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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out


7