I’ve been on a lot of protests in my life but I’ve never heard this call and response before:
’What does it mean?’ I ask the person sitting next to me.
’Mic. Check – When someone shouts it we repeat so that everything can be heard.’
I’ve just stepped off the train after a weekend of book talks in Sussex, and head straight to St Paul’s to show my support for one of the latest additions to the global ‘Occupy’ movement – Occupy London. The protest had begun the day before with an attempt to enter the London Stock Exchange. Held back by police and security, the movement instead set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. On the wall someone has put up a new sign: ‘Tahrir Square, City of Westminster.’
‘Mic. Check (Mic. Check). It’s time for the people’s assembly.’ A cheer goes up. Never before have I seen people so excited at the idea of having a meeting. Then again, never before have I seen a meeting quite like this. Every statement is repeated by everyone. Every suggestion is tested for consensus. Anyone can have their say.
A group had spent the day drafting some principles for the occupation – just as the Egyptians decided their demands only when the demonstrations converged on Tahrir Square.
The suggestions for Occupy London are read out, one by one:
‘1. The current system is broken. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.’
A young man springs up to make an amendment. He points out that David Cameron uses the word ‘broken’, and the word ‘unsustainable’ brings in the environmental perspective. A woman points out that the system was never fixed in the first place, and that we shouldn’t advocate a return to business as usual.
‘Do we have consensus?’
People wave their hands in the air – silent clapping – a way of showing support for a proposal in non-hierarchical meetings.
‘We have consensus.’
The silent clapping turns to very loud clapping, with whooping and cheering as well.
And so we continue. The details are fine but they are important. When it is suggested that we adopt the statement ‘We refuse to pay for the bankers’ crisis’, a quiet bank worker takes to the microphone and politely requests that we focus on the system rather than demonizing the workers. We change it to ‘the banks’ crisis’. Consensus again.
Not every amendment is accepted. A suggestion that we state that we are of ‘all ideologies’ is comprehensively blocked – presumably because some ideologies are so reprehensible that they would not be welcome at the occupation. But the atmosphere is always constructive.
The conversations are frequently interrupted as the police begin building barriers which look as if they could be to fence the protest in. A group rushes to confront the police while the meeting decides what to do. After police ‘assurances’ that the fences will only be for keeping a fire route clear a protester suggests that we build the barrier instead, out of bunting. The police have been backed into a corner, and start taking the fencing away.
We continue. We add opposition to cuts, an end to global tax injustice, and actions against wars and arms dealing. It is messy, and it is drawn out, but we reach decisions far faster than Parliament does.
Of course, occupying squares alone will not lead to these demands being met. We can learn from the Egyptians that it was not only public camping that led to the downfall of Mubarak but the refusal to follow the orders of the police and the growing threat of a general strike. Few believe that occupying St Paul’s steps alone will change the system. But it is an important building block.
There are plenty of examples of autonomous spaces helping to empower people to build larger struggles – the Heroic Vietnam quarter of Paris, the self-governing townships of South Africa, but the most prominent recent example is once again Tahrir. In a recent interview for the New Internationalist Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim described the scene in February this year as ‘a mini-example of what direct democracy looks like... under every tent, on every corner, people were having debates about their demands, the future, how things should go economically and politically... It was a mirror of what Egypt would look like if it was democratic.’
The latest wave of unrest may have started in North Africa, but now it is global – reaching hundreds of cities across the world – more than 1,000 by some counts. A statement endorsed and discussed by a significant number of occupations calls undemocratic international institutions ‘our global Mubarak, our global Assad, our global Gaddafi’.
And so finishes the Occupy London statement: This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!
Tim Gee is the author of a new history of campaigning movements called ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’
More information about the Occupy movement in London can be found at occupylondon.org.uk