Occupydemocracy: questions and limitations of a protest

The people camping outside Parliament under constant police harassment deserve more than our indifference.

Julian Sayarer
22 October 2014

Flickr/LondonPictureCapital. Some rights reserved.

Occupydemocracy, now dug-in for over half of the 9-day occupation first planned, is certainly a movement with limitations. The majority of these limitations are enforced: the ruling that anything which could constitute a ‘structure’ in Parliament Square ensures the space is physically limited to almost nothing aside from people, a few belongings, and the blue tarpaulins that have now become a motif of the movement. There is a limitation of human numbers, though this—slowly but bravely—is changing for the better, and it is a tragedy of any self-respecting political order that this limitation of people is fostered by a deliberately aggressive policing strategy. Quite simply, and wholly unsurprisingly, people are reluctant to protest where assembling in the name of democratic rights, reduced corporate influence and a fairer society leaves you open to the likelihood of being hit by a police baton, or being prevented from sheltering under a plastic sheet while protesting the direction your democracy is heading.

Loyal to the true meaning of the term, this situation is all the more tragic precisely because it is avoidable, and no MP inside the parliament opposite could remain unconcerned at their own diminished legitimacy, the lack of confidence in their order, when it is deemed appropriate to manage very reasonable and entirely peaceful protest in such a way. We can only hope ministers will be struck that fencing off the seat of a democracy in order to prohibit protest is a statement that clouds the moral high ground claimed when addressing global problems ranging from Vladimir Putin to ISIS.

Were he to venture across the road the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith would find much support for his dogged battle for a proper recall bill so that voters might have greater powers to remove MPs failing in duties to their constituents. UKIP’s first MP, Douglas Carswell, with loyalty seemingly closer to his own statesmanly values than his new party, would find support for ideas of elected primaries to stop the universally-hated scourge of career politicians parachuted in to safe seats. There would, no doubt, be much support on offer for the projects of many politicians should they get past the combination of a media blackout and the fundamental human failing to assume that people who dress, speak and look very differently to us will unlikely share the same goals and vision.

It is an enormous tragedy that—with the noble exception of Green peer, Jenny Jones—a stand-up comic might be amongst the public figures most eager to associate with and advance the case for the protesters. With Russell Brand’s Twitter following in excess of 8 million, and Occupydemocracy working hard to maintain numbers in the hundreds, the question of whether Brand is a meaningful political voice or only an internet meme might finally have been answered in favour of the former.

For sure, some of Occupydemocracy’s limitations are self-inflicted, though as much is forgivable where the protesters are to be forced into sleep-deprivation and drubbings by the weather. The camp goes through the same motions of its much larger forebear from St Paul’s in 2011, though with only a fraction of its resources or people. There are talks and workshops, scarcely audible because sound-amplifying equipment is also banned, and valiant efforts at discussing the TTIP or NHS privatisation overlook that such is likely a task beyond the reach of the small gathering assembled in the square. Doubtless something must be done to pass the hours in a sense of purpose, but it leaves almost unmentioned elephants in the room: why don’t more people share the protesters’ values, why won’t the many millions who do share them join in such a protest, why is such police brutality committed and tolerated and if this is the lie of the campaigning land - how will future protests respond more successfully to it?

And yet it is always easier to analyse than to do; indeed a growing vogue for political dissection will scrutinise an order vociferously while satisfied to leave it intact, allowing the braver spirits of Occupydemocracy to maintain the tradition about which they are content to converse. We can only dream that the smallest percentage of those many thousands who’ve passed into the Disobedient Objects exhibition, inside the safe walls of the Victoria & Albert Museum, might have felt spurred to visit an actual protest for the betterment of their own society.

Similarly silent have been the media, and perhaps they are tactically biding time or maybe waiting to judge whether this has any bandwagon potential at all. Regardless the reasons, many who earn their living from peddling the ideals of Change seem steadfastly unmoved that a predominantly very young group of people are prepared to stay overnight, with only a tarpaulin for protection, outside Parliament on bleak nights in late autumn. The protesters, apparently undeterred by the lukewarm reception outside the camp, begin to adopt and own the symbolism of the tarpaulin and this Tarpaulin Revolution, hoping to make popular currency of as much, but at the same time having their struggle reduced to its smallest concession and the most trivial elements of visual currency. In so doing, the protesters dance to the tune of the very master that ignores them anyway.

You cannot visit a protest of this sort without being moved by the simple and courageous spirit on show, and those who attend the camp will no doubt leave with countless positive lessons, experiences and relationships to take from it. Moreover, should the camp hold—in the face of gross harassment—for a full 9 days then it will be a huge success of which the protesters can be enormously proud, preserving a right and a tradition for the next gathering who will come to claim it. After the events at Parliament Square have passed, it will be wider society and those who disregard, ignore or remain entirely unaware of Occupydemocracy who will stay stuck in a malaise far more depressing.

Even from this there are valuable questions that can, where asked, inform positive change. If ideals and idealism have at root been responsible for every liberty we might now take for granted, then why has idealism become so unfashionable, almost to a point of embarrassment? Why has the desire to improve one’s society been made a negative thing, as if only the preserve of malcontents and sticklers, where it might reasonably be the most dignified of causes?

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