New Internationalist

Occupy London goes to court


It’s been more than two months since London’s response to the global call out to Occupy. The movement followed in the footsteps of Occupy Wall Street, the 15M movements in Spain, and the uprisings against tyranny in the Muslim world. But its roots stretch back further than that to the networks of People’s Assemblies in South America in the 90s, to the consensus process from the Quakers in the 18th century and back, even, to the roots of democracy itself. The Occupy movement has always had roots but in a Black Swan fashion, we are all reading this story backwards.

Every night for more than two months, people from all walks of life have been engaging in real democracy, real politics; not waiting for one day every five years, but committing themselves readily to debate about political change right now. The People’s Assemblies are the key to the movement, for it is here that you get to see the truth of real democracy: it is dirty, tense, haggard and bent, at times a drain on your patience but it can also be the most politically liberating experience you have had in your life. To taste it is to know it, to see how your voice is as valued, how it is as powerful as everyone else’s almost makes you think there is a better form of life than the one you have been booted into.

On 19 December Occupy London went to court for the beginning of their eviction proceedings at the hands of the City of London Corporation. The gallery was awash with Occupy people who baffled the proceedings by spontaneously raising and shaking their hands in approval in true direct democracy style. And to their surprise, there was a lot to consent to. More than anything, when Justice Keith Lindblom interrupted the defence to state ‘as a matter of record’ that the issues the Occupy movement is addressing are of the ‘very greatest public importance’ was good reason to set a forest of hands waggling.

The defence, led by John Cooper QC, made short shrift of a witness for the prosecution, turning the City of London Corporation’s health and safety officer’s ‘intelligence gathering’ into a quagmire of hypocrisy and exaggeration. Cooper pointed out some of the ‘observations’ that were being used to force the eviction of the camp, stating that ‘groups of homeless older men drinking alcohol’ and a ‘dog leaving faeces’ is hardly an urban phenomenon exclusive to the Occupy camp and certainly not a reflection of the genuine Occupiers themselves.

Does Occupy sound febrile itself? A rickety sideshow that has the limelight for a while? A couple of kooks with a fine line in hand signals and attention grabbing? Or is this part of the global movement for change that so many thinking people of the world have been waiting for?

From the inside, it seems more than that even. It’s a new way of protest entirely where there are no leaders and no single issue. It is a forum for change and an initiative to allow all people from all walks of life to take part in shaping a better world for all. And as the New Internationalist has shown for so long, economic crisis is not an obstacle to life but an invitation to a better one, if you want it.

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  1. #1 Chris Pettit 20 Dec 11

    See new video at http://youtu.be/Ti9p1_i6GbM

  2. #2 thesehypocraciesaremakingmethirsty 21 Dec 11

    I became involved with the Occupy London movement for several weeks before I had to leave the UK to return home.

    I didn't go to see the Occupy camp at St Paul's with the intention of ’joining’ - I went because I was worried about the impact of public service cuts and I was curious to see what Occupy was all about. I used to be a teacher in some of the poorest parts of London, so I know what happens when a society ’tolerates’ poverty and under-invests in its public institutions.

    Within minutes of walking around the camp I joined in a conversation between two men who worked in finance and economics, both of whom were deeply concerned that the present system will only get worse, sending more and more people into poverty, and making the lives of the 'already poor' increasingly desperate.

    It was a wonderful experience to be able to walk around the camp and drop in on - or start! - conversations like this. There is absolutely no substitute for meeting people and talking face to face.

    During the next few weeks I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people, both in a ’formal’ capacity at the Info tent and simply asking people wherever I happened to be what they think is going wrong and what solutions there may be.

    As Jamie says, the process of democracy in action is messy, difficult and testing. In response to the critical question ’why camp?’ I would say: because when you have to see and deal with people as very close neighbours day after day, it changes the way you interact. It encourages you to be more responsible and thoughtful in how you approach difficult issues, especially ones which people don't necessarily agree on. If you have a lot to say about how the government and banks are ripping us off, but then you don't do your fare share of washing up in the kitchen tent...?!

    We're much too used to the anonymous ’hit and run’ internet style of debate, and the soundbite/140 chrctr style of commentary. A designated space where people gather to share their views is sadly lacking for most of us. Even universities are losing their remit in this capacity, as they were already beyond the reach of many people and rising tuition fees mean they are even less likely to be a genuine cross-section of society.

    The issues of marginalisation that apply in all societies apply to Occupy camps no matter where in the world they are, and that is something that needs to be addressed in each camp. Let's not pretend Occupy is ’outside of’ society and therefore somehow immune to those problems. There are still class, race, gender and sexuality differences to be considered. Not everyone - gasp! - gets along all the time, or agrees with everyone else.

    Occupy is not a members-only club, card-carrying party or guild. It shouldn't be about ’us’ and ’them’ - as in, supporters and non-supporters. It's about social justice and how we can achieve that in the current era where our rights are being eroded, not to mention our money which we've entrusted to the government to administer in our best interests (which is now being taken away from us).

    It's not ’you're either with us or against us’. If you're working towards social justice but you don't ’like’ the Occupy movement, then obviously the most important thing is that you work towards social justice!

    An inherent problem in any movement is how to create a visible symbol of demonstration - how to demonstrate that you are demonstrating, if you like - without alienating people or creating division when the main aim is to be inclusive. The 99% tag seems to annoy some people who don't feel it represents them. But these are your services, your health, your education, your justice system, your money held in trust, your taxes, your government, your democracy. A small section of your society hoards the majority of the wealth that you create through your labour, consumption and taxes, while you can't get in to see a doctor for days, or your children have few employment prospects, or you have few employment prospects. No matter what you think of the slogans, you know this isn't right, wherever it's happening.

    In terms of demonstrating, the fact that there are community groups who can't afford to carry on their work and pay rent at the same time, and people - whole families - sleeping in their cars or homeless shelters when there are thousands of vacant houses, in itself demonstrates the insanity of the current system.

    The ’public repossessions’ of disused bank and court buildings in London, and re-housing of people in empty foreclosed homes in the US, are a great new means of direct action.

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About the author

Jamie Kelsey-Fry is our roving awareness raiser and author of the ground-breaking school text book, that enables young people to make the journey from political literacy to political agency: Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit

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