Dr Phil Mizen, University of Warwick MYPLACE team member, on his recent visit to the site of the “Occupy” camp at St Paul’s Cathedral.
For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE
What I encountered on my first visit to the occupation of St Paul’s Church Yard in the heart of the City of London surprised me. It was not just that the first small bivouac appeared suddenly as I walked from the near-by tube station along St Paul’s Church Yard. Nestled up against the towering north wall of St Pauls’s Cathedral, and partially obscured by the North Transept, the densely packed blue, red, green, brown and orange igloo-style tents momentarily took me aback. A few steps further on I was once again surprised, only this time the feeling was more intense. Separated from the first encampment by a few metres allowing pedestrian access to the Cathedral’s front steps, a second and more impressive cluster of tents gently arcs its way around the curve of Church Yard to come up just short of bustling Canon Street.
What I found more surprising, to be honest, was my own surprise. I have followed Occupy LSX quite closely since it began in mid October through Facebook, tweets and live streaming, and via the accompanying torrent of media coverage. However, this had not quite prepared me for experiencing the Occupation first-hand. Perhaps it’s the Occupation’s closeness to one of London’s central religious landmarks that is so destabilizing? Or possibly it is seeing such a large number of people openly squatting outside the designer shops and up-market restaurants barely a stone’s throw away from the London Stock Exchange that explained my surprise? What ever the case, to encounter the encampment has been for me an unprecedented experience. It is to witness first-hand an extraordinary spectacle that is taking place as part of an extraordinary movement in what are extraordinary times.
While I was there someone remarked to me that the Occupation is smaller than he expected. It is certainly true that the OLSX is far from a mass occupation, although for an impromptu, illicit campsite in the heart of London’s financial district it’s still pretty remarkable. An attempt to create a commons in the heart of privatized England is at one level simply audacious.
Equally impressive is the careful arrangement of densely packed tents, their closeness to one another interrupted only by the need to maintain pedestrian and emergency service access. The settlement is also remarkably tidy, with little litter or obvious refuse, perhaps even cleaner than some of the other London streets I’d walked along that day. The settlers have access to portable lavatories and written on these are directions to near-by public toilets. A food tent caters to the needs of the body and a library and a tent university to the needs of the intellect. Brightly coloured posters and banners advocating activism, democracy, feminism, peace, responsibility and care for the environment provide adornment, alongside other colourful statements against capital, the bankers, warfare and inequality. Still others proclaim the Occupation’s openness and inclusivity. Situationist slogans daubed on canvas and paper sit alongside subversive images and refrains. Dotted around the camp, several of the Occupiers were wearing the now iconic Guy Fawkes masks.
This openness and humour extended to the conduct of the Occupation, which seems enthusiastic, tolerant and warm. I was told the homeless are welcome and one large banner welcomes residents evicted from Dale Farm. People moved easily through and around the settlement, making it sometimes difficult to discern resident from pedestrians and other interlopers. At times, gatherings of six, seven, 10 or 12 people would spontaneously form as the Occupiers were taken to task by curious or irate passers-by. Topics of discussion, not surprisingly, were the crisis, inequality and the merits of a deregulated financial system. The exchanges were passionate yet civilised, perhaps even tinged with an element of grudging respect for the Occupation’s residents.
A good hour of my visit was spent at an excellent lecture by Professor Richard Wilkinson author, with Professor Kate Pickett, of the influential book, The Spirit Level. Seated on discarded cushions and thin carpet tiles that had seen better days, an appreciative audience of 25 to 30 crammed into the Tent City University as Professor Wilkinson spoke with eloquence and conviction about his thesis on the disastrous impact of widening social inequalities. Not even the roar of the central London traffic could quell the polite discussion that followed, as questions were asked, points made and perspectives explained. Even a tirade against imperialism by one old comrade did not unduly disturb the meeting’s considerate tenor. He was quickly and politely informed that this was the time for discussion not diatribes (including by the use of hand signs to signal disagreement – this time a ‘T’ for a technical point).
About two thirds of the lecture’s audience appeared to be under 25 years old, and this is probably the characteristic demographic of the Occupation as a whole. Mainly but by no means exclusively white, there also appeared a good balance between males and females, and this seemed to extend to the principal organizing responsibilities such as the daily General Assembly.
Drawing on the model of democracy pioneered by the occupations in Spain, during the Assembly women and men waited patiently to step up to microphone on the wooden pallet platform, to make proposals or suggestions, provide information, share thoughts, air views, and debate and dissent with their critics and one another. Some speakers were visibly nervous, others much more confident, some adopted impassioned demeanours and others were far more reserved. Some of the speakers clearly knew what they wanted to say to the crowd sitting in the open space behind the statue of Queen Ann, or on the steps leading up to St Pauls. But other speakers were far more reserved, hesitant even as they searched for words to express their views, articulate their anger or simply voice their admiration for what was going on. Each proposal or statement would evoke a response from the crowd, sometimes applause but more often via those by now familiar hand gestures: shaky raised hands (like waving) to signal agreement, shaky lowered hands for disagreement and crossed arms for rejection.
As the day wore on, the sky grew greyer and the rain began to fall. By the time darkness had fallen the skies had opened and the Occupation was contending with a sustained and heavy downpour of rain. If the smiles and laughter accompanying the large raindrops were anything to go by, the mood of the Occupation does not match the lowering skies of early British winter.