News Essay from Across the Pond: Occupy Wall Street in the UK
“Peace” and “tolerance” are not sexy words, but they are vital to the Occupy Wall Street movement here in Britain. The British media mainly reported scenes of blood, clashes and tear-gas canisters in New York during the clearing of Zuccotti Park, while the camp at St Paul’s Cathedral in London has had to present itself as whiter than white in a drug and alcohol-free form, utterly peaceful in the face of hostile opposition.
This is because Occupy London and the other 30 camps set up around the UK are suffering from the terrible hangover of a party that took place in August, where shocking scenes of rioting and looting happened around the capitol and other urban areas. While young people were shown going on the rampage, smashing shop windows to grab sneakers and hi-fi for selfish gain, it was only later, in a more rounded overview, that the full picture emerged: the deprived areas where the rioters lived, many of which were the first to be hit by governmental cuts to services and employment. Around 2,000 people were arrested and tried in a caffeine-fuelled/?? judicial crackdown in 24-hour courts, and the fear of breakdown in law and order still worries many Brits watching the Occupy movement from afar.
But on November 17, as a 6pm eviction deadline neared for the occupiers outside of St. Paul’s, riots were nowhere to be seen. Speeches marked the countdown, with the Occupy lawyers announcing: “all legal advice has been followed so far, and you have been respected for it.” Occupy’s lawyers informed the crowds of the next step: a hearing on November 22 at the High Court. An Imam, a vicar and the head of the Quakers in Britain gave speeches before a “silent scream” of hands held aloft, waggling in the evening gloom, marked the deadline for eviction.
As someone who has visited the Occupy London camp half a dozen times, I have witnessed the camp evolve from a gaggle of tents with bits of paper taped onto railings, and defensive, unhappy campers staring back at the public like animals in a zoo, to a hopeful, organized area of protest with information tents, a book store, and video screenings. Contrary to the media stereotype of protesters having “vague” ideas, their statement speaks common sense to most, and includes the following: “We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis. We do not accept the cuts. We need alternatives towards the current system. We stand together with occupations all over the world. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits of the rich”.
Two schoolgirls, Siofra Dromgoole, 16, and Rae Fior Lowe, 17, were bedding down for the night in tents on the night of the eviction. “The Occupy statement is branded as being vague and anti-capitalist – but it’s actually about dialogue with the government and more communication. This is a way of showing them that we want dialogue, and that we do fancy a chat with them about what’s going on.”
Because the movement was initially invited to settle at the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral by Canon Giles Fraser (who, along with three other members of the Church, has since resigned over the controversy of the decision), the protesters have also been credited with a more spiritual and moral direction than might otherwise have emerged.
The tents have shaped unlikely heroes out of some ecclesiastical figures, who are suddenly relevant again, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church, whose words on the Robin Hood tax have been reported on the front pages of the Financial Times. While the City of London is suing to reclaim the area from the protesters, the Chapter of St Paul’s refuses to evict, which divides the camp down the middle between church and state land. “What Would Jesus Do?” swung the sign from a tent in front of Banksy’s Monopoly board outside St Paul’s when the last legal attempt to shift the camp was made.
On November 17, the London Times reported on a speech that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave at a dinner attended by the UK prime minister David Cameron, in which the Archbishop said, “No-one has shown us the script for the rest of the play ... We may, most of us, try to behave as if things were getting back to normal, but more and more people are asking whether there is a normal to get back to”.
As Occupy London takes over the UBS building in Hackney, East London to reinstate nurseries and youth centres affected by the cuts, Occupy Wall Street did the same on 90 Fifth Avenue — proof that “normal” no longer exists.
“A peaceful protest is important”, say the schoolgirls Siofra and Rae. “Because the government doesn’t have an excuse not to listen then.”
Emma Mahony is a writer for the London Financial Times.