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Occupy London! Creating space for change

Occupy LSX activist Kelly Bornshlegel talks about the dynamic democracy of the camps

December 12, 2011
7 min read

Photo: Christopher A Tittle (Flickr)

On the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, 250 people listen to a proposal for a call to action in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. After the woman finishes reading a passionate solidarity statement from Egyptian activists, the facilitator does a ‘temperature check’ to see how everyone is feeling. A few people ask questions, and then begins the process of finding a proposal that will pass the consensus process.

The crowd is mixed, a mash-up of new faces and old friends interspersed with passing tourists and even the occasional banker in a suit. Anarchists, teachers, socialists, liberals, anti‑globalisation activists, musicians and artists, students and pensioners have come together to demand change.

We’ve seen the initial Occupy the London Stock Exchange (‘Occupy LSX’) demonstration turn into a camp of resistance, complete with infrastructure to feed and care for the campers, spaces for learning and reflection, a vibrant collective process of debate and active participation in decision-making, working groups that range from political strategy to sanitation and hygiene, and various systems of communication and functionality.

Beyond the everyday structure of the camp, alliances have been built across movements and various coordinated direct actions have taken place – some anti-capitalist, some in solidarity with students, workers and global resistance movements. The camp has created a space not only of visible resistance but also for creating and imaging change in real and tangible ways.

The first day of the occupation illustrates the unscripted nature of the camp. On 15 October, thousands of people arrived at St Paul’s, responding to a call to occupy the nearby stock exchange. Although the police prevented us from reaching our initial target, Paternoster Square, activists held a general assembly and quickly decided to set up camp at St Paul’s.

Photo: David Sandison

In contrast to the well-greased machine that was the Camp for Climate Action, this time comparatively little infrastructure or long-term planning went into the initial call. Later that day, impromptu working groups were set up to take on the immediate needs of the camp, such as ‘internal communications’, ‘water and food’ and ‘toilets’. An organic, spontaneous movement was emerging, largely from newer activists stepping up with fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm.

The make-up of ‘newer’ activists is one of the most inspiring aspects of the movement. For many of the protesters at the camp, this is their first time collectively organising on a large scale. In the words of Pete, a social worker from Leeds who came to London for Occupy LSX, ‘I have never been on a protest in my life, but I have recently been made redundant, and I just knew I had to be involved.’

Now there are 35 working groups, all accountable to the general assembly. Occupy LSX is creating a culture of care and mutual aid that can only come from the collective. Mariya Protzenko from the Queer Working Group, which was part of introducing a ‘Safer Spaces’ policy to the camp, says: ‘We think we need to be the change that we want to see. One aspect of that is creating an environment in which we all feel safe and supported. When we first introduced it at an afternoon general assembly people had a lot of questions about it, but after they had time to think and discuss, it was passed.’

Photo: Erase (Flickr)

One frequent critique of the movement is that it is not offering alternative solutions – that the protesters ‘don’t know what they want’. Sara, a teacher who has been at the camp intermittently since the beginning, is weary of this comment.

‘We may all be here for diverse reasons: criticising a culture of consumerism or resisting cuts to our welfare state,’ she says. ‘But we are brought together in unified indignation at the current status quo. We are beginning to understand that each of our struggles are interconnected and that the only way to create change is together.’

At Occupy LSX, and the sister camp in Finsbury Square, we are creating spaces where we can imagine change on our own terms, discuss and debate what is broken and collectively envision new possibilities. The forging of alliances across previously guarded lines is fermenting a new culture of collective dissent – creating fissures in the system to allow space for imagination.

The dynamism of Occupy LSX is partially down to its links with the global movement. Inspiration is drawn from struggles around the world: visitors, international statements, calls for parallel action, international ‘Occupy Skype’ connections and messages of support have all illustrated its global nature, with solidarity flowing back and forth across borders.

It is very much of the moment. It is infusing a psychic break – the crashing of the economic system – with leftist rather than rightist politics and values, which is rare and important. Occupy has succeeded in pushing radical critiques deeper into the mainstream. People are talking about inequality in real and meaningful ways. Suddenly, a fundamental questioning of capitalism has become more acceptable.

That said, the camps face significant challenges in the near future. One of the strengths of the movement, its fluidity and constant flux, also poses an interesting challenge to maintaining functionality and consistency from day to day, and even from the morning general assembly to the evening one. As the weather gets colder and more people need to get back to other commitments, the camp will need a continual stream of new people to maintain its presence.

Photo: James Guppy (Flickr)

The connectedness of struggles also poses a real test. The rallying cry, ‘We are the 99 per cent’, although useful when talking about some class inequalities, falls short when factoring in race, gender and other privileges. Many communities and people who make up the 99 per cent are not represented at the camp, for a multiplicity of reasons. The movement will have to address the complexity, diversity and inequality that is inherent within the 99 per cent to become a more incisive, inclusive and representative movement. As the anti-prison activist and scholar Angela Davis has said, ‘The unity of the 99 per cent must be a complex unity.’

Occupy LSX has created a symbol of critical dissent, but how will it be built upon? We have given people a focus for their anger, but how are our actions and those of others going to interlink to cumulative effect? Capitalism is indeed in crisis, and it is clear the political elites have no solutions, but can the plurality of ideas and protests currently emerging give rise to a powerful movement that continues to gain momentum and opens space for new forms of social economy? These are questions that will not just be determined by those at Occupy LSX but by people everywhere.

Whether the camp carries on, disbands or re-invents itself, the significance of what has happened will not be lost – a spark was lit in our collective consciousness that is only the beginning. In the air is a lovely, unspoken echo of the Arabic chant, ‘the people want the downfall of the system!’

Kelly Bornshlegel is involved with Occupy LSX. She writes in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the camps

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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