Sunday, 27 November 2011

Occupy Liverpool sets up camp

Yesterday, Occupy Liverpool finally managed to establish a camp at the foot of Wellington's Coulmn. This belated action came after the initial attempt on October 15 turned into a UK Uncut-style bank occupation, and numerous indoor general assemblies. I was at the site on the first day, and able to make some initial impressions of what the action represented in Liverpool.

Along with a number of other people, I had arrived in town early not because of the camp itself - but because of the threat that fascists would disrupt it. The EDL threats against the St Paul's Camp were fairly high profile, as was the middle of the night attack on Occupy Newcastle. Liverpool's fascists were equally outspoken in their opposition to any occupation. Even after they went back on their plans to oppose the 30 November strike and claimed to be in full support of it, they were still saying "set tents up in Liverpool and we will move you by force, plain and simple."

Thus it was a pretty safe bet that as soon as word got back to them about the camp, the local fash would come down to show their opposition. With the occupiers issuing a request for as many people as possible to be present as the camp was established, and a tip off that the far-right would be meeting in a Wetherspoons in town on the same day, about 15 members of Liverpool Antifascists gathered to scout out the City Centre and ensure that there would be no unwelcome visitors as the camp was set up.

The Occupy group met up in St John's Gardens, behind St George's Hall, before heading over to the monument to pitch tents. Predictably, it didn't take long before police showed up to question them on what they  were doing. At this point, however, there were only two cars and there didn't seem to be anything beyond words exchanged between the two groups. Once several tents were pitched, the police returned to their cars to put in some calls about the occupation. Meanwhile, with no fascists on the streets, those of us who had come down under the banner of Liverpool Antifascists decided to get a proper look at the camp and talk to those who would be staying there.

From the beginning, the Occupy Movement has been a positive one but also one riddled with internal contradictions. For example, whilst both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy The London Stock Exchange were by definition actions aimed at causing physical and economic disruption at the heart of key financial institutions, many subsequent occupations that followed have deliberately minimised disruption. As did Occupy LSX after they were forced to relocate to St Paul's Cathedral. In many ways, largely inspired by the mythology of Tahrir Square, the protesters have fetishised the occupation of public space rather than seeing it as a tactic which can be effective depending on the particular situation - Tahrir being one such example because it is a centre of public life, though even then it was the wave of strikes alongside it which brought down Hosni Mubarak.

Likewise, non-violence has been elevated to a cardinal rule at many occupations. This has proved to be especially dangerous where the camps have come under attack from police, only for liberals to cry "sit down! Sit down!" rather than urge resistance. I won't go into this too much here, as Cautiously Pessimistic's post on the subject still stands out as the key argument against absolute pacifism.

On the other hand, there have been some incredibly inspiring and militant actions coming from the American occupations. Particularly, the Occupy Oakland general strike and the call for a coordinated blockade of ports. This demonstrates that, despite some truly cringeworthy moments from the liberals in the movement there is - particularly in America - a strong current of anti-capitalism and class consciousness that can produce some genuinely brilliant results.

In Liverpool, the same contradictions have been evident, though more often than not the negatives have outweighed the positives. Most obvious was the fact that Occupy Liverpool had failed to establish a permanent camp. But there were also tales filtering through of people insisting that no leafleting or connection with people in real life was necessary as the internet allowed them to "connect with people who are already switched on" and of those who aren't "we don't want to know." There was an attempt to initiate a legal occupation, seemingly missing the entire point of the matter. This being aside from the "Zeitgeist" conspiracy stuff that has permeated a lot of local Occupy groups.

However, thankfully, most of the people I spoke to at the camp didn't appear to fit this bill. It was clear that there were a lot of politically inexperienced people present, evidenced by the almost complete absence of the "professional left" you can recognise at every protest, march and rally, but this in itself is no grave sin. It is potentially dangerous, given that one woman at the camp had no idea who the EDL were when told of the fascist interest in the camp. But this can be rectified through open debate and education.

Also dangerous, in a different way, is the level of trust shown towards the police. Even after some of the more outrageous occurrences that we've seen. After the police told the occupiers that they could stay, there was a cheer when this was announced over the megaphone, and all of the anarchists present at the camp groaned in unison when this was followed by a call for a round of applause for the cops. As we explained to the person who had spoken, this kind of thing allowed for the illusion that the police could ever be on your side, an illusion which could have dangerous consequences when there came a need to resist. They could be amiable as required, true enough, and there is certainly nothing to be gained in randomly provoking them, but their job is to enforce the state's monopoly of violence and maintain what the powers-that-be view as order. They will never be on our side.

Still, it remains the case that most of those present were quite switched-on, including recognising that the camp would be more useful as a hub for organising other protests and actions than anything else. There was one comment about "camping out until things change," but I doubt that anybody there was seriously under the impression that sleeping in tents at the base of a column dedicated to the Duke of Wellington would somehow lead to social revolution.

I left the camp for a few hours in order to get lunch and deal with some other matters in town, returning not long before it started going dark. The camp was now well established, and had received a fair amount of press and public attention. It had also received some less welcome attention, with a couple of lads on a motorbike acting as spotters and the Liverpool EDL Facebook Page announcing to its members where the camp was and urging them to go along and have a look. There was also a warning to the occupiers: "remove your tents before you become legitimate targets for reprisals."

Soon after dark, I was alerted to the fact that there were five lads standing outside the camp shouting up at a woman standing by the tent facing them. Nobody else appeared to have noticed, as there was a group of tourists asking questions of the occupiers whilst others were sorting out provisions or chatting amongst themselves. However, from the lads still kept their distance and though at first I couldn't make out everything they said, their tone was clearly mocking or goading.

I exited the area in which the camp sat, enclosed by pillars connected by chains, and walked around to where the lads were stood. As I came along and leant against one of the pillars, one of them looked up at me and said "alright Phil." This pretty much confirmed who they were, alongside the pointed question "what do you and Liverpool Antifascists hope to gain by occupying a war memorial?" Only fascists take such obvious pleasure at knowing on sight who a "red" is, and whilst we had shown up yesterday because of the threat of fascists, LiverAF had never previously made any mention of Occupy Liverpool and the local EDL were the only ones to make any connection between the two things.

There were some words exchanged between us, with them - all in their early twenties bar one who looked about twelve - claiming that we were disrespecting a war memorial before denying being any part of the EDL or fascist groups. However, this was quickly belied by their parting shot that they would return later with petrol bombs to "warm our feet up." Pointing out that throwing petrol bombs at Wellington's Column was somewhat more disrespectful then camping by it, I got the reply "the petrol bomb's for you, you cunt."

During the exchange, a couple of people had come up and asked me not to antagonise them. I was also told that "if you ignore them and don't rise to it, they'll go away." This was worrying given the fetishisation of non-violence I mentioned earlier, and so once they were gone I told several people in the camp what had happened and reiterated the point about taking security seriously. I underlined that ignoring fascists does not make them go away but merely allows them to come closer unimpeded, and that they would continue to harass the camp (or worse) if not chased off. Thankfully, this appeared to have been taken on board by a lot of those present and after I left other LiverAF members made the same point at the General Assembly. Security rotas were put in place for the night.

Though they didn't live up to their threat, the fascists are not to be taken lightly. We have seen what they've done at other Occupy camps, and we know that they are invested in the traditional fascist tactics of trying to control the streets by force. As for the camp, it remains early days to see what will actually come of it. However, it has at least marked its territory, and that the negative tendencies of the Occupy movement so far seem muted certainly appears to be a good sign.