I recently took a trip to London, England, with a stop to the sleepy town of Bath. Bath was built about 100 miles west of London as a resort town by the Romans in AD 43 on top of one of the UK’s few thermal springs. The town looks like it was carved from a solid block of stone with grooves cut out for parks and trees to soften the Roman and Georgian architecture. Though on first glance it reeks of tourist trap, somewhere where no one actually lives and those who do bleed money, it has a population of almost 90,000 and two universities, along with several schools and colleges.
Behind those British men playing British sports in is the remnants of an overlooked Occupy movement: Occupy Bath. I wandered into the square to have a look, and chat with a few of the half-dozen people scattered among the tents. In stark contrast to the reports of stenches emanating from Zuccotti Park, the Bath encampment actually smelled wonderful–something was cooking in the ramshackle kitchen fixed in the middle of the tents, and because nearly everyone inside are locals, they are able to go home and use their bathroom or shower.
(I unfortunately did not have my notebook or a recording device on me, so I cannot quote directly. Anything in quotes is APPROXIMATELY what was said, and I wrote it in quotes for style reasons.)
A 50-something man with thick glasses and curly white hair was inside the kitchen, and I introduced myself. He extended his hand and introduced himself as Steve. He said they had been here since October 30, he himself was there since the beginning. I asked if their space is a public park and if they could be evicted; he said they plan to stay. I commented that I work near OWS, and the park is now empty after Bloomberg cleared it out. “I know, I read the news, I have the internet,” he said defensively. “Just wondering if you were worried about something like that,” I reassured. He started to look nervous.
I asked about a sign they had posted near the entrance to the square. The sign indicated that they support a Robin Hood Tax—does he support that? He indicated that he did not like the forcefulness of my questions. I was about to say that he should know what he stands for because a problem with OWS was that no one knew what it stood for, when a young, slim, brunette woman in an insulated vest walked up to the kitchen to hand off some supplies.
Leone, originally from France but a resident of the UK for almost a year, usually lives with her partner on a boat. She joined up with Occupy Bath about two weeks ago and was happy to talk to me. Steve walked away, and I told Leone about the problems that faced OWS (eviction, lack of leadership/a clear message, in-fighting, etc) and asked if Occupy Bath faced anything similar.
It does, but on a smaller scale. Zuccotti, especially toward its final days, divided itself into socio-political zones: anarchists here, socialists there, communists yonder, and hipster yuppies further up. In Bath, where the population and size of the protest are much smaller, Leone complained of one anarchist or communist who would talk loudly or overtake the meetings, or of one guy who was recently out of prison and had nothing to contribute except uncomfortable vibes. There was never any consensus, she lamented, so what could they as a group do?
Another problem the camp has is defectors. With such a small population to work from, even a single loss in the camp significantly weakens their force as a group. “Most are empty,” said Leone of the dozen or so tents up. “At night, there are maybe three people here. Everyone goes home.” When asked how much longer she would stick around, she replied that she might only stay a few days more.
Even though she was getting fatigued at the lack of results, the sleeping outside in the cold, and dealing with unsavory people from within and outside the camp, she was not deterred. What if nothing concrete happens, I asked? She was fine with that. “Even if nothing comes out of this, that doesn’t mean something won’t happen in the future. The movement will manifest itself in another way.”
As I walked away, I glanced back and saw Steve and a handful of other men sitting around a small fire pit. Their faced look ever so slightly downtrodden, like the tools at their disposal to fight against the 1% were useless–as if sitting around a park all day in a town with no connection to the financial industry (except that many of the 1% live in multi-million dollar apartments in Bath) or notable seats of power was in the end, futile.
. . .
On December 2nd, just a week after I left, Occupy Bath held the Bath People’s Assembly, “an independent democratic non-affiliated body for discussion, debate and the formulation of ideas and proposals on local, national and global issues and policies.” According to a BBC report, a spokesperson for Occupy Bath the assembly was to “start moving forward in a way we can generate ideas and do something more direct. The camp is not the easiest place to organise direct action. The assembly will be a more direct and organised way to protest on national and local issues.”
Will these assemblies be as disjointed and slow-acting as the ones formed from Zuccotti, or will Occupy Bath’s small size prove to be more of a boon if and when the general population joins their forum? The assembly’s Facebook page reported that about 50 showed up. The sudden burst of activists may just go to show that people do want to take action and don’t need to sleep in a park to get things moving.
I’ve emailed the group asking what, if anything, has changed since the first meeting, since I last left Leone and Steve to their small and dwindling camp.