Lacking transparency? Can #OccupyLondon live up to its own demands

The Occupy protest site at St Paul's Cathedral has become a thriving community. But errors of judgment have left it lacking the same level of openness and accountability it seeks of others.
Ryan Gallagher
30 October 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

The first few times I visited the Occupy London protest camp at St Paul’s Cathedral, it appeared to be quite chaotic and scatterbrained. At the general assembly meetings people talked over each other and there was little sign of any unified sense of spirit or purpose. A small minority seemed to be treating the whole affair as a mini Glastonbury Festival – can of lager in one hand, joint in the other. At times the debates were reminiscent of university tutorials, fuelled by a combination of wild-eyed enthusiasm and utopian idealism. “If we want to go pure, we need to go barefoot,” one person suggested.

Minutes have disappeared from

But gradually over the last two weeks, things have begun to come together. The camp is now a thriving community in itself: a microcosmic society structured around egalitarian principles and a form of direct, participatory democracy. The group’s latest set of demands to “democratise the City of London” are strong and specific, answering critics who blasted their initial statement as overly vague. And though much of the debate around the camp has been dogged by the ongoing saga involving St Paul’s decision to pursue eviction proceedings, the protesters are keeping discussion about the need for banking reform in the public spotlight, and that in itself is an achievement.

The occupiers, however, are clearly still at the beginning of a learning curve and as such it can only be expected that they will at times make bad decisions or errors of judgement. A prime example of this occurred last week when, without any explanation, the minutes from the group’s general assembly and working group meetings vanished from its website. The minutes – cached versions of which can still be found using Google – were a frequent target of ridicule by critics. It would constitute a serious failing if they were removed for that reason.

Publishing minutes of meetings has become an important feature of the Occupy movement. Doing so allows the outside world to engage in the issues and gain insight into how decisions have been arrived at. Most of all, though, it is about transparency. Unlike meetings of the Cabinet in Downing Street, the whole point of general assemblies is that they are open to everyone and are thus fully accountable and transparent – nothing is hidden.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York have commendably built an entire website solely devoted to publishing minutes and other procedural information documenting the movement’s inner mechanics, warts an’ all. Presently the London group appear to have wholly shunned this same commitment to transparency, though continue to demand it of others (a recent statement criticises banks for being “accountable to no one but themselves” and calls for an end to “secrecy practices” within the City).

I called Occupy London to try and figure out what had happened to the vanished minutes and was told by Peter, a member of the media team, first they hadn’t been uploaded (not true), then that there were technical problems with the website (questionable), and finally that he wasn’t sure where they had gone and to send an email for an explanation. I emailed on Thursday and again on Friday but am yet to receive any response.

This episode reminded me of the second day of the occupation, 16 October, when I spent all day outside St Paul’s speaking with protesters and familiarising myself with the camp. At one point, shortly after the conclusion of the general assembly, a man from the information team stood at the top of the St Paul’s steps and read out a “timetable” over a megaphone for the following day’s events. The first item on the list was a planned 7am picket outside the London Stock Exchange. I tweeted the announcement (“Protesters planning to picket stock exchange tomorrow morning at 7am”) and two hours later came under a strange and unexpected attack from one of the occupation’s organisers, Naomi Colvin. She dismissed the tweet as “rubbish” and accused me of misrepresentation and “lack of precision”, bizarrely claiming I was trying to “speak on behalf of the occupation”, unlike other journalists who “know the score”. After talking to protesters on the ground, I was able to establish that some were indeed planning a picket – as had been announced – and that for an inexplicable reason Colvin was essentially attempting to stop these plans from being communicated by trying to discredit me and my tweets.

It is precisely this kind of thing, paired with the removal of the group’s meeting minutes from its website, that gives the impression some of those at Occupy London are more committed to the idea of transparency for others than they are to the sometimes uncomfortable reality of it for themselves. No movement that strives to create a more democratic and transparent society should attempt to manipulate, censor or obsessively control the flow of information.

Being criticised and ridiculed, of course, is not easy. And there are a hugely diverse range of political perspectives to be found among the hundreds camped out at St Paul’s, which certainly must make it difficult for the group’s media team to keep what is reported consistently “on message”. But they have to remember they are aspiring to represent a break from the past – a new way of doing things, based on non-hierarchy and direct democracy. It is no good adopting the tactics of a corporate press office by attempting to brush unfavorable things under the carpet.  

In the fourteen eventful days since it formed, there can be no denying that Occupy London has taken remarkable strides, and is without question engaged in a protest that is in the best interests of us all. Merely talking a good game, however, is not in itself enough. In its every action the group must strive to embody the principles it claims to uphold. Republishing the full general assembly and working group minutes would be a good place to start.

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