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The Faces of Occupy: 'Daddy, He Pushed Me!'

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"Daddy, that boy pushed me!"

"Don't worry son, I'm sure he didn't mean it. Now go play in the pool."

I remember it well, a birthday party back when my family and I lived in Harare, Zimbabwe. High pitched squeals and shrieks as a dozen or so kids bombed in and out of the pool, the raucous guffaws of us dads as we all power-drank cold Castle beers and tried to outdo each other's anecdotes from our escapades. The smoke from the braai, laced with the aroma of piri piri chicken and boerwors, drifting across the scene, as our wives sat together in the shade sipping white wine, probably bitching about us hopeless men. My son, a scrawny four or five year-old bundle of outraged indignation was trying to play the victim to a crime that was more imagined than real. Kids do that.

Fast forward twenty-odd years to Tuesday 20 March in Parliament Square, London. Occupy are demonstrating against a bill that will outlaw squatting: "Did you see that? He f**kin' pushed me!" Not my son this time.

"I wouldn't worry about it - I'm sure it wasn't deliberate."

And it hadn't been. The victim of this latest outrage was a well-built, tattooed twenty-something activist interpreting accidental body contact with a policeman as a deliberate shove. Sigh.

"I'd just ignore it if I were you."

"I'm f**kin' sick of it. Sick of the fascist c**ts!"

Oh come on! Really?

It is no secret that members of Occupy and the police regularly go nose to nose. From Occupy's point of view, the police are denying them the right to freely express themselves. From the police point of view, they are there to maintain order and prevent criminality. Occupy is not an orderly crowd.

Brothers in Arms
Brothers in arms.

When the Occupy crowd pitch up, you know they've arrived. Camouflage and combat boots are juxtaposed with besloganed T-shirts, miners' helmets, goggles, flags and face masks.

Loudhailers crackle and woop-woop their sirens and loud techno music blasts from a sound system trailed behind a bike. Dreadlocks and crew-cuts, beards and leather jackets adorn hippies, hoodies and mohicans - and there's a crucifix-brandishing Jesus freak, Sister Ruth.

She's a devout Christian lady who tells me she's 71. She doesn't act it. She flirts outrageously with the policemen - whilst reminding them that they are "all about to lose their jobs".

There's E, his beanie festooned with dozens of badges and buttons, a plaid red scarf loosely covering his lower mouth. There's Phoenix with his eloquence, bullhorn and blonde dreadlocks and Chloe with her colourful braids and mirror shades. There's Elijah - you can meet him here - and Pedro and a young American Tom Cruise look-alike photographer whose name I have forgotten. They are a mad, tangled, joyous band of disparate brothers and sisters, on a mission.

Sister Ruth
Sister Ruth.

With summer coming, expect to see more of Occupy on the streets. Expect to hear more of them too - they have loudhailers and strong voices; you won't be able to ignore them. You most probably won't be able to understand them either. Three loudhailers equals three people each saying something different at the same time. Add to that the chants and songs ("We all live in a fascist regime, a fascist regime, a fascist regime...") and all you get is the white noise of defiance.

My Faces of Occupy project has allowed me to meet a broad cross section of the Occupy community. I have come to know and like many of the people. I have come to understand much of what Occupy is about. I try to remain a neutral observer but sometimes find myself rooting for them, thinking of better more efficient ways for them to get their message across - always the marketing man, I cannot resist a difficult communications challenge.

But I am in conflict too. You see, when the police show up, I watch certain Occupiers storming up to complete strangers who happen to be wearing a Met uniform and immediately launching into strong, often very abusive verbal attacks. "You're all Freemason devil worshiping murderers. Bloody fascist pigs. You're all scum..." etc.

An Occupy protester ranting at a policeman
Angry words...

This is bullying. By the protesters. If they tried that with an ordinary person in the street... well, they wouldn't. They are well aware that the police have to maintain their own discipline and to resist raising the temperature in any confrontation. The mere presence of the police seems to get things up to a gentle simmer. The police, in their uniforms, generally rebuff these spluttering spittle-spraying verbal onslaughts with restrained, 'firm' politeness, peppered with occasional warnings about language, sir. What often happens is the situation quickly calms down and the ranting becomes discussion or banter, each side carefully treading the thin blue line. Occasionally someone goes too far. This time it was a young, homeless chap with a very evident and overpowering hatred for the police. A swift ninety second scuffle ended with his arrest and being bundled into the back of a van and on to the cells.

This sort of incident inevitably precipitates a fresh storm of verbal abuse and tensions rack up again. After a few minutes it once again tapers off. The body language eases, the vitriol dissipates. The conversations restart and the almost amicable standoff continues. Eventually both opposing lines start to thin out and another day's activism, law and order is done with.

For Occupy, I see it as another wasted day. As a taxpayer I see it as another wasted day.

Banter with the police
Pedro, one of the Occupy activists discussing the law with police officers.

Occupy, you have an important role. You have done some sterling work in raising awareness about many unfair situations in society. You have started debates and have had a direct hand in getting some bankers to refuse their bonuses. You have been quite relentless in this pursuit and resolute in your long, cold winter of occupation at St Paul's and Finsbury Square. But you have become a 1% of your own. You are perceived by many as the lunatic fringe. And by some of your peoples' actions, you are deserving of that description. We, the 98% could do with a more reasoned, coherent approach. We want clear, resonant voices delivering well considered, well argued points, one at a time!

We, the 98% are your audience. We the 98% are the hearts and minds you need to win. We're not radicals, we're not activists. We're the unemployed, the middle management, the teachers, the engineers, the bean counters, the dinner ladies. We're the armed forces and the police, the doctors and nurses. We're the common people. Speak our language, not yours and we might just begin to really listen - and become the unstoppable force behind your movement.

I have talked to many of you. Not one of you has come across as anything other than reasonable. One-to-one, I believe you could change the world.

NHS Protesters
A small number of Save the NHS protesters at Parliament Square.

I'm not saying you should all get a haircut and put on a suit. I'm not saying you should stop demonstrating either. But for heaven's sake, get your act together. On Sunday 17 March you tweeted about supporting the Save our NHS demo at Parliament Square - making it into a graveyard - "be there at 2pm".

I was there at 2pm, as were several other photographers and a couple of journalists. With us were a handful of valiant HNS protesters and about four or five faces from Occupy that I recognised. The rest of you - about 30 or so - pitched up at around (according to the timestamp on my photographs) 3.40. By then most of the NHS people had gone home, deflated by the lack of support. Did you bring with you any relevant leaflets? No. Relevant Banners? No. I saw just one small placard. Did your appearance in any way highlight the plight of the NHS? No. Chocolate teapot.

Occupy marching to Parliament Square
Occupy protesters marching into Parliament Square.

What you did have was three loud hailers, some beer, some wine and the collective attention span of a fish. After less than half an hour, you aimlessly wandered up Victoria Street and eventually to Buckingham Palace where you managed to get one of your number, a sixteen-year-old, arrested. You then dawdled off to Piccadilly Circus where several of you made some very good, passionate speeches. But they were speeches that had little to do with saving the NHS. Epic fail.

Do you see my problem here? Or more to the point, do you see your problem here?

At the end of it all, you all headed back to Finsbury Square with your music and your loud hailers, a wild, happy, harmless procession feeling you'd done well, that you'd shown the 1%. You Didn't. You went for a walk and entertained some tourists. You wasted police time - and taxpayers' money. That is all.

Like my young son 20 years ago in Zimbabwe, Occupy is a young movement. I can understand that chaos is to some extent inevitable, that messages are mixed, that among your numbers you have people who like nothing better than to put on a mask or a scarf and have a ding-dong with the cops. But you need to be more coherent, more focused or you'll lose the 98%.

All text and images © Paul Davey 2012

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