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Occupy This: One Year on From St Pauls

Posted: 16/10/2012 00:00

"It's not that I disagree with what they say, I'm fine with most of it. What annoys me isn't what they stand for; it's how they smell."

My friend Mike has never been a hippy, yet he is far from an ideological enemy of the people who set up camp outside St Paul's a year ago. He agrees that the banks should be reformed and regulated, no third runway should be allowed at Heathrow and the whole political system needs to be totally overhauled. He used to pass the protests every day on his way to work and stopped to talk to them a few times during his lunch breaks, but unfortunately his lasting impression wasn't that they were brave, principled or articulate, it was that their tents smelt funny.

Like so many trends and movements, what began in London quickly spread to the rest of the country. Local networks were established, with further sites being set up across every major city in country. The cause was supported by a proactive media operation that was complemented by a celebrity appearances, public debates and daily press releases. Reporters were quick to give them a platform because they were an outspoken political novelty, and because, for the tabloids at least, they appeared to fulfill every single crude left wing stereotype. The press wasn't all bad, of course there were an array of critical editorials but there were also public pronouncements, clashes with the old guard, high profile negotiations with the church and even the launch of a record label. But was anybody listening?

On the face of it, no. Polling from Yougov found that 39% of people supported their aims but only 20% supported the protests themselves, this indicates that even half of those who supported their politics opposed the form of their protest. It seems like far too many people must have agreed with my friend Mike. Without public support a protest risks ceasing to be a focal point for political anger and instead becoming a mere spectacle. Sure enough the public debate stopped focusing on banking reform and instead centred on whether or not they should be allowed to camp outside St Pauls, a move which only benefited the status quo. A long drawn out legal dispute began, with the last of the tents being removed a few months later. There are still some local splinter groups around the country, but public scepticism has only hardened over time, with a more recent poll indicating that nearly three quarters of people believe that the protests didn't achieve anything.

There is a strong tradition of direct actions and occupations in our political culture, for example Londoners had the late Brian Haw sleeping on Parliament Square for 10 years. So why has Occupy always been so unpopular? One part of the problem is probably aesthetic, but another is their conduct. Sympathetic journalists like Laurie Penny focused on stories of warmth and camaraderie, but more critical reporters could easily counter-balance them with stories of petty crime, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. There were also darker stories of misogyny, drug abuse and violence; this was embodied by stories from the Glasgow site, which was besieged by controversy after two campers raped a woman. This isn't to say that everyone taking part was dangerous, sexist or anti social, but the environments which they created were.

So one year later has anything changed? What is their legacy?

On one hand the occupations raised the bar for social media and democracy in protests, with the group voting on all decisions and interacting with their supporters online. Having said that, the form of the protest was always unsustainable, and a movement that seeks to represent 99% of people will always have its work cut out if it has already alienated 80%. The reality is that even when compared to other left wing movements the numbers were miniscule.

As someone who has taken part in a number of protests, I'm all too aware of how often the most important causes are ignored by politicians who all too often lack any incentive or any intention of making the big changes, and the smaller the protest the easier it is to dismiss. The occupations were as much a symbol of growing disillusionment with the political class as they were of anti capitalist outrage. However, at a time when more and more people are feeling disenfranchised by austerity economics, and when issues like Executive bonuses and the Libor scandal have seen trust in the banks deteriorating even further, it's hard to think of Occupy as anything other than a missed opportunity.

 

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