Interview by Ella Chappell
I’m walking down to Haymarket in Norwich, the main square of the city bordered by Topshop, McDonalds, Starbucks and Primark, if you can believe it. I’m heading to Norwich’s Occupy camp and feeling slightly apprehensive about how I will be received. It is a freezing Saturday afternoon close to Christmas so the square is buzzing with activity and people hardly taking a second glance at the camp which has now become so entrenched in the community. A little further down the street a brass band is playing Christmas carols and I wonder at everyone out busily Christmas shopping, easily ignoring such a spectacle.
Approaching the small camp of around 6 or 7 tents I begin to read the many banners and posters that are strewn over and around the area: “Educate yourself,” “Be the change you want to see,” “We are the 99%,” “Working for a fairer world.” One particular one that stands out to me and makes me smile is a large whiteboard that says: “To those of you who shout at us “get a job,” here is a list of just some of the jobs that we have,” following which is a list of almost forty various occupations from “university lecturer” to “phone technician.”
When I arrive at the main gathering point I meet a woman called Vanessa who has encouraged me to come down to observe the daily General Assembly before we have an interview. I am ushered into a cosy tent, shaking hands with various smiling faces, and offered a seat on a battered-looking sofa. The GA begins and I look around at the organisation of this main meeting tent. To my left is a bookcase full of books, the closest spine to me reading “The Rights of Man.” I’m glad to see that the right reading material is at hand. Above a young woman’s head opposite me is a board to which are pinned braided bracelets of different colours beside which are written various duties in the camp: “organise, public, kitchen, quartermaster, living spaces, project etc.” I am surprised when halfway through the first minute of the agenda a ginger woman in the corner asks of Vanessa, who seems to be chairing the meeting on this occasion, “sorry, what’s your name?” All question of leadership seems to be totally bypassed with this system: anyone, from newcomer to daily camper, is allowed an authoritative voice that will be taken into account.
The meeting continues with discussions of the attendance at a conference in Edinburgh, surveys of public opinion, camp continuity and raising further public awareness. It becomes clear to me that one of the central difficulties facing the movement is to do with outreach – getting the public informed and involved. Ideas come from every corner of the tent. Hands shoot up and have to wait their turn to be answered. A sleepy man who has been on night duty since 4am scribbles down the minutes. It is clear that this camp is not only organised, but healthy with debate and activity.
When the meeting is over, I follow Vanessa and three others: Chris Keane, Andrew Ward and a man who tells me that his name is simply Kitt, through a canvas door at the back of the meeting tent into a huge central tent. Tardis-like in its outer deceptiveness, it looks like over ten people can stay in here at once and I marvel to think that this jolly little community exists just in front of Primark’s blind, fluorescent eyes.
Anyway, on with the interview. Are we ready?
SAL: What made you join the occupation?
Kitt: I’ve just been sort of walking past for a while and then spent the day down here and started chatting with everyone and sort of really got into it and then turned up here next day with a tent. I meant to come for the weekend but I never left and it’s been a month now I think.
Andrew: For me it’s being involved in Anonymous. We’ve been talking about Wall Street way back. So when all my friends and people out there were talking about how good it was at the camp and when people started talking about 15th October and how good it was down here, it just came together. It was like, should we do this or not? And people said, yes we should. We went forth and made our mark.
Chris: I joined because I read “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein where she says they use crises as an excuse to push free market economics on society and that doesn’t work. So I know we’d be in for trouble economically.
SAL: Actually, I first became properly informed by watching “Inside Job.” What other sources would you recommend for people to inform themselves?
Andrew: Basically, things like twitter and Youtube. The great thing about twitter is that everyone can search stuff, they can talk, ideas can be raised, they can be counted. And there’s loads of different Facebook groups for each group individually.
Vanessa: With regards to information as well, there’s the occupyuk.info site which has been set up by people here in Norwich which is the group for the entire OccupyUK movement. At the moment you have the map on there which shows all the occupation across the UK and Ireland and links to their websites. And that will be further developed with more information. There’s a workshop at the moment going on where people are discussing where to take this. Another is occupytogether.org which shows globally really good resources where you have links to all kinds of different sites. And there is takethesquare.net which is also an international occupy site which is written by the Spanish. And there are a lot of links on there as well about how to occupy so that if other towns want to set up an occupation they will be able to do this.
SAL: Lots of other issues are being explored in the camp. Are there many disagreements between people?
Kit: There’s always going to be disagreements. But that’s the reason we have these General Assemblies and workshop groups so we can talk about and discuss them and reach a decision by consensus
Vanessa: I was quite impressed by this actually because it’s the first time I ever used this consensus system and I’ve never been in contact with it or involved with it before.
Andrew: The one you saw today was really informal.
Vanessa: Yeah, the sort of disagreements you might expect, they’re not very big because I think everybody kind of always fears that the big thing is what’s most important. And when you have a little thing where you’d like to do it different, you just don’t say it.
Andrew: It is quite surprising because although there are a load of different ideologies here and we come together under a common banner and in that smaller scale its good for groups to get together and we’ve got one focus rather than arguing about politics all the time. We saw, back in 1999, when they organised protests in Seattle, against the World Trade Organisation, there were different groups who would never talk to each other but people facilitated and these groups on the left who wouldn’t talk to these anarchists, Marxists got together under a common cause. And we’re seeing that here, only slightly bigger. We do have disagreements but we work round them in a way that everyone feels happy with to get a good end result.
SAL: What do you eventually hope to achieve? [Pause] Or is that difficult to say?
Kitt: Well it’s different for everyone really.
Andrew: Basically, trying to bring some order to the chaos that’s the system. Because it’s out of control. The system in itself is happy with itself. We’re not happy with it.
Vanessa: I think there are several points. The very first one would be obviously us wanting to raise awareness which is why the camp is here. I think one of the big points is stop tax evasion. I think it’s almost three quarters of the debt in the UK is actually a tax gap. And if you just got those people to pay their taxes then you would already have diminished the debt by three quarters. That’s point one and then of course all the issues about changing the capitalism that we live in, in the sense of all the deregulation. Now, Cameron’s decision not to go with the EU, saying the EU plan wasn’t very good. But he didn’t want to join because of the London financial market, because of the banks. He’s listening to the banks over anyone else. They’ve got too much power.
Andrew: To add to that, something else that we really need is the governments do need to listen to the people. It’s never “what do you think about this”, it’s always “you’ve voted for us therefore we can do this.”
Chris: It doesn’t work at all because they promise and then break their promises with impunity. They promise no top-down reorganisation of the National Health Service, instead they’re privatising it and turning it into an American-type system where we pay-up or die. Because if you can’t afford healthcare, you die. And that’s the system that they’re going to impose. Completely against their promises to people at the election. So we need a reform of the political system. I would suggest a thing called re-call where if you don’t like what politicians are doing you can sign a petition and they have to stand out and defy it.
Andrew: Not a new system, but an overhaul of it. An adaption to how it currently is.
Vanessa: Yeah, and making it work the way it’s supposed to work, making everybody pay their taxes. And instead of having austerity measures where the public has to keep putting money in, or rather, their benefits are being cut, or their social services are being cut, so that those who are not paying their taxes can go on not paying their taxes. I think that’s just ludicrous really. And that’s what the Occupy movement all over the place is about.
Andrew: A newspaper article came out a few weeks back saying Vodaphone made three billion five hundred million and the amount of tax they paid from that was one thousand four hundred. That’s crazy. They made a billion and they paid less than two thousand. That’s why we’re in the trouble we are. When we created the capitalist system it worked, at first, but then everybody started getting greedy and making money for money’s sake. If they stuck to how we made it: with tax and laws, and how we said “this is the way you have to operate” and they operated in that way, we wouldn’t be in this issue.
Chris: I think we need to listen to the people who predicted the financial crisis rather than those who caused it. So people like Ann Pettifor who wrote a book in 2006 called “The Coming First World Debt Crisis,” she’s a member of the Green New Deal group which advocates reform of the financial system and putting a lot of money into Green technology so that we both save the environment and save the economy by getting people back to work building renewable energy and insulating people’s houses and things like that.
SAL: I’ve found personally that it’s really frustrating when people don’t care about these issues. What do you have to say or what do you do about these people who are completely apathetic?
Andrew: We allow them to be. We just say, “look at the world around you, take a second look, educate yourselves.” There’s just things that people aren’t seeing and they need to see it because it’s really quite shocking the injustice that happens everyday
Vanessa: I think the Occupy movement precisely shows that there’s always going be some lay public and it’s always been like that. And it’s always going to be the minority that will actually stand up and do something. But the Occupy movement has shown that the sort of apathy that you normally have is changing as many more people on the street doing stuff. Just today on the news, in Russia people are going on the streets. When did they do that last? All over the world we have people standing up now and fighting for their democratic rights so I think whilst you will always have people who won’t do anything, this is changing a bit. And part of the reason that people just don’t see what’s happening is again down to this consumerist society that we have where people’s values have just been changed and their eyes and all they do is... shopping makes them happy. The actual reality and the things that are really truly important just go missing. That’s also part of the Occupy movement: trying to re-establish what our real values for our community are about.
Andrew: I think people really need to ask themselves are they happy with the way that society is. If it’s “no” then by their actions, where they shop, how they shop, that can really have a huge affect. The current system we have continues to exist because we allow it to. We work in the shops. We give them the means to make money. When we spend the money it’s where we shop. We continue it. We get abused in that manner. And the wages we get when we work it’s pretty much wage-slavery to a degree. You can work really hard. You can go home and have had that crazy day, you’ve gotta deal with that every customer who’s had a go at you and at the end of the day you get your thirty pounds. When some guy right at the top, yeah sure he’s earned his position, but once he’s there he makes his money without really working for it.
Vanessa: Yeah and that’s tying in to what we said before, continuously the surplus in the economy is growing so people have to work more and more and more with less income with less pension with less social care. So that this surplus can be generated so that then feeds back into the top pile. So this is like the circle of capitalism as Marx would explain. And that needs to be stopped. But back to what do we think about people not getting involved in things. But you speak to people here every day and you get really positive feedback. We’ve got an enormous amount of signatures of where people have signed up because they want to become supportive.
Andrew: Basically, if people take away one thing it’s to question the world around them, the environment, challenge authority cos the authority is not doing us much good. And we should make our authority.
Kitt: They should work for us. You don’t see it very often, they coming out and asking us how we want stuff.
Andrew: Touching on that, a couple of years back Ireland got a referendum, the people got to vote on it and they voted “no” against adopting the Euro I think it was. The EU turned round and said “okay you voted. Your answer is no. But wrong decision. You’re going to have to vote again. And this time in our favour.”
Vanessa: Yes, but that actual vote was a bit more complex than that because in Ireland there was actually a very dominant lobby that was lobbying for the “no” vote and there wasn’t any transparent, informative campaign based on which people could truly make a decision for or against. But anyway, that’s going off topic!
Andrew: But speaking of transparency, if we could see how they make their decisions and we could get involved in that then that’s only for the better I feel.
Chris: If we kicked money out of politics that might help. The Conservatives get about 60% of their money from the financial sector so it’s no wonder they don’t want to do anything to reform them and they’re continue letting the banks fleece the rest of us.
Vanessa: I’m sure in the original Greek democracy there was a division between the public and private. Back then private was family and you had family business and that was completely separate from the public things which were about governing, the community and everybody would participate in the community, volunteer and people who didn’t were actually considered idiots! And there was a division between the two. And today that division doesn’t exist anymore. And I think that’s the root of the problem. We now have a market that has no public control.
Andrew: It’s like we’re all competing. We’re going against each other; life’s a game. I’ve really lost the game. I dunno, it’s like they’re trying to create competition all the time and that’s quite annoying. When we’re trying to get jobs there’s like three hundred people applying for one position. Are we gonna win the game or are we gonna lose?
Vanessa: I would like politicians, as well as the public, as well as the media, to hear that these are the points that we put forward and I would like them to realise that with all the debt and problems as they are, just trying to bail out the country, just trying to get more loans to tie over short-term is not going to change the real issue behind it. And the reason that Occupations all over the place stand up is not because they don’t want other people to get a bail out, it’s not because they don’t care about the Greeks having any money or anything like that. But they want the system to function properly. They want taxes being paid rather than austerity measures. And I think have people realised what we really stand for? This is not some sort of, I don’t know, group of anarchists, hippies, people who don’t know what they want, even though of course we are anarchists and hippies as well, you know, we are everybody! But the point is that we do have a quite clear vision.
Andrew: It really goes beyond politics. It’s become social. It’s our lives.
Vanessa: Yeah, we’re non-partisan as well.
Chris: There was law in 1844 that only the bank of England was allowed to print money but then when we had electronic money then banks just put money into their own accounts electronically. And make money from nothing. And create it as interest-bearing debt and so we need to go back to a law that says only the bank of England is allowed to print digital money as well to stop the banks creating money from nothing. That’s the most important reform we need I think.
Vanessa: Another thing I would like people to see is that we’re such a group of different people. We’ve got different ages, men, women, students, people who work in town, whatever, you’ve got all kinds of different people who we would have probably never have met otherwise, we wouldn’t have been together. But this got us together and that’s a really heterogenic group and that’s quite important.
Andrew: We’ve already made history. Never before on one day have 2000 separate groups occupied their cities on one day. That’s never happened before. History has already been made.
Kitt: And it’s not just been one day, we’ve been occupying for a little while now!
Vanessa: That’s true; on the 15th October, that’s never happened before.
Andrew: We came together on the same day all around the world and did the same action.
Vanessa: It was nine hundred and eighty something cities on the first day, wasn’t it? In eighty-two countries. And now it’s over a thousand in eighty-seven countries. It’s the biggest ever.
Andrew: We’ve really built a higher mind where we’re acting as a single unit but separate. Even if they took all the camps out in America issue still exist and you can’t affect all the other groups around the world. In that manner it’s only going to go forward. And the thing is they really should have expected us. We told them we’re not going to forgive and forget what they’ve done.
SAL: What is your reaction to the police brutality in America?
Andrew: It’s quite something. But it’s something to be expected. Capitalism is America’s baby. It’s how their whole system exists. So we expected to see that. They came right into our hands with that one, we knew that they were going to react violently. That’s the only thing they know – violence. They don’t know discussion or dialogue 'cause they want to control the whole system. So in the heartland of capitalism in America when they stood up and said they want a change to this, that’s all the people living their really nice lives and they don’t want their system to be broken. They were always going to react that way and I think it’s only going to get worse. So, if for example, hundreds and thousands of people were going to come out on the streets and put forward that threat of shutting down the system they would use live ammunition I think as Egypt has done. So America really is exposing its true nature and they it feels about its people. They are there to be shot down.
Vanessa: It’s a disgrace, absolutely. But it also strengthens the point we’re trying to make which is that there isn’t any true democracy. That’s got signs...it’s almost like a totalitarian regime that sort of reaction to a peaceful protest. The fact that they’re even allowed to protest and camp out in most of the places, I think New York was one of the only camps where the actual location was communal ground. Everywhere else it was private. That’s why they could be evicted every night all over the US but the reaction just shows two things. It shows that Occupy is threatening because they didn’t need to do anything about it otherwise. And it shows that there really isn’t any democracy there and how important what Occupy does is.
Andrew: America has shown its true feelings and its been documented, its been shared throughout the world with our new weapon – the internet. They can’t hide it away anymore. Everyone got a camera on their phones and someone could be filming you and put it on Youtube and bam! They’re really scared of that, that transparency.
Vanessa: Some Wall Street corporations have given some money to lobby against the Occupy movement. But London, I mean okay it’s not the same violence levels as the states but the way they are coming down on the groups in London is out of order as well.
Andrew: We are going to see, I think, the Met kick off. Because the Met love to have a good old scrap with protestors. Last years demonstrations a couple of police officers all over the internet, on Twitter, and in emails, were saying stuff like: “yeah, let’s go and beat the shit out of these anarchists.” They started the sound like the same way the anarchists were. Started sounding like football hooligans gearing up for a fight. You’re meant to be keeping things ordered and your role as a police officer is to allow demonstrations and protests to occur peacefully. By having that mentality of already you’re going there for a fight it’s going to erupt into a fight, you’ll cause it.
Vanessa: That ties back into the government cuts and the government not wanting to do anything. The governments quite happy about having...you know, the police force is all different, the Met is a specific case. But there obviously isn’t much regulation there on the police and the lower rankings of the police can decide on the day whether they’re gonna kettle people, what sort of techniques they’re gonna use. Having cuts in the police force also means police not being educated. All they learn is go out there like riot police, go out and stop the protest. They don’t learn that the protest is fine and they're there to facilitate it. That’s another problem that goes back to the government.
Andrew: Even if the police say “no, we’re not gonna do this anymore,” the government will find someone else to do that for them. Men can be bought and sold in a mercenary type manner. The government will always find people to put down the protests. There’s always someone willing to do that. And that’s a scary thought.
SAL: What can non-occupiers do to help?
Andrew: When they have an issue or a problem speak out about it. Talk to their friend about it. You don’t even have to go here and talk about it, just online facilitate discussions. But the best thing anyone can do is constantly educate themselves about the world. Adapt their views on it. Don’t listen to what anyone’s got to say, it’s always best to make your own mind up about stuff. Maybe switch off the TV for a week and read and educate and look at the way things have been and where they are going and a picture will start to emerge. For people not be told how things are, but to realise how things are.
Vanessa: I think what non-occupiers can do in their everyday life is just be more aware. Be an aware consumer, live aware, that includes using renewable energy, be independent from those global corporations and from those banks. I mean people may be complaining about these big banks. They may be complaining about the oil industry being so big but then at home they use energy that is from oil, gas or nuclear power. They have their bank account with Barclays which is the worst. And that’s how any person without doing any other direct action can start making a change. Being conscious about who you give your money to.
Andrew: On a practical level even today I went to Tesco, looked at noodles - £1.80. Found this Chinese place on the market. I got noodles, chop sticks and stock cubes for £1.80!
Vanessa: Reduce, re-use, re-cycle.
Andrew: We contribute to the system, we make it continue. We can completely end it if we choose to.