Occupy Sheffield

Sheffield, England (January 2012)

Occupy Sheffield is an encampment of about 40 tents in the forecourt of a prominent cathedral in downtown Sheffield. Ajax and I are in Sheffield for the British Junior Squash Open, a tournament that attracts young squash players from around the world despite the fact that it is held in Sheffield in the middle of the dreary Yorkshire cold rainy gray January. Ajax is playing in the Under 13 Division and he has won his last match against a boy from the Czech Republic. It is late and we are hungry and looking for a warm restaurant,

We walk through the cold rainy gray Sheffield streets and pass the encampment, huddled and battened down in front of the cathedral.  There was not much action. In fact it looks as if everyone has gone to bed. There are no visible lights inside the tents. It is a miserable 3 block walk through the rain to the restaurant and I think that it must be miserable to occupy Sheffield at this time of year. In Yorkshire, the occupiers are made of stern stuff.

I think of that Monty Python routine with four Yorkshiremen remembering their childhood tribulations.

The first says, “Oh we had it hard, we lived in a shoebox.”

The second goes one better, “Well, we lived in a rolled up newspaper.”

The third: “A newspaper? Ay, a newspaper was a luxury. We lived in a hole in the ground and our father used to kill us every night and then beat us afterwards…”

*          *          *

Turns out that Occupy Sheffield is a Potemkin Village. There are 40 or so tents but only about 10 occupiers. And of those, only 5 are spending the nights.  Joe Tanner is one of them.

Joe has been occupying Sheffield since November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day. He is a tall, Liam Neeson-looking fellow, straightforward and direct in answering our questions. He smiled and welcomed us as we walked up to the encampment on our way home from dinner. He was about the only sign of life in the encampment. He said he was on “Zombie Patrol.” From the signs all around that say that Occupy Sheffield is a “Safer Space: No Alcohol and No Drugs,” I take him to mean that he is keeping the encampment safe from drunken or stupefied members of the homeless community who would come squat in the encampment or walk off with items stored there.

Ajax and I stood with him in the cold dreary rainy Sheffield night and he talked earnestly about Occupy Sheffield and the Occupy movement in England. He would favorably impress any job interviewer. He has lived in Sheffield for the last 10 years. He is out of school and has a full time job. He occupies after work and is proud of the effort he is making to help influence the world. He explains that holding an occupation is hard with a full time job. About half of the Sheffield group are full time employed and it makes it hard for them to be as active as they would like. It also makes it hard for them to pursue all the initiatives they would like. He is eager to hear about the encampment in New York and the organization it had before the police broke it up. He liked hearing about the bicycle generating clean power at the encampment. He wished there were more people at the site so they could get stuff like that going.

The City of Sheffield has so far supported the protest. The City Council issued a statement that recognized the importance of the protest and joining some of the principles of the Occupy movement. Sheffieldians have brought food and donations. The priest that runs the cathedral has been less supportive. In his view the protest is a waste of energy that could be used in active volunteerism to aid the poor and the hungry, which is another way of saying that he doesn’t like squatters on the front courtyard of his cathedral.

Occupy Sheffield is also occupying an abandoned Salvation Army building in Sheffield. The building has sat empty and derelict since 1999. This is more controversial than the occupation of the Cathedral forecourt but, as Joe points out, it is winter in Sheffield and it is cold. Also there isn’t a proper space for people to get together and talk. They need indoor space, heated indoor space, although it can’t be the only space because it isn’t visible, it doesn’t send the message of the occupation to every person who walks by.

*          *          *

There is a Christmas tree, a large Christmas tree, at the center of the encampment and several occupiers spent Christmas there. The tree is decorated with handmade ornaments and there are messages and signs all around. While Joe and I talked, Ajax wandered around the encampment reading the signs.

“Dad, are we part of the 99%?” Ajax asked.

“I guess it depends on how you measure it. You travelled to Britian for a squash tournament. Not many families have the resources a to be able to do something like that,” I say.

Joe jumps in. “I read that if you measure it on a worldwide basis, if you have 500,000 pounds you are part of the 1%.”

“How much is that?” Ajax asks.

I do the conversion for him. Then I say, “I tend to think that it is more about what you do than about what you have.”

Joe nods amiably, probably more from a desire to avoid disagreement with a father in front of his 12-year old son than from a shared view on the issue.

Ajax keeps his own counsel.

I think of my friend David’s Christmas card this year that has photos of his family photoshopped into the backdrop of a picture of an Occupy encampment. The card says “Occupy Christmas” in big Christmas letters at the top of the photo. Each member of the family is holding a protest sign. Leena and the three kids are on the left side of the card holding signs that say “99%” and they have the beautiful holiday smiles that typically accompany holiday photo cards. David is on the far right side of the card, also holding a sign. His says “1%” and he has a holiday smile that doesn’t completely conceal a smirk.

*          *          *

In one of those types of stories that run in the papers in the dead week between Christmas and New Years – among all the lists of Best and Worst and what’s In and Out – was a report on some self-appointed council that annually selects the 30 words that should be banished from the English language based on misuse, overuse, and actual abuse. I notice that “occupy” makes the list.

*          *          *

Joe says that there are 40 occupations in England. Sheffield is going to host a convention of all the English occupations in the next month. You can tell Joe is proud of that. The reasons are the same as I heard in New York and in Philadelphia and in San Francisco. Big banks. Corporatism. The Haves having too much.

Ajax finds a statistic on one of the signs that he can believe, “Dad, this says that 85% of the people in the world make less than one and half pounds a week. Is that right?”

“I don’t know. Could be.”

“That isn’t fair.”

Joe looks at me and says, “he gets it,” and he gives me a big smile.

I take a picture of him and Ajax in the dripping Yorkshire night with the Christmas tree and Port-A-Potty behind them. We shake hands and Ajax and I walk off to our room in the Hotel Leopold, anxious to get out of the weather. Joe turns back to the encampment. I am guessing that  he will stay up a while longer on Zombie Patrol and then crawl into his tent and listen the Yorkshire rain rat-a-tat on the nylon before he goes to sleep, occupying Sheffield.

Jay Duret