It was less than twenty-four hours between yesterday’s visit to the Edinburgh occupation and my first trip there today, but it was obvious that a lot had changed during that time. The site looked neater, and was a flurry of activity as activists worked to establish
a semipermanent presence in the park. As of my departure from the site tonight, there were sixteen tents in St. Andrew Square. A gazebo has been set up to house food preparation, a garbage depot sits nestled up against the Henry Dundas monument, and tonight the first general assembly struck committees to handle outreach, media, cleanup, food, living space and safety. What I kept noticing more than anything else today was just how little the Occupy Edinburgh gathering fits the stereotype that many seem to have for the occupy movement. Accordingly, I’m going to devote this post to a few anecdotes from the day, as counterexamples against some common misconceptions.
Myth 1: The Occupiers are Lazy
If there are any work-shy, sedentary hippies involved in the occupation then I have yet to meet any of them. Today the park resembled nothing if not a work site. Spontaneous work parties had formed to hang banners, set up tents, and arrange food. Not all of the jobs undertaken were glamorous, either. Garbage and general site cleanup were all attended to by dedicated, self-organizing groups of volunteers. I pitched in to help hoist a banner up the Dundas piller-a task that took a great deal of thought and cooperation and at least two hours of work. The atmosphere there was one of general business. You couldn’t help pitching in if you were there. Nearly everybody there was smart, creative, pleasant, cooperative and hardworking-all qualities that make for good employees. So don’t believe any of the stories about work-shy hippies.
Myth 2: The Occupiers Hate the Police
After several false-starts and failed attempts, the four or five of us that were working on hanging the banner were finally ready to hoist it. I took my position in front of the monument to coordinate the others who were pulling it up the two sides, and I took some pride as I saw it finally ascend and unfurlitself, to the applause of a few onlookers at a nearby cafe. Just then, a police officer came up to me.
“I’m afraid that under civic code 3568 you can’t have a banner up that says take the streets” he said. I was immediately torn. I knew that our presence there depended on the goodwill of the Edinburgh Police Force, so I didn’t want to start a confrontation. On the other hand, I was a bit frustrated that we might have to take the banner down after so much work. I decided to negotiate.
“What if we took it down and covered that wording with tape?” I said.
“Well, that might work, except that you can’t have yellow lettering on a banner” the officer replied. I stuttered a bit, not sure what to make of that. A few people had gathered nearby to listen to the conversation, and a bit of tension was beginning to build.
“Or maybe I’m just bullshitting you” he finally said, laughing. “I thought it would be funny to wait until you’d finally managed to get the banner up there, then tell you to take it down. There’s no problem” I breathed a sigh of relief and everybody around had a good laugh, mostly at my expense. This kind of interaction characterizes the relationship between Occupy Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Police Force much more than any other. The police are mostly good-natured people who may or may not agree with our cause, but are universally committed to treating us with respect and professionalism. The occupiers respond by heeding the police’s instructions, and doing everything possible to make their job easier. That doesn’t necessarily mean the police are universally trusted, but they are certainly afforded a great deal of kindness and respect.
Myth 3: The Occupiers are Disorganized
There is no leader of Occupy Edinburgh, just as there is no leader of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Toronto, or Occupy London Stock Exchange. This entire global movement is a leaderless of mass of people expressing a frustration with the way the global financial and political elite have treated their countries’ social services in the wake of the global financial crisis. In Occupy Edinburgh’s first general assembly, we had a facilitator but his position was one of service rather than leadership. This did not stop us, howe
ver, from generating a remarkable amount of consensus from the spontaneous discussion he moderated. A non-hierarchical yet surprisingly efficient structure emerged from the meeting, and I expect that it will only improve with time. Whether the energy present in St. Andrew Park will be translated into impetus for real political and economic change remains to be seen, but I’m optimistic.
Occupy Edinburgh, like its counterparts around the world, far from being a loose gaggle of lazy, directionless rabble-rousers, is quickly becoming a political force to be contended with. Whether this can be