The first thing I think when approaching the tents is that if you were to occupy any part of London, St. Paul’s might just be the best place to do it. Evening is falling and the Cathedral is lit up, the scene is breath-taking. Oddly, the sprawling tents and the crowd milling on the Cathedral steps complement the scene. The piazza outside St. Paul’s was designed to be occupied and the congregation listening to a song, introduced as ‘one for the bankers’, seem perfectly fitting.
The mood is light and the atmosphere surprisingly purposeless. I don’t find the synchronised frenzy of an organised protest and I feel as if I’ve arrived at the end of the day’s trade.The night is yet to reach its coldest and darkest point, yet among tents I see blanketed people sitting in neat circles sharing roll-ups. Two people having a conversation are happy for me to join them. I describe the atmosphere as unexpected, more like a festival than a protest. Luka, a friendly, seasoned occupier agrees, ‘it’s a protestival’.
The awakening of human consciousness is what brings him here. When I press him on what this means, there’s little substance. Another occupier is similarly all-encompassing, ‘this movement is about peace and harmony over fear and greed’. ‘No one here has answers’ Luka admits, ‘we’re here to engage in discussion’.
The convictions are strong and sometimes the sanctimony is palpable. Luka repeats several times that ‘silence is [often] guilt’ and the insidious force of corporate power is explained to me several times. ‘Politics is a smokescreen’ is what I’m told when I question an occupier on the counter-intuition of a political movement refusing to engage with politicians.
Most of the people I meet are sincere, their motivations laudable and the occupation is earnest. There is also a great deal of optimism. People lack ideas about the direction of the movement or the measure of the movement’s success. But they’re confident the movement is the start of a cultural, if not political, shift. ‘This is what change looks like’ is a caption almost everyone repeats. ‘Yes we can’ seems to be the only slogan the occupiers are yet to claim.
I often found it difficult to distinguish occupiers from passers-by and the diversity of the occupiers is heartening. The more experienced protesters in rain coats sit alongside students and hipsters and there’s a strong contingent of bearded, cane carrying, top hat wearing street intellectuals with missing teeth.
Luka points me to one such garishly dressed guy and describes him as having ‘interesting views on the common law’. When I introduce myself as a freelance journalist he’s welcoming, ‘this movement was designed to attract the likes of you’. I ask about his interesting views on the common law and I’m immediately corrected. ‘They’re not views, they’re facts’. ‘I’m in and out of a court-room like a yo-yo’ is his most memorable claim. He immediately volunteers legal advice. I’m told my knowledge of my date of birth doesn’t qualify as admissible evidence in court and the etymology of the word ‘register’ is explained at length.
Any hopes of a substantive conversation are quickly dashed. Despite his initial welcome, he didn’t seem interested in the conversation I wanted to have. A lot of the conversation involves him exhibiting his knowledge and all the people I meet whilst with him are intent on doing the same. At times, this borders on childish pontificating. One occupier asks, ‘it’s all in your head, but what is it?’ before joining the food queue. When I press my newfound legal advisor for more concrete answers I’m warned about being ‘boxed in’ or ‘tied down’ by labels. Another occupier chimes in, ‘placing labels tells me more about you than it does about me’. They deflate when I remind them that my question asked them for their descriptions.
To my surprise, I encounter a definite effort to avoid stigma. Luka is quick to correct my question when I ask him if he feels the movement is being listened to. The occupiers are not here to be heard, he explains, they’re here to discuss. He also insists that Occupy London isn’t a platform but a forum. Others are reluctant to define their positions. I offer some provocative suggestions and start with the biggie, ‘anti-capitalist?’ Few rise to the bait so I suggest ‘anti-establishment’. ‘Contrarian?’ gets me a few laughs but I suspect they were at my expense. ‘I’m not anti-anything, I’m free’ is the type of vacuous answer I most often get.
The occupation is a physical as well as a political struggle. The fact that people are prepared to endure the bitter cold and sleep on cobblestones makes clear the level of commitment. ‘The discomfort is worth it because the people are so great’ is a widely held sentiment.
What my visit makes clear is that the protest is more a community than a movement and the occupation is more a commune than an encampment. A commune complete with a library, university and coffee tent. Zoe Williams describes the occupation as sustainable, but a more accurate description would be self-sufficient. Whether the movement is politically sustainable is something I grow more and more sceptical about the more time I spend speaking to occupiers.
The diverse group is held together by like-mindedness and part of this collective morality is non-discrimination. Here, an instant sense of belonging is gained simply by wanting something to change. Some of the people I spoke to were homeless or estranged from families and the unquestioning openness of the movement was a big draw. Equality is the defining element. Luka describes the encampment as a place where ‘everyone is allowed to be expressive, allowed to be human’. For him, the occupation is a new home. I ask him what he means by home and his answer is telling. ‘Home is the place where the people you love are’.
I visited to address the criticism that the weakness of the occupation is the inability to articulate a coherent complaint and I leave with this criticism reinforced. The occupation, despite its initial fervour, is one that can easily be trivialised as quaint or kitsch and this is confirmed when I see tourists taking pictures of the ‘Capitalism is crisis’ sign, pitched unstably above the tent city with St Paul’s dominating the background. The banner has so quickly become iconic and yet it’s the kind of thing that’d one day be better recognised as an album cover. It’s a bold image but it’s one I’m not convinced the people behind it fully understand.