The camp is formed by a cluster of tents encircling a central inexpensive gazebo, under which was a garden table surrounded by garden chairs – all occupied bar one. As I approached, their occupants eyed me, as anyone would an unannounced young man with a leather portfolio and foppish hair.
“Hello, I’m a very small-time journalist. Would anyone be interested in doing an interview?”
Some looked with suspicion, and some with acceptance – two women, one younger than the other, both fair-haired; two men, one older and dark-haired, wearing a blue fleece, and the other sitting deeply in a chair, wearing a thick coat and one of those Siberian hats, for which there was a fad last year, and gloves. I noticed at the side of a table a group of children were gathered round a large piece of cardboard on which they had drawn a great picture of the computer-game character, Mario. At this point a tall black man approached, wearing an Aran jumper. He greeted me, told me to sit down and asked whether I wanted a hot drink. I accepted and he re-entered the galley tent to make one.
I sat and the people introduced themselves: the women were from another city, which does not have an Occupy camp; the older man was visiting – the boards flanking the path were his ‘thing’ – and the younger man was an Occupier. The conversation drifted into musings about our civilisation’s ills, such as corporations selling F1 hybrids to native peoples, the private federal reserve, drug companies and, for some reason, 9/11 conspiracies. There was also a pervasive theme of a sort of New World Order conspiracy. Blue Fleece was getting into his own about the 9/11 conspiracies so I asked him and the others about the 99% motif.
Oliver Meredith Cox: So what do you feel about the 99%?
Blue Fleece: Well, the beauty of the 99% is that it incorporates all people, it’s the whole thing. Is it the 99% or isn’t it? I think it’s probably the 70% ‘cos there’s a lot of people out there who want to keep the system, right? But I think the 99% is good because we’re not a particular grouping, that’s what’s appealed to me. If this was like Socialist Workers’ Party or a Left-Wing organisation or Anonymous – or whatever, I wouldn’t associate with it, and that’s the beauty of it.
As the conversation drifted away I went to see Carl Lewis, the man who welcomed me and made me tea, asking if he’d like to have a chat. We went to a bench around ten feet from the camp. He was a large man, but not overweight, who spoke enthusiastically with an intermittent Irish accent.
* * *
‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.’ – Jonah, 1:2
OMC: Carl, how long have you been here?
Carl Lewis: I’ve been here since it started, about 24 days, but not at this location, at another location and then we moved to here.
OMC: Of course; so what do you feel about having to move out of the main square?
CL: I don’t feel anything, I think it was great to move, and it was great to be there. As we were Occupying we have no affiliation to ‘feelings’ in that sense. As I said before to the council, they did not have to give us an eviction order; because we’re Occupiers and we’re dealing with some form of solidarity, all they would have had to do was come and ask me, and we would have moved.
OMC: That’s very accommodating, because certain protest movements sometimes get themselves a bad name through,civil disobedience.
CL: Maybe it was needed at the time though, those kinds of protests.
OMC: Fair enough.
CL: But for what we are doing here, in the 21st century, maybe this kind of attitude is needed now.
OMC: What made you want to come out here and Occupy?
CL: To be honest, it wasn’t a decision, it was an ethos. I don’t think one can make decisions on these things; one has to go with the ethos. If the whole of humanity is standing up and doing it and needs voices to help them stand up, then it has to start somewhere.
OMC: What are the challenges associated with Occupying?
CL: [pause for thought] The challenges associated with Occupying are: one – it’s getting people to understand what an occupier is, and two – it’s not trying to get people on board, it’s to get people to understand that as a 99%, they are also Occupiers. They just don’t have the knowledge that we have, to know what Occupying is. So they are still Occupying in their flats and in their houses really, but they just haven’t subscribed to Occupying, that’s all.
OMC: Have you had any antagonism from people?
CL: Yes, lots of it. I’ve nearly been stabbed three times, by gangs on the camp. Securing the camp at night is where I get my buzz, really, because they think that it is some ‘peace, 60s, hippy’ thing, no, there are logical people here, intellectual people here, who can deal with deferring trouble. I love doing that, it fires me up for later on when I’m having conversations with people. The whole camp is always under fire from alcoholic people and weekend endeavours.
OMC: So how do you secure the camp?
CL: With a presence, with my presence.
OMC: Just… using your words?
OMC: You’ve almost got a perimeter round here haven’t you?
CL: It was worse at Victoria Square than when we moved here, because here, now, I know the park keeper, and I get him to lock that door and that door, so my only threat is this door [gesturing to the stone archway to our right]. Then he’s back at 7:30, so I’ve got it in hand. Because we have children here, and women here I need a different structure to the London scene, I need a different structure to the Nottingham scene, I need a different structure for Birmingham, because families seem to hang out here.
OMC: I understand that. So, do you feel some kind of paternity over the Occupiers?
CL: I feel a paternity over the whole situation, globally.
OMC: Cool. Do you feel that you are having an effect on government and society as a whole?
CL: You know, this may sound strange, but I think that the government has been waiting for us, and society. Yes, because now everybody can get some decent information we might be able to get some decent political words. The government might start being mindful of the people they’re taking care of and the people who are voting them in. Look, what I have tried to do in my years, I have accomplished in 23 days, 24 days. What a lot of people have tried to do in their time, they’ve accomplished in 23 days. Some people can’t see it, but those people who are trying to do it, they can see it, we can see it. So I think that the group is going great globally.
OMC: So it’s almost like there’s this head of steam wanting to get through and the Occupy movement just–
CL: The Occupy movement is an energy, which is already out there, just waiting for people with capabilities and stature to just Occupy the space to keep the movement.
OMC: Is this protest disrupting other areas of your life?
CL: Er,no, because Occupying is a way of life.
OMC: So this is your life, essentially.
CL: This is a way of life, I was doing this anyway before I knew I was Occupying.
OMC: If it’s okay, I’m going to move on to questions about the political aspect of this demonstration.
CL: Wow, okay.
OMC: You don’t see yourselves as a–
CL: I didn’t think Occupying was a political movement.
OMC: How long do you plan to Occupy?
CL: Well, as I said, I’ve been Occupying all my life; every individual, as far as I’m concerned, has been Occupying, and even if I’m not in a tent, or behind a computer, I think Occupying is still going on. I know I keep using that word, ‘solidarity’, but once you understand the essence of the solidarity of it and you’re mindful of their needs – not their wants – your life changes. And if a lot of people can get to that balance then they begin to understand what’s precious in life and what’s not, because a lot of precious values have been lost in the past, and people need to reclaim them. If you’re missing out on a lot of time with your kids because you’re working too much, hang out with the Occupiers, take some time out, come off the grid for a while, just come off the grid for a day and a half; see what it’s like to be around your family again.
OMC: It does have its attractions.
CL: It does, it does.
OMC: So when I asked you whether the protest was disrupting your life, actually the protest is allowing a lot of people to–
CL: It’s allowing me to get the essence of life, real life.
OMC: What action would the world or UK government have to take?
CL: I don’t know.
CL: I don’t know. Until I hear them agreeing with Occupying policies or Occupying understanding, I don’t know what actions they should take. But I know that when we’re all in one voice, one is inspired to take action in the now and I can deal with that. I can deal with actions in the now, but I can’t deal with promises for the future or memories from the past, in that sense. I can deal with action for the now.
CL: You could cap every single person if you wanted, and stop them from being greedy, and that money could flow into our country and we could have greater lives – greater lives; the council could be so great, if we hadn’t have paid 765 million to pay off the bankers the other day it would have been great. The attitude of the people in the council has to change, so that they are looking after the people that voted them in and the bankers are taking care of the people; and this global economy that everybody’s trying to be the head of, doesn’t have to happen really, do you know what I mean?
OMC: What, do you think, is the central idea which should be at the heart of good government?
CL: Of good government?
CL: Mindfulness. There’s no mindfulness. There’s mindfulness for them and their community and their friends and the people who vote them in, but there’s never mindfulness for the whole country. The government always divides and divides, like a spiral [he said, making a spiral gesture with his finger, like he was slicing layers of a piece of wood]. They could separate thugs from thugs if they wanted. They’d call one sector ‘hoodies’ and one sector ‘knife-people’. The government continues to divide the community, but when we look back to the times after the Second World War, communities were built, they were built then. Communities which people could live in, without governments and banks scheming off their backs and making themselves rich.
OMC: So you’d be in favour of a more 1945-style government who were trying to look after everybody?
CL: I wouldn’t be in favour of that. They weren’t looking after us; they were scheming to pay back for a war. What we need now is a government, which, when it is voted in, is mindful of the very people that voted them in, and not just the people that voted them in but the people who didn’t vote them in.
OMC: Is there a country in the world which has adopted your ideas; is there somewhere which we could look at and take inspiration?
CL: If you wanted to know of a place in the world–
OMC: Or in history.
CL: Ah, that’s better, a place from history. This may sound a little bit crazy; it’s the city of Nineveh.
OMC: Where sorry?
CL: The city of Nineveh, I think they recorded it in the Bible. This is the analogy for me for Occupy. If I recognise what I can put back in I won’t destroy what’s beautiful already. The people of Nineveh were destroying their city, and Nineveh was a beautiful place. Not necessarily the normal people, but maybe those in power were. The King and all that were destroying a beautiful place. England’s a beautiful place and it’s economically being destroyed.
OMC: So we can take inspiration from that story and turn things around?
CL: I think so.
OMC: So, for you, who are the 1%?
CL: The 1% are those that believe that they are above every morality that exists in reality, that’s the one percent for me, that believe they don’t need morality.
OMC: That’s one of the very best definitions for the 1% that I’ve heard.
CL: It’s understanding what power is as well. When the gurus like Ghandi had it, they were never head of states or head of banks; they were head of a campaign against poverty or tyrants. But in the secular world of power, it’s, ‘How much have you got?’ And, ‘How big is it?’. And we need to turn this around, flip the coin. People keep measuring truth off numbers. Because there’s only like twelve people here, people think we can’t be doing anything good, but if there were twelve-thousand of us here people would be saying ‘yeah, they must be right’, but yet, suppose we were doing something wrong?
OMC: How would you distribute wealth in society?
CL: I don’t know, that means that I’d have power and I don’t know.
OMC: Okay; not how would you distribute wealth, how do you think wealth should be distributed?
CL: I honestly believe that the mechanics for distribution to get a fair life is there already, but the fact that it’s clouded by greed is what’s causing the problem.
OMC: So you think that the system we have now is the beginnings of a fair one, but with modifications –
CL: With modifications; tweak it!
OMC: What kind of action do you think British people would have to take?
CL: I’d have to come back to you on that one. The evolution of it will happen eventually you know.
OMC: How do you feel about the way in which world governments reacted to the Occupy movement?
CL: I think, when it first started, they tried to categorise it like they categorise everything. ‘Movement’; ‘Watch these people’; ‘Not to be trusted’; ‘They’re against capitalism’; blah blah. At the end of the day, the West is a capitalistic society, but what a capitalist can be against, is poverty.
OMC: So you’re not –
CL: I am not against capitalism! They can get as rich as they want mate. What I am against is this person over here being that rich, and this geezer over here trying to find bread. I’m not saying to the rich geezer ‘Give away all your money’; I’m saying, ‘Be anti-poverty’.
‘It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.’ – Samuel Adams
* * *
Lex said to me, ‘All we need to do, right, is get all these laws, and make it open to public vote every year, as to what changes and how, and let the people decide how their nation is run.’
‘Like Athens?’ I said
‘Like in Athens? How does it work in Athens?’
I was talking to a young man, who gave his name only as ‘Lex’, sitting on a bench in the peace garden, the most recent home of the Occupy Birmingham encampment. And he hadn’t heard of the idea of perfect democracy in the Athens city-state. It would have been useful for a person who is currently Occupying a piece of Birmingham and trying to convince the people of Britain that the system of government needs to be changed, to have had some knowledge of an example of a state in which his ideal system of government existed.
In a conversation I held with another Occupier, this time one who was very orientated towards the environmental results of the capitalist system, I asked him, because he led me to this impression, whether he was an Anarcho-Syndicalist; and the guy who barks like an Anarcho-Syndicalist did not know of Anarcho-Syndicalism.
So immediately after I sat and talking with the Occupiers I was disappointed in that I was expecting a paradise of discussion and ideas but found, in my opinion, people who were comparatively politically ignorant. I asked the guru or leader what it was that the government would have to do in order for the protesters to be satisfied and leave and he said that he didn’t know.
I understand that it is not necessary for a protest to be entirely united under a single political, or otherwise, idea or mantra – I may even say that it’s refreshing to see a ‘capitalist’, an ‘environmentalist’ and someone who (if he’d read up on it) was essentially a Marxist, camped out together. However, and this is the most basic reason for my objection, the government can’t take action if the protesters don’t make demands.
The 99% is a concept that interests me. I believe that I noticed it first on a post from the hacking group Anonymous’s Twitter feed. It said that the police who were beating some Occupy protesters in America should stop, because the police are the 99% too. Yes, I guess.
I tend, however, to get a little queasy when people claim to speak for me, and so should you. Did I or others assent to these 12 people in Birmingham city centre speaking for 99% of the population? I have not given the Occupiers the right to speak for me; am I in the 1% as a result?
A look at some facts.
Fact one: They’re out there, and I’m in here in front of a desk. I criticise the government over the dinner table and online. They have made a physical gesture, and for a while they put across their messages in front of the United Kingdom’s biggest local authority.
Fact two: I’ve never been unemployed. I met someone at the camp who had left a job because he was being exploited, and one who was Occupying before the Occupy movement started (which I think was a euphemism). While I criticise the fact that the National Grid is a privately owned monopoly, one Occupier lives on a boat and doesn’t use the damned grid.
Fact three: Look at me – my parents paid for me to learn three musical instruments at school; I had the time and the resources available to me in order to read and know what Anarcho-Syndicalism is and how the state of Athens was run. When I sat down at the Occupyers’ table and accepted their hospitality there was a moment when I realised ‘Oh, they expect me to put my leather satchel down on the muddy grass!’ Maybe Lex doesn’t know what a perfect democracy is because he had to work to support himself, and who cares whether the Anarcho-Syndicalist doesn’t know what Anarcho-Syndicalism is when we are both against the system, but only one of us is part of it. I asked one of them how they would distribute wealth and they did not know, maybe because they were caught up trying – to quote Carl Lewis – ‘to get bread’. The fact that I can express my answer in six words: ‘to each according to their needs’, may be more a reflection of my plentiful leisure time than my political efficacy.
So we have a dichotomy. These people who are against the system don’t have the knowledge of how to change it. I would not want them to run a government nor would I want to live in a society built along their lines. We’ve ended up in a situation where the people who have the knowledge of different ways in which to run the system are a product of the system; whereas the Birmingham Occupiers who want to alter it are without the knowledge necessary to make effective change. If those in power want to remain where they are, they would benefit from maintaining this situation.