Barbarians at the gate

Activist and filmmaker Chloe Ruthven’s The Occupiers stitches together a compelling insider’s account of the 136-day Occupy London. At the Open City Documentary Festival, 22 June 2016.

William Eichler
21 June 2016
Occupy London protester. Yui Mok/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Occupy London protester. Yui Mok/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.“We are the 99%!” In 2011 this declaration went viral as protesters occupied urban spaces in defiance of the global elite: the 1%. Three years after the crash of 2008, when bankers brought the economy to its knees and were rewarded for their efforts, discontent percolated to the surface and tent cities were hastily erected across the planet.

It began with Occupy Wall Street, but nowhere was immune. By harnessing globalisation’s most democratic product – social media – occupiers in multiple countries were able to like, share and learn from one another’s posts. Local anger morphed into an international movement, and global capital was greeted by global resistance.

Activist and filmmaker Chloe Ruthven’s The Occupiers (2016), screening at the Open City Documentary Festival, charts the London iteration of this process. On 15 October 2011, social justice activists attempted to take over Paternoster Square outside the London Stock Exchange. Thwarted by the police, they set up camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Ruthven was there from day one, although she only started filming three weeks later. She shot hundreds of hours of footage and, with writer Bruce Coker, has stitched together a compelling insider’s account of the 136-day occupation.

We hear first-hand from an eclectic range of voices – George the professional activist, Jess the homeless woman, Emily the middle-class student – about life in the make-shift campsite and what drove them. One participant, Tammy, captures the moment in a very British way: “I love Occupy. It’s about hope. It’s about change. It’s about people getting together and saying, ‘we’re not happy with this’.”

It was also about something more concrete: challenging the power of the Corporation of the City of London, the authority in charge of the UK’s financial centre, and raising the issue of inequality both within and between countries.

Although an activist herself, Ruthven does not shy away from capturing the tensions that run through the group. Darker tendencies soon become apparent, and The Occupiers provides some insight into this.

The camp, like all communities where the barbarians are at the gate, becomes clannish and paranoid. Nerves and tempers are frayed and accusations of “fascist” are thrown at anyone trying to establish order. The duration of the occupation and the unrelenting nature of participatory democracy, where decisions are taken by consensus, wear away at the participants. Drugs and alcohol also play their part.

We see how, in these conditions, group-think can creep in. Emily is sexually assaulted and is reluctant to go to the police out of fear this would divide the protesters. She is made to feel like a scab by some who see her – and not her assailant – as the problem. Solidarity and the need to maintain a united front is used by some here as cover for victim-blaming and assault. 

Conservative media, of course, delighted in the faults of the occupiers. It was easier for them to focus on young lefties indulging in drink and drugs on holy ground, than on the systematic plundering of the global economy by banks.

This is normal practice. Two years later, it would be used by president Erdogan in Turkey. Faced with the Gezi Park protests, Ankara’s apologists in the media manufactured lies about protesters drinking in mosques to divert public opinion from the issues at hand: neoliberal development and authoritarianism.

The international dimension to the protests is obliquely dealt with in The Occupiers. The keffiyeh, of course, was highly visible – standard issue for activists going for the fedayeen-chic look. More importantly, we observe George watching scenes from the Arab Spring in awe of the “empowered women” he sees in Yemen taking on the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Occupy did not succeed in building a better world. It was never going to. But this does not mean it, and the other protests like it, were a waste of time. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the People’s Democracy Party in Turkey, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders in the US – for all their faults and failures, these parties and individuals owe a lot to the ferment of 2011 and after.

In a sense, it was comparable to the anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s. It shifted the terms of debate and helped to place inequality front and centre of the public conversation. This is no small victory.  

“The Occupiers” is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival, 22 June 2016.

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