Occupation as Inspiring Practice for Youth Political Participation

*Speech delivered to Link Me In Youth Policy and Practice, Budapest, December 12, 2013. Seminar hosted by the Hungarian “Youth In Action” National Agency and jointly organised by the SALTO-YOUTH Training and Cooperation and SALTO–YOUTH Participation Resource Centres, and the British, Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Polish and Slovak “Youth in Action” National Agencies, with the support of the Council of Europe and the European Commission.

Introduction: Europe at a crossroads?

Thank you so much for inviting me here today to talk about youth political practice. I have been asked to talk about an inspiring practice for youth engaging in politics today. As I was thinking about this I thought first about youth political engagement in general. I have written before that although I often hear many laments about the political apathy of youth, it seems to me that in fact youth are looking for ways of engaging all the time, of expressing an identity, of finding forums to air or share their concerns about themselves, their parents, their futures and their societies (Flesher Fominaya 2012). There are different venues to do this some of which I think can be very productive and really in keeping with the values that the Council of Europe stands for, such as democratic engagement, participation, tolerance and solidarity and other ways that are really in complete opposition to those values. 

It struck me that in Europe today we have a somewhat paradoxical situation whereby disturbingly, in some states we have increasing State or para-state support for youth groups that are organized around intolerance, xenophobia, ultra nationalism, violence and exclusion, and an increasing State intolerance for progressive forms of participatory action such as demonstrations and protests. This is not only alarming but also very short sighted and I believe takes us farther away from the core values we would like to see define Europe today. As an example of the former, I would mention the Nashi movement in Russia, which is an ultranationalist, imperialist, sexist, and authoritarian pro government youth movement organized and supported financially by Putin and his colleagues to provide support for the Russian government and to oppose opposition to the regime using intimidation and threat of violence, as well as numerous allegations of actual violence by one of its splinter groups (Atwal and Bacon 2012, Matthews and Nemtsova 2007). At their camps these youth learn military training and discipline, absolute conformity to the manifesto, and they are instilled with the idea that this movement is the means through which they will become future leaders of a great nation, which will defeat their enemies both external and internal (Cahen 2008). Their youth militias have been mobilized to occupy public squares to prevent protesters and groups from being able to express their opposition to the regime (Atwal and Bacon 2012). In the face of criticism the movement has since dissolved and been reinvented as an All Russia Youth Forum. The essential precepts behind the movement, however, seem largely intact.

It is not difficult to see the attraction of these kinds of movements for youth who are facing extremely high unemployment, cuts to education and great uncertainty about their future at a time when their own identities and ideals are being shaped and they feel a great need to express them. I have spoken before (Flesher Fominaya 2012) about research that shows that youth involved in “radical” or non-mainstream movements, regardless of the ideology of those surveyed, whether extreme-right wing or anarchist or environmentalist, felt they were working to make the world a better place (Murer 2011).

As an example of increasing State intolerance for autonomously organized youth action, I will point to the very alarming situation presented by proposed legislation (La Ley de Seguridad Cuidadana, popularly dubbed as the anti-15-M law) of the Spanish government, a government I should add that is facing decreased legitimacy as a result of very widely disseminated corruption scandals and increasing challenges to their legitimacy to govern from protesters and diverse elements of civil society (Reuters 2013). This legislation, as the Council of Europe has denounced (Nielsen 2013), severely infringes upon the democratic right to protest, and to voice political opposition through the imposition of fines of 30,000 euros, for insulting a politician, burning a flag or protesting outside parliament without a permit, or 600,000 for picketing at nuclear plants, airports, or if demonstrators interfere with elections (Nielsen 2013). This type of legislation restricts what I would argue are some of the most important means of political expression that youth feel drawn to today, as well as violating the fundamental human right to peaceful protest. Young people today often feel excluded from the decision-making processes that determine their life chances, as Lihong Huang’s presentation has just shown very clearly. Political institutions seem very far away, and politicians seem unresponsive and uncaring. So from this rather depressing opening I would now like to discuss a practice youth find inspiring and hopefully help you to see why it is attractive to youth but also why I would argue it is something that should be encouraged and not repressed and restricted.

Occupation as Inspiring Practice

The type of practice I will talk about therefore is occupation. The word occupation encompasses a wide range of actual activities. Occupation by definition involves some form of claiming or reclaiming space. What I am going to do is provide some examples of the kind of occupation I am talking about as a means of understanding it better. Many of you will have heard of “Occupy” or Occupy movements. While in Europe we have also had Occupy camps, such as Occupy Gëzi Park in Istanbul, or Occupy London, the earlier and perhaps best known have been the Indignados camps that movements such as the 15-M in Spain developed, the Geraçao o Rasca in Portugal or the Greek Aganaktismeni (Flesher Fominaya 2014).

15-M/Indignados –The occupation of the Puerta del Sol, Madrid

These were youth led movements, but through the practice of occupation of central plazas, served to draw in participation from all sectors of society, creating a sort of public agora of democratic experimentation and participation. The youth occupied the central plaza in a spirit of openness, inclusion and dialogue, fueled and motivated by a deep concern for social issues and the proposed political solutions to the challenges posed by the crisis, as well as a strong critique of austerity measures imposed by the Troika and implemented by national governments. In the case of Spain, the 15-M movement started from just about 40 youth who decided not to leave the central plaza in Madrid after a protest on the 15th of May (for more on the origins of the movement, see Flesher Fominaya 2014). As the days passed the plaza grew into a huge camp, in which people from all walks of life participated in open discussions in large moderated assemblies about what kind of society they wanted to live in, collective decision making about the practical running of the camp, and learned a new form of engagement for many of them, which involved listening actively, with respect and in dialogue with each other. So the focus on democratic participation is obviously central to the experiences of occupation such as the Indignados/15-M movement. But what my research has shown is that it is not only the ideal aspects of these forms of occupation that are significant for youth, but the practical elements. Youth participating in 15-M learned and developed important skills and values.

They learned to organize and run the practicalities of a diverse, conflictual at times, and complex environment. They learned to moderate and mediate between diverse points of view, they came into contact -many of them for the first time- with people in their city who, were it not for a centrally located camp, they would never meet. They talked with old people, with homeless people, with migrants, with other youth from different backgrounds. And not only talked because running a camp is a complex affair! In 15-M there were many different committees and teams working together, to physically set up and maintain the camp, which has certain material requirements, such as protection from the elements, cleaning, food, medical help, media outreach, cleaning crews, safety, legal assistance, documentation, audio visual support, and so on. Youth organized diverse assemblies, and developed important IT and communication skills. They created alternative media and expanded the occupied space into cyberspace to reach people around the world. And these practical skills were learned by youth through their active participation there, as well as core values of civics, respect for diversity and openness. Of course this type of camp gives reign to a great deal of creative expression and imagination as the many hand painted signs and art showed.

Once the central camp was dissolved, and this was a deliberate decision, the participants devolved into neighborhood assemblies, dozens of which still meet in Madrid, and which bring together people of all ages to collectively try to solve neighborhood concerns and also address wider political issues, such as providing support against evictions and homelessness for the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who are losing their homes as a result of the housing crisis and collapse. So this is one recent and important example of what I mean by occupation as inspiring practice for youth. So inspiring that it was replicated in some form in hundreds of cities around the world. It was itself inspired by Arab Spring and the Icelandic Saucepan Revolution (Flesher Fominaya 2014).

Political Squatting and Social Centres

Actually, the public occupation of the square comes from a much older European tradition of political squatting, which has formed not only around housing issues but which also began as a means of youth to create autonomous spaces where they could develop political engagement and participation. The different national legal frameworks that regulate squatting in Europe has meant that the trajectories of political squatting have followed different paths. In some cases what began as an illegal squat to create a community social centre has evolved into a legal agreement between municipalities and squatter collectives, either for free or with some form of affordable rent. In other contexts such squats have been evicted with great force by police.

Squatted social centres have been important centres of political engagement for youth. They are typically run by a collective assembly that uses some form of deliberative decision making to decide on the day to day running and goals of the centre. Again, youth involvement leads to the development of many important skills, such as running a bar to raise funds, organizing multiple events, cooking, cleaning, and organizing diverse activities such as providing low cost meals for people in the community, organizing free clothing shops, offering free or low cost yoga classes, literacy, internet or language classes open to all ; providing legal support services for migrants, broadcasting community radio programmes, providing a forum for theatre and dance and so on.

Participants in many social centres practice a DIY (Do it yourself or self help) ethos of collective reciprocal solidarity. The ethos that fuels most social centres is an engagement with the local community and the creation a space where people can self organize collectively and with autonomy. Of course there have been many protests and political critiques developed in these spaces, spaces which are inherently if not exclusively political. Social centres provide crucial meeting spaces for social movements fighting for social justice, immigrant rights, feminism, environmentalism, against urban gentrification, for the conservation of historical buildings, the right to housing and more.

They provide spaces that reflect key values as expressed by the rules for the use of space that they collectively develop. In one squat in Madrid, for example, the entrance has posters declaring slogans such as “this is a sexism free space”, “This is a racism free space”, etc. So the centres are a declaration of democratic principles, of tolerance, of diversity, of inclusivity and of participation. Of course no one can claim to live up to their ideals all the time, yet the goals and the methods are in place to do their best in this regard. It is precisely the process of striving towards these goals that are in themselves important collective learning experiences.

The big difference between these squatted social centres and the 15-M occupations are that the young activists in a certain sense took the concepts and practices of the squatted social centres and transferred them into the public arena. This enabled many people who just happened to be walking by to engage politically with fellow citizens, around their reactions to the crisis and its consequences for them, as well as their understanding of the responsibility of bankers and governments in a remarkable way.

The 15-M camp was explicitly about democracy and took place right before elections in Spain in 2011. It was a critique of existing democracy that failed to meet the needs of citizens, a protest against political corruption: protesters felt that a situation where some 100 candidates in the election were under investigation for fraud or wrongdoing was not a sign of a healthy democracy, and an overwhelming rejection of austerity measures and the situation Spanish people were experiencing in terms of unemployment, poverty, evictions, low salaries, precarious employment conditions for youth, living conditions for the elderly, and cuts to social welfare (Flesher Fominaya 2014, La Plaza 2011).
So the spark that generated this was not simply mobilizing against or around these important issues. They key moment that brought people together to discuss the state of Spanish democracy was the decision, taken by a few young people, who resisted attempts to evict them by police, to occupy the central plaza and to stay. It was this decision to occupy that generated the subsequent movement that drew in so many people from all sectors of civil society.

Non-Stop against Apartheid *

But occupation also takes other forms. In London during the 1980s, there was a non-stop picket against apartheid in front of the South African embassy that lasted for four years. A activist group called “City of London Anti-Apartheid Group [City Group] kept a constant vigil outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. The Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy became a feature of London’s landscape and an iconic image of global, grassroots opposition to apartheid.” (Brown, 2013).

Recent research led by Gavin Brown at the University of Leicester involves interviewing many people involved in the picket. One of the aspects of what the research shows that I think is particularly relevant and interesting for us today is that through the continuous occupation of the sidewalk of central London, many of the elements I have been discussing were manifested . The picketers, many of whom were youth, were brought into an ongoing relation to people whom they otherwise would not have met. First because the picket attracted a diverse group of people opposed to apartheid and who wanted to see Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders freed. As people literally in some cases stumbled across the picket on this wide central London pavement, they were encouraged to feel welcome and to come back. Because the picket was ongoing, people knew there was always going to be someone there, and young people took to dropping by to hang out even when it was not their turn to picket. The picket was noisy and disruptive and this was also appealing to youth.

People who dropped by were given tasks to do, and this contact developed relationships between youth and older people, some of which carried on beyond the picket. Homeless youth who had dropped into the nearby food shelter would then pass by the picket, and some later said this was the only place they were made to feel welcome and not stigmatized. The youth on that picket forged relationships and a space in which to discuss not only politics, but to address their problems with their parents, schools, their identity and in this way helped overcome feelings of social isolation and depression. As issues of racism or sexism came up on the picket they attempted to address them and make sense of them in relation to their own society. As they expressed solidarity with the victims of Apartheid and also with the situation of young blacks and students in South Africa, they also developed solidarity with each other, and developed a set of skills in relating to a diverse range of people that carried over into their adult lives.

There are many other examples of youth led occupations I could provide, such as the tent city in Kiev Ukraine during the Orange Revolution in 2004, the many climate camps across Europe, the camps set up to protest global injustice in international financial institutions during the Global Justice Movement, or the many instances of university occupations by students from the 1960s to the present. But I would like to just briefly mention a recent example of occupation from school children in Greece as my final example.

Student Occupations of High Schools in Greece

In October 2013, over 100 high schools in Greece were taken over by students (Christides, 2013). They decided to take over the 2 week rolling strikes undertaken by their teachers in protest against the cuts, layoffs and forced transfers imposed by the terms of Greece’s agreement with the troika. The students took care of the classrooms and raised issues such as the fact that some of their classmates had been fainting from malnutrition, and highlighted the negative effects of the crisis and the austerity measures on students and schools (Christides, 2013). For these youth, too young to vote, but concerned about their society, occupation was a last resort, a way of claiming the school as a site of importance to them, expressing solidarity with their teachers, again reaching across generations, and taking a political stand.

Conclusion: Youth Politics and Democracy

These examples show that for youth, occupation is a means of becoming visible, of constituting themselves publicly as political actors, of making visible their social concerns about their own problems and those of the wider society.

The youth involved in the forms of occupation I have discussed here today essentially are engaging politically to try to improve democracy by increasing the engagement of civil society with our democratic institutions, of fighting political corruption, of arguing for a politics that places the needs of citizens above the interests of political and economic elites, that is explicitly non-violent, that tries to include and engage citizens across ideological and other divides. In short, a form of politics that reflects very well core values that many of us aspire to in Europe today. The conclusion this leads me to, therefore, is that these movements -and the youth that often lead them- should be supported, not beaten, evicted, fined, jailed and criminalized.

We are facing important challenges in Europe today, and it seems to me we can follow two different paths as we consider the appropriate response to grassroots or civil society led expressions of political participation: one path involves closing down the spaces for dialogue and participation, criminalizing peaceful protest, denying the fundamental right to protest, and creating an environment of intolerance and violence that fosters the development of movements that encourage obedience, authoritarianism, social exclusion and violent and militarized solutions to social problems, ranging from nationalist authoritarian movements like Nashi in Russia (now reformed as a Youth Forum) to the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece, and many other movements. This is the approach expressed by legislation such as the proposed Law for Citizen Security currently being debated in Spain (Nielsen 2013) and other forms of legislation that use the threat of terrorism to criminalize peaceful protest (Flesher Fominaya and Wood 2011).

The other involves looking for ways to keep spaces open for the democratic engagement and creative experimentation of our youth, helping them to create new spaces, and actively supporting their human rights, so they can continue to develop the skills and values we will need to create the kind of Europe we can all live in together.

Thank you.

*The discussion in this section (Non-stop Against Apartheid) draws from a presentation on the research by Gavin Brown at Trinity College Dublin, December 6, 2013, at the International Solidarity Conference. For more on this research see: http://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/.
Atwal, M. and Bacon, E. (2012) “ The youth movement Nashi: contentious politics, civil society, and party politics”, East European Politics, 28:3, 256-266, DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2012.691424

Brown, G. (2013) “Non-Stop for Mandela: reflections on London’s four-year continuous protest for his release” http://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/

Cahen, Daya (2008) Nashi (De Onzen) Film.

Christides, G (2013) “Greece crisis: Inside the student –occupied schools”, BBC Europe, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24332586

Flesher Fominaya, C. (2014) Social Movements and Globalization: How Protests, Occupations and Uprisings are Changing the World, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Flesher Fominaya, C. (2012) “ Youth Participation in Contemporary European Social Movements” Youth Partnership for the European Union and the Council of Europe, youth-partnership-eu.coe.int http://youth-partnership-eu.coe.int/youth-partnership/ekcyp/BGKNGE/Youth_and_social_mouvements.html

Flesher Fominaya and Wood (2011) “Repression and Social Movements” Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Vol 3,1, pp. 1-11.

La Plaza, La gestación del movimiento 15-M (2011). Documentary Film.

Matthews, O. and Nemtsova, A. (2007) “Putin’s Shock Forces”, Newsweek., May 28.

Murer, J. (2011), Listening to Radicals: Attitudes and Motivations of Young People Engaged in Political and Social Movements Outside of the Mainstream in Central and Nordic Europe, (Budapest: British Council), pp. 32

Nielsen, N. (2013) “Austerity stripping away Europe’s Human Rights, watchdog says”, 3/12/13, EU Observer, http://euobserver.com/justice/122338

Reuters (2013) Spain’s Rajoy to Face Parliament over Corruption Scandal, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/22/us-spain-rajoy-corruption-idUSBRE96L0HN20130722


DR. CRISTINA FLESHER FOMINAYA is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, UK and Senior Marie Curie Fellow at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. She is widely published in social movements in international journals. Dr. Flesher Fominaya has an MA and PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and has been researching and participating in social movements since the 1990s. Winner of numerous international awards, including the National Science Foundation Fellowship, the German Marshall Fellowship and the Marie Curie IEF Fellowship, she is a founding editor of Interface Journal, an editor of Social Movement Studies, and is founding co-chair of the Council for European Studies Research Network on Social Movements.

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