Such were the words of a German journalist living in London, just one of roughly 240 activists
who have occupied the piazza of St Paul’s Cathedral, now known as ‘Tent City’, one week into the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement. I spent Saturday afternoon interviewing members of this miniature community, which in itself encompasses multiple nationalities, an age range stretching from newborns to pensioners, and consists of all manner of aims from creating social solidarity to global revolution.
To say this is a diverse collection of people would be a great understatement. From the sample 18 interviews I conducted, I spoke to the likes of a British economist, Spanish immigrants, an ex-corporate manager and lifetime freedom fighters, alongside many more from all variety of backgrounds. I asked them how long they planned on staying there, what they were protesting for, who they were protesting against, what they hoped to achieve, how they felt the police had reacted to their presence and – ultimately – what message they had for the general public.
Here’s what they had to say.
“We’ll stay for as long as it takes, or as long as the camp is around” was a frequent response, with one activist even telling me that there had been a recent General Assembly to construct a permanent residence in hindsight of cold weather during Christmas. “Until they kick us out,” said another, with one man stating that he will stay until his contribution is no longer needed. Commitment levels varied, however, as the difference between the amounts of time spent occupying was noticeably broad considering the movement had only been going for a week. Whereas many claimed to have been there since the start, others stated that they merely came down occasionally for the day, some staying the odd night and otherwise retiring to their home or a hostel in order to freshen up. ‘Not much gets done at meetings if we’re all cranky, so breaks are needed to keep us active.’ One group remarked on how they had come down from Liverpool to grant donations and had ended up setting up camp, hoping to return as often as possible. Another pair claimed that the current campers had ousted them due to a lack of space, and that they were forced to leave.
A number of similarities can be found in people’s reasons for why they were occupying (not protesting, as I was often reminded.) Anger towards the unfairness and unsustainability of the current financial system resurfaced time and time again, with many unhappy that a lack of regulation towards the financial sector had resulted in the majority of the population paying for the mistakes made by those who caused the 2007 financial crisis. ‘Economic stupidity’ one person described it as. ‘We don’t want a complete overhaul of the system, but it needs to change. It rips off the poor, cuts are made in the wrong places, there’s a lack of accountability from corporate representatives. Profit is put before people, and that’s just not fair’. One even compared modern day landowners (‘those who collect rent, mainly bankers’) to the aristocratic patrons of the feudal age. Many thought that this occupation was a good start to raising awareness about such economic injustice. ‘Now is the time to make a stand, because things will only get worse.’
Politicians didn’t get off lightly either. ‘They don’t protect people, they protect the banks and markets instead. We don’t want a world run by the banks; we want a society run by the people equally and fairly.’ Some spoke of how the voting system has failed due the fact that the MPs elected represent the financial sector as opposed to the public sector which voted them in, claiming that elections are worthless as we all have to choose from ‘one pool of leadership’. ‘We don’t want a seat in parliament; just an opportunity to speak our mind in the Houses of Commons.’ All proposals have so forth been refused, prompting some to ask ‘why aren’t the MPs down here trying to win us back?’ The common conclusion given was that they had no excuse for their actions.
Some reasons conflict, however, capitalism being a prime example. The Evening Standard
last night described the occupation as ‘an anti-capitalist protest’, yet many activists were keen to point out that there are varying attitudes towards the matter within the camp. Some were adamantly against it; ‘Capitalism kills people’ being a memorable quote from one individual, who went on to state the need to highlight to the public the fact that the working-classes produce everything whilst the stationary elite control it. Others claimed that they wanted to maintain capitalism but through a system which created an infrastructure benefiting all of society. ‘We’re not against the capitalist system; it’s the system that’s against us’ one quoted.
In terms of who the focus of the movement was against, the usual suspects were repeated often. Financial system, political system; present government, successive governments; politicians, bankers, the stock exchange. One activist narrowed it down to the 13 families controlling global politics, naming the Rothschild unit as an example. Many said that they weren’t against the institutions themselves, but instead the systems they employed which led to those with responsibilities being drawn into corruption. ‘How are these parasites managing to get away with this and deem it legal?’ seemed to be a commonly held belief, with one pointing to the £75 billion loaned to banks
the other week as evidence that the government has been corrupted by the financial sector. I did encounter some rather extraordinary subjects of protest also, one pair of activists calling for an end to the monetary system altogether whilst another said he opposed to the idea of government itself. ‘Ment translates as mind, and to govern is to control without consent; basically to control people’s minds forcefully’.
Others claimed that they did not want to vilify anyone, as their stance was more focused on raising awareness rather than protesting, and indeed this perception of wanting to ‘wake up’ the general public to the economic and political injustices mentioned did feature frequently in the responses I heard. Some sought global awareness, believing that similar occupations occurring across the world is evidence of it thus succeeding, whereas others viewed national awareness as over-ambitious. ‘Basically, we hope to give hope’ one camper told me. ‘We want those who feel like the system is unfair to them to realise that they are not alone, that there are others who feel the same too and that together we can transform this into a more equal and unified society.’ Others looked towards institutional change within the nation’s economic and political structure. They called for more stringent tax laws, better regulation of corporations and finance systems, fewer public sector cuts and to not punish people simply for being unemployed. ‘This isn’t a defining moment, but it could be the grounds for a mass movement’ quoted one activist, with another calling for all-out revolution. ‘We need to empower ourselves to take control of our lives. This is the beginning of a global shake-up; we need people to get together and be aware of this situation’.
Levels of optimism were generally quite high with regards to achieving these aims, one woman claiming that her faith in their eventual success increased by the minute. ‘We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe that we could make a difference’ one told me, with some claiming that the movement will succeed if only the rest of the world granted it’s support. ‘This is a massive battle for our lives, and we need to expand into the universities, the workplaces and the streets.’ Simply keeping the issue on the public and political agenda until an alternative means of protest arises produced another school of thought, whereas some advocated the continuation of their position in the Cathedral’s piazza as any outcome benefited their cause. ‘If the tents are brought down, then it proves that the governments are bullies; if they stay up, then we are able to carry on fighting for our cause. We win either way’. One woman pointed to how the community spirit within the camp provided an alternative means of living that society should aspire to. ‘We’ve overcome every hurdle thrown at us; we’ve even set up a system of tent-sharing to ensure that those who want the chance to occupy are able to’.
Police presence is understandably a constant factor along the perimeter of the camp, one person describing the situation as ‘everyone sizing each other up, worried about committing the first action and influencing public opinion.’ The vast majority of those I interviewed, however, seemed very satisfied with police actions during their occupation, one quoting how they were simply ‘one of us’ (relating to the belief that we are all part of ‘the 99%’.) ‘They’ve been reasonable and friendly to us, one even complaining about the rise in his retirement age to me earlier. Essentially its down to the individual officers, but mainly they’ve been fantastic, treating us with respect and handling the situation well’. However, there is a common consensus that their actions last Saturday on the first night of the occupation have somewhat let down their ‘otherwise noble behaviour’. ‘They were quite violent and especially heavy-handed on the steps, unnecessarily using scare tactics such as bringing in the dogs. The kettling of an area twice the size of the camp was also threatening to raise tensions on both sides; luckily people remained calm.’ One activist – who claimed that she had been the only one left sitting on the steps of the stock exchange – told me that it was the actions of around 20 to 30 officers which let down the rest. Others saw the kettling as a necessary precaution against any potential for rioting. Generally, the perception towards police actions throughout the week has been that they are merely doing the job they’re paid for. ‘They’ve got families to feed as well you know’ one man pointed out to me, although a few did elaborate on how they had only reframed from further heavy-handed tactics due to a fear of persecution rather than due to moral guidance.
If I personally had to describe these people in one word, then I’d most certainly go with interesting. This is undoubtedly a highly opinionated community; I could barely walk 10 yards without hearing yet another philosophical discussion about the structure of society, nor look in any direction without seeing a group of passers-by engrossed by the masses of propaganda spread along any surface available. Whilst I will spare my own opinions (for this piece has been about what they think, not me), I would advise anyone who lives within commuting distance to visit tent city and speak to those residing there, to hear and debate their opinions for yourself. With speeches and musical entertainment throughout the day and a never-ending stream of activists more than happy to voice their views to anyone who passes, it truly does create an electrifying atmosphere, and I would recommend anyone to experience it for themselves. ‘Come and join us’, as one camper indeed said.
Now, I ended every questionnaire by asking the interviewee what message they wanted to give to the public. It would have been easy to pick and choose the most compelling ones for the purpose of entertainment, but I think its only fair to them that I post all of their views, so here they are. This is what the people of Tent City, St Paul’s Cathedral want you to know:
‘If we don’t fight now, then when?’
‘Tax the superrich and redistribute the wealth’
‘We are not an outrageous movement of crazies; these are reasonable demands and this camp is for the public common interest’
‘Now is the moment to make a stand, because things are only going to get worse’
‘We’re all greedily trying to make ourselves rich; we should accept this and forgive each other for it’
‘Come and join us, come and talk with us, come and see what we’re doing’
‘We’re all in this together’
‘Open your eyes to everything, stay out of your protective bubble and view the world outside you’
‘Survey the situation, have a look around – wake up basically!’
‘Do you trust your’s and your children’s future to be fairly represented by those in power now and in the future?’
‘Create value in beauty, benefit and good’
‘Come down here if you believe in what we’re protesting for; don’t just sit at home watching us on TV’
‘Drop the monetary system, look after yourself’
‘You don’t need to be afraid; we’re here for you’
‘Stop living in fear, everything’s fine; you need to wake up, take control of your life and stop letting the state bully you’
‘Its time for us to take our power back’