The Occupy Wall Street movement spread rapidly from New York to Los Angeles, Washington DC, and more than twenty other US cities. On 15th October, it arrived in Europe with a bang, writes Marienna Pope-Weidemann.
Even multi-billionaire Pimco boss Bill Gross admitted yesterday via Twitter: “Class warfare by the 99%? Of course, they’re fighting back after 30 years of being shot at.” From noon on Saturday, numbers at St Paul’s cathedral swelled to around 5,000. It marks, in many ways, the launch of an organic campaign against the rampant corporatisation which has burned through our public institutions since Thatcher and Reagan smashed gracelessly into the first of a line of socio-economic dominos that have been falling ever since.
The Europeans have done their brothers and sisters across the pond proud this weekend. Few major broadcasters have been willing to reflect the real significance of this movement (not until 10pm yesterday did we knock the football off the BBC’s top spot.) One exception has been RT, which reported an ‘extremely tense’ standoff between police and protesters in Times Square, New York, over the weekend. Counter-terrorism officers were seen out in force, blurring as usual the hazy distinction between insurgency and democracy. At least seventy arrests were made, and reports of excessive force continued, with journalists reporting watching handcuffed and seated protesters having their faces ‘slammed into the ground’.
RT also reported a ‘revolutionary mood’ in Brussels. The occupation there swelled both days this weekend, despite initial attempts by authorities to ban the occupation due to an absence of running water for the protesters. When asked about the significance of the movement, a spokesperson for the European Commission reportedly joked that the protesters should set up outside the European Central Bank in Frankfurt instead – a real case of misplaced humour, since five thousand people have proceeded to do just that. Once more, when they received news of the London occupation, the crowd ‘burst into cheers’ and set about gathering tents for their own Occupation of Frankfurt.
Rome saw a remarkable turnout of 200,000 people and videos of enormous crowds in Madrid have been shared widely on social media sites. Lisbon and Oporto in Portugal were noted for having some of the biggest demonstrations in Europe.
As for London, things really hung in the balance for those first 24 hours. After protesters initially gathered around the cathedral steps, lines of police, reinforced with horses, quickly entrenched themselves around the crowd of protesters. The kettle was soon complete, more to keep out the hundreds upon hundreds of protesters wanting in rather than to stop the occupiers from leaving. A sea of people pressed in either side of the thin, yellow line of police attempting to keep them divided. But the megaphone had something to say about that: “To the people on the other side of the police line: we know that you are there and we have solidarity with you! We sit in peace. And we have strength in numbers.”
Calls for the media to “f*** off” were perhaps not entirely helpful, since we all know it is the unblinking eyes of the cameras which keep us safe from the unhesitating cuffs of the police and the media (especially the alternative variety) can help the movement grow.
What has been at least under-emphasised and at worst systematically ignored by the mainstream media is the central role of democratic process in the way these occupations are unfolding, and that’s the functional difference which distinguishes them from much of we’ve seen to date.
As soon as the area was secured and the crowd was settled before the monolithic cathedral which rose majestically before them, movements towards allocating areas of responsibility among the occupiers began. After the first round of feedback, areas of responsibility were established – legal, defence, communication, sanitation, supplies, and so on. Rather than specialisation and ‘competitive advantage’, this hazy, microcosmic echo of popular governance saw people moving freely between departments, contributing where and what they could.
A little after 5pm, the groups were re-called to present their findings to the crowd. From the legal team, this included a helpful ‘Dos and Dont’s’ list for dealing with the police – let's include it in case you decide to head on down there:
1. If you’re arrested – say nothing, until you have a solicitor present.
2. You have no obligation to give your name or address unless the arresting officer claims he believes you have engaged in anti-social behaviour.
3. Don’t accept cautions. The police will try to ‘fob you off’ by offering not to arrest you if you do, but accepting a caution is an admission of guilt which remains on your permanent record.
4. Keep an eye out for the bust cards circulating within the occupation space, and note down the telephone numbers listed on them for legal aid.
As the spokesmen for external communications came to speak, the unannounced arrival of the spectacular SOAS samba band caused some alarm. The moment people began standing and moving to get a better look at the action, the police line pulled in, restricting the occupation space like a reflective boa constrictor. But when calls for order and more sitting were heeded, the line was once again pushed back.
Later on Saturday evening, the police attempted to disperse the remaining few hundred overnight occupiers. The situation escalated, with the police dogs out in packs and arrests being made in a consistent strategy of intimidation. But it wasn’t enough.
The will to develop a collective decision-making process is present at St Pauls, as it has characterised the Occupy Wall Street movement across the world. This weekend communications has perhaps been the biggest issue. The ‘human microphone’ technique of mass-repetition certainly brings people together and facilitates communication in the short-term, but it’s not easy to maintain for hours. No doubt these and other practical issues will be dealt with over the days ahead.
As for the overarching political goal of the occupation, it remains unclear. In the end, it is for the occupiers to define themselves. It amounts to the simple articulation of the gross injustice and inequality with which we are confronted, and a rising willingness to fight for something better as we find ourselves with less and less to lose.
Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.
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