Continue the Occupations!

July 24, 2009

I’ve just got back from a public meeting about the Vestas occupation at the University of London Union. It was an inspiring meeting, with energetic speeches from Seamus Milne of the Guardian and Jonathan Neale of the Campaign Against Climate Change, who has been working closely with the Vista workers on the Isle of Wight and Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of the PCS.

The highlight of the meeting though, was an account given by Mark, one of the Vestas occupiers, who recounted how the company had floated promises of continued work, even as it forced longer shifts on its employees. He also told us that, until well after the Vestas workforce was told about their fate, there was little talk of resistance (it has, after all, been a barely unionized workplace all along).

Leafletting and solidarity from Workers Climate Action seems to have been crucial in making the leap from anger to resistance. Later, representatives from the Socialist Workers Party and the Campaign Against Climate Change have given advice and support, while trade unions and messages from members of the public have been crucial reservoirs of encouragement.

One interesting piece of information from Jonathan Neale was that he had received a text message from the Ssanyong workers in South Korea (see my earlier post) who wanted to contact the occupiers on the Isle of Wight. This is clearly a growing international movement, as the speakers stressed, and it is a source of great hope that this recession can produce the green and red shoots of social progress. The Guardian, by the way, has picked up on the whole “green and red” aspect of the Vestas occupation, which is good.

The spirit of occupation seems to be afoot across the Atlantic as well (with apologies to workers at Republic Windows and Doors). The New York Times has an interesting report on an attempted land invasion by New York activists which makes great reading:

Activists Arrested After Occupying East Harlem Lot

[A] purported fashion shoot was actually a ploy, intended to provide cover for a political protest, which by early evening resulted in at least 9 arrests.

As the model walked back and forth, trailed by a camera, two people holding a large green screen were shielding others who sliced through an eight-foot-tall, chain-link fence that separated the lot from the sidewalk. Then, at about 10:30 a.m., about 20 people entered the lot — which they said was owned by JPMorgan Chase & Company — and began transforming it. They constructed simple tents out of bright blue tarps. They assembled a wooden gazebo with a roof and a sign that read “A place to call home!” Soon, they were joined by others.

By 11, about 100 people were inside the lot, some playing musical instruments including bongos and guitars, others strolling through the lot picking up trash and placing it into plastic bags. More than two dozen police officers, in uniforms and in plainclothes, watched from 115th Street, some of them standing behind blue wooden sawhorses. By noontime, they had not made any attempt to eject the protesters.

…The action was organized by an advocacy group, Picture the Homeless, which occupied the lot as a protest, activists said, against the shortage of affordable housing. They said they were inspired partly by the “Hoovervilles,” the shanty towns and tent cities that emerged during the Depression, and partly by the Lower East Side squatters who occupied abandoned buildings in the 1980s.

A spokesman for Picture the Homeless, Tej Nagaraja, 28, from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, said the organization wanted to show that unused properties and vacant lots could be used to house the homeless and destitute.

“There’s a long history of homeless people and displaced people throwing together dwelling in public space,” he said. “Poor people can build a community and houses for themselves if they are given the opportunity.”

The occupation ended the same day as police moved in under orders from the owners of the plot, resulting in at least 9 arrests, but this is a heartening protest nonetheless.

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