New Internationalist

Occupy, two years on

Occupy gathering [Related Image]
An Occupy gathering at Bank in the City of London © Tom Moriarty

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.

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  1. #1 Jules 15 Oct 13

    Hi, Jamie,

    I disagree with your postulation that Occupy was ’completely inclusive, horizontal and non-hierarchical’.
    Whilst it was undoubtedly so in theory (and constitutionally, if we can assume the extremely loose, irrelevant, and contradictory edicts passed, such as safer spaces), the reality was very different.

    Because of the intellectual/dialectical stance occupy took towards discussion, fundamental distrust, inherent but subtle agism, and because of the bloated yet ambiguous bureaucracy which would have put the Soviet Union to shame, Occupy rapidly became a microcosm of real society.

    Within the first three weeks, I had noticed a worrying trend, which I shared with a number of occupiers, which might have included yourself.
    Occupy was rapidly hurtling degrading into what was commonly referred to onsite as ’working class working group’ and ’middle class working group’

    The middle class working group were generally dominated by univeristy graduates (usually Russel Group)who were perceived very much as ’steering committees’ who created a deliberate level of ambiguity via complicated political discourse, an easily manipulated ’parliamentary procedure’ (how much diversity was there actually in facilitators?) and consisted of policy matters.

    ’Working class working group’ consisted mostly of the homeless, the youths, the lesser educated, those who were generally working class in origin.
    They maintained the kitchen, did the water runs, erected the tents, cleaned the site, and did the behind the scenes work that allowed St. Paul's to function on a daily basis.

    They were alienated rapidly by an increasingly confusing and distant system, which rapidly stratified itself into a microcosm of the nation.

    You'll know, Jamie, that my opinions are based not on some kneejerk opposition, but to rather a constant and critical observation of the evoluton of the Occupy movement in London.

  2. #2 Tina Louise 15 Oct 13

    Wonderful piece Jamie and interesting comment Jules - it strikes me, each time I re-meet any of us from camp, in other places - that we each had our OWN Occupy. Circumstances, backdrops and characters may have been the same but we each experienced them in our own unique way - as a result of who we were when we arrived.

    For me personally, Occupy WAS ’completely inclusive, horizontal and non-hierarchical’ - I always chose my actions, chose what I spent time on, listened only by choice and very deliberately dipped in and out of a host of working groups - as I did not want there to be parts of this thing that were not open to me - that was part of the point.

    The achievements I saw and continue to see, happened and are happening on a miniscule and massive scale; the homeless who were made warmer that winter and part of a community, albeit transient... the everyday people who took time out to come to say: 'Stay' (what did that act change in them? What had we done that caused them to take the time to come?) - the many of us who I KNOW have completely changed the pattern of our lives and now begin to merge the activist & the work worlds together... one reputation and network enhancing and interacting with the other... we are positively viral lol!

    The genuinely respected involvement of Occupiers in helping other actions get off the ground and be more effective - like Balcombe... of course it could still have happened without us but a lot of sharing in the early days saved time and effort as those with experience of activist camping, helped and united with this other community. Then there's Friern Barnet Library - regardless of the results of all we have been part of, there ARE effects and maybe right now, this doesn't look like where we are aiming for, but to me and many, it at least looks like the scene around us is changing. I see fellow human beings who I NEVER would have imagined standing up to the old-powers-that-be... discovering their own inner-activist.

    I think we have influenced others by our flawed, hopeful actions.

    Happy anniversary Occupiers of the London Stock Exchange - if it weren't so terribly militant, I would salute you. Namaste xxx

  3. #3 Vas 15 Oct 13

    Occupy London!
    https://vimeo.com/35803378

  4. #4 Jamie 16 Oct 13

    Hi Jules

    Yep, remember discussing that many times with you and many of us doing everything possible to maintain genuine inclusivity in everything we did, as you did too. Some people naturally did not want to work on those aspects of the camp's output but this is not because they were not welcomed and encouraged. But, I think to imply that those groups creating the research and statements were of one type is misleading. I was in many working groups as you know and we had all ages, all backgrounds and nobody felt left out, all views listened to equally. That's why the movement stuck out as being more valuable than a passel full of groups driven by already defined political ideologies. All voices, heard equally, sometimes to the extent of 'death by consensus'!

    The above blog did not allow me to fit in an important aspect which is how important every level of the camp was to keeping the whole thing together, the unsung and unheard figures who made things happen, how it was as much the work of Max on drains and you on Tranquility as it was folk in the DA team or staff on Occupied Times or Andy bringing the sound system that kept Occupy alive.

    There was much that wasn't working but there was much more that was working, and people were trying this out for the first time. I think the endless hours you put in keeping the camp safe stopped you from experiencing what other groups were doing. That's not only your loss but their's too.

    Nothing was perfect but for a while there, we were managing pretty well mate and I think whatever happens next will have had the opportunity to have learned from our mistakes as well as our successes and what you are pointing out is important for that reason.

    All the best, keep it lit!

    Jamie

  5. #5 Rupert Ferguson 16 Oct 13

    Some very interesting observations from Jamie that I have heard directly from the mouths of several grass roots activists who experienced exactly the same thing. Seems to happen with every revolutionary/evolutionary group that manifests itself wherever you go.

  6. #6 Oiseau 18 Oct 13

    Was it really two years ago? The spirit of Occupy lives on, in various ways, and certainly in the memories of those who witnessed this wonderful moment. Well done, Jamie, for tracing its longer life and for not contributing to the dead-end of naive cynicism based on an assumption that lack of immediate results equals failure.

  7. #7 Thatch Jim 18 Oct 13

    Great article, being a supporter of occupy LSX but not an occupier, My memories are that Day One (15/10/2011) was the day I took my eldest daughter to her first demo, a brilliantly sunny day that still shines bright for my family. I look back at the photos I took on that sunny first day and subsequent days of OLSX and can proudly say that some of the once unfamiliar faces in the crowds are now friends. Me and my wife attended Reclaim in Balcombe knowing that we would be surrounded by some of those friends who's social conscience and committed to bringing about a a better world give me hope for my kids future..... well done and long live the seeds of Occupy LSX.

  8. #8 anne mullett 24 Oct 13

    Occupy taxes, why Charitable Donation?, gives impression, Social Welfare is 'charity' Why is government involved in tax breaks for mutltinational corporate world, a global write off?

  9. #9 Kevin 27 Nov 13

    Hi Jamie

    You may be interested to know that the Occupy Movement features as one of the two pre-released topics for the A level Citizenship exam. Students will start studying the topic now in preparation for questions in the June 2014 exam. Schools and colleges who offer this qualification may well be interested in offers from those involved to share their experiences.

    Best Wishes

    Kevin Walker
    Citizenship Teacher.

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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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