Thursday, November 24, 2011

While You Were Sleeping

The Occupied Times Nov 16 2011

Thefts, drunken abuse, paranoid schizophrenics, argumentative bankers, copious amounts of coffee and plenty of pacing is all in a night’s voluntary work for one of the toughest roles in the OccupyLSX movement.

The Tranquillity Team – also known as Night Watch – is made up of a variety of occupiers who stay up all night to keep a beady eye on what’s going on around the camp. They pace around, keep in touch over radios and try to calm down any trouble that may be brewing.

I joined the team for a few shifts – on a Monday and a Friday – and soon realised it is a tiring, frustrating and dangerous role. But someone has to do it.

I attached myself to Antonio Maniscalco an Italian chef who alternates between tranquillity and kitchen duties. He is dedicated to the movement; is highly intelligent, compassionate and a natural at resolving conflicts and keeping the peace – the point of the role.

Antonio moved around groups loitering on the St Paul’s steps, in the tea tent and around the kitchen with ease. He is well liked, and spoke well of the people he was trying keep safe.

His main tactic was to “keep people relaxed.”

He urged everyone to “behave, be respectful and civilized.”

On the Monday, between 10pm and 6am there were always at least six people on the lookout, and the problems came from people who were not camping at St Paul’s but hanging around the area – some with the sole intent of causing trouble.

There was a group of young men spotted rummaging through people’s tents, trying to steal clothing and sleeping bags, they were quickly surrounded by Tranquillity as well as curious campers, and when they realised they would be intensely watched all night, skulked away from the camp.

Later on, there was an old man, with a hacking cough, wrapped in a shawl and carrying a staff. At varying points he was aggressive, dismissive and nonsensical to the Tranquillity volunteers.

He demanded Antonio organise a meeting with two campers the man had met earlier, so he could discuss meeting government officials and starting his own march.

He later asked for a taxi to be called to take him to a hospital, but it needed to bring him some ecstasy first. His final request, at about 3am was for Tranquillity to arrange a date for him with a 16-year-old girl he met earlier that day.

Antonio tried to offer the man, who was clearly in desperate need of medical attention, a place to sleep but he was not interested, and eventually moved on.

With not enough numbers and no one with experience on how to deal with the man’s delusions, there was nothing Tranquillity could do.

I also joined the team on a bustling Friday night, when there were rumours flying around of an English Defence League (EDL) infiltration, so numbers were beefed up after a call out at the General Assembly for more volunteers.

Despite the anticipation, the night was relatively quiet, made up of what is becoming the usual antics of a Friday night at St Paul’s; bankers and city workers on their way home from after-work drinks trying to instigate arguments with campers, people more aligned with the movement letting loose at the free concert by the St Paul’s steps, and others getting drunk and rambling to each other in the tea tent.

Antonio was pleased it was an easy night, as the one before certainly wasn’t – last Thursday one of the volunteers had been repeatedly assaulted, and had clothes stolen from his tent while other Tranquillity members had to try and defend the kitchen from campers’ drunken rummaging.

Tranquillity members that I spoke to all agreed it was excessive drinking that was making their roles difficult, and that was what made a division between those camping out to make a change, and those camping out to party.

“Seventy to eighty percent of the people here believe in the movement, but the rest have no idea, and should party elsewhere,” Antonio said.

They had been repeatedly called fascists last Thursday night, also a typical occurrence.

Military veteran Matthew Horne said when he was on Tranquillity duties he often came up against people who deemed the group as another form of authority to oppose.

“They need to realise that no matter what society you want to live in, no matter where you go in the world there will always be a need for a form of security or a police force, this isn’t something new it dates right back to the dawn of humanity, even in the animal kingdom.

“There are threats out there, it’s always better to have an alert system in place, if that means having people walking around at night with a radio in communication with each other, then so be it.”

Two nights with Tranquillity and it was pretty clear something had to change, there were people who could not hold their alcohol and got aggressive from it, and there were also people flocking to the camp for lack of a better option, and they needed help.

This is a sentiment many in the camp are aware of, and are trying to address.

Occupier Alison Playford is one of them. She is involved with the new welfare centre set up at St Paul’s – the centre aims to deal with all the issues I witnessed while with Tranquillity. When the centre is better established, it will provide help for Tranquillity as they patrol the camp.

Alison said the centre was set up to deal with peoples’ mental well-being, from stressed out campers to those who come to the occupation suffering mental illness, addiction or homelessness problems.

I visited the centre on a Wednesday afternoon when there was a counsellor and homoeopathist on site, waiting to help anyone who may need it. They were but two of the many who responded to a call out for health service providers to offer their expertise to the camp.

The centre was working on having counsellors, clergy and other service providers available around the clock.

Alison said as soon as they had the numbers they would support Tranquillity with remedying situations and getting people the help they desperately need.

She, like so many others I have spoken to at OccupyLSX, was aware the movement has become a beacon for London’s vulnerable and disaffected, but, unlike wider society, this community did not want to ignore them.

“We are supposed to be the change we want to see… an inclusive society that protects its vulnerable members and that’s what we are trying to do.”