My day at Occupy London

22 11 2011

The makeshift village that sprung up in the most unlikely of places is starting to sprawl out, true to its organic origin. Squeezed between financial offices, high end shops and one of the most iconic cathedrals in the world sits a ragtag collection tents. The makeshift village that sprung up in the most unlikely of places is starting to sprawl out across the city and elsewhere, true to its organic origin. They refuse to move until something changes, but what?

The Occupy movement has sprung up in cities around the world. It’s an intriguing idea that seems to have sprung out of nowhere but no one knows how to react to it, the protesters most of all I found.

The first thing you notice when you walk around the tent village outside St Paul’s cathedral is how many different political circles all sit together. In one corner the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party, are busy getting the same message across but in two separate and competing publications. Round the corner you find Buddhists are maintaining a mediative session. Anarchists mingle in the camp while the hippies all strive to keep the village going with a working kitchen, community spaces and even a tent university. It’s like an uninvited Glastonbury.

It all very much feels like a coalition of forces that have been protesting on various issues for years. So while it seems like an unexpected explosion of protest, in reality its more a coming together of campaign weary groups with a new lease of life. From the green movement to the anti-war campaigners to the old socialists, the aftermath of the financial crisis has given them all a common cause with which to rally round.

So what’s the problem and what’s the plan? I decided to take a trip to the latest occupation in the city, the empty UBS offices near Liverpool Street station. It had only been entered and took over a couple of days previously so I expected some kind of police presence. I had been told at St Paul’s that the police would still be manning the street but I could still easily get inside. When I arrived the street was deserted, the police presumably being back at the station having tea and biscuits.

The opening of the ‘Bank of Ideas’ inside a disused UBS bank office

The building has been set up as an area of discussion, the so called ‘Bank of Ideas’. A steady trickle of people was filing in and out of the building that had obviously not been used for years. Listening into the conversations going on I was quickly surprised how the civil these recent strangers were with one another. I had no idea about the sign language that has spread along with the spirit of Occupy, at first I thought a large number of wacky kids TV presenters must have been involved in the movement. Eventually I worked out that waving hands up is to agree, down to disagree and putting your hand (like in school) means give me the floor.

On the first floor one group were discussing tips on how to occupy (or squat) in other buildings within the confines of the law, another on how to co-ordinate the protest movements throughout Britain and Ireland. Very much a practical ‘how to’ guide on protest.

Downstairs another discussion centered on what happens when the occupations are forced out. This was too much for one woman who complained it was too negative and drifted off eventually to question a documentary filmmaker on whether he was there on behalf of the police.

By this time I started to worry about the lack of discussion on exactly what the issues at stake were. All of them were there with grievances about some part of the economic system, but not once all day did I hear the word ‘economics’.

Every discussion I heard centered on growing and keeping the protest movement rolling forward, an admirable aim but to what end? A great day of action was mentioned a couple of times with the belief that the government would have to listen if there were enough numbers. Inevitably somebody brought up the one million strong anti-war demonstration before the Iraq war that had zero effect.

Perhaps avoiding discussion of exactly what is wrong with current economic policy is the best way of not getting bogged down in debate, especially with so many diverse groups of people involved. However, in its place a vacuum is created that reverts to type, repeated demonstrations and occupations with a them and us downbeat tone.

Thats not to say that the Occupy movement can be dismissed. It’s messy, divided and unorganised but then it’s only a few weeks old. In that short time it has attracted a lot of publicity and solidarity from people who believe there is something rotten in the world, but they cannot say exactly what. It has a genuine warmth and goodwill around it, but still feels a long way from influencing the levers of power.

This is an effort to change the dynamics of one of the most abstract academic studies there is. Economics is not a sexy medium. But without talking about it in radical ways, any movement is setting itself up to be pigeon holed as just another hopelessly naive spasm of discontent.