Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson called them ‘a canary in the mine’ while London mayor Boris Johnson called them ‘an eruption of boils’. Labour leader Ed Miliband said they sent out ‘danger signals’ that only the ‘most reckless will ignore’. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron warned that they represented ‘some dangerous rhetoric creep[ing] into our national debate that wealth creation is somehow anti-social, that people in business are out for themselves’, while the Bank of England’s executive director for financial stability said that they have been successful in their ‘efforts to popularize the problems of the global financial system for one very simple reason; they are right’.
The Occupy camps, which started up two years ago today, provoked a plethora of reactions – but what was Occupy, what effect did it have and where is it now?
The 34 Occupy camps across Britain and Ireland were inspired by the Occupy Wall Street camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the occupation of Tahrir Square in Eygpt’s capital, Cairo, and the Spanish 15M movement.
At its height, there were an estimated 800 camps globally, each using the same strategy of taking an urban space and setting up a camp to challenge the current economic system and search for new solutions. The Occupy movement was an assault on neoliberalism, on a free-market capitalism that was out of control, and on a seemingly complicit political system bent on putting profit before people, whatever the cost. People knew that the economic crisis had been caused by reckless casino banking and were disgusted to find that they were being made to pay for that crisis through crippling austerity measures, while the banks and corporations were receiving record-breaking bonuses and profits.
We thought that the emperor’s new clothes only had to be revealed for what they were; if we stood our ground and shouted loud enough in large enough numbers from our tented cities, things would have to change. This was visceral politics at its best, not a clan of champagne socialists or veteran activists, but grandmothers and teenagers, plumbers and pensioners, students and lecturers, single mums and ex-soldiers – all coming together over a desire for a fairer world for all, and in the knowledge that the people who caused this mess were not fit for purpose to get us out of it. We felt that taking and holding public spaces for long-term camps was a unique form of direct action, challenging an economic system that was unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable.
The hope was intoxicating and, despite the cold of the winter and the bitterness of the mainstream media, we seemed to be winning. A pensioner would turn up every day with a bag of sugar for the kitchen tent in the Occupy LSX (London Stock Exchange) camp; visitors turned up in the information tent just to shake our hands and say thank you; the cannon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral resigned rather than have us evicted; people came from across the country to stay and learn and take part in the direct democracy assemblies. We were completely inclusive, horizontal and non-hierarchical. The Tent City University was booked up by leaders in progressive economics, political theory and practical solutions to finding sustainable futures. We supported unions in their industrial actions, turned up in communities and backed their local struggles, visited schools to provide Occupy workshops, held national conferences in camps across Britain and were in regular contact with occupations across the world, sharing ideas and building networks.
Two years later, have those ideas died and everyone gone home?
Occupiers are everywhere that there is a movement to reclaim justice and equality, they are organized and well informed, have strong networks and remain unwaveringly determined in their belief that direct action and mass civil disobedience is the only way to bring about the kinds of changes that the world needs. Those who were there two years ago have also become remarkably close-knit through the gruelling experience of surviving four months in tents in a city. There were over 50 occupiers at the recent anti-fracking camps in Balcombe, providing strategic and supportive roles. They were instrumental in the recent arms trade demonstrations in London and they are embedded in the movement to fight the undemocratic new squatting laws.
Occupiers support UK Uncut actions in large numbers, with local community actions, the battle to save the NHS, the fight to scrap Atos and end the government’s attack on disabled people, and the movement to loosen the grip of the fossil fuel corporations and secure a sustainable future through renewables. They have only got stronger in their resolve and more informed in their alternatives to a failing system.
Occupy working groups meet regularly and are taking in new faces; the international platform’s groups contribute to the growing global movement for systemic change. The main UK website is buzzing with events and provides a platform for dissent across Britain.
Occupy showed that determination, vision and the willingness to work together allows ordinary people to challenge the unchallengeable. It didn’t change the world, but took part in the changing world. It shifted the idea of what was possible and changed people’s ways of thinking. It will prove to have been a necessary step for the emergence of the next global movement to end the tyranny of an economic and political system that fails all but the very few.
Watch a film of OccupyLSX where people camped at the steps of Saint Paul's Cathedral for four months between 15 October 2011 - February 28 2012, longer than any other Occupy gathering worldwide.