Occupy Bristol! The movement is still going strong, but can we really change anything?

On Saturday 15th October the Occupy movement set up it’s camp in Bristol, on College Green – right in front of the Cathedral. As with other similar occupations in various cities around the globe, the news was spread via social networking sites, and the local authority has obviously (politely so far) requested that they move on. The site has received regular visits from both the councils gypsy and traveller representative Ian Holding and the police representative Sargent Amanda Frame.

However, so far the only real problems either of them have had to deal with have been the lack of organisation concerning use of public toilets (Bristol City Council have refused to provide a portaloo) and the city’s Friday and Saturday night revellers who, after a few two many, have tried to get inside the tents on site. Not the first issues that spring to mind when most people contemplate a fairly large scale act of civil disobedience. However, the Occupy movement (which began on Sept 17th with Occupy Wall Street and has now stretched to over 1500 cities around the globe) has been unlike other protests. There have been fewer of the usual protest staples – violence, noise, disruption to public services, and more notably, this movement seems to have lasting power, and so far shows little sign of dissipating. Instead, the Occupy movement seems to have gathered pace, determination, and more importantly, organisation since its start. And each localised movement seems to be in support of the others. It’s a global phenomenon uniting people who feel genuinely let down by a powerful few.

When I heard that Bristol West MP Stephen Williams had not only addressed the protesters, but had after an impromptu phone call from one of them, taken time out of his busy schedule to visit them at the camp, it occurred to me that this really may be something different. Maybe politicians are starting to take notice. I ventured down to the site to see what was going on. I turned up on a dark and cold thursday evening for the agenda meeting, which was being held around a fire in a wheelbarrow, and to be honest, I was a little worried about it. I didn’t know anyone, and I was concerned that wandering into the middle of a field on my own to tell a group of angry protesters I was a journalist was not going to go down well. Firstly, I stood out like a sore thumb, i.e., I don’t look at all like a revolutionary, and secondly, some of the members were pretty riled up and clearly drunk. I decided to blend in for a bit and see what the meeting was about before saying anything. However, my concerns were completely ill founded. The drunk and rowdy contingent were immediately and politely removed by the other protesters, who made clear that drink and drugs weren’t welcome at the site – that wasn’t what this was about. What followed was avery well organised and democratic debate, and after confessing my journalistic intention to the group around the fire, they gladly agreed to meet me for interviews in the morning. Although, with no one in particular in charge, simply a group of people with shared concerns, I agreed to return in the daylight, and just wander round and speak to people about why they were here and what they hoped to achieve.

In the daylight, it was clear that it just short of a week, the protesters had achieved something very impressive indeed. Having initially no funds, and having never met each other, they had kept the green immaculate, kept the tents moving around in order not to damage the grass, set up a media centre, an information tent for passers by, a creative area where they were painting banners and a cooking crew. And it clearly wasn’t simply a bunch of hippies either. The people I spoke to, both just lending a hand, or camping permanently varied hugely in their background, personality and the skills they were lending. However, they are all bonded by one thing – disillusion concerning the elected few who are supposed to represent us, and more importantly, the unelected few who so greatly influence them. In short, those gathered were simply a disgruntled sample of the public who had chosen to betray that truly British trait of grumbling a lot but taking little action, and instead had made a stand to be heard. I spoke to people running various parts of the site, who were happy to tell me why they had decided to join the protest, but all were very keen to point out that as a gathering of people with common interests, they all had slightly different reasons for joining the occupation, and that the opinions they expressed were theirs, and theirs alone.

James – Originally from Salisbury, teaches English as a foreign language both at home, and abroad. He has been camping at the site since the protest started a week ago.

‘I hope this type of political action creates a space for a public forum and a new style of political discourse – because at the moment, no one is listening. I heard about it through Facebook. I see this as a way to implement change. Basically, the government is elected in to represent us, and at the moment, they simply aren’t doing that. Voting for a group of people, none of whom really represent you is a poor substitute for getting directly involved yourself. But at the moment, what choice do we have? We need to change the structure from the bottom, we need to move outside the normal political framework, and formulate a new way. I think if enough people can come up with a better process, and consolidate those opinions, we can take our suggestions to the government, and I don’t see how they can then deny the need to change. It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but that’s why everyone is here.’

Polly – Studying a masters in international political economy, and currently studying political finance, which is what made her join the occupation.

‘It’s not a protest. It’s not a case of we will go if these things change. The problem is too big for that. We need a space to voice our differing concerns. One of mine is the monopoly that first bus have in Bristol, if they didn’t have such a monopoly, the fares would be much more affordable. The Council are being fairly amicable, but they simply aren’t addressing what we want. We’ve set up a communication and networking centre, and we are trying to keep in touch with all the other occupation sites, to gather their views. I believe in the movement in general – there needs to be some kind of change. I’m not a revolutionary, there are people here with much more extreme views than mine, but we are all united in feeling that something has to be done. We need accountability in politics, and a change concerning lobbying – that money needs to be taken out of politics. I think a lot of people have been waiting for something, and this seems to be it. We need a proper investigation into what happened with the banks. It’s fraud, and thats a crime. The parliamentary watchdogs are a joke. The bankers, the government and the regulators are all involved.We need independent scrutiny of that. If people in government commit a crime, they should go to jail. If we commit a crime, we go to jail. We want to show the government that we aren’t stupid. We can see whats going on, and we aren’t happy. We’ve been printing leaflets, building mailing lists, setting up social networking accounts. We want to show we are rational, organised people who are ready to implement a change. And it’s not just the people camping here, the public and local businesses have been really supportive.’

Sasha Patterson – Previously a public servant in London who now runs community projects.

‘None of us knew each other, I heard about it on Facebook, and just turned up, and now I’m running the information tent! I was aware of occupy Wall Street, and people kept sending me information about Occupy London Stock Exchange. When I heard about Occupy Bristol, I wanted to show my support. It’s all getting more organised as we go along. There was hardly anything here when we arrived, and now there are all these sections working together – it just show what you can achieve when you try. It’s like a real democracy should be! We’ve had agenda meetings, we’ve come to consensus agreements, and we’re getting on with it. At the moment British economics and cooperations are questionable to say the least. There are solutions available to the economic crisis, but the 1% at the top keep ruling in their own favour, and thats why we’re in this mess in the first place. People aren’t stupid, the public simply aren’t given the information to understand whats going on, and if they were, they would get more involved. For me this is a movement. It’s not a protest which is going to last for a week, a month, it’s a movement against something that has been very wrong for a while. It’s not just a bunch of people in a field, it’s a meeting of people who have debated, raised issues, and are trying to make a difference in an informed way. It’s really exciting. I just want to say to people come here and have a voice, or even just come along because it’s a moment in history – this isn’t going away. People are genuinely worried about where we will be in two years. I worked for ten years in a very well paid senior service job. But I got fed up of dealing with bureaucracy and people who didn’t care, fed up of hearing about Blair’s targets all the time. People don’t realise how corrupt public services are now. That’s why I decided to run community projects. People there are honestly trying to come together to achieve something, they support each other. People are ready for change, good news, hope. Personally, I want to know how long it will take us to get into the general British public’s consciousness an understanding of the real issues. People know the economy is in a mess, but many don’t know why. All we need is a clear explanation, and time for it to seep into public understanding. I really think there are solutions to these problems, and for me, this movement is about raising awareness. The government need to realise we’re in for the long haul, and this is just the beginning.’

Sophia Collins – Runs a science education project

I heard about Occupy Bristol through Twitter. I think social media is the way most people find the news they trust now. People no longer trust the mainstream media. I came down on my own because I believe in what’s being done here. It’s such a positive thing. I was amazed by what a diverse and interesting group of people had joined forces. There’s a sense of people being united. It’s not just extremist political people, it’s just normal members of the public who have a sense that what is happening to them is unfair. I’ve never done anything like this before. One of the most interesting things about this for me is that Steven Williams (Bristol West MP) actually came down to talk to me, a trainer in non-violent communications has been down to run a workshop for the occupiers, and members of the public who aren’t involved in the camp come over just to talk. They’re really happy that we are here as it provides a space for conversation. People can discuss the things they care about – they have somewhere to discuss their frustrations with whats happening to them and to hear other peoples experiences. The government need to recognise that we have a lot of support. The important thing is that this is only the visible part of Occupy Bristol. It’s so much more that just what you can see here. So many people stop at the welcome stand and donate money, blankets, food – they just want to show support. We’ve been deciding between us how best to use the resources to keep this going. Interestingly, there seems to be more of a democracy here that there is within the government who are trying to criticise it. What we need is more consensus decision making and a move away from playground politics. We’re getting more organised all the time, we’ve set up a bank account with the credit union, there’s someone at the camp employed as treasurer, we agree on the amount of money we can spend on what – and that’s all been achieved in a week between a group of people, most if whom have never met before. It’s not just a bunch of wasters – it’s a group of committed people, and there are so many people around the world doing the same. There’s a real sense of being part of something bigger. ‘

So it seems Occupy Bristol is not just a bunch of hippies shouting about capitalism. And despite the objections of the council, there appears to be a dogged determination to stay put. The very different thing about this movement is that the vast majority seem happy to let them. In this case, no matter what they think about it, the government have been outvoted, and their decisions seriously called into question by an electorate who really appear to have lost the faith. It simply remains to be seen wether the unelected members of the community can call their elected representatives to account. They should be accountable for their actions – after all something is very wrong if people cannot trust elected officials ability to govern to the extent they feel they have to take matters into their own hands. At the very least the government must now know that their people are watching.

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