Occupy London began with a splash worthy of every front page and a media junky’s wet dream. The John Wilkes of the 21st Century, Julian Assange, broke his house arrest and risked his neck to be there. 5,000 people rocked up and took over the most famous churchyard in the world in open, public and democratic assembly. When they voted to suspend proceedings to hear Assange, it was the biggest unanimous vote in history. Assange preached that we wanted, “not the destruction of law but the construction of law”.
This unusual outdoor sermon met with the congregation’s firm approval. The congregation itself met with the approval of the rest of us, with opinion polls in that first week showing support for the occupation averaging at 87.5%. Londoners poured physical and financial support into the occupation to sustain it and to nurture it.
Then came the tussle with the Cathedral. For a while the story became the Church of England’s iconic church giving account of itself. It was a sorry tale of muddle, indecision and incompetence. St Paul’s Cathedral successively took on each party’s position as if trying them all out for size. First it appeared to support the encampment, although in reality it had only supported their right to protest – that is Labour’s position with its striking members. Next it closed its doors and asked the Occupationists to leave – that was what its local authority, the City of London corporation, wanted. After that it reopened its doors, withdrew from legal action and began to talk to some of the Occupationists – that was what the Christians wanted. It squeezed in an offer to accommodate a tent on its own land – that was what the Occupationists wanted – before subtly siding with the City by giving witness evidence for it in its eviction proceedings – a nuanced approach to morality which met with the approval of the thieving Tory bastards.
Along the way, Occupy London spent increasing amounts of time justifying its own existence instead of consecrating its original purpose, the construction of law. Some of the most able protestors wasted inordinate amounts of time dealing with the Cathedral despite its eventual abandonment of the cause being utterly predictable. The Church of England sits on vast funds invested in the London Stock Exchange. The idea that it would shake off centuries old form for supporting the establishment for the sake of this temporary popular support is nonsensical.
For the first month of the Occupation, numbers at the nightly general assemblies remained impressive. They were frequently attended not by hundreds but by thousands. In the second month they were attended in the low hundreds still. Now, in the third month, they are rarely attended by more than a hundred – the usual figure is less than 50. That’s 1% of the numbers on 15th October 2011. This then is a 1% claiming to represent the 99%. What went wrong?
Mission creep has been the main problem. With a mission statement so simple it is easy to see how the rot set in. The original idea was to occupy public spaces, complain about corporate power gone mad, raise public consciousness and be there when the public at large decided to join in, thus the revolution would not be televised, it would be on YouTube instead. All that church chit chat was not part of the original agenda. It was meant to be an Occupation with a capital O, not tea and biscuits with the Bishop. Taking over buildings was also a new development. All other parts of the Occupy movement around the world had kept themselves to public spaces, whereby anyone could join in. Occupy London changed the game plan by making its visitors to its most exciting political work guests in a seized bank building. Consequently, only the bravest parts of the wider public attended. Although plenty did attend, London is a big place. These people were already on onside – Occupy London had begun to preach only to the converted.
Despite commencing as a campaign for the construction of law, Occupy London showed remarkably little faith in the concept. Most people in the camp were persuaded that violent crimes should not be dealt with by the police standing nearby at all times but by the camp itself. Consequently internal violence began to rise because no-one was able to contain it. Violence entered the camp from within and from outside. Predictably, the camp became a dangerous place to be on some nights. This state of regarding itself above the law was a mistake. A collective and complete error of judgement.
The central idea of the Occupation was mass civil disobedience. Here’s me spelling it out, on 21st October 2011:
Clearly I am not the greatest ever advocate for civil disobedience but I did command the attention of a few hundred and win all their approval. The winning idea behind civil disobedience is that you choose which law to break, to make your point, ensure your arrest and charge, obtain publicity and obtain public support. Ordinary civil disobedience is converted into the successful mass participation form when many people join in. It is peaceful politics. It respects the law of the land and proves that respect publicly. It doesn’t involve any private law breaking. The moment Occupy London went indoors, it turned public protest into a private matter. Seizing and squatting banks is a specialist affair. Anyone can set up a tent!
It’s notable that no-one in Occupy London argues the weather necessitates private squats. There are said to be dozens more lined up for the taking. The activists who take on this sort of thing are highly experienced and have been in the protest movement for a long time. They are now training other activists in the craft. Whilst their actions around London carries the mood of many others, it does not carry their personal enthusiasm. It does not convert them to disobedience.
Having raised our country’s consciousness, Occupy London must either be seeking to recruit others to mass civil disobedience or it must go home. What other purpose does it have? The massive public support it once enjoyed was not won for the prospect of an extended picnic in central London. Pointlessly pouting on the sidelines is not what Assange did. Since deciding, through inaction, to foster anti-police culture and also deciding, by dint of an accidental consequence of its co-option of bank property, to privatise its protest zones, Occupy London has crept some distance away from the business of mass civil disobedience. It did this most stealthily, so that none of the people involved (myself included) saw how far gone it was. Stealth implies deliberation but this is wrong. These errors of judgment occurred precisely because of a lack of deliberation. Had there been any form of political leadership involved, all of this could have been thought through. Almost everything that had happened has been completely predictable.
Occupy as a whole turned its back on leaders. In part this is due to the movement’s anarchic creed but mainly it represents the best interests of the fearful nature of its followers, the masked and anonymous. Refusing leaders is a convenient way of avoiding anyone getting the primary blame for subsequent criminal prosecutions. Yet, since the cause is just there is no shortage of people willing to pursue the risk and, by so doing, lead others into activism. Isn’t that exactly what Ghandi did?
Insisting that everyone is equal for every conceivable activity isn’t what democracy looks like, it’s an attempt to defeat conspiracy charges. Luckily, it also means that nothing much ever gets decided so as a defence it is strikingly successful. Easy as it is to state this particular version of the equality principle, hard to impossible it becomes to follow through. Inevitably direct actions and other recruitment activities are conducted only by those with the need to know because that is the only way to get anything done. Consequently, people who most want responsibility take it, rather than the people everybody most wants to take responsibility; the latter is what democracy looks like.
I lost faith with Occupy London some time ago. I stayed involved because I thought that the original idea deserved its day in court: that mass civil disobedience was a legitimate form of protest which potentially overwhelmed other competing rights, such as those belonging to the local authority in relation to a pedestrian highway. That was why I recruited John Cooper QC to advise me personally on behalf of the Occupation on 15th October 2011. I took that responsibility because I was the only one present at the legal forum on the first day of the Occupation who knew how. (I had wanted to help with the shelter forum, as it happens.) I quit the scene shortly after the trial had commenced, having fulfilled my promise to set up a proper defence.
As the Occupation progressed, I became increasingly concerned about the presence of the Freeman Cult inside the camp. Over half of all the enquiries I got related directly to their nonsensical deconstruction of law. Eventually I wrote a post mocking the main Freeman Cult member on the original site. Inexplicably, the very next day whoever the Guardian allowed to take over Comment is Free decided to include an article by the very man I satirised, with the result that sensible minded Occupationists were made fools of. It looked like we took this legal woo seriously! A rearguard action was fought by sympathetic bloggers. They vigorously attacked the cult; one even exposed BNP involvement in it. This was a very damaging episode because all parts of what used to be called the intelligentsia were now badly misinformed as to the purpose of Occcupy London. We had gone from being a radical campaign for the construction of law to a camp which at that time had produced no serious proposals for law reform and only quasi-legal gibberish.
Occupy London’s media team established a close relationship with the Guardian. Certainly I was told about one or two stories that the Guardian had agreed not to print; whether that was true or not I do not know but the word was clear – the paper was on side. The paper agreed to abide by news embargoes, with the result that when Occupy London finally issued some political and economic demands beyond a general set of desires it was not reported until three days had passed from the decision being made. I know this because the Guardian accidentally busted the embargo and during the short window when the story was on early release, I spotted it on their website. I mentioned this to Naomi Colvin and the story was pulled immediately until she gave permission for its release. This news management goes far beyond the remit Occupy London’s general assembly ever granted the media team.
No doubt Occupy London’s media team will defend itself for including the voice of the Freeman cult by pointing to the new version of the Equality principle. As buckets to carry arguments in go, this is so leaky you’d only have to travel a couple of steps before all the water poured away! You cannot stand for the construction of law and simultaneously wish to abolish it. You cannot be completely open and transparent but at the same time hold stories back until it fits your agenda.
You cannot present the faces of the occupation to the world in masks. You cannot claim to offer a better society whilst making a worse one yourself. You cannot have any claim to public support whilst sheltering in private spaces. These are the hard facts of life for Occupy. Mission creep has gone too far too be recovered easily. The best method would be to pick an end date before judgment in the eviction proceedings, which will be on 11th January 2012 at the earliest. That’s Occupy London’s last chance to pitch their appeal to Joe Public: by making the Occupation suddenly due to end, more people will strive to catch it before it disappears. This sets it up for a sequel.
However the sequel plays out, it cannot be along the same failed line as this Occupation. Futile protests must be abandoned or else activists are being self-indulgent. The challenge is to see what it would take to muster bigger numbers. Encampments breed fatigue after five or six weeks. Starting well into the autumn was always going to be a bad move – a media crew get the blame for that as well: Adbusters kick started Occupy Wall Street with a date and a poster. Perhaps starting again in May might be more successful? If the movement is determined to avoid leaders, it will have to propose something much simpler, which does not require any organisation whatsoever. Perhaps standing around in a park every day rattling keys for a couple of hours? Plenty of people could join in with that. What worked for Vaclav Havel, might work here. I’m not holding my breath though. I’ve returned to being a Green Party activist. We’ve got over our childish dispute about whether to have a leader or not. We take responsibility for what we do, which currently includes running the grooviest City in the South – Brighton & Hove. Occupy London excited English politics for a while because there was a concentration of talent working cohesively. As the Occupation progressed, the various specialists in the camp pulled away from one another and, collectively, from their generalist comrades. They lost sight of their key objective – recruitment – and only began to see themselves.