Occupy – A personal perspective

To find out what Occupy London is up to now check the website.

I volunteered to speak about Occupy London at a post-graduate conference on Protest in the Face of Austerity, at Queen’s University Belfast, here’s some thoughts I came up with for it.

Occupy London is part of a global protest movement in response to the hardship inflicted on ordinary people by corporate greed, mismanagement and criminality. Governments have bankrupted their countries by engaging in pre-emptive wars which have only served to benefit the same corporations who brought about the financial crisis. These governments, many of whom are actively colluding with corporations, have responded to the global financial crisis with austerity measures.

First night of Occupy London

Occupy is as an iconic assembly point for the various communities and people affected by the crisis. This post looks at my personal perspective of what we can learn from the Occupy movement so far and the similarities and differences between previous long-term protests and Occupy.

The recession and various economic collapses have paved the way for, among other things, mass redundancies, pay freezes, draconian legislation and unaffordable education. This has meant many people who previously would not have engaged in protest have felt motivated to do so. I’m interested in the wider implications for protest in the context of austerity, the global financial crisis and the new media age.

One of my strong childhood memories is standing in a crowd at a peace demonstration in my home town of Omagh, I guess it must have been in 1993 and I was about eight. At 17 I took part in a school walk out to demonstrate against the Iraq war. I also went to demonstrate against George Bush when he visited Hillsborough Castle. At University I studied Politics and English at the University of York with an emphasis on international development and post colonialism. There I got involved with the Make Poverty History campaign. After University I worked in various jobs in Fairtrade. My education and experience convinced me that the Bretton Woods institutions are a replacement for Imperial power and I decided I did not want to be involved with government institutions. The reality of the ‘age of austerity’ for me has meant I have been made redundant three times in three years. I’ve been squatting in empty buildings in London for the past three years, I’m a performance poet and I am a media spokesperson for SQUASH (a campaign group to defend squatter’s rights) and Occupy London.

The first I heard of the Arab Spring style protests movement spreading to Europe was in May when I received a text message asking me if I was involved in the Spanish occupations, I was dismayed that there was a  media blackout and I wasn’t able to find out anything about it. From April 2011 to April 2012, I have been consumed by the SQUASH Campaign to fight the criminalisation of squatting. I only heard about Occupy Wall Street on 4th October.  I heard rumours about the Occupy London demonstrations in the week leading up to Saturday 15th October. A journalist from a Japanese network who had interviewed me about squatting asked me to meet him at St Paul’s on the day. I was learning how to make giant soap bubbles on the south bank and arrived late, just after Julian Assange finished speaking, the police had already kettled the area but the journalist was able to get me through the police cordon.

It felt like the protest had come from nowhere and had gone viral. It wasn’t like other protests, there where no fancy printed placards with well known NGOs logos emblazoned on them, there where dashed of handmade expressions of personal protest. The news spread around the crowd gathered at St Pauls’s that hundreds of squares all over the world were occupied that day, the exact figure is 951 cities in 82 countries. After the speeches a general assembly started to happen. Hand signals were explained and people adopted the mike check method of repeating what was being said so everyone could hear it. I have a very loud voice and boomed in the bowl of St Paul’s who’s acoustics I got very familiar with over the next four months.

Holding space as a way to protest and raise the consciousness of protesters and attract attention to a cause is nothing new. In response to the hike in tuition fees, students occupied their universities, sometimes for months. Through the occupation, they were radicalised, learnt how to hold a space, self organise, use social media, deal with press and provide for basic needs.

Another moment for radicalisation was the May Day demonstrations at Bank in 2009. I was there with some of my colleagues from Fairtrade Foundation. It brought together a disparate group of people, over a broad range of issues such as austerity, climate change, social justice, banking bailouts and anti war. Many people experienced kettling for the first time, Ian Tomlinson was murdered by police while walking home from work, climate camp set up tents and held an entire street for apporx. 24hrs.

Before that was climate camp. I attended the Black Heath Climate Camp in 2009. This recent history of self organisation as well as the experience of road protesters,  Faslane nuclear blockage, No Borders and more, meant that the camp quickly established and was populated by people used to protest, hardship and in it for the long haul.

I had received media training for Squash and had experience of live TV and being interviewed. On the second day I introduced myself to the media team. Part of that was they guy from Greenpeace who had given me medis training. An initial statement containing ten points had been agreed to at the first general assembly and I was given key messages. That evening just as I was leaving I saw a woman I knew from the squat world talking to a guy with a big camera. The woman was a bit crazy so I decided to jump in. Next day people are recognising me from the BBC News, somebody came up to me and said they’ld come all the way from Bangor, Wales because of what I’d said on the news.

On the morning of Sat 15th Oct

What made Occupy London different from OWS and the Spanish Occupations was that the media coverage was instantaneous; they were even there before the protesters where, I wouldn’t have even been there on the first day if it hadn’t been for a journalist. Occupy London was just so easy for journalists to cover, for other protests they would have to go all the way to the site or work a Saturday, with this they had a 24 hr, global, rolling news story within walking distance of their offices.

It was also right in the face of the public, unlike many previous protest camps.

Occupy London also had a global body of experience to draw on. People where there from OWS and Spain, sharing best practise. As well as a physical movement it is an internet movement too with people tuning in on livestream and using social networks to spread the word. Lots of donations of materials and cash poured in from everywhere, people just turned up with whatever was needed. There was an incredible sense of comradary, excitement and hope.

BBC quoted me as saying “It doesn’t matter whether the tents are there or not, it doesn’t matter if we’re able to camp there.”

“What matters is we’ve been able to come together and meet a lot of people who have all formed networks, both nationally and internationally, to make our voices heard against the crisis which the banks have created and the corporate greed.”

David Allen Green is a City of London lawyer and in his open letter published in the New Statesman, for which he is legal correspondent, he expressed regret that the camp had been dismantled.

“You have been a standing reminder that the force of capitalism may not be what its champions say it is,” he wrote.

“In my opinion, you have been a useful if colourful corrective to the arrogance and financial vandalism of many who work in the Square Mile.

“You have shown that anti-capitalistic and other progressive protests do not have to be one-day wonders with violent disorder and breathless commentary, but that they can be patient and respectful even in the face of those which you say are destroying our society and our planet.”

John Cooper QC says courts recognised the protest’s “significant effect”

Mr Green went on to say that the camp’s greatest achievement “was the realisation that those in power can be wrong-footed… by those who are serious and thoughtful about promoting a better world”.


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