Monday, February 27, 2012

Artless protest? Or a disappointing protest that hasn't yet occupied the agenda of the public or the church?

Masked Occupy Belfast protester outside Belfast City Hall

Despite being critical of Occupy Belfast’s media strategy over the past few months, I’m still disappointed when they respond to Peter Robinson’s jibe about their “artless protest” with a press release.

Occupy Belfast would like to take this opportunity to say that we will not be going away and will be relentless in our campaign to expose the hypocrisy and spin emanating from the charade on the hill.

At the NI Assembly Business Trust’s event last Thursday evening, the First Minister had a small go at Occupy Belfast before aiming both barrels at the local media:

At times like this, when society is struggling to break the grip of the worst recession for two generations, there is far more to be gained by contributing intelligent opinion to informed thinking than by occupying major buildings in our towns and cities in artless protest. For it is only when we all pull together as a team that we will turn recovery into a reality. [Peter Robinson at NIABT]

Press release or imaginative, headline grabbing performance art. Guess I can’t have it both ways?

Occupy Belfast started out in tents in Writer’s Square opposite St Anne’s Cathedral and running small scale protests before boldly moving into the disused Stock Exchange building that had once been the Bank of Ireland headquarters.

I was going to write that I have two disappointments with the overall Occupy movement. But perhaps, it’s more that I’ve learnt two things from the Occupy movement in Belfast and beyond.

Firstly, anarchy isn’t a very fertile breeding ground for a well thought out and incisive message that influences large numbers of people and changes attitudes. And neither is anarchy disappointed at slow progress and minimal impact: the drip drip approach is quite acceptable.

Taking over the old Stock Exchange Building has been the most talked about thing that Occupy Belfast have done. It briefly grabbed headlines. It gave them an opportunity to explain themselves on Nolan and Talkback. And then the loose collective and “The People’s Bank” faded from public notice. Where are the public meetings that involve voluntary sector organisations already working in areas that concern Occupy: housing, employment, education?

If anything, the First Minister’s criticism has given the group oxygen that may lead to publicity, rather than them creating their own spotlight, despite being a stone’s throw from the offices of two of Belfast’s three daily newspapers.

Secondly, churches have mostly been very unimaginative in their response to Occupy. In the case of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, their response was bumbling and ham-fisted. When the Writers’ Square camp was in full swing, I heard Occupy Belfast representatives speak warmly about their relationship with St Anne’s Cathedral.

We are ordinary people who can no longer stand by while our futures are stolen from us, while house repossessions sky-rocket, while the chance of ever finding a job dissipates, while higher education becomes the preserve of the rich. [tonight’s statement from Sean Matthews, Occupy Belfast]

But did that church – as well as all the others around it in Belfast – not miss a trick by ignoring the camp on their doorstep. Without being clich├ęd, did they not ask What Would Jesus Do? The Gospels are full of Jesus speaking about the poor? Poor in spirit, poor in health, poor in wealth, poor in societal standing.

When Occupy Belfast was feeding turkey to the homeless on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, where was the church? When the service of Nine Lessons and Carols finished, why didn’t the choir walk down the aisle, out the door, down the steps and over the road to bring some impromptu Christmas cheer to the Occupy camp? Where was the hastily thrown together programme of talks and debates looking at the themes being raised by the camp, nearly all of which chime with core Christian values?

We are people who still have hope but why should we be held to ransom by the greed and crimes of the 1%. They didn’t share the wealth so why should we share the pain? But when we hope, we do not do it blindly. We know that a new society can only be created by the mass action of the working class. [Sean Matthews, Occupy Belfast]

Hope. That used to be something churches and the Christians in them spoke about.

(cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole)

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