The protesters have now been moved on but at the end of 2011 I spent some time with Occupy London and discovered there was more to it than sweaty tents and cardboard placards.
As I approached the mass of tents and porter-loos at the Occupy London protest on the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ foiled plot, I was greeted by a gang of menacing grins and rosy cheeks. Everyone seemed to be V masked up in a misunderstanding of what he actually stood for, but the sentiment was there at least.
The first thing that really struck me though, was the diversity of the people involved. The media had led me to believe that the Occupy London movement consisted mostly of jobless hippies and tag-a-longs, growing in size only due to the homeless seeking refuge and free food. This is not the case. Of course there are the usual covertly upper class unwashed lot there, with their matted dreads and smouldering incense, and I did see some nutter sat cross-legged on the ground chiming a bell whilst wearing what looked like a rug. But the majority of people outside St. Pauls are genuinely united in the interest of removing the boot from our faces – whether they fully understand the concept of capitalism or not.
As with any mass demonstration of this scale, there’re of course conflicting ideas and confused interests amongst the protesters, but the opposing agencies amongst the media seem to be reflecting on this as if it’s the only defining characteristic. From what I saw – in the few hours I spent there – the significant factor seems actually to be the overwhelming sense of solidarity and community that has sprouted from a collective hatred of social injustice. There’s still an unfathomable list of contradictory demands amongst the people, but there’s no mistaking that everyone is in agreement that something more than moaning needs to be done about the so called 1%. This 1% mantra is something the Occupy movement has applied to the bonus guzzling bankers, monopolising corporations and fraudulent MP’s that this world is being pillaged by. By elimination, we are the remaining 99% – the proles being shat on from the roof of an ivory tower.
I did see some nutter sat cross-legged on the ground chiming a bell whilst wearing what looked like a rug.
Since the Occupy movement first pitched its tents on Wall Street in September, the media has often portrayed this now widespread revolutionary measure as an unorganised free-for-all for unemployed vagrants and delusional anarchists. I can’t speak for the other thousand or so cities that this protest has spread to, but the London based version is nothing of the sort.
I first met with Dan Ashman, one of the Occupy co-ordinators who was dealing with PR when we arrived. He took us on a tour of the camp, explaining that he’d been staying at the protest for three weeks in between shifts as a teaching assistant. Dan first introduced me to the general assembly marquee, which is basically the hub of all things Occupy London. The makeshift HQ had desks, maps, calendars, schedules and a wall of grubby white boards with daily itineraries scrawled across them. The camp is run with a steady routine that incorporates daily speeches, general assemblies, mission statements and a public forum in which everyone participates from the crowd with body gestures for response, often resulting in what looks like a sea of jazz hands which is quite funny.
We then moved onto the library that sits just outside of the “Tent University”. The library had around 30 donated books piled up on a desk in the middle of another dog-eared marquee, where people were encouraged to take one for free, read it, and pass it on. I considered pocketing one of the travel sized Qur’ans or a random Dean Koontz novel for the sake of it, but decided against it when I heard every book arrived there in a snowball of donations after a few books were unintentionally left out one morning.
After browsing some of the protest literature that’d been professionally written up and distributed in glossy leaflets, we took a walk around the perimeter where anti-establishment artwork decked the walls and pillars. Posters reading things like “Who polices the police?”, “Rage against the American War Machine” and “Not One Cut” were pasted all over the place. As diverse and interesting as a lot of the artwork was, I couldn’t help but feel it was becoming a corkboard for hollow dissident catchphrases. The more thought-provoking ones actually provided real information though, such as messages that talked about how FTSE 100 executives gave themselves a 49% pay rise last year, whilst only giving their workers 2.5%. Another explained how credit default swaps were nothing more than bankers playing penny up the wall with our savings. The mixture of “fuck cuts” and “20% tax on mega rich = £800 billion” scribing’s provides almost the perfect metaphor for Occupy London. Some people know exactly why they’re there; they know their isms and percentages backwards, whilst others are simply pissed off with state of the country and want to vent their outrage constructively. Neither cause is more deserving because both are basically after the same thing, which is probably why this protest has been so successful.
We then moved on through the Tent University, which is an area essentially set out for people to come and teach at. The idea is that people from all walks of life are welcome to come to this makeshift classroom and educate those who care to listen. The concept of free education amongst this mass of sweaty tents and cardboard placards, proved to me that this movement is much more than V for Vendetta fans and dubious Anonymous members trying to stir some controversy. Although primitive, the Tent University gathered a large crowd and passed on relative information that most people could benefit from.
Amongst the stench, there was an overwhelming sense of community in the air. There were people of all ages, creeds, colours and backgrounds there, mingling and communicating. I found myself chatting to almost everyone that came to investigate why we were filming and taking pictures, and even managed to muster a “thank you” as a socialist newspaper was handed to me. It’s not just the young with revolutionary ideas either, some old guy joked with me that the Guy Fawkes masks were pointless as they were celebrating someone who’d failed. I even bumped into a lawyer from the states who told me he’d been at Occupy Chicago where the police “stormed protesters with tear gas and baton rounds”. He’d flown into London specifically to see the peaceful events outside of St. Pauls after being disgusted at the brutality in his own city.
This movement is much more than V for Vendetta fans and dubious Anonymous members trying to stir some controversy.
Lunch time struck and we made our way to the food tent where long wooden shelves had been put up to store tinned food, vegetables, cutlery and countless other cooking ingredients. Everyone was chipping in, lending a hand to cook, cut, peel and serve. This surprised me the most. I never expected to walk into what is effectively a fully operational canteen in the middle of a busy protest. It’s true that the homeless are often flooding solely into the mess hall, but why shouldn’t they take advantage of free food when authorities are being stretched so thin they don’t have the amenities to help them themselves? Everyone seemed to have relevance in being there, as if we were all unknowingly a piece to the puzzle.
After some naan bread and orange squash, we sat on the steps and listened to people give speeches from the sound system below. Topics ranged from the illegal rejection of Ireland’s recent flotilla to Palestine, to how taxing the mega rich at 20% would raise public revenue of £800 billion, which would apparently make the spending cuts redundant. Everyone speaking seemed to know their stuff; there was an economist, a local occupier, a few students and an American who drummed up some crowd roaring and air punching by chanted the Occupy catchphrase “we are too big to fail!” at the end of his speech. It was a bit over the top at times, but there was a nice atmosphere about it all which seemed to keep the police at bay. The only time we actually saw them move was when some knob head climbed a tree and started shaking it.
Generally, my visit to the Occupy London protest on November 5th gave me good reason to at least put some belief in the cause, even if I didn’t quite understand or agree with everything that was going on there. And although the movement is almost definitely not going to achieve even a quarter of the objectives raised in their mission statement, being sick of continuously having your pockets turned out by corporate criminals and MPs, is a good enough reason to set up shop outside one of London’s tourism pit stops in my opinion. And like my granddad said when I told him I’d just got back from the protest: “if people carry on like this, those bastards in parliament will have to take notice”.
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