Monday, 16 July 2012

The Reluctant Protestor

Now that the Occupy Movement seems to have died down, or, rather, now that the majority of commercial media seems to have grown bored of it, this summer seems a pertinent time to use that distance as a point for reflection. I remember, last winter, when Occupy set up camp at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, echoing the protests of those outside St. Paul’s and Wall Street.
For many, they were a figure of fun; washed-out hippies to be sneered at by passers-by on their way out of the Metro station. For others, the ‘core’ group, it seemed, acted as a catalyst for splinter movements of varying dispositions: from students in Che Guevara t-shirts to the city’s homeless, if there was one thing Occupy did well it was to provide an alternative sphere of congress within the super sphere of commercial life and ‘normality’ that tried, and succeeded, in going on around it.

I was working at a large, national bookselling chain opposite the protesters’ camp almost throughout its brief history. On lunch breaks in the staff room, we often heard various projected protests, as disgruntled people chanted into megaphones and tried, despite the rain and cold, to reclaim a little piece of the city. A criticism which has been directed at the Occupy protestors, and there are many, is that the Movement is undermined by a lack of clear goals. I’ve read and agreed with many deconstructions of the ‘we are the 99%’ slogan – of which this is the best – and a large part of me does agree with the people who said that their protests were futile because they sought an abstract absolution; some total revolution which was going to swiftly replace all the evils that those bankers did with sunshine and rainbows, complete, presumably, with golden pots of money to be redistributed Robin Hood style to the taxpayer.

But the part of me that wasn’t swept away by point of sale and conversion forecasts said otherwise. While perhaps there are various, easy blows to be aimed at the protesters, it somehow seems to me, now that I’m out of that job and can view the period with more objectivity, that what went on at the foot of Grey’s Monument last winter was, in the long term, probably far more important than the Christmas sales targets of the large, national bookseller. The 16 year old punk-rocker within me would have empathised, albeit far less cogently, with the ethos of the protesters, but 16 year old selves must evolve and sitting in the freezing rain in the middle of Newcastle in December is not for this 23 year old graduate. In a sense, this is rather sad and all too typical a condition of working, however briefly, in retail (and indeed within the consumer-capitalist society we inhabit).

A band I used to listen to tirelessly at that ‘16 year old punk-rocker’ stage was Rise Against. Their politically sharp lyrics, combined with a reckless sense of optimism in the face of an unjust world, all over the top of soaring riffs and machine-gun drums, were what formed and challenged some of the core beliefs I had, and, in some cases, still have. While I accept that a 16 year old’s perspective is necessarily bound up in being influenced a little too easily by alternative music and culture, and is arguably not to be trusted, I somehow resent my 16 year old self and the gung-ho approach to making things right that I thought I could embody. That same attitude was apparent in the Occupy Protesters. But I had bills to pay, an overdraft to get out of, a future to save for – it would have been, if nothing else, a forced anachronism on my part to pretend I still burned with the same fury.

Funny, then, that on listening to the new Rise Against album, Endgame, (released 8 years after Revolutions Per Minute, the album which inspired much of my teen angst above), the first lines should be: ‘Are there no fighters left here anymore? Are we the generation we’ve been waiting for? Or are we patiently burning, waiting to be saved?’ I don’t think I need to give any further explanation on that one.

The author and public speaker Charles Eisenstein – whose humility and insight in broaching the ‘big issues’ is genuinely refreshing – offers [though I am shoe-horning his comments to fit this retrospective narrative] a gentle reminder of the true purpose of the movement: to bear witness and tell the truth. ‘The physical presence of the Occupiers’, Eisenstein writes, ‘allows them to bring truths to public awareness, to speak the unspoken, because unlike words on a screen they do not go away without confrontation.’

That ‘bear witness’ speaks to the me of 2012 in a big way. In my last blog, I complained about poetry’s tendency to avoid political discourse. I agree with those who say political poetry should not be preachy, but the opposite – not even tackling the issues – is surely worse. While I’m not the same person I was when I was 16, and while you’ll probably not find me camped outside a monument next time a protest kicks up, you will, I hope, find me attempting poetry which seeks simultaneously to question, chronicle and make sense of these bizarre, infuriating and hugely interesting times in which we live. And I aim to embrace some of the contradictions and hypocrisies I’ve considered above, mashing my own quirks and flaws into the varying political discourses that surround these strange times. Auden said, ‘All  I have is a voice’. Sometimes, a voice is all you need to have.

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