Occupy London’s politics has become fundamentalist. The public expression of opposition is treated as treasonous. Anyone who challenges the creed of the camp is shouted at (as I have been several times, most recently in a telephone call last night from a key activist inside the media team), mocked, asked to leave and even threatened. I have been personally threatened a number of times inside the camp. Someone even threatened to kill me. At the time I thought I had inadvertently challenged the status of the young Arab man who made the threat. Understanding something of North African culture I thought perhaps I should have conducted myself more wisely and braved the situation out. Looking back and having heard the fearful conversations of many activists, I think my experience is relatively commonplace. Even one of the key activist witnesses in the High Court case is no longer prepared to give evidence, because he was physically attacked.
Some people disagree with me in Brighton but they don’t threaten my life. There is a decent community atmosphere down here on the Sussex coast. We take our politics seriously; witness us having elected the most radical MP in the country, Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party. As with any political grouping, there are occasional rows inside the Greens but I’ve never heard of anyone issuing threats. Yet inside Occupy London threats and actual violence have become commonplace. Unfortunately, this encampment has created a dangerous community. The problem stems from the founding principles of the camp, which are:
- the sovereign body is general assembly, which anyone may attend and fully participate in
- everything will be completely transparent and public
- nothing is agreed until everyone agrees
- there will be no leaders
- no-one will have any form of individual enforcement powers
The upshot of these principles combined is dithering and an intense distrust of anyone who takes responsibility for anything. I took responsibility for the legal team early on in the Occupation by personally instructing counsel and, later, solicitors to defend the eviction proceedings. (Please note, they represent Occupy London for free.) When I did this, I was criticised heavily and widely for “taking over” and accused of trying to usurp the general assembly. Particular anger was vented towards me for refusing to freely share the legal advice I received from counsel. Anyone with experience of legal proceedings will know, legal advice should not be shared. If you do this you waive your right to the confidentiality of that advice, past, present and future.
I instructed Mr Cooper QC myself on behalf of Occupy London Stock Exchange, so that I could taken objective expert advice. I had to make careful choices about who should be privy to that advice. It could not become properly public. This basic legal principle clashed with a principle of Occupy. From that moment on, I have struggled with the conflict, attempting to justify myself holding back some information in the face of increasing hostility. The problem was not resolved by the general assembly eventually approving the instructions I had given. Despite the activists clearly enjoying watching Mr Cooper QC cross-examining witnesses for the City of London Corporation in the High Court on our behalf yesterday, there remains plenty of criticism of the decision to instruct lawyers at all!
Other working teams inside Occupy have had similar experiences. The media team in particular has been heavily criticised. In my view this criticism has been hugely unfair. Naomi Colvin and Ronan McGivern have been outstanding. Without their expertise, their total commitment and them giving every waking hour (and probably some of their unconscious ones too) to Occupy London, much of the attention and success the camps have enjoyed would not have been possible. Given the scale of their commitment, I’ll forgive the former for shouting at me and the latter for not returning the odd text message! These two in particular have taken responsibility for organising the Occupation’s media output. Consequently, they are hated by many people inside the camp. Absolutely hated, by people who have become accustomed to disliking anyone with a specialist skill.
Occupy London’s third Occupation is the Bank of Ideas. The building is owned by the failed investment bank UBS. UBS’s attempt to evict the Occupationists was incompetent. UBS obtained an injunction to remove the activists but the method by which the injunction was obtained looks so flawed that the Bank of Ideas activists have won the right to have a full hearing in the Court of Appeal, with the result that they can remain in the building until well into the New Year. These are seriously well organised squatters!
The Bank has been a terrific success by all accounts (I haven’t been there myself), with daily events and it now hosts approximately 30 community groups which would have been closed down because of the government’s spending cuts. Although the Bank of Ideas was not set up as a residential camp, people have been sleeping in it. The most organised people have been living there. Hardly surprising, given that the alternative is an icy tent. Despite their obvious commitment to the cause, their enjoyment of the bank’s protection from the elements has caused a deep division within Occupy London. Those left outside complain bitterly that the bank dwellers are an elite group who benefit from special conditions and no longer see the value in the people outside the window, looking in.
The people working in the night watch crews, formally known as “Tranquility”, have repeatedly quit the scene. Several times, the crew has stood down because they could no longer cope with the social problems they faced. Specifically, they bore the brunt of the violent threats. Whilst wider society may not regard security teams as having any particular expertise in the way that lawyers and media people do, in reality they perform a particular craft. Occupy London was blessed to have a festival security expert create the night watch, who goes by the name of Bear. His experience benefited the entire Occupation. Without it, doubtless it would have been swept away by the police by now. He has been widely criticised for taking individual responsibility, threatened and attacked, with the result that he has now quit the scene. Who can blame him?
This distrust of anyone with expertise is a paranoia about anything connected with the realms of power. It didn’t help set up the Occupation, it didn’t help maintain it and it isn’t going to help it build on the successes so far. It goes nowhere. Rejecting any form of success is bound to lead to failure.
A few years ago, I took chess lessons from Luke Rutherford, who is currently Sussex County Chess Champion. He taught me to resign a game that I knew I had lost, rather than pointlessly fight on. His reasoning was that the more time I spent concentrating on failed positions, the more familiar failure became. If I resigned a failed position and played again, he argued, I would spend increasing amounts of time concentrating on winning positions and my game would improve. This turned out to be true. As with chess so it is in life. Some have only ever tasted failure but rather than quit when they lose their advantage, they drink from the well of despair too deeply. Consequently they never stop drinking from it. They imprint their consciousness with the feeling of failure, they recognise it as an old friend.
Living without a leader is possible but living without leadership is not. A life without direction is a disaster. Occupy London is a part of a wider political movement, which seeks to become the mass movement created by the Spanish earlier in the year. The Spanish movement (15-M or The Indignants) counted its activists in the millions. They raised their standard against the power of the banks and corporations, occupied public spaces for months and then left at a time of their choosing. Theirs was a peaceful movement promoting an alternative vision for society. They recognised when the immediate advantage was waning, when it was time to retreat and take stock and quit before losing control of the situation. Occupy London must find the same sense of direction. The alternative is to lose all the advantages won and the people who won them, myself included.
Two months under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral has hardened the interpersonal views held there, activist and alcoholic alike. Leaving to one side the hardcore street drinkers, directed to the camp by the Metropolitan Police, there are plenty of other people with alcohol and drug problems inside the camp. It would be surprising if it were otherwise: we are a nation that hits the sauce hard, especially around midwinter. There are also plenty of genuine activists who do not intoxicate themselves each day, unless you count the coffee served up by the local Starbucks.
This is the critical moment. The original camp must find direction anew to keep the movement alive. To some extent it matters not what the decision will be. Occupy London’s general assembly must decide its own future, rather than having it decided for it. Over the last two evenings, the general assembly has failed to settle its direction definitively, despite having weeks to think about it and hours in formal debate over it. It has neither accepted nor rejected a plan to remove all the residential tents from St Paul’s Churchyard. This is said to be a complicated decision. It is not, it is a simple decision.
It is made complicated because of the social structure that Occupy London has created for itself to deal with. On a chess board there are pawns and pieces. Whereas popular culture describes the pawns as expendable, a serious player will tell you that they are not. They are “the soul of chess”, said the mighty Philidor. Many games are won or lost on pawn structure but not without the support of the pieces. Each piece has a specialist function. The King is almost incidental to the game, in terms of its power. The other pieces perform specific roles. They must be utilised in what they do best. Consequently, knights play best in the centre of the board, wielding power around them in circles. Rooks are most suited to end-game play and work best when united with each other. In any battling force you need two types of fighter – the specialists and the generalists. Neither can win without the other.
This is as true in the life of a group of political activists as it is over the glorious chess board. Occupy London needs its specialists and needs to let them take charge of their tasks. Cursing them as an elite is to play without them. It is playing to lose. Equally, the specialist activists need the body of people who keep the movement alive. Without them, there is no legitimate claim to represent the 99%. This was why Occupy London welcomed everyone and when the street drinkers turned up, why welfare initiatives were created for them.
On the famous checker-board, there is a clear set of rules. The game has to progress according to them. Occupy London doesn’t play according to any agreed set of rules. It allows itself to constantly change instead. Consequently people seized a major bank building and declared that they would not inhabit it but then living there anyway. Everybody repeatedly declared, in general assembly, that drugs and alcohol would not be tolerated on site but nobody was prepared to enforce that rule either. Fixed rules are perceived as a threat to the liberty of the players by camp culture. This caustic attitude must be remedied before the movement splinters completely.
Occupy London has just announced the seizure of a fourth site: an abandoned court house, which is going to be used to stage mock trials of the 1%. To the converted it is yet another brilliant move. To outsiders it is starting to sound like a lawless rabble running amok around London. To the people in tents, there will be much rejoicing at the general strategy and demands for bricks and mortar accommodation. It could be that this is the beginning of a general move indoors over the winter.
The seizure of new sites is not agreed by general assemblies. To even mention them there would be to lose the element of surprise, which is of course crucial to the successful cracking open of a new squat in commercial premises. Whilst few insiders would disagree about the need for specialist activists to plan these adventures, they dismantle the idea that a general assembly is in charge of anything much. Only the original occupation was agreed by a general assembly. The three following occupations have been planned by an elite group.
The fact is that Occupy London does not adhere to any of its stated rules. Formally I am in the legal team and have been since the first day of the first occupation. The membership of this team has changed many times, usually without my knowledge. Once I convened a meeting of the entire team. Various people turned up, including one man who refused to remove a face mask! The team divided itself into two parts and I remained in the part dealing with the eviction proceedings. When the division was made, an agreement was made by all the people at the meeting, including the masked man, that the eviction team membership would be locked down to three people. Immediately after the whole team meeting broke up, the other members of the eviction team welcomed another person into the team. A few days later they allowed another to attend a meeting with the solicitors! These are the chaotic consequences of the camp culture. At various times since then I have been locked out of the eviction team’s email account. One explanation given was that someone else, who I had never heard of, had been given access and the password had changed. Three times I have been locked out of this official account. I am currently locked out. Yet I am still treated as being part of ‘the team’. Whoever else is in it, I can only hazard a guess at.
Political success requires proper organisation. Whilst I’ve been devoting my energies to Occupy London, my comrades in the Brighton & Hove Green Party have been preparing for a local bye-election. I’ve not been involved at all but I have been sent every email relating to the efforts made by my local party. They’ve run an impressive campaign and high hopes are held for Thursday, the day of the vote. The Green Party runs itself according to a constitution and local rules, which make participation fair for everyone. People do not get locked out of accounts, meetings or working groups. Masked people are not allowed to attend meetings. There is no fear and intimidation. Many people throw their weight behind this radical party but our energy is not wasted by continuously discussing core issues. Instead we make decisions and move on. Our local councillors were brave enough to support Occupy when it made sensible peaceful protest a reality and brave enough to close down our local camp when the inhabitants set it on fire and attacked the fire fighters who turned out to tackle the blaze. The residents of Brighton & Hove respect us for taking the business of politics seriously. That’s why they have elected our people to run their City and to represent us in parliament. For all the talk inside Occupy London of standing for office, everyone knows it will come to nothing because no-one has agreed even some basic principles of organisation.
Doubtless Occupy London will continue to organise more and more media stunts. This is no substitute for the mass movement it wants to be. It is incapable of recruiting many more people to its ranks because it doesn’t offer a coherent vision. After 66 days of Occupation, it’s policy pronouncements are restricted to three proposals for corporate law reform and a general mission statement. It has done well to raise consciousness, granted, but it isn’t going anywhere new. It is mired in financial arguments. For myself, I have never made an expenses claim, although I did spend money on legal research. Plenty of working groups have made claims on the expenses account, comprised of funds donated by Londoners and supporters generally. The lack of any sort of formal structure has inevitably led to allegations that someone has run off with the money! The finance team hasn’t even set up a bank account to hold the money; there are no proper accounts.
Occupy London’s reply to any complaint is this is what democracy looks like. It isn’t democracy at all. It is utter chaos. The people in the movement are not in charge of it. This movement does not offer a solution to society’s economic and political problems, it offers chaos, fear, confusion and violence.
Perhaps I have been naive to become so closely involved with this anarchist experiment. I had high hopes that it would turn into a mass movement. I am now convinced that it will not. It sucks the energy out of anyone involved in it and wastes it. It has wasted inordinate amounts of my time. Today my involvement stops. My parting gift has to been to convince a particular witness to give evidence in the High Court. His personal testimony will be worthy of us all.
Being brilliant at raising complaints does not equate with offering practical political solutions. We need political answers to the current crisis, not more crises. Today Occupy London used a tank to seize its fourth site. How many of us want our capital City to be led by soldiers driving tanks? This is not a peaceful gesture, this is gesture politics.