openDemocracyUK

Occupy London: keep your nerve, your unity and your integrity

The London occupation is nearing its one month anniversary, and the cracks are beginning to show.
Hilary Aked
13 November 2011

Tuesday will be the one month anniversary of OLSX and it seems the pressure may be starting to tell.

This is, perhaps, understandable. Sections of the media have been doing their best to discredit the protesters, the Corporation of the City of London has been manoeuvring and threatening and police even arrested EDL members close to the site who had allegedly been planning to attack the camp on Friday.

The St Paul's courtyard campsite has not been subjected to violent attacks of the scale which police unleashed in Oakland, deploying tear gas which saw one man shot in the head and hospitalised with serious injuries. While this sort of oppression is not to be wished for, it does often have the effect of forcing onlookers to take sides, can galvanize and grow a protest movement and usually keeps it in the spotlight.

In London it seems that a sense of restlessness has crept into play and the demands on the City of London are the result of a slightly panicked and rushed decision-making process, betrayed by the title “Occupy London gets moving on policy”. The demands are that the Corporation of London:

  1. Publish full, year-by-year breakdowns of the City Cash account, future and historic.

  2. Make the entirety of its activities subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

  3. Detail all advocacy undertaken on behalf of the banking and finance industries, since the 2008 financial crash.

They are bare minimum demands and, for me, quite disappointing. In keeping with the action-over-ideology modus operandi of the occupation, OLSX make no comment on the activities and aims of the City of London which are, as George Monbiot has pointed out, pushing for policy changes in the interests of finance, like deregulation/liberalisation.

While transparency is obviously always welcome, how can we not criticise the broader flaws? What about the lack of democratic legitimacy and the constant presence in Parliament enjoyed by their representative? Unfortunately, these demands are weak and narrow, perhaps even doing more harm than good – proposing reform of such an institution indirectly lends it some degree of legitimacy I believe it does not deserve.

Although OLSX explicitly state that “as part of the global movement for real democracy challenging social and economic injustice, [our] interests are broader than matters pertaining to the City of London Corporation” these three demands are a long way from the radical change espoused in the initial statement of the OLSX General Assembly.

If these demands missing the mark somewhat, perhaps more worrying is the internal discord that seems to have emerged with these demands. Critics (admittedly online and anonymous) claim that to come up with this statement questions of process - usually stressed by the occupiers – were overlooked and the demands rushed through a section of the group.

I did not attend the meeting in question but whatever happened, it was perhaps inevitable than many would be unhappy. What constitutes a General Assembly at the occupation is defined only by the time it is held and the location. Without a discrete number of occupiers, anyone who raises their hand – tourist, agent provocateur or genuine activist – can raise their hand towards a consensus, unlike, say, in a student union where a finite group decide on a specific number making the meeting quorate.

Direct democracy and the non-hierarchical organising of OLSX are wonderful things but they perhaps also contributed to some of the confusion surrounding the demands. The Guardian reported that the demands were a pre-requisite for the group to consider vacating the space but OLSX have since emphasised that this is inaccurate. Likewise the assertion that the group proposed the creation of a “commission, with representatives of the main Westminster parties, to look at reforming the corporation, with the archbishop of Canterbury suggested to chair it” is not true.

Such media misunderstandings always arise when there is uncertainty over who speaks for the group. But there is also uncertainty among the occupiers. What they must not do is allow themselves to be distracted by the City of London Corporation – a small part of the bigger picture, although an immediate threat in the short term. Nor should they let the media rush or embarrass them into compromising on their principles or their methods. 

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