The Occupy Movement: Personal Reflections, Origins, Actions & Future Intentions

Standing Stone, 26th March 2012ce

The Occupy Movement: Personal Reflections, Origins, Actions & Future Intentions

"Create a society that values material things above all else. Strip it of industry. Raise taxes for the poor and reduce them for the rich and for corporations. Prop up failed financial institutions with public money. Ask for more tax, while vastly reducing public services. Put adverts everywhere, regardless of people's ability to afford the things they advertise. Allow the cost of food and housing to eclipse people's ability to pay for them. Light blue touch paper." - Andrew Maxwell

“GET A JOB!!!” went the daily alarm clock, a service kindly provided by a local van driver on his way to work. “Can you keep the noise down - I need to get up for work in 10 minutes”, came the response from one of the tents. Sitting in a tent on a patch of grass in the middle of essentially the biggest roundabout in Bath being subjected to cries of “Get a job!” and “Occupy the Bath!” wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I decided to join the biggest worldwide protest movement against financial inequality and corrupt governments and corporations. But at least it gave all those people with no other means of expressing frustration an opportunity to let it all out. Meanwhile, over in the information tent, a friend who had been on site less than an hour and had only stopped by to sit and read his paper was confronted with a continuous stream of well-wishers dropping in to tell him what a great thing he was doing. The public are still divided on the Occupy Movement and some may be forgiven for seeing it as a failure, but it’s not over yet.

The economy affects almost everything. The lust for short-term monetary gains means that money is put into more oil-drilling and nuclear power rather than investing in renewables and undertaking research to make them more effective. Wars are fought over resources and habitats and communities are destroyed in the quest for a bigger bank balance. Livelihoods are lost when the economy can’t sustain the jobs – and all this time those at the top are getting richer and richer. On a worldwide scale, this isn’t a bad country – few people starve or die of cold or thirst, and we at least get a say in choosing our leaders. But Occupations worldwide stand together in solidarity with each other, supporting the “99%” (or whatever the exact percentage is) who don’t have excessive power, money and influence and abuse it for their own ends, to the detriment of the rest of the population.

The Occupy Movement is a collective, and in some respects, a coalition, of individuals from all walks of life. Many had never protested before and some had never given politics much thought until recently – a new generation is discovering politics and activism for the first time. Others had had some involvement in various groups and campaigns. What is incredible is who it has brought together under one banner – anarchists, socialists, environmentalists, anti-cuts activists, anti-war activists, small business owners, trade unionists (including teachers, lecturers and healthcare workers), grassroots Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Party members, war veterans, students, pensioners, homeless, unemployed, working and middle class people and many more labels – individuals uniting to make a stand against the greedheads responsible for the global recession.

Occupy Origins

2011 was a year that has gone down in history for the sheer number of protests targeted at corrupt leaders and financial institutions, which in some cases resulted in wars and revolutions. So much happened last year that the finding and execution of Osama Bin Laden was almost a minor footnote, buried under the weight of all of the other major news stories. The protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt and the Indignado Movement in Spain were among the most prominent, and were highly influential in shaping the next wave of protests. The Indignados were effectively the template for Occupy, setting up camps in cities and towns and debating the root causes of their grievances with the political and financial situation they were faced with. Meanwhile in the UK, riots kicked off in London and elsewhere, with some (in particular the Guardian newspaper) commenting that it was a result of poverty and materialism.

On 17th September 2011, the Occupy Movement started, which, if nothing else, demonstrated the enormous power of 21st Century inter-connectivity. What was to become the biggest worldwide international protest movement the world has ever seen can be traced back to one man, Kalle Lasn of the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, who put the idea of occupying Wall Street out there on the social media. He didn’t quite realise at the time how significant the impact of this would become. Shortly afterwards, the internet activist group Anonymous started to spread this message, with a statement on their website reading "On the 17th of September, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.” The rest is history.

Sick of the recession, sick of governments being under the thumb of huge corporations, tired of the lies of politicians and worried about the future, thousands descended on Wall Street and stayed there. So powerful was this statement that it sent shockwaves around America and the rest of the globe. More camps in the states were set up in solidarity with Wall Street. A global day of action was soon planned and nearly a month later on the 15th October around 1000 similar camps were set up in the major cities and towns of over 80 countries.

Occupy in the UK

On Day One of Occupy UK, I turned up at College Green in Bristol with no tent and no plan. I didn’t even know if it would just be a one-day protest or if it would be an encampment like Wall Street, let alone know that it would go on to become the second biggest Occupation in Britain. There were already tents up when I arrived, and within minutes I made new friends and had an offer of a sleeping bag and space in a tent. Throughout the night people dropped by on their way home from London with reports of huge crowds and kettling, before opening a bottle and joining the crowd by the sound system blasting out reggae beside the fire. People were checking the news to find out where else had occupations. With each passing moment the realisation grew of how big this thing was. Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Berlin, Sydney – the list kept growing as did the feeling that we were all part of something huge that just might change the world. I stayed over when I could over the next few weeks and soon got involved in setting up Occupy Bath.

In some respects Occupy in the UK was the antithesis of the riots that had ignited in London an beyond just a few months earlier in August 2011. The peaceful Occupations drew mixed support with many undecided or not interested, rather than the near-universal condemnation of the riots. The flagship camp, originally planned for Paternoster Square, was forced by police to move to the pavement outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The Church was heavily divided on the camp, rather ironically given the tale of Jesus evicting the money lenders from the temple and with St Paul himself being a tent-maker. On my visit to Occupy London during the first UK and Ireland Occupy conference, I was impressed by the organisation of the three camps – London Stock Exchange (LSX/St Paul’s), Finsbury Square and the Bank of Ideas. The speakers at the foot of the steps drew a huge crowd, the kitchens were well-stocked and well-staffed, the Tent City University had a diverse and interesting line-up of events and the place was bustling with visitors. A hub and an important Occupation on a national and global scale it was, but after meeting delegates from all of the other camps it was clear to me that this movement could survive beyond the loss of Occupy LSX. The analogy of starfish has been used to describe both Anonymous and the Occupy Movement – cut off a leg and it grows another one. By the end of the conference we had already established a communications network and swapped contact details, effectively cementing this analogy.

Consensus decision making, the democratic system used within the camps, has been heavily criticised by opponents. It is not the perfect system by any means and is open to abuse. But at the same time a democratic and leaderless system was necessary in order to keep the camps running, and when you’re with people you trust, there’s little to worry about. Also there was no rule that said you couldn’t modify the structure to make it more effective. There were no leaders within the camps – power can lead to abuse, and the police always go looking for leaders. Everyone involved represented themselves and only themselves, and had an equal say in matters. Where a decision had to be made, everyone present had the opportunity to vote. Those who weren’t sure or against the decision were then listened to, and amendments were made until all were happy, or could at least live with the decision.

“What are you doing in Bath? It’s not exactly a major financial centre.” This question cropped up a lot, usually from drunk students at night time. Throughout the UK, USA and the rest of the world, there were lots of camps that weren’t outside banks, stock exchanges or government buildings. These camps were set up in solidarity with the big ones such as Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange. They were there as a physical presence and a continual reminder that all is not right, a place to educate and to learn, and a place to come together to discuss solutions. A place where even local authority figures such as MPs and councillors came to discuss the problems we’re facing. About 30 people showed up for the planning meeting for Occupy Bath, very few of whom had visited an Occupy camp – and these were people completely down with the movement. Over the six weeks of the encampment, hundreds of people came by to learn more and to attend the meetings, talks, debates and musical events we put on. We were in the news every week and often the media would print our press releases and letters word for word and use the photos we sent them. We weren’t just preaching to the converted either – we had the whole city talking. People would walk past on their way to the pubs, tell us to get a job (actually most of us had jobs and/or went to college/university, or had recently lost a job or retired from one), have a debate about why we were there and come back later with questions. The Daily Mail-owned Bath Chronicle even gave us runner-up Campaign of the Year 2011 for starting these conversations and drawing attention to the global economic crisis.

Occupy the Press

In order for normal people to get a message across or to highlight an issue to the general public, they need to do something newsworthy. Meeting in a community centre or someone’s living room once a week might make a local newsletter, but it won’t make the national news. But a few tents in the right places – that’s a story. The reports in the press are often misleading, with most media sources referring to Occupy as an “anti-capitalist” protest and claiming that we are making no clear demands. This is the same press owned by multi-millionaires who have governments under their thumbs and dubious agendas – the “1%”, in other words. There are, of course, many anti-capitalists within the Occupy Movement, but everyone has their own grievances and their own reasons for being involved – which don’t always amount to anti-capitalism. You don’t have to be an anti-capitalist to want fairer taxation and pay. Better regulation of the banking system, an end to fractional reserve banking, claiming the tax back from corporations such as Vodafone and the implementation of the Robin Hood tax are among the many measures supported by people within the Occupy Movement that are more reformist capitalism than anti-capitalist. Some have claimed that it is corporatocracy at fault, not capitalism necessarily.

By constantly limiting the scope of the movement to being simply an anti-capitalist one, many were immediately put off, and wrongly assumed that we were all Stalinist communists. Through many e-mails to news sources I was able to get some to change their description to “pro-economic fairness” – a more universal term – but others (including the BBC) stuck fast to the anti-capitalist line, and continually showed the picture of the “Capitalism is Crisis” banner outside St Paul’s Cathedral as evidence for this, long after it was taken down. The news seldom referred to the encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral by its proper name – Occupy the London Stock Exchange (LSX) – and instead talked endlessly about its location outside the cathedral, thus drawing attention away from the point of the camp. Adam Boulton from Sky News compared Occupy London to the Nazi occupation of France. The Daily Express used terms like “that Occupy rabble.” The BBC filmed a short segment at Occupy Bristol, starting with the statement “people aren’t sure what they’re protesting about.” They then interviewed several people who were either busy, or were cut off just as they were about to make a point. They came across as stupid and confused, just as the BBC had intended. A week later, the Guardian sent down a film crew and interviewed the same people, who came across much more intelligent and informed than on the BBC.

The movement soon learned that in order to get our side of the story out the way we saw things, we would have to do it ourselves. The professional-looking Occupied Times of London, written exclusively by Occupiers, was given out at the camps, and a website was set up. Other Occupations and individuals set up their own newsletters and blogs. While not as popular as The Sun, they were at least there for those who wanted to hear our version of the news.

You Can’t Evict an Idea

Camps may have been dismantled or evicted, but the people involved in them still have each other’s contact details and can announce further actions and campaigns to hundreds or even thousands of supporters via social media. Communication between the regional, national and international occupations is on-going, with conferences, discussions and planning for future actions continuing even now.

What we have witnessed is a large number of individuals who take issue with the current handling of the economy coming together. People are starting to wake up to the idea that they have had the power all along, and that authorities can be rendered ineffective if enough people ignore them. Revolution with no idea of what to do afterwards can lead to a worse state of affairs than before – things need to be thought through, and this takes time.

The Occupy Movement is far from over and has had a whole winter to reflect, reassess and learn. Occupy London has a new base at the Limehouse, and Wall Street recently re-occupied Zuccotti Park on its 6-month anniversary. Meetings and talks are still happening on the steps of St Paul’s. An Occupy South West conference took place on 25/25th March 2012, with ideas being shared and future actions decided. A fourth national conference is planned for April. There have been re-occupations in several cities and more are planning to re-occupy or take part in some other kind of direct action. Many of those that formerly camped out still meet up and communicate, and are planning targeted demonstrations, protests and campaigns for the near future.

This is an organic movement, continually evolving as people learn more and come up with new ideas and tactics. Numerous off-shoots from the movement are starting to take on a life of their own. The Move Your Money campaign, a simple idea – if you don’t like the big banks, move your money somewhere else, like an ethical bank or a credit union – has been given much weight by the Occupy Movement, with several occupations organising their own Move Your Money events and campaigns to get councils to move to ethical banks. People’s Assemblies, independent democratic forums for discussion, debate and formulation of ideas and proposals – open to all to attend – have been set up and are now active in many cities, most prominently in Bath.

The Occupy Movement is not alone in being disgruntled with the current economic situation. There are many other groups, campaigns and organisations (and plenty of non-affiliated individuals) – from environmental groups to trade unions – that perceive money, or lack of it, as one of the root cause of their grievances. Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union, is calling for protests during the Olympics over cuts to public services. The anti-nuclear lobby is rising to prominence once more due to the likelihood of new nuclear power stations being built in the UK, giving more profit to huge energy companies rather than investment in renewables that can produce cleaner and cheaper electricity. Environmental organisations have attacked the budget for not delivering on green promises, and others have criticised it for benefitting the rich. Hell, even the Police Federation is balloting for strike action. In these times, all of these organisations could benefit from working closely together to achieve a better future.

Whether you agree with Occupy or not, to those that yearn for change and long for a better world, now, more than ever, is the time to start talking, start writing, start standing up, start sharing ideas, stop whispering and start singing and shouting, and to start taking action. The world run by the “1%” is, and always has been, temporary and fragile – and fully capable of changing or even being completely torn down, if only enough people can realise that the power has been in their own hands all along.

Standing Stone is a forward-thinking political and environmental campaigner, activist and blogger, and an individual participant in the Occupy Movement. The views expressed here are his own and are not necessarily representative of the Occupy Movement as a whole.