A friend of mine recently told me about something that had happened to someone she knew.
Apparently, her friend had a friend who worked for a company and this company had had an incident in another store that all the other stores were talking about.
They had allowed some teenagers to come into their store for a week for their work experience.
There were two of them in this shop.
One was a quiet but polite boy and there was a more talkative but still aloof girl.
The first couple of days had gone very well, the teenagers had picked up till work, customer service, all the important but repetitive tasks that are essential to shop work, with ease and were becoming more able in actioning the tasks.
The two were very good friends, it seemed, and so were almost always trying to stick together.
The staff at the store remembered that this was a feature of growing up and decided to allow them to be apart from the rest of the staff, when normally that secretiveness and huddled mentality would be seen as plotting, or worse, shoplifting.
Three days went by with the two teenagers slowly picking up skills like a wet cloth on mud.
The two now began to talk more openly with the staff: their confidence had grown and the rest of the staff, and particularly the manager, looked on them shiningly. They felt the gentle fist of adulthood creep open and spread its fingers, ready to grip something.
At lunch on the forth day, the two were sitting out in the staffroom with the manager and another member of staff.
The manager and staff member were reading and the two, as ever, were sitting talking good-humouredly, gusts of laughter breaking out occasionally.
The manager, normally a good natured person, was someone who needed almost complete silence to read.
At each outburst of noise, she blinked sharply and squeezed her lips together as if squishing the last drops of concentration from the attentiveness lemon.
After five minutes, and no juice left, the manager finally spoke up: “sorry you two, would you mind keeping the noise down? I’m just trying to have a little read”
Now, the inquiry was not harshly phrased, in fact, anyone would’ve shut up.
But the male of the two took great offence to this and his female partner saw his neck tighten and his jaw crushing together.
The manager put her eyes back to the page and the male of the two went out of the room.
The female sat there looking worried.
What could he be doing?
Where had he gone?
Finally, after two minutes, the male came back.
He had been looking in the store room for weapons.
The shop was a stationery store, but I’ve told you that already, and so all that he could find was stationery.
And so the male came back with two rulers and a pad of paper.
“What are those for?” the female’s eyes looked at him.
He answered by running over to the manager and holding the ruler over her forehead.
“This is an occupation. You will do as I say or I will slap you in the forehead with this ruler”
The manager looked up at the youth and said, “You won’t hit me with that. Give me that here and stop being such an idiot, I’ll call the school up!”
The youth took the affront with even more offence than he did the request to keep quiet and ripped the air with, “I will hit you. This is an occupation. You will do as I say. We run this place now”
The manager looked at him and then the other member of staff who had his finger in the page he was reading, expecting to go back to it in a couple of seconds.
The male looked at the female and tilted his head to the other member of staff.
She looked at him and then moved across to the staff member with a ruler to his head also.
The male looked at them both and then left the female to watch them.
He picked up the tannoy and spoke slowly and deeply into it: “Ladies and gentlemen. Please finalise your purchases, this store is about to close due to health and safety issues”
The mention of the words “health and safety” cleared the shop without effort.
The two other members of staff working that day closed the doors and locked them then made their way out to the office and staffroom where the male ambushed them with the pad of paper held to their temples.
They were seated on the floor with the other member of staff and the manager while the male typed up and printed a notice which he put in the window and the door:
THIS SHOP HAS BEEN OCCUPIED!
WORKERS GO HOME
SHOPPERS SHOP SOMEWHERE ELSE
THERE WILL BE NO STATIONERY AVAILABLE UNTIL OCCUPATION IS OVER
The male came back to the staffroom and sat in a chair next to the female and opposite the workers seated on the floor.
After ten minutes of silence, the manager finally spoke, “so what are you going to do then?”
“About what?” the male replied without interest
“With us, I mean?”
“But what do you want?”
“Nothing apart from not wanting to go back to school”
“Is that what all this is about?”
“No. The not going back to school bit is just an added advantage”
“So what is the main thrust of this occupation?”
“There isn’t one”
“So why the hell are you doing it then?” the manager was getting irritated
“There isn’t a reason, we just are”
“You must’ve got the idea from somewhere”
“Yes, well I read some books at school. We learned about theBay of Pigsand the Cold War”
“Ah! I always knew teaching kids about things like that was a bad idea”
“Yes, I always thought that people give kids too much free rein these days. Kids are too arrogant, too cocky for their own good. Look what all that freedom has done to you two”
The male looked around at the other workers; they all looked to the ground.
They looked sorry for themselves.
“For that comment,” the male stood up and looked down at the manager, “you will be kept here over the occupation, the other workers will be allowed home”
The other workers were led to the front of the shop by the female while the male rang up other shops on the high street that had work experience people there and invited them to the occupied shop.
“Bring weapons,” he told them.
Ten minutes later, red-faced and heart-fast-beating from skirmishes, five other teenagers turned up from their work experience placements.
As they were let in, the staff of the stationery shop were let out.
“Tell the people about the occupied shop,” they were told.
From various placements came various weapons: the best they could find.
From a supermarket: a bag of rich red apples.
From a travel agent: a heavy glossy travel brochure.
From a theatre: a torch with no batteries in it.
From a music shop: an empty CD case.
And from a clothes shop: a scarf, already stretched and ripped slightly.
The male and female assessed the teenagers and their weaponry and nodded at each other.
They settled down for the night with food that one of the teenagers had stolen from the supermarket as she had left.
Over the next couple of days, the manager was amazed by the lack of talking among the teenagers.
They never spoke about why they were occupying the shop, what they planned to do or even how long they planned to do it for.
Gone was that secretive talk which the male and female had spoken, giggling to each other.
Now when speaking, if ever, the teenagers announced loudly what it was they were going to do, or what they thought about something.
It was this outspokenness that showed itself fully on the evening of the second night.
The manager had been sitting still in the same place almost constantly for two days and had started to get cold.
She snivelled occasionally and had started to cough.
The male was sitting in the staffroom in silence with the female and after a while the coughing began to get to him.
He kept looking at the manger and she looked away as if she hadn’t noticed.
After a couple of hours of the manager coughing more and more, trying to get a reaction out of the male teenager, the male finally spoke to her.
“I can’t help it”
“Yes you can. You don’t have to cough. It’s not something that you can’t stop yourself doing”
“But I have a cough, I can’t help it”
“I want you to stop it”
“What do you have against coughing?”
“I don’t mind things that people do without thinking: things that they really can’t help, like sneezing. But coughing, well that’s on purpose”
“It’s not. It’s just a bodily reaction thing. I can’t help it”
“Why is it, then, that when people are asleep they don’t ever cough? It’s only when people are awake that they cough, isn’t it? That shows that people only cough when they think someone’s listening or when they are conscious of coughing. That means you can help it; so stop it,” the male said as he wiggled his leg and tapped the ruler against his hand automatically.
The manager and the male and female sat in silence.
The manager was about to cough and then cleared her throat instead.
She looked up at the male and female and said, “so when are you going to demand something?”
The male looked at the female and then back at the manager, “is it just me, or have we already told you that we don’t want anything?”
“But you must want something, or you wouldn’t be doing this”
“We don’t, ok? We don’t want anything”
Again, the room fell to the hum of silence and the frizz of the fluorescent light.
Altogether, the teenagers kept the store occupied for five days.
And everyday a new sign went up in the window and door.
The one put in on the morning of the final day was:
THIS STORE IS STILL BEING OCCUPIED BY THE ‘WORK EXPERIENCE AGAINST (?) COMMITTEE (W.E.A. C)
WE ARE NOT AGAINST ANYTHING
WE DO NOT WANT ANYTHING
WE HAVE NO DEMANDS
The manager had had no idea that the random collection of teenagers had suddenly become a committee.
There had seemingly been no discussion about it, not in front of her anyway.
The name had come from nowhere.
The manager assumed that the male had come up with the name, typed it on the notice for the day and then showed it to the others for their approval and had not met any resistance.
The group seemed to have no weakness, they had no demands and so there was nothing to lever under and between them.
They weren’t against anything so there was no over zealous passion that could be exploited.
They seemed cohesive: they were a tiled wall with no gap in-between the tiles.
At five thirty on the afternoon of the final day, the telephone rang.
The telephone had been ringing occasionally whilst the occupation had been in place and one of the WEAC would pick it up and then tell the customer about the occupation and answer any questions.
This time when the phone was picked up, it was a teacher from the school.
The teachers had been to the front of the shop before and knocked at the door demanding entrance.
The WEAC had always answered by posting a copy of the daily notice through the letterbox.
This time the teachers had decided to ring them up, hoping that the WEAC would not just play an audio recording of the daily notice to them over the phone.
Their hunch was correct.
“Hello,” the teacher said, “could I speak to the manager please”
“This store is occupied, there is no manager,” the WEAC member replied.
“Well, could I speak to whoever is in charge, please?”
The WEAC member put the teacher on hold and then called through to the office where the male was sitting.
“There is a teacher on line one for you”
“Hello?” the male switched over
“Hello, James. It is James, isn’t it?”
“I’m not James anymore. I’m a member of the Work Experience Against Committee”
“But you are still James. And Jennifer is still Jennifer”
“We are all members of the WEAC”
“I understand. But I want you to understand that you are all still who you were before you occupied the shop”
“We are not”
“You are. What’s bought all this on then?”
“Nothing. We want nothing. We demand nothing”
“But where did you get the ideas from?”
“From school. From books”
“Mmm. Well, what’s the reason? I can understand you not wanting to go back to school, but it must be more than that”
“It’s just that. And some other socio-political ideas”
“That is none of your business”
The phone was silent for a couple of seconds. Then the teacher’s voice went quiet and deep.
“How about you all come out and I’ll get you a big bag of fizzy cola bottles each”
The male thought about it and then said, “I’ll have to get back to you about it”
He took the teacher’s number and then called the rest of the WEAC into the office.
The manager was sat on the floor as they discussed the terms and was disgusted (silently) by the fact that the teacher was offering sweets to the little bastards rather than a slap on the arse. But she kept quiet; she wasn’t stupid.
After ten minutes of debate, the WEAC called back the teacher to tell him that the WEAC had accepted his terms and that the shop was no longer occupied.
“One more term,” the teacher almost whispered with drama
“The WEAC also no longer exists”
The male turned to his committee members and talked to them as his hand cupped the receiver.
“Ok,” the male spoke hoarsely, “the WEAC no longer exists”
That was what my friend told me about the whole affair, but for what happened to the WEAC members after the occupation was over, you’ll have to look in the newspapers.