The global Occupy movement emerged at a time when economic crisis was taking centre stage in political discourse. Once easily dismissed, with the financial meltdown of 2008 and a subsequent series of devastating crises – from youth unemployment to Eurozone debt – now even the Financial Times has a special series devoted to “Capitalism in Crisis”. This is perhaps what has given the Occupy movement a particular significance, striking a chord with many people worried about their future.
Like a lot of people, I was fascinated with how the movement quickly spread around the globe from its beginnings in the United States. Occupy Wall Street began on 17 September 2011 in Manhattan’s Liberty Square, in the financial epicentre of the city. Formed under the slogan “The Revolution Continues Worldwide”, it acted as a beacon for others to start similar actions. On its unofficial website, Occupy Wall Street is described as a “people-powered movement”, and with around 100 cities in the United States having their own Occupy movement, along with actions in 1,500 cities worldwide, it argues it is “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations”.
Occupy London was the UK’s own miniature version of this global phenomenon. While camps were briefly set up in various other places, London was clearly the centre of attention, particularly in the media spotlight, and kept going until its eviction early on 28 February 2012. First established around four and a half months before, a call had been made to “Occupy the London Stock Exchange” at a demonstration in October on Westminster Bridge against the government’s plans for the NHS, organised by the direct action group UK Uncut. From the general assembly on the bridge there was an agreement that the London Stock Exchange should be the location of the camp, given its role in helping to precipitate the financial crisis and the subsequent economic collapse. After a brief set-back (the original attempt to take the space around Paternoster Square, where the stock exchange is based, ended in failure, largely due to heavy policing), the protestors were forced to set-up camp outside nearby St Paul’s Cathedral, with around 150 tents established.
It was quite telling how much of the media reacted. Some newspapers, such as The Guardian, were broadly supportive of the instincts behind the camp, especially in drawing attention to the excesses of the financial system, with one of its columnists, the green campaigner George Monbiot, speaking at the “Tent City” university based at the site. The Evening Standard, on the other hand, carried stories day after day often claiming that most of the tents were empty or, otherwise, full of unemployed people, drug users, and so on, arguing that court action should be taken to get rid of the camp given that it had apparently ruined London’s public spaces and highways (though, of course, we are all expected to support the Olympics which will completely disrupt the running of the city in a few months time).
The Church of England also found itself embroiled in the debate. After an initially hostile reception and the resignation of Giles Fraser, the Canon of St Paul’s, on 27 October over threats to forcibly remove the protestors, there was something of rapprochement between Church and protestors, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, arguing that the protest at St Paul’s showed “widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment”. Labour leader, Ed Miliband, argued that the protest at St Paul’s presented a “challenge” to the “church and to business – and also to politics”, but it was important that “we cannot leave it up to the protestors to lead this debate”. Many, however, would not want to leave the debate in the hands of mainstream politicians, widely seen in the movement as part of the problem. This is perhaps the main hallmark of the Occupy movement; its “presenting of a challenge” to the mainstream and its call to arms around the issue of the 99 per cent versus the one per cent. As the social theorist Slavoj Žižek has noted, “capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem”.
Importantly, Occupy itself was inspired by large-scale world events. The revolution that toppled the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, in early 2011, saw the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where thousands gathered to debate and discuss the way forward, and to show that there was a collective determination to rid Egypt and, thereby, hopefully, the wider Arab world of corrupt and brutal regimes, often supported by the West. In this environment, just as in the Occupy movement, a common slogan emerged – this time, simply the demand that “the people want the downfall of the regime”. Likewise, the European-wide movement of the so-called indignados, young people enraged at a lack of prospects and high unemployment, shook Spain in 2011-2012, with its highpoint in May 2011 when numerous urban spaces across the country had their town squares occupied in a display of resistance to the economic crisis, that also reflected a widespread disenchantment with the mainstream political elite.
With the eviction of Occupy London, and of similar camps around the world, the movement is now facing the challenge of where to go next. Global protest has had a relatively upbeat decade – with the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement often hitting the world stage – but Occupy seems to have a special, and quite direct significance given the current crisis, and its effects are likely to be felt for many years ahead.
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