Since October 15 and thanks to Occupy Wall Street, the movement has spread worldwide. Holland got contamined as well. It isn’t yet massive, but it’s rooting in various places.
Around fiteen cities and villages are said to be occupied. The most prominent acampadas are to be found in The Hague and Amsterdam.
After more than a week in which rain and the first hints of frost came peeping around the corner, both camps are still there, and growing. It was time for me to pay them a visit.
I had a kind of déja vu. More or less I recognised the stage of development of the two encampments. Things don’t seem to be totally fluid any more, they are taking form, but they can still easily be moulded.
In The Hague someone admitted that the occupiers are reinventing the wheel. They know hardly anything about what happened in Spain this spring. After Wall Street, people here just started camping for a better world. For me it makes it all the more interesting to see that, without really knowing each other, these spontaneous societies roughly organise themselves in a similar way on the basis of the same principles. Inclusiveness, non violence and direct democracy.
Apart from that, the differences and the cultural peculiarities are easy to spot.
In The Hague the camp is not on a square near parliament, but on a part of the central Malieveld meadow. From a historical point of view the karma of the place is not favourable. When the socialist leader Troelstra failed to spark a Dutch revolution in 1918, this is were the counterrevolution staged a grand patriotic hommage to the royal family.
Up until this weekend a part of the meadow was occupied by the circus. Now the encampment of around thirty tents drowns in space, with a view of central The Hague in the distance.
It’s monday morning. Occupy Den Haag looks clean and quiet. The tents are spread over differently sized lots delined by wooden sticks and ropes. This creates the paths of the village. There are toilet boxes and the camp is powered by a generator, although the first thing I hear is fervent talk about an ambitious solar energy project. On the perimeter of the camp you find a big army tent, a Communications tent, a small caravan used as Information point and a First Aid center.
The army tent is the meeting point. In the back there is a table with chairs and in the front the kitchen is installed. The penumbra, the blankets on the floor and the small plastic windows answer to the Dutch need for cozyness. When I come in, there is a meeting go on.
Half a dozen people are discussing about holding a census, about numbering the tents that were donated and indexing the people who sleep there. “We need to know who is where, and if everybody is well enough equiped against the cold. Especially when people are drinking, they risk undercooling.”
It perfectly fits the village atmosphere of people knowing and caring for each other. But it also borders closely on interference of the private space on the part of the community. Not surprisingly, the anarchists have their own autonomous tent.
I have noticed some other Dutch traits today. In The Hague the ‘polder’ model of patient and endless negotiation reigns supreme. People hold three assemblies a day. They call them ‘meetings’. Lately they were caught having a meeting to discuss whether to keep calling their meetings ‘meetings’ or not. The reason being that a meeting is usually presided over by someone. So maybe it would be more appropriate to call them ‘assemblies’.
Records are kept of each meeting, which have to be meticulously transcribed, corrected and published in time for the next meeting. So keeping up with all the red tape can take all day.
Still, there are enough people active outside meeting hours to get things moving. Several commissions have been formed, even though all issues are discussed in assembly. Next to Food, Cleanliness and First Aid there is an Art commission and the distinct commissions of Info, Pr, Media and Communications. They haven’t yet formed working groups on themes like Politics, Economy and Environment.
Like in other acampadas, there are also people with personal problems, heavy drinkers, homeless, and people who need help. Or maybe, camping out on the Malieveld together with committed citizens is just the environment they need.
I talk to one of the occupiers. He participates in the Kitchen, and in the Communications team doing livestream. He has been homeless for four years. “When you’re living on the streets you have to rely on your instinct of survival. It makes you a lot more inventive.” And he explains how you can make a saw or any tool in copper, with rubble you can find in the trash. “If this is going to be a real village”, he says, “then I want to be the blacksmith.”
Before I leave I pass by the army tent. Two elderly people are sitting in the back talking. They are content, or even relieved that they see people getting together and speaking out against the financial system.
“Finally”, one of them says, “it has begun.”
As I step out into the open, onto the meadow, I hear a voice calling after me. “When you go to Amsterdam, tell them to come over here. We still have some room left.”
It wasn’t just a joke. In Amsterdam they desperately need space. People are camping on the small square of the Stock Exchange, which is a side space of the grand Damrak avenue. The square is absolutely packed with tents. It’s a clear difference, where The Hague is a village, Amsterdam is a town.
It’s a lively place, too. A crossroads for tourists and outlandish locals, for businessmen and petty crooks. The square might be small, but it makes for a great scenery. Crammed in between the landmark Beurs van Berlage and the luxury department store of Byenkorf, the town is directly facing the entrance of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.
This is where the modern stock exchange first came into being, this was the financial capital of the early modern world in Holland’s golden age. The city has a bond with the former Dutch colony which was named after her and which is known today as New York. It makes it all the more symbolic that they are camping right on the steps of the Beurs.
Last week the occupiers rolled out the red carpet for the brokers and staged a sale of shares in love, peace and happiness. It was ludicrous enough to make the news. The movement has gained a lot of sympathy, both in the press and from the locals. The shopkeepers are happy with them and many of them support the initiative with donations of food, even the big chains. The city council leaves the occupiers alone as long as they keep the place clean and safe, and the police collaborates. Some will disagree, but the presence of a vital and colourful protest camp in the heart of the city is a blessing for the image of Amsterdam.
The occupation has been going on since the 13th, and it has been booming. A couple of days ago a grand urbanistic make-over was done to host all the tents in a more organised way.
The current layout of the camp is simple. There is one major artery that crosses the square. It’s the broad way. On either side of it there are so many tents that there is no room for little neighbourhood squares, and no room even to pass.
On all sides of the rectangle there are the community structures. The Information tent with public gathering space are on the side of the Beurs van Berlage. Along the stock exchange there are toilets, a generator, the Infrastructure commission and the Library. On the Byenkorf side there is the kitchen and the mysterious Media bunker, completely sealed off.
I was happy to meet various comrades from the marches to Brussels. Bobby and Maggie, my anarchist friends from San Francisco, tell me about one of the major problems of the camp. The lack of safety. At night, sinister types are roaming around the place looking for things to steal, and heavy drinking is being practised in the camp itself.
Lack of sense of safety leads to fear and suspicion. We have noticed that. A security force has been instituted, called the ‘peacekeepers’. They walk around with walkie talkies, and it seems some of them take their position very seriously. They might think it gives them some kind of authority over others. Various kinds of peacekeeping methods are being employed. From trying to convince trouble makers to be calm, to calling the police and have them be taken away.
Another of the problems Bobby spoke about was the apparent inaccessability for non Dutch speakers. They perceive the camp as being monopolised by the small core who took the initiative, described as being mainly white, dutch, male.
Typically, Dutch culture has never been dominated by strong monarchs, but by a class of wealthy merchants backed up by rigid calvinist morals. These are the ‘regents’, the people who you will find nameless on the obscure portraits of the Dutch masters. It almost sounds to me as if the culture of the regents has also perpetuated itself in Occupy Amsterdam.
Some of the Dutch occupiers deny this. In working group meetings, when non Dutch speakers are present, the language is English, and the General Assemblies are simultaneously translated in small groups. The people who seem to have divided the various nerve centers of the organisation among each other are same ones who have kept this thing going, day and night, for over a week. Still, there has been a lot of criticism from the inside about the lack of openness, especially of the Media center.
In any case, it wasn’t easy for Bobby and me to get access to the place. Bobby had never been inside since he got here. We had to become members of the Communication commission, we had to wade through procedures, we should have been required to call telephone numbers and even have a kind of job interview. Finally, by simply insisting, we entered. It wasn’t worth the effort. There was little there, most of the communications team had already been transferred off ground.
At dusk the General Assembly is celebrated in a corner of the square. Earlier on, a Basque comrade of mine, from the marches, had said we should try to explain these people how to hold an assembly. “They don’t take acts, they don take speaking turns. It’s crazy!”
I preferred to look on. First thing I notice, the assembly is not held in a circle. It’s a hemicircle facing the group of moderators, like parliament and government. The crazy thing, which I had never experienced before was that they use ‘the human microphone’. This means that people speak in short sentences, which are repeated by the entire assembly. To prepare people for this, someone shouts “Mike check!” for as long as it isn’t repeated loudly enough by the group.
It’s very awkward to hear people repeating every single thing a speaker or a moderator says, be it nonsense or not. But it has a clear advantage, which might just as well be a disadvantage in certain cases. Whenever a speaker starts to be annoying, or people don’t agree, the microphone simply fails, and the word goes to someone else.
I had to admit that the Assembly was very dynamic. It didn’t lose much time in details or conflict and it didn’t last too long. It was also carefully orchestrated. As I look at the two moderators, I have the odd feeling that I’m watching a cinematographic re-enactment of the very same thing I am watching. They seem to be actors. And this is full 3D with surround sound provided by the public.
The theme of the assembly is alcohol abuse and how to deal with this. I hear various propositions for rules, toleration time-slots and the like. The final decision that was pre-prepared by the moderation team, was that drinking should be limited to inside the tents.
It’s accepted unanimously, even before it is fully translated to some of the non Dutch speakers. One of them is just in time to object. He is visibly worried for interference in the sphere of personal freedom. He proposes that the peacekeepers do not get the right to enforce the decision.
It is accepted. People themselves will be responsable for not drinking out in the open.
It’s naive to say the least. The potential drinkers are probably absent in this assembly, like most people. And even if they weren’t, everybody knows that this rule will not be respected. I wouldn’t respect it myself. If I want to drink a beer on the steps of the Beurs van Berlage, I will do so.
It will create the familiar situation in which rules and practice do not comply. It will lead to something not exclusively Dutch called ‘tolerance’. And this is not a good thing, not at all. Tolerance implies arbitrary authority. It simply means to say this: ‘Your behaviour goes against the rules. And if you are allowed to continue to behave like this, it’s only because of my benevolence. So go on, but remember that I reserve the right to enforce the rules whenever I please.’
In Puerta del Sol, also, we had to cope with the problem of drinking. People made it very clear, from the very first moment that the ‘revolution is not raising a bottle’. And also there, it was collective responsability to contain the problem and convince trouble makers to take it easy. But without written rules. When people act collectively responsable on the subject, then the rules are superfluous.
In a society that feels threatened, the contrast between enforcement and control versus inclusion and collaboration becomes more acute. I have a feeling this same conflict is very present in the Amsterdam camp.
In conclusion, the important thing is that the presence on the Beursplein is strong and dynamic. In this respect, I was enchanted to know that they have a commission called Vision. And, just like in The Hague, the general feeling is that people are here to stay. They want to challenge the arrival of winter.
Authorities are tolerant of the situation because they are probably convinced it will not last. The cold, the rain and the frost will take care of it.
If the occupiers manage to keep camping in whatever condition, ‘at least until christmas’, they will have made a statement of force and perseverance. And if in the meantime they will be able to deal with their social problems and practical challenges, they will have fully merited respect.
For the moment, it’s growing, and spreading over other cities. In Amsterdam, you can hear people whispering that the occupiers might open a franchise on the majestic field of the Museumplein.