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No deadlines: Occupy London activists won't be co-opted

The City of London Corporation has dropped its threat to evict 'tent city' at St Paul's Cathedral. Negotiations are on, but occupiers are wary of being transformed into a mute tourist attraction.
Hilary Aked
4 November 2011

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

It's two and a half weeks into the Occupy movement's London incarnation, the St Paul's tent city, and the City of London Corporation has dropped its legal bid to force a violent eviction of the campers. Realising that thousands of people would arrive to defend the space and an ugly PR disaster would ensue, it is now trying to negotiate a deal.

The 'generous offer' would see them agree to 'permit' the activists to stay for two months – if they in turn agreed to scale back the camp and leave in the New Year. Is this a sign of success – or a sly attempt to co-opt the movement?

Naomi Colvin, a member of the LSX media team, states categorically: “We will not leave at the behest of any external third party.” At the same time, she insists, it is “for everyone to discuss collectively how we react and we will take our time”.

They have agreed to meet and talk with representatives of Church and City and the negotiating team are reporting back daily at general assemblies. But the general consensus is clear: accepting terms dictated by the establishment about the size or duration of the camp would be counter-productive. “The right to protest is not restricted to ineffectual protest”, Naomi points out. A history of those who made their point politely, and then went home, has never been written, as poet Kevin Higgins put it.

OccupyLSX may not be as huge and powerful as Los Indignados, but it is more than a quirky side-show. And it won't be put on the official tourist map any time soon.

“We've already achieved a great deal and shifted public debate”, says Naomi. “You just have to look around to see we are a community, we are grass-roots, bottom-up, this is the very stuff of politics.

“We get accused of focus on process but that's vital. Now we need to use that process to put together concrete proposals on how to go forward. While we do that we'll continue to organise honestly, inclusively and transparently as we have been doing”.

A man in a suit walks past and remarks loudly, “they don't know even what they're protesting about.”

It has bothered some people that the concerns of the Occupy movement are very broad and global. Variously dubbed by the mainstream media as being “against corporate greed” “financial excess” or all-out “anti-capitalist”, the vagueness is perhaps both a strength and a weakness.

Alistair, a passer-by heading towards the City, suited and booted, declares: “I'm not sure it is 'anti-capitalist', I think it's a broad range of people with reasonable concerns. So despite wearing a suit, I'm actually sympathetic. There's a general feeling that they are basically correct. There has been huge mismanagement of financial institutions and the Vickers report does not go far enough.”

Many in the camp might be more interested in the ideas of Marx or Proudhon than Vickers, but while there may be a disconnect between what some activists and certain onlookers perceive to be 'the issue', the broad and basic messaging is getting through - and people are being forced to think about it.

Adam, taking a lunch break from his job in a city law firm, looks down at his shinier-than-a-bowling-ball shoes. “It feels like taxpayers' money has been used to support the better-off; the banks. And that's a genuine grievance. But I don't know their demands so I wonder what will happen – will there be a concession, a parliamentary debate, a reform? What will it take to satisfy them? It's not the end of capitalism. They have genuine reasons to complain but at the same time they are not providing a solution or an alternative – if we're not going to be capitalistic, what are we going to be?”

The question doesn't sound like it's being asked 100% rhetorically.

Occupy London – indeed the Occupy movement as a whole – does not claim to have all the answers, ready-made. Instead, people are practically demonstrating alternative ways of organising and decision-making that can apply to any arena. And Occupy is organically linked to a variety of different struggles: Dale Farm solidarity, the Anonymous movement, and international issues ranging from protests against the G20 conference that have just started in Cannes and the Freedom Waves boat currently heading to Gaza.

“People are involved in so many different struggles in their own localities but they also need to feel part of something bigger, a wider struggle, and this is bringing people together as part of a global movement”; this is why Temujen Gunawardena, a University of Sussex student from Brighton, travelled to London to join the occupation.

“To call it a protest belittles it”, she says, “because it's a movement, a movement that makes people want to get involved and be part of it. The bigger system is not going to change until people feel empowered. The occupation is reaching a lot of people, new people are coming every day and starting to ask questions. And thousands more people would be here if they could – people do what they can." 

As if to confirm this, a lady from Leeds pipes up to say that she “couldn't come to London without visiting to show support” and praising “the inclusive atmosphere” and “diversity of people”. The space is indeed always busy and the fact that so-called “part-time protesters” come and go in addition to permanent occupiers makes it dynamic and outward looking.

So what next? What of the Corporation's 'generous offer'? If it ends, how and when? Or do some people want to stay for good?

Conversation among the occupiers - who say they are practising a “deliberately slow decision-making process” - is likely to go on for days yet. There are Outreach Working Group meetings outside the info tent every morning at 10.30 and discussion on the Occupy LSX livestream each evening at 10 with the aim of hearing as many voices as possible.

According to Brighton student Temujen:

“It's going to take a long time to formulate our demands, because they're big and abstract and there are a wide variety of opinions.

“I would like to see it end on its own terms, make its own demands and set its own agenda. It's not going to become institutionalised because there's momentum here and even if or when people decide to leave that energy wouldn't be lost - leaving at Christmas would not be the end of the movement.”

There is set to be a march on parliament this Saturday, with John Pilger, Caroline Lucas and UK Uncut, among others, speaking at a rally beforehand. Occupiers want to link up with students, trade unions and community groups to demonstrate. 

In the meantime, nobody is making plans to pack up. A packed schedule of talks, films and readings is ongoing, a sanitation working group to improve porta-loo hygiene has just been established - and the occupation library is asking for donations of shelves as well as books.

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