occupy, Punch and Judy

The occupation has been in front of the Cathedral for a couple of months now. I have  several friends who have been supportive in one way or another and conversation has often been in favour of giving assistance to the movement. The model of general assemblies appeals to certain sensibilities as does the absence of leadership. Something is going on which is in a way nothing: meaning that it is difficult to disagree with Occupy, it is a bit like disagreeing with the Sermon on the Mount. As if the meek shouldn’t inherit the earth.

I’ve had a number of disagreements with people I know and respect over the past few days about Occupy Sheffield. I was very moved by their occupation of the Salvation Army Citadel (The Citadel of Hope) in the town centre before the New Year. In fact I was positively jealous! I’ve been watching that place for a few years now fantasising about what could be done with it. I follow what is going on through twitter and have seen a few photos of the inside and I’m looking forward to looking inside.

I was discussing this all over a meal the other evening and I and friend, an anthropologist, decided we wanted stay the night at the occupation together sometime later in January. We want to support it but also, it is true, to see inside a little more, to register our interest in what is happening, to have more sense of the mechanics place, to be part of the socialisation. This is a fairly bland aim but when we discussed it with the others at dinner we found that there was a fair amount of negativity towards the occupation from some quarters.

The objections were about the value of a movement that had no base in a broad based struggle within the city. The occupation was accused of being at once too middle class, peopled by those with the option to return to comfort, and marginal. It was viewed as somehow pointless, what could it achieve? It alienated people by being seated in an profoundly alternative world that set it irrevocably apart from the experiences and desires of normal people, of that broad swathe of the 99% whose (op)position it aims to voice.

One friend present, whose daughter had visited the camp, was cross because those present at the time of her visit had alienated her, not been able to accommodate her concerns about the utility of the camp. Here was my main area of agreement with them, I too, despite knowing several people who have been there regularly from the earliest days and nights, do not feel comfortable walking up and speaking to them. It feels a bit like wandering up to a sound system at a festival when you aren’t really aware of what music they play, if they want you there and a whole host of other inadequacies.

However, to return to my point: by and large I disagreed with the detractors. Why I asked did it concern you so much? What was the issue with Occupy? You do not complain so severely of the presence and practices of the banks opposite? Nor even of the commercial practices of the cafes or department stores on Fargate? All those brand names, those chain stores. Why object to Occupy which feels almost like a brand name, not for a product, but for a way to organise, a way to discuss, a way to keep issues of inequality in a public arena? There lies, if nowhere else, its profound value: it keeps questions open, it attracts discussion and maintains a set of effective punch and judiesque figures around which an audience, in debt to so much offered by inequality, can gather, laugh or ridicule.

Take the motion put forward by Jillian Creasy, the Green Party councillor, earlier in December. However toned down was the eventual motion passed by the Council, it forced a debate on issues of principal which is, I suspect, comparatively rare in pragmatic political arenas, the very fields where it matters.

Good luck to them and I’ll go to the performance some time soon.

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