The rise and fall of Occupy Dame Street

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

ON THE MORNING OF Thursday, March 8th, Saoirse Bennett was sitting in the Occupy Dame Street kitchen, chatting to a member of Occupy Cork, when the Garda moved in.

“We were being forcibly removed, and I was actually picked up and chucked out,” the 18-year-old says. Bennett and other protesters in the camp that night say they were removed by a group of unidentified people in balaclavas, and that uniformed Garda arrived at the scene only after this initial encounter. The Garda Press Office says it will not comment on an official operation.

One week earlier, the Garda had asked the occupiers, a group of about 20 people that had dwindled steadily since early January, to dismantle the camp for the St Patrick’s Day Festival.

Bennett is a political activist who has been part of Act for Palestine since she was 15 and spent four months in Egypt last year, visiting Tahrir Square and hearing people chant for freedom. She and her father joined the Occupy movement when the protest began and are two of the small group still sleeping outside the Central Bank, despite the dismantling of the camp.

“I don’t want us to be violent but the Irish are meant to be a rebellious people and at the moment everyone is trying to protect themselves because people are suffering. I really don’t know how we’re going to change things, but I felt the camp was creating awareness,” she says.

“I honestly think we picked the worst time of year to do it,” says Steven Bennett, who with his daughter negotiated for the return of the camp’s possessions at Pearse Street Garda station last week, after some 70 people marched to demand that personal items taken during the dismantling of the camp be given back.

Since then, some 15 to 20 members of Occupy Dame Street have held “general assemblies”, a consensus-based meeting that follows a strict formula, to talk about future.

Founding members who have now broken from the movement say that as soon as the camp was established on October 8th, success became an impossibility. This was due to a conflict between those for whom physical occupation of the site was a core principle, and those who wanted to create a nationwide movement.

The day after the group was ordered to leave, Rob Dunlop, a 26-year-old DIT student and member of Irish Democracy Now, sat in Sweeney’s pub across the road from the camp. The pub had become a place of respite for the occupiers since October and people could often be seen brushing teeth and sprucing up in bathrooms or huddled around tables deep in conversation. It was here they set up a projector to reflect the national debt on the façade of the Central Bank in the first few days.

“There’s a massive divide between people who are there part-time, those who sleep there and those who have nowhere else to go,” says Dunlop, a director of the Dublin Food Co-op. He wanted to take the camp down for duration of the St Patrick’s Festival, but his idea was rejected at a meeting of Occupy Dame Street members the night before the Garda raid.

Dunlop had spent time at the camp since its foundation, and watched as numbers fell and organised groups disbanded over Christmas. During this period, he says, threats of violence against the camp from drunken members of the public increased.

Dunlop, who donated a yurt tent from his own business to the camp, says the mood and rules changed during December when conflict developed between those who were available for shorter hours, such as students, people with jobs or family responsibilities, and those who were able to occupy the camp full-time.

“It became like a place with cabin fever where those who could leave were thought of as not being truly involved,” he says.

In the early days, the camp established working groups to direct actions, and deal with finances and security. A “safer spaces” policy was drawn up to protect those staying there, but these structures had fallen apart.

Dave Johnson, an IT professional and business owner, arrived at the Dame Street camp on the first day, but quickly identified weaknesses in the organisation. He says that, unlike in Occupy Wall Street where the camping was seen as a job taken in shifts, Dame Street had no rota. And while in Greece occupiers spent only three to four days on site before taking a break, this idea never properly took hold in Dublin.

Johnson took three months off work to support the occupation but ended his involvement in December due to job commitments and dissatisfaction with the camp’s ability to move forward.

Willim Abrook (23), an event organiser and music promoter, said the atmosphere at the camp late last year became like a competition to see who was most dedicated. He believes the consensus principle, whereby all decisions were taken at general assemblies, worked in political decisions, but not when it came to practical daily issues.

“It was like if we didn’t have a meeting to decide whether the bucket was red or blue people got angry,” he says.

By late November, many of the people who had expertise in activism and organisation had abandoned camp. Some of them wanted to move participation out into communities; others, the permanent occupiers, wanted to focus efforts on the Central Bank site as a symbol of resistance.

When those interested in the wider movement planned direct-action protests, they found it difficult to gain support. In January, they planned an occupation of the old Anglo Irish Bank headquarters on St Stephen’s Green, but only a small group of members turned up.

“There was a big meeting about it. We said we would all do it together, but there was no coherent group of people there. The working groups started to collapse around then too,” says Abrook.

Prof Helena Sheehan of DCU, now in her fifth decade of activism, was involved in the Occupy Dame Street movement in its first three months. She says problems were obvious from the second day.

“There were structural problems between camp and movement. I argued all along it should be a movement for those with jobs, with kids and complicated lives – not just those free to camp.”

Sheehan set up the “Occupy University” onsite, with talks by economists, journalists and activists, to educate people who had never participated in activism before.

“Many members of the camp who stayed on site did not always attend; they didn’t want to educate themselves on activism,” she says.

Dame Street was alive with general assemblies and public participation in the early days of the movement. Working groups were established to deal with direct-action initiatives, such as marching, educating the public, giving out flyers, creating media, treasury and security teams.

In the initial days, some members say they were collecting several hundred euro a day on Dame Street and sometimes much more.

A proposal to co-organise a pre-Budget march with the Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) in late October was blocked by a small group of members and caused an early split.

“We were having some really acrimonious general assemblies around that time, particularly when the trade unions invited us to take part,” says Sheehan. “Some people had the idea 2011 was like day one, the invention of the wheel. They lacked historical context.

“In the beginning [Occupy] was a genuine grassroots movement. People were really angry and felt their world had been stolen from them and they wanted to steal it back.”

But, she says, divisions opened between those who stayed all the time in the camp and those who came only when they could. “There was an anti-intellectualism and a disregard for the established left,” she says.

“At one stage, a very young woman told a trade unionist to disband and join Occupy. I was trying to provide a way to educate people on activism to avoid nonsense like this.”

Early this year, along with some of the original members of Occupy Dame Street, Sheehan moved on to other groups such as Unlock Nama. She says the group, whose aim is to gain access to and publish details of properties whose loans are controlled by the National Assets Management Agency, is one of the many positive things that came from the first occupation.

Bennett, a committed permanent camp occupier, says he was happy that the involvement of the DCTU was stopped and that the movement remained detached from conventional political affiliation.

“My experience with activism in Dublin is that it’s very controlled by political parties, and that was one of the hardest things to get rid of in the beginning.”

He adds that groups such as the Socialist Worker’s Party packed general assemblies with friends and families, creating hostility. “I mean they tried to use us as a platform . . . but they were not part of Occupy.”

Outside the Central Bank, four days after the camp’s demise, Liam Mac An Bháird, a 27-year-old Galway man and one of the most vocal members of the remaining group, addresses 20 people gathered in general assembly.

“When the camp was active, there was no constant Garda presence; now there are Garda here every day. People are fighting to be free, people have the right to make their own decision. This is only the beginning.”

Now they talk of today, St Patrick’s Day, as a day of protest when they could, as one person puts it, “lift the shiny idea of all being well”.

“We’ve planned an event for 10 o’clock on St Patrick’s Day, and other groups are planning direct action too,” says Bennett. “I think the destruction of the camp was important; it was part of the process and made us realise we needed to get more organised and reflective for this to work.”