What ‘the Occupiers’ knew

At the height of the 2011 Occupy protests in London, filmmaker Chloe Ruthven started documenting a world where the normal rules of capitalist individualism had been suspended. At the Open City Documentary Festival on 22 June 2016.

Chloe Ruthven
21 June 2016
"The Occupiers", Chloe Ruthven, 2016.

"The Occupiers", Chloe Ruthven, 2016.Nearly five years ago, on a balmy late summer’s day in October, I cycled down from north London to the London Stock Exchange. I wanted to take a half-look at, and join in half-protest with, a gathering that had been advertised widely on various Facebook posts.

The demonstration was being held in solidarity with a similar protest around Wall Street, and was aimed at the greed of the financial institutions in the wake of the economic crisis. I was not a seasoned activist. But I had become increasingly angry with what I was seeing and hearing in the news. I also worked in schools, and hated the growing inequality that I had seen since my own London primary school days.

I arrived to a party atmosphere. Hundreds, it could have been thousands, of people were milling around the steps of St Paul’s, and the entrance to Paternoster Square – which was, by the time I arrived, barricaded by the police. Everyone was joyful, happy, focused.

We had had enough, and we knew why we were there.

As dusk fell, instead of people drifting home, I noticed tents springing up. People were going to sleep here. It felt exciting. Like a festival. But even better, because we were in blissful solidarity with our fellow humans.

Over the coming days, I became obsessed. Every day, I cycled down to hang out, talk to people, and support in any way I could. I dragged my teenagers down with me, telling them that the revolution was here. I met Londoners from all walks of life, who had come for all sorts of reasons. A friend I ran into, who knew I was a filmmaker, told me that I must bring my camera down. I hesitated. I wanted to be there in the flesh, not removed through the watching lens. She was very persuasive.

I had already been thrown together for a BBC interview with a young man, George Barda, by a journalist who thought we were both articulate. That made me laugh, as George had already established himself as a key voice of the protest, with an unusual understanding of economics, and an ability to talk the pants off anyone. I was, by comparison, eternally flummoxed by the subject, apart from sensing that it was all wrong. But with George, I had found the first character for my film, and immediately asked whether I could follow him over the coming weeks. He seemed delighted.

George’s tent was in the heart of the camp – a stone’s throw from the great steps of the cathedral. This became my base, where I could sometimes doss down, park equipment, change tapes and change clothing when the weather shifts took us by surprise. We became inseparable. I would always be filming a few steps behind, as he ran chaotically from an environmental meeting to an economic meeting, took calls from the press, fielded calls from angry girlfriends, refilled his teacup in the kitchen tent, explained to angry city boys what the camp was about, organised shout-outs and consoled fellow campers who had had a rough night. He was noticeably ‘better spoken’ than the others, but over the coming weeks, I witnessed him win the hearts and trust of many who might have usually written him off as a ‘posh twat’.

I soon made other friends, and began filming with them as well. The thing I was most inspired by, and wanted to try and capture in my documentary, The Occupiers, was how this random group of people had come together and started a community from scratch. It was this, over and above the political protest, that I was most fascinated by.

We have all seen, and most of us have been among, a hoard of angry protesters waving placards. But few of us have lived in a makeshift community of tents, in the heart of a city, trying to model a way of life that could pose an alternative to the capitalist individualism of modern-day life. This is what, in my opinion, was the greatest achievement of Occupy – something that was singularly ignored by the media. The world just did not get it.

Never have I witnessed a privately-educated doctoral student in economics explain the complexities of the financial markets to a middle-aged housewife from Bangladesh, and then listen to a homeless person, who had left school at 14 and survived the streets of London on smack, politely interrupt and query a point. This just does not happen, but it did at Occupy.

During break-out meetings on the steps of St Paul’s, anyone could join a discussion and ask questions, and not face humiliation, judgment or discrimination. You could gain an education from scratch in ‘Tent City University’, erected just outside Starbucks, and have your ideas listened to and fed back to a wider audience, casual passers-by, and frequently foreign news channels at the ‘General Assembly’ that gathered in front of the cathedral a couple of times a day. It was an example of what I think of as direct democracy.

Within the first few weeks, various groups formed and would invite people to join in the open mic that was a permanent fixture for announcements. There were invitations from the environmental group, the corporations working-group, the church group, the City of London liaison group, the legal team, just to name a few. And then, treated with as much reverence, there were the groups who ran the camp, and facilitated and enabled the running of this experiment in living. The drains team, the kitchen tent, the tranquillity team, and the welfare group were all concerned with the serious business of what goes in, what comes out, and how to manage the emotional and psychological states in between.

It was the welfare group that I became most involved with. It was mainly made up of women, and over the weeks, addressed what became the biggest crisis of the camp, in a far more successful way than I have witnessed during my years in social inclusion departments in schools and local authorities: in an unequal society, how should we manage the issues that inequality throws up at us?

As part of the community, the camp was running a kitchen providing 3 meals a day, a tea tent, a university tent, a library and a cinema. More and more of London’s homeless were turning up, and there were rumours that the police were tipping off many of their well-known down-and-outs to come and join St Paul’s for the free food. With the growing cuts impacting on shelters for the most vulnerable, it became the responsibility of the camp to manage growing numbers of people with mental health problems and drug addictions.

A group of impressive women took up the challenge, and from my own experience as an inclusion worker in schools with families, I found myself more drawn to this aspect of the camp than any other.

Bryony, a residential social worker and drugs and alcohol worker, established the welfare group, with a special tent where anyone in distress could ‘pop in’ and have a chat. As the numbers started increasing, she gathered more women to join her group, including professional counsellors and drugs-workers, who all offered to give up their time to support the most vulnerable in the camp.

The camp got crucified in the press for this, as journalists portrayed the protesters as a bunch of out-of-control drug addicts.

What nobody reported on was what a fantastic job this brave group of people were doing, in an attempt to include and work with society’s most vulnerable. As Richard Wilkinson, author of the Spirit Level, pointed out in the witness box during high court deliberations over the eviction of the Occupy protesters, the first effects of inequality are to be found in supposed ‘anti-social behaviour,’ whether teenage pregnancies, drugs and alcohol addictions and mental health issues. Here was an attempt to work inclusively and openly with those that had suffered most at the hands of economic austerity. And yet, as is so often the case in our finger-pointing society, this caring act was ridiculed and scapegoated as being the problem.

Five years on, our housing crisis has quadrupled, the homeless are growing, mental health problems among the young are wider spread than ever, and the Panama Papers have revealed what ‘the Occupiers’ knew all along.

"The Occupiers" is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 22 June 2016.

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