October 17, 2011
When I got there the signs were already up: “Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter any premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.” The square itself was filled with police, a few of them on horses. Tourists drifted in and out. Photographers stood by, crash helmets dangling from their waists.
The plan had been to congregate next door, in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, before moving on to Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange, to set up camp. “If we can take Paternoster, we will,” I read on the OccupyLSX website. “Otherwise, rest assured there are contingency plans in place. We will Occupy London!”
We did occupy London that day. People pitched tents where they stood, kettled by the riot-wary police by the steps of the cathedral. The camp was christened with speeches from Peter Tatchell and, more ominously, Julian Assange. “I have always wanted to say, we are all individuals,” he said. A thousand people repeated his words. After he finished his speech, Assange threw sweets into the crowd. “Whose sweets? Our sweets!” people shouted.
After everyone had calmed down the general assembly began. We were divided into five working groups and assigned questions:
1. Protest: what was our democracy here to be like?
2. Practicalities: How long would we stay? How could we provide food/water/toilets?
3. How could we get more people to come down?
4. How could we engage in the international conversation?
5. What were our solutions? What were our demands? What did we want to achieve?
I asked a policeman if the tents would be allowed to stay and he told me that camping is illegal in London but suggested that any policing wouldn’t be heavy-handed. I left an hour or so before the police moved in with their dogs and clashed with protestors on St. Paul’s steps.
I went back to St Paul’s a few weeks later. It was the day of the Lord Mayor’s show, a carnivalesque spectacle of sanctioned misrule organized to usher in the new Lord Mayor of London, a post once held by Dick Whittington. I missed the parade. As I approached the camp, families streamed away from the city, wearing paper cat masks and waving diminutive union jacks. I passed a second camp that had sprung up on Finsbury Square, a dull block of po-faced financial buildings a mile or so northeast of the cathedral, on the edge of the City of London.
In the “Tent City University,” a discussion group sat in a circle and debated the relationship between capitalism and higher education. I liked the ordered nature of the conversation and how people registered opinions with baroque hand gestures. I dropped a few copies of the Occupy! gazette at Starbooks, the people’s library, leaving them beside copies of the New Left Review and assorted potboilers. I borrowed Tim Parks’s Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth Century Florence, which has an epigraph from Ezra Pound’s Cantos:
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
Each block cut smooth and well fitting
That design might cover their face.
If the Occupy movement is about anything, I heard again and again, it’s about asking questions. Friends of mine have dismissed this idea, seeing in the movement’s lack of focus everything that is wrong with the left: passivity, opportunism, incoherence. Consensus is a hard-won and carefully treasured thing. But what struck me most about the camp this time is its fertile polyphony: innumerable responses to the myriad questions being asked are recorded as a palimpsest of placards and manifestoes duct-taped to the walls surrounding the cathedral. Serious and painstaking economic treaties share wall space with deliciously crackpot conspiracy theories. I read a manifesto on bowel movements, which argued that the west is ruining itself with white bread and the sit-down toilet. I was handed a flyer by a man from Reclaim the City, a group that seeks to reform the City of London Corporation so that it will once again “serve the interests of the Citizens of London rather than the interests of finance.”
Outside the tents, on the steps of the cathedral, the “Not the Lord Mayor’s Show” was beginning. For the first time in 800 years, the Lord Mayor was anointed not on the steps of St Paul’s, but at a side door. Afterwards, the Canon of St Paul’s emerged to bless the camp. As night fell, musicians, comedians, and speakers addressed the crowd. “We’re all in the together,” sang a folksy, bearded man, appropriating Prime Minister David Cameron’s misjudged message of solidarity; “but some are more in this than others.” David Harvey, of the City University of New York, addressed the crowd, speaking about “the right to the city.” “We need to mobilize in such a way that we can genuinely threaten major commercial and financial interests,” Harvey said. “You’re in the belly of the beast, and your job is to give the beast bellyache.”
The St Paul’s occupation has exposed the medieval fault lines that lie beneath British civic life. The familiar conflict between corporate and public interests is here being played out against a backdrop of ermine trim and gilded carriages. In the city, corporations have real clout: a private police force, marked out by their griffon-crested helmets, and the right to vote in local elections as corporate entities. The church has had an uneasy relationship both with protestors and with the Corporation of London, the body that represents the interests of the city. Within a day of the occupation starting, the Canon Chancellor of St Pauls, Giles Fraser, expressed sympathy with the broad aims of the camp, asking the lines of police who stood on the steps of the cathedral, “protecting the pillars,” to leave. Later, as the Corporation of London and St Paul’s began to consider their legal options, Fraser and two other clerics resigned, uneasy with decisions that might lead to violence in the name of the church. He’s become something of a folk hero. After these resignations, it seemed as though the camp would be allowed to stay at least until the New Year, but last week, spurred on by events in Zuccotti Park, the Corporation restarted eviction proceedings.
Before I left I went into the cathedral, where a man read poems accompanied by great blasts from the organ. Small children dressed as animals danced around at his feet. A fireworks show for the Lord Mayor lit up the sky over the river.
Last Friday, people from Finsbury Square gained access to an empty office building a stone’s throw from the camp. In an act of public repossession, they opened it as a “Bank of Ideas,” offering space to speakers and community groups whose funding has been cut in the recent austerity drive. The building is owned by UBS, whose UK headquarters is just across the road.
There were a few policemen hanging about outside when I arrived, but they were outnumbered by the people smoking on the steps of the building. Inside, a ground floor reception was manned by a friendly woman named Madeleine, who explained that for legal reasons this was a private squat, but that friends of the movement were always welcome. She was American and had moved to England on October 17th, the first day of the London occupation.
I asked Madeline if I could go upstairs. “You’re only supposed to be allowed up if you live here,” she said, “but if you act like you’re meant to be there you should be fine.” I squeezed past the makeshift barriers on the stairs and wandered around the building, which had been empty since the 1990s. Ghostly to-do lists and slightly foxed Dilbert cartoons adorned the walls. Some of the offices had mattresses and sleeping bags in them; some half-finished banners. Most, though, were empty.
On the roof there was what seemed to be a caretaker’s flat, full of abandoned possessions. Books lined the shelves: No More Sex War: The Failures of Feminism; Farrar’s Company Law; “Success Without Tears”: Employment Law; E. J. Mishan’s Cost-Benefit Analysis. A huge casserole dish sat on the worktop in the kitchen. I considered stealing it. In the bathroom I found a copy of the Financial Times from 1990 lying beside the toilet, with a picture of Margaret Thatcher splashed across the front page.
After a while a man wearing a camouflage jacket came up and asked what I was doing, telling me that no one was allowed on the roof anymore because the police were watching us from the UBS headquarters opposite.
Back downstairs, I sat in the conference room as speakers talked about surveillance culture (Britain has 1% of the world’s population and 20% of its security cameras), and life in Cuba (everyone values equality). A hirsute Romanian émigré asked what lessons we were supposed to take from Cuba, and declared that the only thing he’d learned from the occupation was that love conquers all. Everyone applauded. A spokesman for the Labour Party talked about his attempts to halt the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which pays a small stipend to allow teenagers from poor backgrounds to attend sixth form college. He was taken to task for the neoliberalism of New Labour, and looked beleaguered. “I believe the Labour Party is still a positive force,” he said, but not many seemed to agree. I felt quite sorry for him. “You’re not answering the questions. What we need is a chairman, a powerful chairman,” said one man, before offering himself for the role.
Nicholas Shaxton, author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World then spoke, telling us that half of all the proceeds of world trade go through tax havens. “The City of London is becoming one of the biggest tax havens in the world” he said, “there is no magic bullet, but there are things we can do. The most important is raising awareness.”
Most people I talk to are tolerant of the occupations, some are sympathetic. But in London there hasn’t been the massive outpouring of support that seems to so mark the movement in America. Many Londoners, with the summer riots in mind, view the occupations as acts of vandalism. “They’ve made their point, it’s time for them to go home,” preached a visiting vicar at St Paul’s in his sermon on Sunday. Though the police are jumpy, and keen to assert their authority after a series of logistical fuck-ups over the past year, Britain hasn’t witnessed the galvanizing aggression of Zuccotti, of Oakland, of UC Davis.
The real threat of violence seems to be from the far right. On Armistice Day, a group of English Defence League nationalists, hyped up on booze and nostalgia, were arrested on Whitehall for planning an attack on the St Paul’s camp. Half way through Nicholas Shaxton’s talk a man with a florescent yellow tabard and a radio (the revolution favours these organisers, these doers) burst in and announced that the EDL were approaching Finsbury Square. He asked us all to get down there and fend off the attack. Half the room trooped out to defend the camp, before we realised that it was a false alarm and went back inside.
Before I left I asked a spokesman for the squat if they had any plans to open more. “We’re always looking for more spaces to bring people together,” he said, “and it’s warmer in here than out on the streets.”