Saturday, October 29, 2011

Camped out with Occupy London

A Daily Mail undercover reporter has infiltrated the St Paul's camp in London. Here is his report:

In the 48 hours I spend at the camp, I discover that procrastination, contradiction and confusion are pretty much par for the course — and absolutely no one asks about my reason for being there. My fellow protesters are too busy posing for the world’s media, being interviewed by film crews and radio stations from around the world, and loving the attention.

Looking around, my camp comrades are more student-union common-room than dreadlocked Swampies. Earnest-looking graduates and undergraduates for the most part, their numbers are bolstered by foreign activists, some of whom have come straight from Central Casting: the Spaniard with beard and beret, and the three young German students in army surplus boots and parkas.

A key activity is sitting around smoking joints and knocking back lager. Complaints circulate about drunk people urinating on the steps of the cathedral and on each other’s tents. It becomes clear that undisciplined behaviour is affecting the camp’s image and driving some of its residents away. Among the professional protesters, those from the anarchist group Anonymous form a tight knot of tents and are distinguishable by the plastic Guy Fawkes masks they carry and sometimes wear to obscure their faces.

The only uniformity in the camp is that just about everyone, when not inhaling marijuana, smokes cigarettes (roll-ups, of course). The mornings are a cacophony of hacking coughs.

Everyone looks exhausted. For starters, the cathedral bells peel every 15 minutes, and buses roar past throughout the night. The City starts work early and finishes late. At 6.30am on Tuesday I am roused by a passer-by yelling: 'Get up, you lazy bastards.’ Not that they do.

The 12th meeting of the General Assembly of the London wing of the international revolution against capitalism is not going smoothly. The first item on the agenda relates to changing the banner that fronts the sprawling camp in the piazza surrounding London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. It currently reads 'Capitalism is crisis’, but some demonstrators want it changed to: 'We are the 99 per cent.’ Unfortunately, there is a snag. Someone has nicked the banner.

If anyone asks why I am here, my cover story is that I am demonstrating against the banks, having had to close a business as a result of their unwillingness to lend. But in the 48 hours I spend at the camp, I discover that procrastination, contradiction and confusion are pretty much par for the course — and absolutely no one asks about my reason for being there. My fellow protesters are too busy posing for the world’s media, being interviewed by film crews and radio stations from around the world, and loving the attention.

Even after living cheek-by-jowl with the demonstrators for two days and nights, what they stand for and what they hope to achieve by occupying this half-acre of paving slabs remains an utter mystery to me. They purport to be running their campaign to fight against capitalism. But what I encountered was a disparate group of freelance travelling protesters with little or no discernible philosophy and a penchant for petty squabbles. 'Our response to systemic failure is not to propose a new system, but to start making one,’ wrote members of the camp in one of a number of articles published in The Guardian, the protesters’ newspaper of choice. 'We are providing an example of how the 99 per cent might move forward.’

Therein lies the problem because, as examples go, theirs is a deeply flawed one. This point is driven home to me on Wednesday at 6.45am, as I stand in the drizzle outside my tent. At the previous evening’s meeting, we had been encouraged to join a march in support of electricians who are on strike at nearby Blackfriars Bridge.
Six people including myself turn up. Even after one of our number, a wispy-bearded white Muslim convert, tours the site with a megaphone shouting 'Wake up. This is not a picnic’, the contingent barely reaches double figures. It’s pretty pathetic given that the previous evening, the 100-strong crowd at the meeting had applauded speakers stressing the importance of spreading the anti-capitalist message to the working classes.

That said, they had also given the thumbs up to holding a mass meditation session on the grounds that 'a load of guys sitting round in silence would look really cool from a photo-opportunity perspective’. Such apathy is all the more depressing given that while I am there, accusations about the dedication and motives of the protesters is a hot topic in the world outside.

On Tuesday, the press revealed that only one in ten of the 200-odd tents is occupied overnight. Evidence of this came from a thermal imaging camera deployed from a police helicopter. The daytime-only brigade make a mockery of the slogan posted on camp tents and buildings, which declares: 'All day, all week, we’ll sleep on London’s freezing streets. Solidarity!’ But predictably, my comrades are outraged by this 'slander’, claiming modern tents are so well-insulated they would conceal any occupants. I nod, while wondering why, if that’s so, I nearly froze the previous night.

From what I see on the ground, I’d concur with the thermal imaging —this is a part-time camp with many part-time protesters. My tent is touching five others, three of which I never see anyone enter or leave. Many tell me they attend London universities, dividing their time between their studies and the protest. Hardly surprising, then, that much of the business of the camp has the whiff of student politics. Twenty-something and predominantly female, the middle-class accents of the 'facilitators’ — yes, that’s what they call themselves — fill the piazza as they do 'shout-outs’ for people to join caucuses for women and ethnic minorities, and for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LBGT) support groups. Alongside them in equal number are foreign activists living in London. Smaller in number but perhaps most vocal of all are the professional activists. Several tell me they have just returned from the Dale Farm traveller evictions. Others are veterans of protest camps dating back decades.

At the meeting on Monday, one activist complains that his partner was almost assaulted yesterday by a drunk. 'And I saw the camp’s kitchen staff being harassed by someone who was drunk,’ he says. 'I was also harassed by someone who was drunk. I have reason to be a little bit afraid for our safety.’ His words are warmly applauded, as are those of a facilitator who reveals there have been complaints about boozed-up people urinating on the cathedral steps and on tents. 'No one should pee on the church or the tents,’ she instructs. 'That is just not OK. We have big issues with peeing. A bag of s*** was also put in the bin. That is also not OK.’
Another protester implores those who want to block a proposed ban on drink and drugs to remember why they are there. 'Recreational drinking isn’t something we should passionately support — this is a movement trying to overthrow capitalism,’ she says, adding that anyone wanting to have a drink or 'do a few lines’ (presumably of cocaine) could go off-site.

A member of the so-called Tranquillity Team, a roster of protesters who spend the nights trying to quell trouble, says they have been rushed off their feet dealing with problems, and that people carousing on the cathedral steps have been keeping everyone awake until dawn. Meanwhile, a member of the finance team implores people to stop asking for money that has been donated to the camp. 'We won’t give out money for cigarettes or booze,’ he says, clearly exasperated. 'Please don’t even bother asking.’ Another man takes to the microphone and says it’s not just the drink and drugs that have given the protesters a bad name. 'People have been going out to buy Starbucks coffee,’ he says. 'I would like to see people not displaying Tesco stuff and Coca-Cola because that s*** is as bad as alcohol.’

After an hour-long debate, a hard core of protesters, many of whom have been watching the meeting while drinking and rolling joints, attempt to block the motion. While the General Assembly aims to reach decisions unanimously, the facilitator invokes a rule that says important decisions can be implemented with 75 per cent support. In the end, the drink and drugs ban is carried — 100 vote for and 15 against. Of course, in the world that the protesters inhabit, that doesn’t mean anything. Once again, no decision is reached.

Later that evening, a man I saw drinking earlier in the day is taken to hospital by ambulance. The following morning, another protester is still so drunk he descends the steps of St Paul’s on his bottom as tourists watch in bemused horror.

In PR terms, the location is clearly a disaster, and it is one that, in private, the protesters are deeply concerned about. 'Support is ebbing away,’ says one. 'And with Remembrance Sunday coming up, it is only going to get worse.’ Another tells me his group of a dozen protesters would be happy to leave if some way of packing up without losing face could be found. Others are preparing for a lengthy legal battle, busily convincing themselves that the cathedral’s volte-face is because the Church is in thrall to the City’s money men. And, anyway, the chances of reaching any agreement are unlikely, not without a lengthy meeting or ten. So the protesters continue to labour under the illusion that this is the start of a global revolution, ending each General Assembly with news of how the movement is progressing around the world. But with each chime of St Paul’s august bells, confidence in this haphazard and strangely disingenuous protest grows more hollow.


Burke said...

Their unspoken, unadmitted motto is:

"Losers Of The World Unite"

John said...

This is hardly an objective report. Did the newspaper establish that it was an editorial viewpoint. The writer goes in with a presumption, then finds facts to buttress it. I'd want to see alternate reporting on this. The account might be accurate, but needs scrutiny.