Posted by Kuang on Mon, 12 Dec 2011.
It's Friday afternoon in Leicester city centre and we've been invited to the Occupy camp to get a sense of what the movement is about. Occupy is a loose term for a global grass-roots movement to raise awareness of various issues that the participants believe represent injustice in society. The key points often revolve around money - the 'we are the 99% slogan' is a direct reference to worldwide distribution of wealth and power - but issues from education to industry regulation are also fair game.
The Leicester camp has now been running for almost four weeks, during which it's grown from two tents near the Clock Tower to a barricaded camp outside HMV on High Street. Kieran and Spud are staffing the information marquee at the front of the camp, aided by various team members who come and go as time permits. On the table there's a wishlist including bedding, tarpaulin, storage containers and candles, and random people drift over out of curiousity to take a look and ask general 'what's this all about?' questions.
A member of the public arrives with a bag of hot doughnuts for the group, telling them she's from Unite against Facism, that they're aware that the EDL might be out to cause trouble and that the UAF intends to counter them if they appear in public. I ask if there's a credible threat of which they're aware?
Kieran tell me that the Nottingham camp isn't aware of any current threat from the EDL - there was initially, but after a meeting they were told they're ok long as they don't promote anything that might be considered negative towards British troops.
However a threat was apparently made on Facebook suggesting that local EDL supporters were planning to smash the camp for entertainment over the weekend, so everyone is working at a heightened state of awareness. I ask if they're prepared to stand up against the EDL should it come to that. One of the team says 'we've got certain members - the girls - who won't leave the camp, so we'll do what it takes to protect them'. Kieran adds that he's had run-ins with the EDL in the past, including one at knifepoint. He believes that certain members just act like 'oversized bullies' and even though he's aware of the risks he's not prepared to back down.
The flow of conversation is briefly interrupted by another member of the public bringing over a tray of coffees and congratulating the team on making a stand. Suitably refreshed, Spud picks up the thread.
He believes the Leicestershire public are on their side when it comes to protesting against injustice, citing the joint efforts against a previous EDL demonstration in the city centre. He notes a situation where rival gang members were watching each others backs simply because they decided there was a greater enemy at that moment. He says 'They came into Leicester expecting to find us as fractured and intolerant as they are, and just found a united front to fight against them'.
The Occupy Leicester information handout contains a list of ten beliefs that the group feel should be brought to public attention, ranging from independent regulation of various industries to ending oppression and discrimination. There are specific references to support for strike actions, government cuts and the aftermath of the banking crisis. Most Occupy groups have published a similar list, sometimes containing items so disparate that I wonder if that could damage the perception of a unified movement? How solid are the groups when each member might be fighting for a different cause?
'Personally I feel that if we ever do get what we're fighting for, the Occupy movement will disintegrate and cease to be a viable political movement.'
That being the case, what's the force that's holding the group together currently?
'Everyone's unified in the same cause' says Kieran. 'Well, basically the same cause' amends Spud. 'It's the closest to the same target that we're ever going to get between these factions and organisations. Once we achieve that though, we still have all the factions who wanted slightly different things to start with. People's personal political motivations may start to drive them away from the other groups. That's one things that upsets me - some people seem unable to join the Occupy movement as a member of the Occupy movement instead of as a member of another organisation.'
That raises an interesting question about the foundations of the Occupy movement. Attempting to unify similarly inclined groups to wield more political power is a savvy move, but I wonder if setting up a framework in which multiple beliefs could be promoted might cause less friction that attempting to arrive at a group agreement?
Spud is aware of this. He says 'once you get to the point where we've achieved everyone's core beliefs, it's impossible to cater for everyone's individual beliefs. For example - there are members in this camp who support an end to currency. I don't, but you can't have both.'
He continues 'hopefully large numbers of the Occupy movement will stay together. I believe that if we were to succeed our numbers would drop by, say, 10% globally. The people affiliated to various organisations would go on fighting for their beliefs'. However he does think that a number of people who joined Occupy simply to be part of Occupy would stay central to that movement and continue to pick up new issues as they arose.
I decided to throw a loaded question at the team on this subject. Many of the Occupy movement's goals relate to sustainability, whether it's economic or environmental; if the movement designed to promote these issues is, in itself, not sustainable, is it reasonable to expect more of far larger organisations and even entire political systems?
Spud replies 'we're not designed to be sustainable - we haven't put ourselves forward as a political party, but as a platform of ideals and a unified front. We're basically a petition in tents. The Occupy movement exists to achieve these aims, and once it does the Occupy movement no longer has a point or a reason to exist.'
'Possibly it'll re-emerge in the future when another situation arises. Even if we got everything we wanted I dont think it'd make the fair and equal society we're fighting for straight away. There are still things out there we haven't spoken about, or that we don't yet know about, that we need to resolve first.'
I ask if sustaining elements of the movement as a kind of ongoing conscientious watchdog might bring about a better chance of achieving their aims by maintaining awareness of the movement on the fringes of organised politics?
'It won't shut down totally' he says, 'I think people will still want to wear an Occupy badge because who'd ever want to forget they were a part of this if we succeeed - or even if we fail, because at least they tried. We may lose members, we may gain more, I don't know. I can't see the future of the Occupy movement, but I honestly believe that once the purpose has been fulfilled we'll have to re-assess'
Spud indicates that there are 'cities of tents' appearing everywhere, so this rethink will be needed unless they intend to declare their independence from the state. Keiran picks this up. 'I'd be happy to do that, start a whole community or society like the Amish did. We've all come together without previously knowing each other'.
He pauses - the atmosphere changes. The team have spotted two people they believe are members of the EDL casing the camp, and note that the total for that day currently stands at 24. They consider this to be a real security risk and intend to have members awake around the clock to keep watch. Kieran says that the local police have been brilliant and very supportive and he's spoken to them on a daily basis, but he's aware of the response time should something kick off.
He indicates a CCTV camera and says the camp is covered by that, but that there's always the fear the police might want to close them down if they're perceived as attracting trouble despite not starting any and protesting peacefully. I ask if they'd like to have an undercover police presence watching the camp just in case, but he's not keen - he's happy to share information with the police when they ask, and considers a few local officers to be friends, but he prefers everything to be out in the open.
He stops there, as an argument has started among team members. A recent arrival at the camp is raising his voice over allegations regarding his behaviour towards another member. The atmosphere is becoming heated, and passers by are starting to take notice. Kieran steps in and start to talk the individual down calmly. The diplomatic approach seems to be working but it's an uphill struggle, although it's clear that the team have a strong code of ethics that they won't see breached - a demonstration of practising what you preach.
I approach another member of the team to talk about the public's reaction so far.
He tells me 'some of them have been ok but we've had a lot of, mostly drunken, abuse hurled at us. There seem to be a lot of people who like to get drunk, shout at us, and tell us that we're wrong'. He says a couple of people have been on the receiving end of violence from the public, but otherwise it's been ok. . I ask how he came to be at the camp, expecting a political background, but that's not how it goes.
'I came here because I'm homeless' he says. 'I can't get off the street because the government says I don't qualify for help. Something's got to change.' As if on cue the heavens open and the sound of the rain on the canvas is deafening.
'I've been working every day since I left school over 25 years ago. I've paid taxes every year, but now I've been told I don't qualify for help. I'm not a drug adict, I'm not an alcoholic, I'm not registered mentally ill, I'm not female, I'm not pregnant, I've not been released from prison in the last six months, and I'm under the age of 48. I've been told that unless I fall into one of those categories I don't qualify for government help'
He tells me he's doing agency work to make enough money to survive, but unless he finds something full-time he won't be able to get off the streets, and in the current climate that's not easy. He's apparently not the only member of the camp in exactly this position either. He's just dealing with it day by day in the hope that something good will come from their protest.
It's clear that the Occupy movement has taken on a serious challenge and has chosen to fight on many fronts, a tactic that usually guarantees failure. However, the loosely worded ideals and disparate nature of the participants could turn out to be a strength - how can you fail if you're unable or unwilling to quantify success? It's clear that not everyone taking part has the same depth of political understanding, or even awareness of the realities of the economic and democratic landscapes, but that there's the potential to learn in an atmosphere of relative trust. It's also clear that the British public are engaging with the movement in the same way they engage with politics in general - a small percentage are strongly opinionated either for or against, a larger proportion are fairly clear in their own thoughts but prepared to consider other options, and the majority don't appear to care either way.
Perhaps that's the key to unlocking the strength of the movement. Success in any political arena comes from communicating an understanding of the needs of the public along with clear indicators of a plan and a will to succeed, but whilst maintaining a grip on what's practical. However it's the latter part that often causes the problems and prevents the grand gestures that many appear to need in order to start thinking for themselves. By not suggesting specific action plans but raising awareness of a need to consider them, Occupy has sidestepped accountability and ensured that people with a limited political understanding can take part without feeling unarmed. This can lead to one dimensional slogans rather than positive suggestions, but just getting people involved in politics when voter turnout in the UK is traditionally so low has to count as some form of success. It's also noteworthy that many of the participants are young - the camp has a '16 and above' rule - and that politicians often complain that they struggle to engage with this age group. There may be lesson to be learned.
Even if Occupy doesn't succeed in its goals, it's demonstrated that individuals across the world are capable of pulling together if the perceived threats are high enough, and that has to send a stark message to the status quo.