Occupy’s Object Lessons: Why The Camps Were Critical

Protesters stand on a fort of furniture and shelving, challenging a police operation to remove them.

Photo by freelance journalist Stacey Knott.

[First published in the Morning Star, 02/03/2012.]

And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers. — Acts 18:3

“OCCUPIED 137 DAYS, CLEARED IN 137 MINUTES” blared Wednesday’s Evening Standard as cleaning crews quite literally scrubbed Occupy London Stock Exchange from existence.

The capital’s exiled activists have refused to be cowed, rallying at their sole remaining camp in nearby Finsbury Square. But the loss of St Paul’s Square is only the latest in a string of setbacks: with a grim inevitability, the movement has been ceding ground since December. The repossession of public spaces has been a key image for the movement, with more than 20 outdoor sites across Britain at its height — but four months on, Nottingham, Norwich, Kent and Finsbury Square are all that remain.

The refrain among critics and commentariat alike is that the camps have outlived their relevance — as if the centuries-old predations of capital vanished the moment Miliband and Cameron parroted identical platitudes about ‘responsibility’.

But even the campers themselves have been divided on the issue: even as the eviction was underway, defender Pedro Lima told me they had “spent enough time with the 1 percent”. The week before, regular spokesman Ronan McNern had lamented their legal battles as “a major energy drain — sometimes you just want to get back to the cause itself.

But a look back at the battle over St Paul’s shows the conflict has, if anything, only served to highlight Occupy’s discontent with the status quo.

Even the camp’s name invites pointed observation: despite more than 2000 protesters on day one, four lines of officers in riot gear, mounted police and attack dogs prevented them from ever occupying Paternoster Square, the privately-owned land on which the London Stock Exchange sits. As with the ban on protest camps in Parliament Square, so injunctions forbid protest in Britain’s other seat of power. In today’s parlance, a public forum is simply a corporate conference venue, sanitised by spin doctors and civil servants. When confronted with a genuinely public forum, UK plc recoils in horror.

And in turn, the Cathedral’s tacit support for eviction and the calculated silence of Labour (Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell being two notable exceptions) has only reinforced many activists’ belief that the era of any meaningful liberal establishment is over.

The Church of England – its very birth an overtly political act – seemed to have rediscovered its social conscience under Archbishop Rowan Williams. But even after the Cathedral dropped legal action against the camp in November, both Williams and the Cathedral took great pains to distance themselves from the action — figuratively and physically.

“There is still a powerful sense around – fair or not – of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers,” Williams conceded in one column. But it was the protesters – not Williams or the Church – who were “frustrated beyond measure at what they see as the disastrous effects of global capitalism”. The two cathedral occupations – in London and Sheffield – were relegated purely to the status of administrative matters.

Likewise the resignation of two senior clerics did nothing to prick the Cathedral’s conscience beyond reopening for business and asking a Christian investment banker to organise a panel discussion. In fact despite its earlier assurances, the Cathedral played a key role in expunging the occupation entirely: registrar Nicholas Cottam testified on the City’s behalf before the high court in December, complaining of graffiti “desecration” and a 50 percent drop in earnings from gift shop sales and corporate events. Many campers sought solace in the fact that the Cathedral grounds proper were not covered by the court order — but that hope evaporated on the night when an officer in riot gear informed Christian activist Jonathan Bartley that St Paul’s had secretly issued a trespass order against them.

Meanwhile union solidarity has largely failed to materialise – at least among the leadership – with Unite’s Len McLuskey being the only general secretary to publicly back the occupation back in October. Yet that support was rewarded in droves less than a fortnight later when 10,000 students marching to the camp halted and refused to budge until police ended a kettle of 150 striking Unite members nearby.

Those might be the two biggest object lessons, but even tabloid sniping has only illuminated the cause. The most common criticisms levelled against the camp simply reiterate old and deeply entrenched prejudices against the people they had come to represent. To quote the Daily Mail’s Tom Rawstorne, those whom Britain’s 20 percent youth unemployment rate had left with nowhere else to go were “professional protesters”; while those who still clung to jobs or study were merely filling “a part-time camp with part-time protesters”. The camps were attracting homeless people, others warned, as if this was not the explicit point of the movement’s ‘99 percent’ rhetoric. The camp was unsightly, as if people should grumble respectably behind closed doors. And the most common jibe, that the protesters didn’t have a coherent message — as if “our society’s obsession with individual wealth is literally destroying people’s lives” wasn’t self-evident from the projects, life experiences and stated views of every member of the camp.

With the eviction of the world’s longest-running Occupy camp, its stalwarts are already promising new plans afoot. But it is worth remembering that there is nothing inherently wrong with the old plan. To quote a 2009 ruling on a similar protest camp outside Aldermarston’s nuclear weapons base:

“This ‘manner and form’ may constitute the actual nature and quality of the protest; it may have acquired a symbolic force inseparable from the protesters’ message; it may be the very witness of their beliefs.”

With a name like Occupy, what else could it be?


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