This is the second in a series of articles from the Post Growth Institute reporting on-the-ground impressions of Occupy events around the world. The London account includes observations by Post Growth’s Sharon Ede – who happened to be visiting her friend, documentary film maker Mike Freedman – in London on the day Occupy London commenced, and footage and reflections by Mike, including an interesting insight into Occupy from the perspective of the police.
What was the feeling like at the Occupy you visited?
Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) happened to kick off right at the end of a visit I had with a friend of mine in London. Mike was keen to see what was going on too, so we both headed off to the London Stock Exchange on 15 October.
The original plan for Occupy LSX had been for people to gather in the area outside the stock exchange, however I discovered a police line blocking access and claiming that area was ‘private property’. I was pointed in the direction of St Paul’s Cathedral by a man sitting nearby the police line, who also told me that if I went inside the cordon at the cathedral, I may not be able to get out. I later discovered that this meant you could come and go as you wished, but if events did turn violent, the police would ‘kettle’ (contain) those within the cordon – people would not be allowed leave, and could be effectively detained there for many hours.
Within the inner police cordon, several hundred people were gathered on the steps and immediate surrounds of St Paul’s Cathedral. There was a space of about ten feet between the two police lines of the inner cordon, and the outer cordon, beyond which many more hundreds of people had gathered to be part of the demonstration and to hear speeches that were made on the steps of the cathedral. There was a helicopter overhead, police dogs on hand and a large police presence – the authorities are still skittish after the London riots earlier this year.
But aside from a minor a scuffle that occurred briefly outside a Starbucks, it seemed to me there was no energy in the air that hinted at violence. The crowd was a wide cross-section of ages and appearances, banners, drums, signs and included various media crews, independent and mainstream, local and international. They were orderly and peaceful. There were a lot of people in conversation with each other.
What kinds of conversations did you have with people, or did you overhear?
The man who warned me about going inside the inner cordon told me that he would never normally have gone to a protest like this, a year or two ago. His words to me were ‘I was asleep then, I’m awake now’. I talked to him a little about what we are doing with Post Growth, and gave him a card. There were a few people who were questioning the police, asking them why they were even there, as it was a peaceful protest.
Mike’s short documentary of the day gives an interesting insight into the psyche of the police, and the conflict they bear in having to carry out their duty despite any personal views they may hold – the police force is one of many public services experiencing cuts, and such austerity measures are one thing the ‘Occupiers’ are speaking out against. Mike struck up a conversation with one senior officer who would not shake hands, but said he wanted it all over so he could go home and have his dinner. Maybe there was a sense, or hope on the part of the police on that first day, that Occupy LSX was a flash in the pan. Nearly four weeks on, it’s clearly not.
The day before the protest began, I began following the Occupy London Facebook page. There were a couple of hundred followers. 48 hours later when I left London, there were over 10,000. There are now over 30,000. Anyone who tries to tell you that social media is only keeping us isolated, or is ‘clicktivism’, doesn’t understand the power of social media for organising real-world action and conversations that can and do create momentum for change. Occupy began in Wall Street on 17 September, yet it was a good week or two before the mainstream media would report on it – but the news was being posted to Facebook and Twitter.
Did you notice anything or encounter anything that signalled post-growth thinking?
There was one hand scrawled sign that asked why we were creating money as debt, which is a key driver of growth. Since then, Positive Money (based in London, and whose Executive Director I met with earlier that week) have been down to the site to talk to people there on this issue. Other than that, nothing specifically, except a general sense that things are very broken and unfair, and need fixing.
But is it sufficient to patch up the old system so it works a little more fairly for a little longer? Or is it time for a broader conversation about reinventing not only the economy, but the social contract?
Between Two Mirrors – Urban Anthropology
A short documentary shot by Mike Freedman on the first day of Occupy London, 15 October 2011
‘It’s like being caught between two mirrors…’
Excerpts from Mike’s ‘Open Letter to the Occupiers’
On the role of the police:
The law is such that the police will enforce it as ordered regardless of its substance. In instances when the police have used heavy-handed tactics, they have done so because they are upholding the law as it has been explained to them and along the lines by which they have been instructed to do so. This is not a semantic point, but a very important key to our future as social beings on this beautiful planet of ours. A change in the law will change the behaviour of the police.
The police force is exactly that – it is a force, a tool which does the bidding of the hand which wields it. I may personally disagree with a great deal of the laws currently on the books, and I may wholeheartedly disagree with the manner in which those laws are sometimes enforced, but the police are not the enemy…
When the laws are changed to better suit the idea of justice and governance that befits us as an intelligent life form, the police will be on the front line of keeping those laws intact. The neutrality of the police may be a most incomprehensible thing to those witnessing violence as a result of it, but that neutrality is also to our advantage.
Police men and women who will use baton and pepper spray to subdue those allegedly violating public order will steadfastly turn those weapons on whomever is designated an opponent to public order, no matter how it is defined. If this is the case, as I believe it to be, then we have no enemy in the police. They are human beings, just like us, and the structure which they are a part of has convinced them that we must be watched and subdued.
The police in Britain and across Europe have undergone some of the most stringent cutbacks in wages, man-hours and employment numbers. These protests stand, among other things, for equitable wages in return for fulfilling work. These police men and women are the people we are fighting for. They just don’t know it yet, and if they do, they have pressures of their own to account for their silence as they wait patiently for the law to allow them to act in accordance with their beliefs.
Whether or not people should follow orders they disagree with is by the by. It is both dishonest and unfair to expect them to behave differently to how we think we would in their place, because we are not in their place. They are not our enemy. There is no “they”. There is only “us”….
True revolution begins in the mind. If we learn the ways of the oppressors only to replicate those ways when we have replaced them, then we have achieved nothing. The only true revolution begins with the realisation that we are all one. Beneath political and social definitions and dynamics, there is no oppressor and oppressed. There are only vulnerable, fearful people manipulated by deeply rooted buttons which those who wish to retain power know how to push…
Any threat to power can be very frightening. This is why ideas are the commodity most tightly regulated in our cultures. Our modern global system is built on piles of abstractions and unquestioned assumptions. To maintain the structure of this ideology, built as it is on quicksand, only a superficial amount of idea variation is tolerated before the protectors of the structure crack down…
The deeply extractive, materially fixated, morally bankrupt, ecologically and socially destructive number games which are played world wide right now are simply a washed-out perversion of an underlying economic truth which has been lost over time, namely that people require access to goods and services in complex societies and the easiest manner in which to distribute those goods and services is by the use of a common means of exchange which frees the labourer from needing to find a supplier who wants the thing he produces…
It can no longer be a social norm that goods arrive before us with no provenance and no moral association other than our desire for them. It can no longer be morally (let alone intellectually) justifiable to bang on about economic growth in the OECD nations when the major purpose of growth is to support the growing debts we accumulate through a persistence in allowing money to be created as a debt-bearing thing rather than circulated as a debt-free service.
The strict extractive system which is currently in place in the OECD nations, centred on taxing the people in order to service debt generated wilfully, will never resolve inequity either at home or abroad…
Asking for what the wealthy have is irrelevant. We should have something far greater in our sights: a real birthright for every living thing on this planet, in balance, understanding and peace.