Drums beat deeply all around me as people congregate for The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope. Face-painted and costume-clad performers run through carefully crafted renditions, eager children hold large replica tombstones above their heads bearing the names of the community projects they are defending. Julian Brophy reports from The Spectacle of Defiance.
As The Spectacle engages in a “mic-check” show of solidarity with the #OccupyDameStreet (#ODS) camp outside the central bank, I feel a deep sense of interconnection between the two. An aggregation of individuals fighting what is essentially the same battle. Many of them have not previously been involved in anything like this. As party-political promises have miserably failed them, opposition becomes necessary. They have broken with tradition and redefined protest. Both elicit engagement, and ultimately success through a durational process.
Resisting harsh austerity measures that deprive communities of vital resources is not a new message, but how The Spectacle expresses it departs significantly from other protests; which tend to focus on sober marches, generic fliers and party banners.
The symbolism is everywhere; Marie Antoinettes on top of a colossal weighing-scale float throw cake at passers-by, a deep-toned soul band melodically chants a trance-inducing ‘Arise, Arise, Arise’, an orangey-red Phoenix-rising-out-of-the ashes float is pushed along vigorously by organisers.
The show of resistance amalgamates a number of community activists, varying types of artists and families from all around the capital. It also embodies the ardent hopes across communities for a more equitable future, and is boldly voiced in the wake of another austerity budget which exposes the inequities of our economic system even further.
A black-caped death-rider on a horse leads the demonstration and a monumental float carrying a 12 foot skull in a bowler hat follows shortly behind, accompanied by the sign “A Shower of Bankers”. Acrobats, stilt performers, children with heart-shaped placards and the blood-red-tinted crowd wash Dublin’s streets in a sea of electrifying fervour that screams: “Stop Tearing the Heart out of our Communities”.
This isn’t your usual protest or walk around the city. John Bisset, one of the main organisers explains “the concept behind The Spectacle is really about the reinvention of protest. Many of us have been on mind-numbing patriarchal protests in recent years. This sense of frustration fed into the development of The Spectacle eighteen months ago as a way of creatively articulating the dissent and discontent that people feel, but by trying to provide them with a frame within which they were co-creating the protest canvas themselves”.
Dublin rappers Street Literature and Temper-Mental MissElayneous end The Spectacle outside the GPO. Their gritty hip-hop touches on themes like growing up in broken housing estates and the widespread apathy induced by mainstream media brainwash.
The Spectacle emphasises cutbacks in specific community projects (such as Traveller’s Rights groups, the Ballymun and Crumlin youth centres, Rialto Drugs Team, Dublin Inner City Project), but #ODS envisages itself from its inception as the broadest community of resistance possible: that of the 99%.
Sharon, a woman who has been involved in #ODS from the very beginning explains that “the camp has taken inspiration from the revolutions of the Arab Spring and of course Occupy Wall Street. It’s a leaderless resistance movement and it’s about coming together as the 99%, or the vast majority of people who haven’t benefited from the global financial system”.
#ODS and The Spectacle share some obvious similarities: the desire to end corporate avarice and to change a broken political system, the need to reverse the devastating real-life effects that casino-capitalism has had on broader society, and putting an end to the domination of the majority by a powerful elite.
There are also some deeper structural and thematic commonalities that the two share.
Both #ODS and The Spectacle are bred out of a dissonance with the political system and comprise, on the ground, a broad range of individuals who are not your traditional lefty activist. Whilst this is somewhat expected for Spectacle of Defiance goers and organisers, it comes as more of a surprise for the layer of people involved in #ODS.
Sharon says “there’s a really big diversity of people involved, myself, I’m a self-employed contractor, people with jobs who are coming here before and after work, on weekends. People who are unemployed. There’s families, people who have been staying here with their children. There’s people who have been homeless.” She adds “there’s folks with dreadlocks, but there’s also people in suits” and chuckles.
Frustrated populations across the world have vented their anger at centres of political power by holding one day marches or strikes that had ultimately done little to bring about permeating dialogue about long-lasting change. This was until the Indignados movement in Spain, the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and the #Occupy movement that mushroomed its way across the globe.
Like these, #ODS and The Spectacle share a congenital emphasis on process, not protest.
The #Occupy movement has been criticised by mainstream media for lacking clear solutions that can heal the world’s injuries fast. But it is short-sighted to expect a new-born grassroots movement to come up with snappy clear-cut solutions when it effectively aims to completely rewrite the rules of our social system.
Finbar, a philosophy PhD student from Dundalk who has been camping on Dame Street since day one (and is wearing six layers of clothing to protect him from the cold) says “This isn’t just a flag waving protest, we have general assemblies here where there is participatory consensus decision making. We have ordinary people, economists and academics who take part in the “Occupy University” everyday. It’s an educational and discussional forum where the public can come to learn about our natural resources, direct democratic processes, community activism, historical movements of resistance, alternative economics and so on. The educational forum is very important”.
Contemporary anti-capitalist movements have had difficulty incorporating the realm of the deeply-personal in an adequate way, as big picture politics has concealed distinct real life experiences.
The #Occupy movement has successfully managed to bring the personal to the forefront of the political, collating tangible and touching individual experiences as the voices of the 99%. Thousands of photos of people holding cardboard “Bleak personal story about no future prospects and how I have been screwed over by the system. I am the 99%” signs have done the rounds of the Internet.
One of the main features of The Spectacle is the Book of Grievances and Hopes, a collection of personal accounts of hardship and desire for change submitted by the public. John explains that the principal idea behind The Book “is that these statements can act as a tool for political change but also as some sort of a record of the grievances people have at this time in Irish history. We have the word of experts, but there is very little on the record from ordinary people.”
Any act of resistance to power structures bears its challenges. The message of the 99% is momentous. But how do you persuade the 98% who aren’t currently involved to participate in a movement of defiance with the needed degree of activity and enthusiasm? Will these processes garner the level of understanding and engagement needed to change the broken system around us?
These are important questions, but it is premature to try and answer them now. We simply do not know where this process will end or what it will produce. But by being at The Spectacle, and by spending time at the #ODS camp, a glimmer of light in dark times may be arising. Through a deeply personal feeling of shared discontent, people may be realising that real power lies within the collective ability to reclaim one’s future.