I conducted field work with Occupy London leading up to its eviction from the St Pauls’ camp on February 28, 2012. Since then I have been awarded funding – as part of a wider project funded by the Norwegian Research Council called ‘Reassembling Democracy’ – to pursue further research on Occupy London and Occupy Hong Kong.
The Occupy London protests were organised around the idea of public engagement. One of the elements that interested me was the Tent City University which was a space for people to meet and discuss the banking crisis and a host of other issues. It even had a small library. The camp also had an information tent where ‘the public’ could go to find out the schedule of activities for the day or to pick up more general information about the camp, or just have a chat over a mug of tea. Occupiers were not just protestors on a demonstration: they were citizens experimenting with new decision-making processes and in learning and teaching. Many of them believed that if they explained their analysis of the economic crash of 2007-8 to the public, the public would reject the politics of austerity that now defines the post-crash settlement. Did their eviction signal their political defeat?
Something did change as a result of the protests though not in the way either the Occupiers or their detractors expected: ‘Occupy’ became a part of the vocabulary of protest and of public discourse about protest. Those few cold months camped outside St Pauls to contest what some have described as austerity for the poor and communism for the rich, signalled an emergent field of publics constituted through struggle and the fragile attempt to create a political subject beyond the terrain of politics as usual.
These new citizen publics constituted themselves simultaneously in (tent) cities across the globe but also in the virtual spaces of the new, social media, beyond the sovereign, territorial limits of any state and in the process changed the terrain of public engagement.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.