Occupied bodies and lost souls – the problem with protest

2 05 2012

Believe it or not I made my first (of what will be many) forray into the world of the Occupy London movement yesterday, I have spent long enough  listening to second-hand, lopsided accounts of the various protest marches of the last few years and it was time to hear it from the horse’s mouth. A friend and I strolled down to Paternoster Square for the afternoon portion of the May Day March, where we marched to Trafalgar and then onto Bond Street and Oxford Street for the supposed “Occupy” led portion of the day. The following is what I hoped to see, what I actually saw and how I felt about the whole thing…

Excuse me sir, would you kindly move your tent please, I have a letter here that explains in full my reasoning for this position…

Standing on the platform, I found myself running at least an hour late, not a good start to life as an engaged, protesting citizen but hey, I’m on the platform, better late than never. I am filled with a range of differing emotions from a hint of anxiety to excitement, I really had no idea what to expect. Until now I have watched Occupy from afar, intrigued but not yet moved to follow them outside of the virtual world. What I will find I do not know, I am hoping to be inspired, I am hoping that six months on, Occupy is still strong and has something to show me that I have not seen before, I am not certain that I will find either. Here comes the train…

Sitting on the train I can’t help but look around at the nameless faces sitting before me, dotted around the carriage as far away from each other as possible. In each of them I see a reason to attend todays march, each sullenly going about the business of distracting themselves from the monotony of the daily commute. Some playing with electronic multi-function devices, others battling with Sudoku puzzles or pouring through the various reality distortion publications that make up our ‘beloved’ free press.

I am struck by the sense that humans have been shipped about en mass in this way before, somewhere in our dark past and I feel a profound yet distant connection with these lost souls. Why are we so blind to the fact that we are cattle being shipped from one place to another for some unseen higher being? Yes I am glad that I’m off to St Paul’s, I could do with some clarity in this increasingly opaque world, I wouldn’t put my house on finding it today though…

After meeting up with my friend Tom, we joined the march at Holborn, where we were ushered on down to Trafalgar Square by a tight but polite police cordon, indeed it did make me chuckle how civilised (and controlled) the whole thing was. By the time we reached Trafalgar square the sun had completely broken through the dark clouds of earlier in the day and we were bathed in sunlight, all in all it was a very nice walk through London on a sunny afternoon.

I was struck by two main things from the march and the rally that followed at Trafalgar. Firstly, the disjointed feel to the whole thing. Tom and I joined at virtually the back and slowly made our way to the front, passing through countless different ideologies, grievances, movements and approaches. There are even movements within movements with anonymous, which has sprung up as an active sub-group of the Occupy movement. Indeed there are even movements within movements within movements, the Solidarity Federation* are another movement who have sprung up out of the Occupy protests and they appear to have modelled themselves quite closely on the anonymous guys. Basically the only place you will find more movements is in my stomach the morning after a particularly spicy curry.

So as I have made clear, I got the sense that there were several different marches going on within the one and whilst that is fine, as we all have our own thing we get pissed off about, there was very little sense of any real effort to coordinate with one another, no togetherness. Ironically the buzz word of the day was solidarity, but if I am completely honest I was struggling to see much evidence of any such thing, the activist ego is a mighty powerful thing, half the fun is the glory, just ask any union boss.

The second thing I was struck by was the quality, or indeed lack there of, of the speakers. Each and every one of them failed to keep the whole audience engaged for the entire time they were speaking, most failed to grab the attention of more than a third of the attendees for more than thirty seconds. I couldn’t help but imagine standing before Martin Luther King in 1963, as he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a captivated audience of 200,000 people about his big dream for the future. That does not happen here, not even close, everyone is either too meek, too extreme, or too confused about what they actually want to be able to engross anyone for any length of time. One after another they stand at the base of Nelson’s Column and proclaim that cuts are bad, that the system is corrupt, that we need a return to economic growth, each one pointing out a problem, not one offering a viable solution or alternative. Each one proclaiming us Comrades as though Stalin was a good thing and each one claiming solidarity with the others without ever engaging with anything but their own agenda.

Sarah Jewell representing Occupy at the May Day march on Trafalgar

Almost everyone calls for a return to economic growth, yet no one points out that a model of infinite economic growth based upon finite natural resources is utterly, ludicrously unsustainable. Until of course, Sarah Jewell from Occupy takes the mic and she doesn’t beat around the bush. However, even she fails to really drive home the point in a way that could begin to unite the unions and the protest movements under a shared cause. She does come up with the best sound bite of the march and one that draws a brief yet rousing cheer from the crowd. Taken from a speech delivered by the Rev. Jessie Jackson to Occupy London, “we are not the revolution, the revolution is still to come. We are the canaries at the end of the tunnel, just trying to warn the world of the dangers ahead”, nice, but still, no solutions.

One thing that was noted during the Trafalgar rally was that the police pretty much immediately cordoned off the Occupy area from the rest of the march, which only served to draw attention to them and praise from each and every one of the speakers at the event. Sometimes you have to wonder if the police actually know what they are doing.

I did find some evidence that the aggressive approach of the police can turn a calm situation into one that is on the verge of boiling over, to my surprise however it seemed to me that any pushing and shoving always seemed to come about from a slightly hot-headed approach from an individual police officer rather than because of the way a group of them dealt with protestors. Indeed most of the officers were very cordial and were happy to have a bit of a laugh and a joke with many of the protesters, who I am sure they have got to know very well over the last six months.

They are shit hot on the tents though, they had these little heritage officers running around the square filing the paperwork almost as quickly as the tents went down. Even for Brits I found this dedication to bureaucracy astounding, indeed most of the officers on the scene seemed to spend a lot of their time doing admin. Incidentally I counted and it takes seventeen police officers and five heritage officers to remove one tent, I couldn’t help but feel that if Occupy took a little more time to organise themselves and could get one thousand people to put tents down in the same place at the same time, there probably wouldn’t be enough police officers to remove them so quickly. Shame.

As things died down in Trafalgar Square, we followed the Occupy protesters down to Bond Street. As a side note, I have now

The Police outside JD sports on Oxford street, or “building 9” as they like to call it

forgiven twitter for forcing that Bieber thing down my throat every day, there is no better way to follow protesters around london. What happened on Bond Street and Oxford Street yesterday afternoon, for me highlighted the failures of the movement far more than it did the successes.

After losing them upon leaving Trafalgar we twittered our way over to Bond Street where we had learnt Occupy were gathering for the next stage of the days protesting. Standing outside the station, for a good ten minutes nothing seemed to be going on, there were plenty of people and it did make getting in and out of the station difficult, the police blocked the entrance but nothing really happened. As me and Tom were about to turn around and head to the pub, there was a bit of a commotion around the entrance to the station.

The paps had gathered furiously around a young lady with dreads and flowing hippy attire (you could not give them a better stereotype) standing next to a man with a megaphone. As if on Que. they began a chant of “we won’t work for JSA” which was quickly taken up by most in the crowd around us. This chant did not sit well in the stomach with Tom or I, it felt like someone was hijacking the Occupy protest, did they really think that saying we won’t work for job seekers allowance was a message that would get the public on their side?

I soon discovered that this was being led by a group called the Solidarity Federation, they had used the Occupy movement as an opportunity to push their own agenda. Once again we were seeing the activist ego at play, it felt hijacked and it felt self-defeating. They were not the only ones but they were most prominent in our thoughts by the end of the day, but there were several socialist and communist groups with different political aims using Occupy as a stepping stone to a wider audience.

Tom and I both tried to reason with those around us, noting that this was not a message that would get public support and that the media would jump on this as yet another opportunity to destroy the movements credibility. Of the two people I was speaking to, one walked away as soon as she realised she didn’t like my point of view and carried on chanting, the other listened and engaged me in debate for five or ten minutes but still tried to justify this poorly thought out action by saying, “we have to do something”, maybe they should change their name to the Justify Movement.

Tom had a similar experience with the chap he spoke to. He asked him, “do you honestly believe that chanting we won’t work for JSA is the most important message and the message that the public are likely to get behind?”. Amazingly the man was absolutely convinced of the fact that this was the right thing to be doing and that the public would absolutely get behind this. In many of the people we spoke to we saw the same thing, massive emotional attachment to all of their ideas and actions. Many protesters have a similar mentality to those that they are protesting against, they are so convinced that they are right, that they are often unable to evolve their ideas from where the began. Indeed they don’t even see mistakes as mistakes, they are emotionally tied to their ideas and that is a very worrying state of mind because it makes them very easy to infiltrate and influence.

This chap thought it would be a good idea to Occupy the top of a bus stop, meaningful action you say? I’m not so sure

Don’t waste your time with actions that only serve to push the silent majority further away from you, only engage in actions that are worthy and that have an impact. The great movements of our past were great because of their ability to tap into universal truths, I heard very few of those yesterday.

As discussed, the movement would benefit greatly from some media savvy but it could also do with some people who actually understand how some of the businesses that they target on these marches function. For example, after the debacle outside the station, we headed a hundred yards up the road to Occupy one of the three McDonald’s on a 400 yard stretch of road in the busiest retail centre in London. McDonald’s are scientific in their approach to business, there are three small restaurants within a few hundred yards of each other for a reason, to have any impact on the business they do in that area, you would need to split into three separate groups and Occupy all three simultaneously to have any discernible impact and even then it is McDonald’s, they don’t give a crap. Like Top Shop it is a nice symbolic target but are you really serving the cause and utilising your resources in the best possible way here?

During the Solidarity Federation led ‘Occupy Bond street’ march, I also notice a huge amount of flyers being handed out with information relating to their cause, they must have handed out hundreds, I managed to grab a couple of the people handing out the leaflets, none of them could defend the content of the propaganda they were passing around and most could barely explain the content of the thing they were handing me. This is really worrying, if those at the sharp end of movements for change are so easily led then really, they do not have a chance.

I worry about groups like Occupy London and Unions like Unite, you see in my eyes, one of the biggest problems that they face lies in their own approach to their perceived enemies. I get the sense that whilst today was peaceful and the history of the Occupy movement itself has been one of largely peaceful protest (given its size and longevity), the mentality is one of war. Indeed if you watch the interview below with prominent Occupy activist Jamie Kelsey-Fry you will notice that his rhetoric is in line with an individual with the mentality of someone at war.

Whilst I think that is an understandable approach to take in the circumstances, I don’t believe it is smart to go to war with a war machine. The so-called one percent (more accurately the 0.1%) have been doing war for a very, very long time, they own the machine and the machine is perfectly designed for obliterating opponents. If Occupy treat this like a war, they cannot win, they will be smashed out of sight. My advice to Occupy London (each is different and I have only experienced London) would be this, make everything you do fun, make everything you do meaningful and base it around a system of knowledge sharing that can help people step beyond the confines of their current lives into something better. Everything they do should be in an a festival-like atmosphere, with music, great speakers and people having a good time, only when they do that will the tipping point come where people begin to latch on in their thousands.

I have said it before and I will say it again, the key to the future of humanity lies in the creation of a world of people capable of thinking critically and for themselves, a world full of people who do not need to be led, indeed a world full of leaders. I saw in yesterday’s protests nothing more than a reflection of the current system at work. A few people with lots of knowledge leading a group of people who are desperate to be part of something.

This is not the answer, the number one priority for Occupy or any similar group should be to get people thinking for themselves, then and only then will they be fit for purpose. Right now, it seems from my point of view at least, that for every action that serves the cause, there are three or four that serve to diminish it. Wake up and organise!!

I will leave you with the image that has stuck in my mind from yesterday, at one point a young and excitable member of the anonymous wing of the Occupy movement charged over to her scruffy and red bull charged buddies exclaiming, “I just got in trouble with a policeman! I just got in trouble with a policeman over there!” If you Occupy the bodies of lost souls you’d better make sure you nurture one or two of those minds. There is nothing more dangerous than a well-intentioned yet ignorant human with nothing to lose and if Occupy lose sight of this fact, they could end up doing more harm than good.

*Correction: The Solidarity Federation or SolFed, are not an organisation that ‘sprung up’ from the Occupy movement, this was an act of poor research on the part of the author and I can only apologise for that mistake. SolFed, is a federation of class struggle anarchists that have been active all over Britain since 1994. They advocate the abolishment of capitalism and the state through anarcho-syndicalism, which is a branch of anarchism that focuses on the labour movement. The Occupy movement were there to support SolFed’s action against workfare. 

However this was an account of my experiences as a protester, there answering the same call from Occupy London that thousands will have received through their Facebook and Twitter feeds over the previous week and therefore I believe the point I made about it feeling hijacked remains valid. As it turns out Occupy were there in support of The Solidarity Foundation which is why they took up the chant of ‘we won’t work for JSA’, led by SolFed. I still do not believe that this is a message that either group should be putting out if they want to get the public on their side, it is simply too ambiguous, as the way in which I interpreted the situation at Bond Street Station stands testament to. Still I must retract my statement that this was hijacked by SolFed, indeed it was actually an attempted act of solidarity (albeit a messy one) with Occupy supporting a long established and important group, apologies to both for my mistake.


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